Anabaptist Perspectives on Communion

Christians in most traditions and denominations practise what we variously refer to as 'communion', 'eucharist', 'the Lord's Supper, 'the Mass', etc. The meaning ascribed to this varies from church to church, as do many of the practical arrangements.

Anabaptists have reflected on the meaning of communion over many years, placing particular emphasis on 'horizontal' dimensions of sharing bread and wine together (i.e. the significance for discipleship and community of this practice).

We offer here some 16th-century resources and a number of reflections by people involved in the Anabaptist Network.

An Anabaptist Communion Liturgy

by Bob Allaway

As I say in my contribution to 'Coming Home', "Shortly after being called to my present church, I was asked to have a midweek communion for the church in Holy Week. Since something special was expected, and the church had shared my vision in calling me, I gave them an Anabaptist Communion (based on Hubmaier's) with updated Pledge of Love. ... This made a deep impression on all present." As a result, I suggested introducing something similar in our special communion services such as New Year Covenant Communion, and welcoming in new members. What finally resulted were the three questions for self examination given here.

I should explain that we were originally a 'Strict Baptist' Church. Older members can still remember deacons questioning visitors at Communion before they would let them participate. This practice ceased decades ago, but we do still challenge all present to examine themselves (1 Cor 11:28) before participating. The questions help this.

These questions are now often used in regular communion services as well:

Leader: "Paul writes, [‘Examine yourself, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without recognizing the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.’] Let us so examine ourselves.

Jesus said, [‘This is my body, given for you’.] Do you recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, gave his body and blood for you on the cross, and that you only have forgiveness and eternal life through that one sacrifice, received by faith?

Silent self-examination.

Leader: Paul writes, [‘We who are many are one body’ and, ‘There should be no division in the body, but all its parts should have equal concern for one another.’] Do you recognize that God calls you by his Spirit to be one Body with all who share that faith with you, to watch over and support one another in love?

Silent self-examination.

Leader: Paul writes, [‘We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body .. You are the body of Christ’] and Jesus said, [‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit.’] Do you recognize that God sends you into the world by his Spirit to be the Body of Christ in it, showing his love in word and deed, even to those who are your enemies, just as the Father sent his Son into the world to give his body and blood for you?

Silent self-examination."

At that time, the New Year covenant prayer was the Methodist one, introduced by one of our Elders. When the Baptist Union published a Covenant Communion service a few years back, I liked their prayer, and substituted it. Although they had it in preparation for communion, I made it a prayer over the cup in Communion, on the grounds that sharing in communion itself was a reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant. (In this, I was following the lead of our church meeting, which when I had suggested 'sharing the peace' before Communion, vetoed it on the grounds that sharing in Communion itself is 'sharing the peace'.) On the recommendation of our Elder, we later changed the "We come this day ..." form to "I come this day ..." to make it more personal. This has now spread to services welcoming in new members, and other occasions, as well.

A member: [And when he has given thanks, Jesus broke the bread (lifts and breaks loaf) and said, ‘This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’]

All: [Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.]

The loaf is passed round, each serving his or her neighbour.

A member (lifts cup): [Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, when-ever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’]

The individual cups are passed round and held onto.

All: [Creating and redeeming God, we give you thanks and praise for your covenant of grace made for our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. I come this day to covenant with you and my fellow disciples, with whom I share this cup, to watch over each other and to walk together before you in all your ways known and to be made known. Amen]

All drink together.

An Anabaptist style communion at IBTS and Šárka Valley Community Church, Prague, Czech Republic

by Keith G Jones

Anabaptist Eucharistic theology and practice has had considerable attention in recent years, with several scholarly books being produced on the topic. Then, of course, there has been the translation into contemporary English of the works of the principal first generation Anabaptist theologian, Balthasar Hubmaier, including his Order for the Lord’s Supper and his text on the Pledge of Love. Theologians such as the late James Wm. McClendon Junior have sought to give a more contemporary theological analysis and there has been the recent growth of writing on the theme of the gathering, convictional, intentional, missiological churches, all of which have touched the concern about contemporary Anabaptist worship.

