The Quaker perspective on communion runs parallel to our perspective on baptism. Namely, we believe that true communion is inward and spiritual.
Unfortunately, most Christians equate communion with an outward ceremony. Although the majority of Christians interpret Communion in this way, they cannot agree among themselves how it should be performed. Barclay quips, "even the Calvinist Protestants of Great Britain could never yet accord among themselves about the manner of taking it, whether sitting, standing or kneeling; whether it should be given to the sick, and those that are ready to die, or not?" Barclay also thanks the Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists for demonstrating the inadequacies of one another's arguments. There is certainly no lack of debate on this subject!
But all of the debating factions are focused on the outward ceremony. Most Christians accept the tradition as sacred, and then debate its proper execution or its theological nuance.
Barclay asks a questions so radical that it undercuts all these other arguments. Barclays asks (in effect), "is this outward ceremony really communion?"
Clearly, Christ expects those who follow after him to partake of him. During his ministry, Jesus said things like, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53), and, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I him or her" (v. 56). Jesus called himself, "The Bread of Heaven." But Jesus did not mean for us to eat his carnal, physical flesh. Rather, we are meant to ingest something spiritual. Just as physical food becomes a part of our bodies, partaking of Christ unites our spirit with the Spirit of Christ.
The heart of communion is union with Christ. But we are not made one flesh with Christ, we are made one in Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 6:17, Paul writes, "Those who unite with the Lord are made one with Christ in spirit." Because this is a spiritual union, it does not happen externally. Rather, it happens within. We are united with Christ inwardly. It is by opening ourselves to the Spirit of Christ within, that we are able to become one with God.
Since this inward process is communion, it may happen at any time. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me" (Revelations 3:20). The supper of the Lord is by no means limited to the ceremony of breaking bread and drinking wine at certain times. It is, as Barclay says, "enjoyed as often as the soul retires into the light of the Lord, and feels and partakes of that heavenly life, by which the inward man is nourished."
From Barclay's perspective, real communion is inward and spiritual. And it is to this inward union that we are called.
But some might agree that we are, in fact, called to this inward union -- and yet feel we are also called to maintain the outward ceremony. Matthew, Mark and Luke all narrate a similar ceremony, during which Jesus presided over the Passover feast shortly before his death. Uniformly, these three gospels report Jesus taking bread and distributing it among the disciples. Echoing the themes already (about partaking of him), Jesus said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then Jesus took the cup and offered it so that all could drink. He said, "This is my blood..." Only Luke reports Jesus saying, "Do this in remembrance of me."
Are we to take this line as a command for all believers to perpetuate the exact ceremony throughout time? Barclay responds to this question in several ways. He points out that those who observe outward communion do so with a selective sense of what is necessary. For example, while Jesus and the disciples were clearly eating supper, most of those who practice this as a ceremony do so in the morning. Barclay writes, "If it be said, these are but circumstances, and not the matter... What if it should be said that the whole is but a circumstance." If the time of day is a coincidence, then why not see the whole episode as something bound to a particular moment it time?
What reason do we have to believe that "Do this" refers only to eating and drinking and not the time of day? Why not believe that the items of food are also a coincidence of time and place? As Barclay points out, most Scottish meals are served with beer or ale!
The only reason we see outward communion the way we do is because a layer of human custom and tradition colors our vision. In fact, there is good reason to believe that when the early church gathered to break bread, it was more in the style of a potluck than a ceremony. Some have called these communal meals a "love-feast." And why shouldn't the church, when it simply gathers for a meal, remember Christ? Why can't the breaking of bread always be a time to remember our Lord?
Finally, Barclay points to Scripture. For example, Romans 14:17 declares: "For the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." We miss the heart of the gospel if we believe Christ came to institute a ceremonial meal.
Barclay closes with these words: "To seek God among [outward ceremonies] is, with Mary at the sepulcher, to seek the living among the dead; for we know that he is risen, and revealed in Spirit, leading his children out of these rudiments, that they may walk with him in his light."
Here are a couple of questions:
1. Have you experienced the rite of outward communion? What did that experience mean to you?
2. Are there things you like to have in your outward environment to help you commune with God? Do you think Barclay would speak against such things?
3. How might all ceremonies lose their power over time? What might be done to remedy this?
Continue to Proposition Fourteen