The Supper and the Self

How Communion Reshapes Identity

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Guest Contributor

Identity — it is one of our society’s greatest obsessions today. Even we Christians can preoccupy ourselves with knowing who we are and what our purpose is. This pursuit is not altogether bad. The desire to understand who we are and what we are here for is natural and God-given. The problem arises when we look in the wrong places to discover our identity and purpose.

Many look to social media, self-help resources, life coaches, models of the psyche — you name it — for direction and affirmation. We may even naively accept mantras like “Be true to yourself” and “You do you,” thinking we can determine our own identities and express them however we want. But such paths lead only to more confusion and despair.

If we as Christians want to understand who we are, we must look to Jesus Christ. As the God-man, he is the true revelation of both God and of humanity. He alone can reveal to us who we are. And one concrete way he reveals our identities is through his appointed Supper.

People Who Remember

The Lord’s Supper, along with baptism, is one of the most debated Christian practices. Believers from various traditions disagree over what exactly happens during the meal; we also disagree over how frequently it should be celebrated. Despite such disagreements, all Christians agree on at least this: the Lord’s Supper is a meal whereby we remember who Christ is and what he has done for us (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25).

Many of us do not realize, however, that the Lord’s Supper is also a time when we remember who we are in Christ. In a key way, the Table strengthens our identity in him. Indeed, Christ himself forms and fortifies our identity in this meal because he is present to us and lives in us (John 14:20, 23; 17:23, 26). Just as food and drink strengthen the body, so Christ’s body and blood, received by faith, strengthen our souls in a way that helps us understand ourselves.

The Lord’s Supper shapes our identity in part because the meal is analogous to the Passover. The Passover was a ritual feast whereby the Israelites meditated on God’s saving actions and reassured themselves of who they were as God’s people. They identified themselves with the exodus generation every time they celebrated the rite.

When Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples on the night before his death, he did far more than identify with the exodus generation; he gave the meal greater significance because he was about to accomplish his mission as the true Passover Lamb. Just as the historical exodus and old covenant defined Israel’s existence, so Christ enacted a new exodus and a new covenant that now defines our existence in him — our very identity and way of life. And when Jesus commanded us to eat in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25), he was not instructing us to simply ponder past events, just as he was not simply recalling the exodus when he celebrated the Passover with his disciples.

Many today think that to remember is to merely think about something from the past. But biblically, to remember involves bringing the past into the present and allowing the past to actively shape the present. So, when we remember Christ in the Supper, we are not thinking about someone who is absent and disconnected from us. Rather, we are, by faith, identifying with and being shaped by someone who is with us — indeed, in us.

Because remembrance is an act of identification, we identify with Christ when we partake of the Holy Meal. Like the Passover, therefore, the Supper shapes our identity. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we taste who we are: people loved and redeemed by the Lord of all life. We belong to him, and we are made to be like him. And when we feast on Christ by faith, he transforms us more and more into his own image.

People Who Commune

Because we belong to the Lord Jesus and are made to be like him, we cannot find our true identity by looking inside ourselves. The Lord’s Supper subverts the notion that identity is an individualistic enterprise because in this meal we participate with Christ. “The cup of blessing that we bless,” Paul writes, “is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Thus, many Christians rightly call this meal Communion. By it, we fellowship with Christ and remember that we are people who live in vital connection with Christ — like branches joined to the vine or a body to the head (John 15:1–6; Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18).

And as people united to Christ, we are also united to other Christians. Paul explains, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). We participate in Christ as well as in the life of the church, who is vitally connected to Christ the head. Paul continues, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). By sharing this meal, we declare to both ourselves and one another that we are communing persons: we belong to Christ and each other.

We are not isolated selves. We do not have the inner resources to become whoever we want to be. Nor do we have leeway to live however we want. We are joined to the Lord Almighty, who alone has a rightful claim on all creation. And we belong to the body of Christ, the community of faith that shapes us and shows us how to live.

People Who Proclaim

Because we are people joined to Christ and his body, the church, our purpose in life is not to self-actualize and self-gratify. We have been chosen and redeemed so that we may joyfully serve and glorify God.

When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim Christ’s death until he returns (1 Corinthians 11:26). Yet such proclamation is not limited to our sharing in this meal of thanksgiving — thus the name Eucharist (from the Greek word for thanksgiving). As persons who participate in Christ, we are called to proclaim him with our entire lives. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, God reminds us that we are called to be eucharistic persons, persons who gratefully proclaim the goodness of Christ crucified with all we are in all we do.

Our purpose in life, therefore, is not to express ourselves but to express Christ. Our focus ought to be on him and not ourselves because he is our life (Colossians 3:4), and the life we now live we live by faith in him (Galatians 2:20).

When we receive the Lord’s Supper, we remember that our lives are not our own. We do not exist for ourselves, and we do not live for ourselves. We live for and with Christ, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

When we receive the Supper, we remember that we have died with Christ in baptism and that he bids us take up our crosses in daily death to self, just as he humbled himself throughout his earthly life and ultimately gave himself on the cross on our behalf. We are united with the truly self-sacrificial one so that we too may live self-sacrificially — for the good of others and to the glory of God. When we continually die to ourselves, in this meal and in our daily lives, we become more like him, the true human. When we conform to him, we become more authentically human. This is where the Supper leads us.

The seemingly mundane elements of the Lord’s Supper force us to reimagine who we are. They reveal that we are a people who belong to Christ, a people identified with Christ, a people shaped by Christ, and a people becoming like Christ. We are redeemed by him, and we exist for him. He is our life, and he determines our identity. When we look to Christ in this most holy of meals, we see more clearly who Christ is and who we are in him. And as we commune with him, we become more like him. The Table truly reshapes and fortifies our identity.