Yet, little has appeared about how communities who are working with this way of doing primary theology and being the gathering, convictional church, actually put some of these insights into practice. This brief article seeks to describe a pattern familiar to two such communities. One is the residential community of IBTS, which meets each Wednesday morning around the table, breaking the word and breaking the bread. The other is the Šárka Valley Community Church, an English-language Czech Baptist Church, which celebrates the meal on Sundays in two ways – as a Eucharistic Celebration and on some Sundays as an Agape meal.

The celebration of the Eucharist and the agape are seen, in Anabaptist fashion, as communal and involve both breaking the bread and breaking the word. A basic order might be described as follows:

Gathering – in words and worship
Sharing – the text of scripture
Breaking – the word is broken open
Response – in extended intercession, people using their native tongues in multi-national, multi-cultural community
The Pledge of love (kiss of peace)
Offering – bread, wine, other gifts.
Gathering round the table
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving – celebrating the mighty acts of God
Breaking and sharing
Dismissal in mission into the world

It is, perhaps, the “stage directions” which reveal the anabaptistic format and drama of these liturgies. People gather in a circle round the table. Not for them the form and distance of pews or rows of chairs with a table set ahead and apart. The way of Gathering is inclusive and participatory. The Word shared is often narrative in format and owes much to insights of transformational preaching.

The worship room has a large map of the world down one side as a reminder of people who will not and cannot pray for themselves . Prayer comes in many forms and many languages – perhaps extempore prayer in ten or fifteen languages. The needs of the world, nations, countries, peoples, are at the heart of this real intercession.

Then the Pledge of Love is shared, either using the Hubmaier text, or some other, or some contemporary form of the Pax. The table is set with a simple single loaf made by one of the members. The wine comes from the vineyards around Mikulov, Moravia, where once Hubmaier’s Anabaptist community enjoyed a peaceful existence. The simple pottery chalice made in Bohemia reminding us of the Anabaptist skills in Haban pottery, such a feature of central Europe and entirely appropriate in the land of the Hussite proto-reformation, which restored the cup to the people.

The classic prayer of thanksgiving rehearses in narrative style, suiting the contemporary gathering church accent on narrative theology, the mighty acts of God in creation and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Again, this reflects the Anabaptist desire to see Scripture and faith through the Gospel narrative of the life of Christ, focusing on the Sermon on the Mount. A sharp contrast to the liturgies and prayers of the Catholic and Magisterial Protestant traditions, which focus almost exclusively on the death of Jesus. Then the bread is fractured and sisters and brothers pass the bread round the circle breaking off a piece as they offer it to the next person. Some keep the bread and dip it in the chalice (intinction). Others eat as they receive, then drink the rich Moravian Frankovka wine.

When all have served each other, the cup and bread are placed back on the table. Short prayers of thanksgiving are offered. Perhaps a hymn, or song, or Taizé chant are sung. Then the community is dismissed in mission. Many attending this celebration from beyond this particular gathering community have found the simplicity and spirituality of the occasion highly moving. The architectural setting is simple, though seasonal banners, the tablecloth and napkins changing colour depending on the Christian year, add a holistic dimension helping to emphasis that worship is to engage all the senses.

When the meal takes place in the setting of an agape, of course the bread is broken and shared round the table before the meal begins. Children present have the special privilege of dipping their bread in milk and honey (this is not allowed to the baptized!) helping them see with anticipation the koinonia yet to come. After the meal, gathered from food all have brought, has been shared, the cup passes around the table.

