On July 20, 1969, moments after the lunar module, The Eagle, alighted upon the Sea of Tranquility, a solitary Presbyterian church elder celebrated the Lord’s Supper in reverent silence—on the Moon.
Commander Buzz Aldrin had stashed a communion wafer, a capsule of wine, and a tiny silver chalice onboard the Columbia, and smuggled it into space with him. Before his historic walkabout, Aldrin requested a brief radio silence. He described the following moment in the 1970 issue of Guideposts magazine:
“I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”
His actions were at first kept secret because NASA was embroiled in a lawsuit with an atheist who was suing them for broadcasting a public reading of the Bible by the crew of Apollo 8 (evidence that missing the point is not limited to the religious).
When I read of Aldrin’s roguish Eucharistic exploits, I found myself thinking, that it’s a pretty neat thing, except for this—it’s not communion.
There are two common errors that we can succumb to when considering how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper…
1. Too Few Communicants
“Individual communion” is an oxymoron that is alien to the New Testament.
By definition, holy communion is the sharing of the elements in a common proclamation, in a corporate fellowship of believers in good standing. Without the sharing in the community, it’s just a guy reverently munching a snack. I’ll grant that the Sea of Tranquility is a grand spot for a picnic and a prime opportunity for praising God. But it cannot be communion without a community.
This is an error that partially eclipses the meaning of the Lord’s Table: too few communicants.
What is the correct number? In the Jewish tradition it takes eight men to start a synagogue. Christians aren’t quite as demanding: as long as there’s more than one.
In the context of church discipline, which requires witnesses, Jesus stipulated in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” In other words, you can’t go around labeling professing believers as unbelievers like a Lone Ranger on a self-imposed mission of spiritual vigilantism.
Discipline requires the authority and confirmation of a group. Or at the very least, a pair. I believe the principle clearly transfers to communion: you need to break bread with at least one other believer to acknowledge that you are in good standing with the Body of Christ for the event to qualify as communion.
Another common, “too few” error is practiced in some wedding ceremonies where the bride and groom take communion together, while the rest of the congregation just watches. This “couples communion” is again a partial eclipsing of the meaning of the corporate event. If there are only two believers (e.g. two castaways on an island form a tiny tandem church) then one understands that the whole body is present, albeit a diminutive one. But when a bridal couple partakes without the participation of the whole assembly, they have inadvertently disqualified the present believers on the spurious grounds that they are not getting married that day.
2. Too many communicants
A more sinister and pervasive error is to permit too many communicants to the Table. I don’t mean a numerical overabundance, but rather too many without acceptable candidacy. Communion isn’t just “the more the merrier.” Everyone participating needs to be a believer who is not under church discipline. So, there are at least two types of people who should be fenced off from the Table: unbelievers and unrepentant believers.
In 1750, after twenty-two years of pastoral ministry, Jonathan Edwards found himself in the hands of an angry congregation when he was summarily dismissed by a membership vote of 239 to 29.
Had he been disqualified by sinful behavior? Had he strayed from teaching God’s word faithfully? Quite the contrary, Edwards was simply purporting that Scripture limits the ordinance of communion to believers.
Edwards told a lady by the name of Mary Holbert that if she wanted to take communion in his church she needed to at least profess faith in Jesus. She refused and complained to the church council who reprimanded Edwards. He offered to resign, but they rejected his resignation and they also barred him from preaching on the topic, though they permitted him to write about it. That’s like telling a ninja he can’t use his hands to fight but only his feet.
Edwards, one of the most articulate and methodical theological writers in history, put pen to paper and produced a punchy little pamphlet titled,
An humble inquiry into the rules of the Word of God, concerning the qualifications requisite to a compleat [sic.] standing and full communion in the visible Christian church.
In it he explained, for example, that since Paul excluded from the Lord’s Supper believers who were taking the table “in an unworthy manner,” (1 Cor 11:27) that it necessarily implied that unbelievers (who by definition are unrepentant) should likewise be disqualified.
So they sacked him.
For an individual to partake in communion alone is to totally eclipse the point of sharing and of mutual edification and accountability. But to open the hatch so wide a child of Satan can nibble on the body of Christ is a total eclipse of the injunction to partake in a worthy manner.
I trust that as a believer you will appreciate the preciousness and privilege of participating in the Lord’s Table next time you partake. And remember that sitting in your pew alongside other members of the Body of Christ is even more special (and biblical) than if you were taking communion on the Moon!