The New Testament Legacy

1 What did Sharing Communion mean in the New Testament?

The English word 'communion' is found in only three verses in the New Testament Authorised Version (I Cor. 10: 16; 11 Cor. 6:14, and 13:13). However, the Greek wordkoinonia and its cognates, translated as 'communion' in these three texts, occurs in 35 other places in the New Testament.

The word koinonia can be translated by many different English words (community, communion, sharing, partnership, participation, fellowship, solidarity). Its root in both Greek (koinos) and Latin (communis) means 'common', 'shared', 'public', as distinct from 'private', 'individual'. (The same word was used by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in a letter sent out in 1920 proposing a 'League of Churches' to parallel the League of Nations.)

What or who in the New Testament is being shared in koinonia?

1 . Fundamentally God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is sharing himself with us. I Cor. 1:9 (God called you into the koinonia of his Son); 11 Cor. 13:13 (The grace of Christ, the love of God and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit); Phil. 2:1 (The koinonia of the Spirit); I John 1:3 (Our koinonia is with the Father and with Jesus Christ); 11 Peter 1:4 (We are koinonoi, sharers, in the divine nature).

2. If we have koinonia with God, we cannot have it with evil (I Cor. 10:20; 11 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:11; I John 1:6; Rev. 18:4) and this means avoiding false teachers (11 John 11; 1 Tim. 5:22).

3. Koinonia in the Gospel (Phil. 1:5); to share in its blessings (I Cor. 9:23); koinonia in grace (Phil. 1:7; koinonia of your faith (Philem. 6).

4. Koinonia in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3: 1; 1 Peter 4:13; Rev. 1:9), and in the sufferings of disciples (11 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 4:14; Heb. 10:35) so as to share his glory (I Peter 5:1).

5. Koinonia with fellow Christians (II Cor.8:23; Gal. 2:9; Philem. 17; 1 John 1:3 and 7; Acts 2:42). In Luke 5: 10 it refers to the business partnership between Peter, James and John.

6. Koinonia includes sharing possessions (Acts 2:44, and especially through Paul's collection from Gentile churches for poor Jewish Christians - Rom. 12:13 and 15:26; 11 Cor. 9:13; Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 6:18; Heb. 13:16).

7. Koinonia in the body and blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 10: 16). (The Latin translation of this text is communicatio, not communio, hence modem Roman Catholic usage of communicatio in sacris, sacramental sharing.)

II Eucharistic Communion

The fact that there is only one unequivocal usage of koinonia that refers to the eucharist should not make us think it is unimportant, or a late development The First Letter to the Corinthians was probably written in its present form before all the other texts quoted above (AD 55). It should however show us that eucharistic communion is only one aspect of communion. We can still see this today when we speak of 'the communion of saints' and 'the Anglican Communion'.

How did eucharistic communion develop in the church? Jesus and his disciples were Jews. The Old Testament was their Bible. In that, hospitality at meals was a vital expression of fellowship. Thus Genesis 18 (see Rublev's ikon); contrast Psalm 41:9 and 10. In the Old Testament sacrificial system the worshipper ate from the sacrifice of the peace offering, as it were with God. This was particularly true of the Passover (Exod. 12; Lev.7:15), but eating the blood was not allowed (Lev. 17:10-12). In the New Testament Jesus is known for having table fellowship with people (Luke 5:30; unlike John the Baptist, Luke 7:33, 34 and 15:2).

Whether or not the Last Supper was at Passover, it clearly was a fellowship meal to which Jesus intended to impart new religious significance. The two earliest recorded accounts mention a (new) covenant in Jesus' blood, which the disciples are to drink (contrast the Old Testament), and use the words "This (is) my body", "This (is) my blood" (Mark 14:22-25; 1 Cor. 11:23-26) over the bread and the wine. Only I Corinthians mentions the instruction to do it regularly in memory of Christ. Jesus broke bread with the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:30, 35), and Acts 1:4 may refer to Jesus eating with the disciples. It is clear that, however the eucharist developed in those early days, it was very important for holding local churches together, and Paul in particular emphasised this (I Cor. 11: 17-22; Gal. 2:11, 12). The rules agreed at the Council of Jerusalem were probably formulated to maintain eucharistic communion (Acts 15:19,20).

Martin Reardon June 1998

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