The community of IBTS and of SVCC varies in size week by week, but sometimes over 100 will share quickly, reverently and effectively in the meal on a Wednesday in under one hour – in deference to the early Swiss past of Anabaptists and saluting the Swiss train mentality of timekeeping! 98 sat down to the Harvest Agape this year as a gathering, intentional, convictional community. Around the table testimonies of faith are given. A Czech neighbour, a retired surgeon from Charles University, stood up and told the community about his lifer and how he had met deep love and friendship in this gathering, convictional community.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2004/05 issue of the journal of the Baptist Union Retreat Group (reprinted here by kind permission). Keith Jones is the Rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague

Children and Communion: A Framework for Discussion

by Stuart Murray Williams

Churches are often uncertain about how to decide whether children should be welcome to participate in communion.

They feel the tension between wanting to be inclusive and welcoming, especially to those who are growing up in their community and yet wanting to ensure that communion is a special meeting place for those who are committed to Jesus Christ and each other.

What follows is offered, not as an answer to this question, but as a framework for discussion, highlighting some of the key issues that churches need to consider.

1. The place of children in the church community:
(a) Are children regarded as full members of the community until they decide otherwise or as potential members of the community until they decide to become full members?
(b) What will exclusion from communion communicate to children – that they are not really accepted in the community, or that this is something deeply meaningful that they can aspire to participate in, an incentive to faith and growth?
(c) What will inclusion in communion communicate to children – that they are fully part of the community, or that they have no need to exercise personal faith or commitment?
(d) If we exclude children from communion, what other ways can we find to assure them that they are fully part of the church community?
(e) What level of faith development do we expect of children? What understanding do they (or others) need to receive communion?

2. The place of communion in the life of the church:
(a) Communion was originally part of a full meal in a domestic setting, as was Passover, from which the Last Supper forms the link to communion. If we went back to this way of celebrating communion, might this affect our thinking about the participation of children?
(b) In the Passover meal, children were not only recipients but active participants. If we choose to include children, should they be passive or active participants? If we exclude children, with what can we replace the powerful symbolism and story-telling at the heart of communion?
(c) Is communion in the church for committed disciples, who commit themselves afresh through this ceremony to follow Jesus, love each other and lay down their lives for their friends, inviting admonition from others? Should it be preceded by heart-searching and foot-washing?
(d) Or is the communion table a place of invitation to all, a sign of God’s generous and unconstrained hospitality, an evangelistic moment, which we dare not restrict in any way?
(e) Or do we need two different forms of communion – one entirely open, another for committed members only? Some churches practise this.

3. The decision making process:
(a) Is the participation of children in communion something that the church should decide about? Should we have an agreed position on this?
(b) Or is the participation of children to be left to their parents, who know them and their level of faith and understanding?
(c) Or should the decision rest with each child? What about children who are not part of church families?
(d) Does it matter if some children participate but not all, or if some parents encourage this and others discourage it? Can we cope with this freedom or do we need a common policy? How do we integrate different views and experiences?

4. The relationship between baptism and communion:
(a) Baptism very clearly indicates commitment to Christ and to the church and, in the Baptist tradition, has been reserved for those able to make this commitment. How can we maintain this high view of baptism if communion is open to all?
(b) Many Baptist churches have an open table policy that does not require this of adults, conscious of different traditions in a more ecumenically sensitive age. Should we impose a different requirement on children?
(c) Might communion sometimes precede baptism, rather than baptism always preceding communion? Should baptism, rather than communion, be the transition point from child to adult?
(d) If we want churches that are strong at the core but open at the edges (where belonging can precede believing), can communion open to all be a significant step on the journey that leads to baptism? Or should communion be for the baptised and committed core?

5. The table-fellowship in the New Testament:
(a) There are lots of meals in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels. Which of these will be our model for communion?
(b) Will we pattern our practice on the intimate meals Jesus enjoyed with his disciples?
(c) Or will we pattern our practice of communion on the inclusive, indiscriminate meals Jesus enjoyed with ‘sinners’, tax collectors and those who thought he was mad or bad?

