John Mark Hicks was a professor of mine at grad school and has written some very good books on communion. His book Enter the Water Come To the Table is an excellent book on communion. I’ve always heard communion referred to as one of the “acts of worship.” Unlike most denominations, we celebrate communion every Sunday. I think viewing it as an “act of worship” is OK, but it’s not completely sufficient. Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, is a proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes. Jesus took the Passover, which was meant to memorialize the saving event of God passing over the Israelite homes and sparing the firstborn sons, and gave it new meaning. Passover continues the story of God’s salvation and applies it to Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of mankind.
Hicks argues that communion is not merely an ordinance, because “ordinances are often regarded as mere acts of human obedience” (pg. 12). While, in one sense, communion is an ordinance, Hicks argues that it’s also a sacrament. He says that the central idea of sacrament is that “God acts through appointed means to impart grace, assurance, and hope” (pg. 12). In other words, when we, the body of Christ, participate in communion God is acting through this means to impart grace, assurance, and hope. It’s more than remembering; it’s about participating with and communing at God’s banquet.
Very significantly, Hicks also rightly points out that “Jesus himself, as the Incarnate God, participated in Israel’s sacramental journey. He was baptized with Israel, assembled with Israel in its festive celebrations (Sabbaths, Passovers, Feast of Tabernacles, etc.), and ate at those tables” (pg. 15).
For Hicks, there are three important themes to God’s story where we all participate in communion with God. Those are baptism, the Lord’s supper, and assembly. He says that these three are “dramatic rehearsals of the story through which God renews communion, empowers transformation, and realizes the future” (pg. 16). This cycle of death (burial) new birth (emergence/passing through) and resurrection (future) can be seen over and over, beginning with creation. Our participation in baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the assembly bind us in communion with God and we retell the story of salvation.
Peter binds Christian baptism to Christ and the Flood narrative. He says that in the ark, only 8 people were saved as they passed through the water (death below the water, emergence/passing through with God on the ark, look to the future). “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). We commune with God and Christ in our baptism, just as Noah “passed through” the water to find new life as the old died and also just as the Israelites “passed through” the Red Sea to a new life as the Egyptians were swallowed up by the water.
So also, the Lord’s supper is where we participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and we experience His grace as he communes with us at the table. Paul says that, at the table, we proclaim Jesus Christ’s death until he comes. This is both an ordinance (what we do) and a sacrament (how God shows up and imparts his grace, assurance, and hope.