Go to any Christian bookstore or website, and you will find communion sets available in multiple setups and materials. You can get gold, silver or titanium. You can have trays with just the little juice cups and bread, or a combination. You can get them sized for whole congregations, small groups or even individual participation. If you are really interested in getting through the observance at a breakneck pace, you can also purchase pre-packaged bread and wine. The options are almost limitless.
But where does all of this come from?
Little Plastic Cups
Believe it or not, this type of communion observance is barely a hundred years old.
No one is really sure who came up with the individual cups first, but we do know that it started in the late 19th century somewhere in the Northeastern United States and by 1906, people were coming up with somewhat flimsy arguments justifying it. The argument really boiled down to “the Bible doesn’t say not to use individual cups.” And the apologists were not wrong. The Scriptures do not say it is not right to use individual cups; although every reference to the Lord’s Table uses cup in the singular – but I digress.
Fruit of the Vine
I’ll be honest. I am a big fan of the individual cups because I don’t like the idea of drinking from a cup other people are drinking from – especially if I am drinking something that can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Fermented wine has alcohol in it, which makes it somewhat antiseptic. Although they did not know about bacteria, that’s why ancient people used wine as an ointment for wounds (Lk 10:34). But if we’re going to be using pasteurized grape juice (another practice that goes back a little over a century), then there is no way I am sharing a cup with a hundred other people. Unfermented juices are full of sugars, which bacteria absolutely love. Pasteurization eliminates the yeasts that cause fermentation; but it leaves all those sugars for any other bacteria to feast on. If one kid with a cold takes a drink at the beginning of communion service, by the time the cup gets to me, it could be swimming in microbes.
Those Metal Trays
It is weird to think this way because we sterilize things with soap and water, lysol and alcohol-based wipes; but the combination of fermented wine and sets made of precious metals like gold and silver actually sterilized the communion service fairly well. Gold and silver do not offer a good platform for microbial life, so bacteria and viruses tend not to stick around them. A quick wipe of a clean linen cloth, and the bugs were gone. The same could not be said for wood or pottery, both of which tend to let organisms stick around.
The two metals are also quite inert, so they do not react with other compounds to produce deadly chemicals. (That is also why they make good jewelry. On top of that, they don’t leech harmful elements like lead, which was used in making pewter until the 19th century.
A Modern Mishmash
So, here we are – still using metal trays because metal is easily disinfected, but then serving pasteurized juice, which is easily infected. And we’re serving it in little plastic cups, instead of one big metal cup because (among other things) it is more hygenic. Of course, it is only more hygenic because we are not using fermented juice, which is antiseptic.
None of this is meant as a criticism of the modern communion practices. Like I said, I prefer the little plastic cups. And let’s face it. If the Church is a hospital for sinners, and we have people in our congregations who are struggling with alcoholism (and we all do), is handing them a glass of wine really the best idea? So, I have no issue with the unfermented grape juice either. And the metal plates? Well, there’s nothing in the Bible that says we can’t use metal plates.
Even those little pre-packaged communion servings? I can get where a large church might not have the manpower to prepare thousands of communion cups. Those little things are hard to fill!
At the same time, we should be considering the nature of what we are doing. Many times, we are confused about the Lord’s Table because we have this mishmash of elements and pieces that are sort of crunched together and not really well understood.
Just How Important Is the Lord’s Table?
I’ll just put it out there. It is no mystery to anyone who knows me.
I believe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table are the two most significant acts of worship the church performs.
Preaching is vital. Don’t get me wrong. I preach for a living.
Praying is very important. Singing and sharing and fellowship – all important.
But without baptism and the Lord’s Table, we are not the Church. They represent the unity with Christ and one another that is the very core of what the Church is supposed to be.
And I think that over time, the message of the ordinances gets lost in the jumble of ideas and methodology and overlapping historical currents.
In our congregation, we still use the metal trays. Why not? We have the little cups; and we fill them with pasteurized grape juice. And once a month, the elders stand at the front of the sanctuary and the congregation comes forward to take the elements and partake of the Lord’s Table together.
It is not how you do the Lord’s Table as much as what it is. And, if we understand that, then methodology becomes far less important. It is displaced by the great worship we pour out to the Lord at His Table.