Extract from Balthasar Hubmaier, 'A Form for Christ's Supper'

1. The brethren and sisters who wish to hold the table of the Lord according to the institution of Christ shall gather at a suitable place and time, so there may be no division, so that one does not come early and another late and that thereby evangelical teaching is neglected ... Then they should prepare the table with ordinary bread and wine. Whether the cups are silver, wood, or pewter, makes no difference. But those who eat should be respectably dressed and should sit together in an orderly way without light talk and contention.

2. Since everyone should begin by accusing himself and confessing his sins and recognizing his guilt before God, it is not inappropriate that the priest first of all should fall on his knees with the church and with heart and mouth say the following words: "Father we have sinned against heaven and against thee. We are not worthy to be called thy children. But speak a word of consolation and our souls will be made whole. God be gracious to us sinners. May the almighty, eternal and gracious God have mercy on all our sins and forgive us graciously, and when he has forgiven us, lead us into eternal life without blemish or impurity, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen."

3. Now let the priest sit down with the people and open his mouth, explaining the Scriptures concerning Christ, so that the eyes of those who are gathered together may be opened, which were still somewhat darkened or closed, so that they may recognize Christ, who was a man, a prophet, mighty in works and teaching before God and all people, and how the highest bishops among the priests and princes gave him over to condemnation to death and how they crucified him, and how he has redeemed Israel, that is, all believers. The priest shall also rebuke those who are foolish and slow to believe all the things that Moses and the prophets have spoken, that he may kindle and make fervent and warm the hearts of those at the table, that they may be afire in fervent meditation of his bitter suffering and death in contemplation, love and thanksgiving ...

On another day the servant of the Word make take the 10th or 11 th chapter of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, or the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, or 17th chapter of John. Or Matthew 3 or Luke 3 on changing one's life, Sirach 2 on the fear of God, or something else according to the opportuneness of the time and persons. No one shall be coerced herein, but each should be left free to the judgment of his spirit. But there must be diligence so that the death of the Lord is earnestly proclaimed, so that the people have a picture of the boundless goodness of Christ, and the church may be instructed, edified, and led, in heartfelt fervent and fraternal love, so that on the last day we may stand before the judgment seat of Christ with the accounts of our stewardship, and shepherd and sheep may be held together.

4. Now that the death of Christ has been proclaimed, those who are present have the opportunity and the authority to ask, if at any point they should have some misunderstanding or some lack, but not with frivolous, unprofitable, or argumentative chatter, nor concerning heavenly matters having to do with the omnipotence or the mystery of God or future things, which we have no need to know, but concerning proper, necessary, and Christian items, having to do with Christian faith and brotherly love. Then one to whom something is revealed should teach, and the former should be quiet without any argument and quarreling ...

5. Let the priest take up for himself the words ofPaul...and say:

'Let every one test and examine himself, and let him thus eat of the bread and drink of the drink. For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks a judgment upon himself, as he does not discern the body of the Lord. And if we thus judged ourselves, we would not be condemned by the Lord.'

Now such examination comprises the following: First, that one believes utterly and absolutely that Christ gave his body and shed his crimson blood for him on the cross ...

Second: Let a person test himself, whether he has a proper inward and fervent hunger for the bread which comes down from heaven, from which one truly lives, and thirst for the drink which flows into eternal life, to eat and drink both in the spirit, faith and truth, as Christ teaches us ...

Third: Let one also confirm himself in gratitude, so as to be thankful in words and deeds toward God for the great, overabundant, and unspeakable love and goodness that he has shown him through his most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. .. Further, that he be of an attitude and ready will to do for Christ his God and Lord in turn as he had done for him. But since Christ does not need our good deeds, is not hungry, is not thirsty, is not naked or in prison, but heaven and earth are his and all that is in them, therefore he points us toward our neighbor, first of all to the members of the household of faith, that we might fulfill the works of this our gratitude toward them physically and spiritually ...

Fourth: So that the church might also be fully aware of a person's attitude and will, one holds fellowship with her in the breaking of bread, thereby saying, testifying, and publicly assuring her, yea, making to her a sacrament or a sworn pledge and giving one's hand on the commitment that one is willing henceforth to offer one's body and to shed one's blood thus for one's fellow believers ...

This is the true fellowship of saints. It is not a fellowship for the reason that bread is broken, but rather the bread is broken because the fellowship has already taken place and has been concluded inward in the spirit, since Christ has come into flesh ...

6. Since now these ceremonies and signs have to do completely and exclusively with fraternal love, and since one who loves his neighbor like himself is a rare bird, yea even an Indian phoenix on earth, who can sit at the supper table with a good conscience? Answer: One who has thus taken to heart and has thus shaped himself in mind and heart and senses inwardly that he truly and sincerely can say, "The love of God which he has shown to me through the sacrifice of his only begotten and most beloved Son for the payment of my sins, of which I have heard and been certainly assured through his holy Word, has so moved, softened, and penetrated my spirit and soul that I am so minded and ready to offer my flesh and blood, furthermore so to rule over and so to master it, that it must obey me against its own will, and henceforth not take advantage of, deceive, injure, or harm my neighbor in any way in body, soul, honor, goods, wife, or child, but rather go into the fire for him and die, as Paul also desired to be accursed for his brethren and Moses to be stricken out of the book of life for the sake of his people." Such a person may with good conscience and worthiness sit at the Supper of Christ...

7. Since now believers have inwardly surrendered themselves utterly to serve their fellow members in Christ at the cost of honor, goods, body, and life, yea even to offer their souls for them to the point of hell with the help of God; therefore, it is all the more needful sincerely to groan and pray to God that he may cause the faith of these new persons to grow, also that he may more deeply kindle in them the fire of brotherly love, so that in these two matters, signified by water baptism and the Lord's Supper, they might continually grow, mature, and persevere unto the end.

Here shall now be held a time of common silence, so that each one who desires to approach the table of God can meditate upon the suffering of Christ and thus with Saint John rest on the breast of the Lord. After such silence the "Our Father" shall be spoken publicly by the church, reverently, and with hearts desirous of grace ...

8. Now the priest shall point out clearly and expressly that the bread is bread and the wine wine and not flesh and blood, as has long been believed.
Whoever now desires to eat of this bread and drink of the drink of the Lord's Supper, let him rise and repeat with heart and mouth the following pledge of love:

Brothers and sisters, if you will to love God before, in, and above all things, in the power of his holy and living Word, and serve him alone, honor and adore him and henceforth sanctify his name, subject your carnal and sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you by his living Word, in life and death, then let each say individually: I will.

If you will love your neighbor and serve him with deeds of brotherly love, lay down and shed for him your life and blood, be obedient to father, mother, and all authorities according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down and shed his flesh and blood for us, then let each say individually: I will.

If you will practice fraternal admonition toward your brethren and sisters, make peace and unity among them, and reconcile yourselves with all those whom you have offended, abandon all envy, hate, and evil will toward everyone, willingly cease all action and behavior which causes harm, disadvantage or offense to your neighbor, [if you will] also love your enemies and do good to them, and exclude according to the Rule of Christ all those who refuse to do so, then let each say individually: I will.

If you desire publicly to confirm before the church this pledge of love which you have now made, through the Lord's Supper of Christ, by eating bread and drinking wine, and to testify to it in the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, then let each say individually: I desire it in the power of God.

So eat and drink with one another in the name of God the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. May God himself accord to all of us the power and the strength that we may worthily carry it out and bring it to its saving conclusion according to his divine will. May the Lord impart to us his grace. Amen.

9. The bishop takes the bread and with the church lifts his eyes to heaven, praises God and says:

'We praise and thank thee, Lord God, Creator of the heavens and earth, for all thy goodness toward us. Especially hast thou so sincerely loved us that thou didst give thy most beloved Son for us unto death so that each one who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life. Be thou honored, praised and magnified now, forever, always and eternally. Amen.'

Now the priest takes the bread, breaks it, and offers it to the hands of those present, saying:

'The Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and said: "Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in my memory." Therefore, take and eat also, dear brothers and sisters, this bread in the memory of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he gave unto death for us.'

Now when everyone has been fed, the priest likewise takes the cup of wine and speaks with lifted eyes:

'God! Praise be to thee!'

and offers it into their hands, saying:

'Likewise the Lord Jesus took the vessel after the Supper and spoke: "This cup is a new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me." Take therefore also the vessel and all drink from it in the memory of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.'

When they have all drunk, the priest says:

'As often as you eat the bread and drink of the drink, you shall proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.'

Now the church is seated to hear the conclusion.

10. Most dearly beloved brethren and sisters in the Lord. As we now, by thus eating the bread and drinking the drink in memory of the suffering and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of our sins have had fellowship one with another, and have all become one loaf and one body, and our Head is Christ, we should properly become conformed to our Head and as his members follow after him, love one another, do good, give counsel, and be helpful to one another, each offering up his flesh and blood for the other. Under our Head Christ we should all also live, speak, and act honorably and circumspectly, so that we give no offense or provocation to anyone. So that also those who are outside the church might not have reason to blaspheme our head, our faith, and church, and to say: "Does your head Christ teach you such an evil life? Is that your faith? Is that your baptism? Is that your Christian church, Supper, and gospel, that you should lead such an ungodly and shameful life…? Woe, woe to him who gives offense! It would be better for him that a millstone should be hung around his neck and he should be cast into the depth of the sea. Let us rather take upon ourselves a righteous, honorable, and serious life, through which God our Father who is in heaven may be praised.

Since our brotherly love requires that one member of the body be also concerned for the other, therefore we have the earnest behest of Christ, that whenever henceforth a brother sees another erring or sinning, that he once and again should fraternally admonish him in brotherly love. Should he not be willing to reform nor to desist from his sin, he shall be reported to the church. The church shall then exhort him a third time. When this also does no good, she shall exclude him from her fellowship. Unless it should be the case that the sin is quite public and scandalous; then he should be admonished also publicly and before all, so that the others may fear.

Whereupon I pray and exhort you once more, most dearly beloved in Christ, that henceforth as table companions of Christ Jesus, you henceforth lead a Christian walk before God and before men. Be mindful of your baptismal commitment and of your pledge of love which you made to God and the church publicly and certainly not unwittingly when receiving the water and in breaking bread. See to it that you bear fruit worthy of the baptism and the Supper of Christ, that you may in the power of God satisfy your pledge, promise, sacrament, and sworn commitment. God sees it and knows your hearts. May our Lord Jesus Christ, ever and eternally praised, grant us the same. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters, watch and pray lest you wander away and fall into temptation. You know neither the day nor the hour when the Lord is coming and will demand of you an accounting of your life. Therefore watch and pray. I commend you to God. May each of you say to himself, "Praise, praise, praise to the Lord eternally! Amen.

Arise and go forth in the peace of Christ Jesus. The grace of God be with us all.

Amen.

This extract is taken from Wayne Pipkin & John Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), pp393-408.

We are people of God’s peace

A communion hymn composed by Menno Simons

We are people of God’s peace as a new creation,
Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration.
Sons and daughters of the Lord, serving one another,
A new covenant of peace binds us all together.

We are children of God’s peace in this new creation,
Spreading joy and happiness, through God’s great salvation.
Hope we bring in spirit meek, in our daily living,
Peace with everyone we seek, good for evil giving.

We are servants of God’s peace, of the new creation,
Choosing peace, we faithfully serve with heart’s devotion.
Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace, confidence will give us.
Christ the Lord is our defence; Christ will never leave us.

(Text: Menno Simmons, 1552; tr. Esther Bergen, Mennonite World Conference Songbook, 1990. Translation copyright © 1990 Mennonite World Conference. Music: Johann Horn, Ein Gesangbuch der Brüder im Behemen und Merherrn, 1544; revised in Catholicum Hymnologium Germanicum, 1584)