The room was dark and the lights were dim. For months I (Jamaal) had wanted to visit this church. After sitting down, I felt weird because I didn’t see another person of color there and because I was the only person in a suit (I’d come straight from preaching at a local black church). But I was also excited. The church had a reputation not only for faithfulness to Scripture but also for contributing to the community.
The service was spiritually uplifting. I was spiritually fed, and I could see why people spoke highly of the church. Then, after the sermon, something strange happened.
People started walking to the front of the sanctuary, just like the congregants in my historically black church did during offering. But this wasn’t time to tithe. They were going to the front to take and eat; it was time for communion.
Those participating in communion tore off a piece of bread from a common loaf. They then dipped the bread in wine or juice. Finally, they ate as they returned to their seats. The way this church practiced communion was initially off-putting to me. I’m too concerned about hygiene to drink after anyone. Why would I eat bread torn from a loaf 500 other people have touched?
Nevertheless, their communion service that day underscored a powerful spiritual reality. It was a tangibly gritty reminder of what Jesus did not only in his death but also in his ministry. Communion is a powerful apologetic for the gospel, an apologetic that depends less on how your church serves the communion elements and more on the beautiful diversity of people God brings together at the table.
Communion Is Not a Place for Division
Some congregations rip the bread and dip it while others disagree with that practice. Some faithful churches drink from a common cup, and still others use prepackaged wafers and juice. We’re not interested here in defending one particular way of conducting a communion service. But we do want you to see that when first-century Christians gathered for communion, the diversity of those who gathered was a testimony to the truth of the gospel.
Early Christians shared an agape meal or “love feast”—an entire meal that included the Lord’s Supper. The meal was meant as a time of fellowship. But for the church in Corinth, the meal became a source of division. The problem in Corinth was that the higher social classes treated the Christian love feast like a pagan banquet. The wealthy ate first and consumed the finest parts of the meal, then the socially and economically disadvantaged went hungry (v. 21). At best, they scraped a meal together from the leftovers.
In response, Paul tells the people they’re despising the church and undermining the gospel. When instituting the Lord’s Supper, Christ said,
This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Cor. 11:24–25)
This “remembrance” included Christ’s sufferings, but it wasn’t limited to Christ’s sufferings. It also remembered what he taught and how he lived. Jesus spent his life serving the marginalized, the overlooked, and the diseased (Mark 1:32–34; 2:15–17; 7:26–30). To celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that reinforces classism or segregation rejects the meal’s meaning. In the Corinthian church, the Lord’s Supper had come to defeat its very purpose.
To celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that reinforces classism or segregation rejects the meal’s meaning.
That’s why Paul charges the Corinthians with sinning against the “body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). He commands, “When you come together to eat, welcome one another” (v. 33, CSB), meaning honor one another by eating together, making sure the haves and the have-nots enjoy the same meal. Then and now, communion is a reminder that Christ has broken down the barriers between us in his body and through his blood.
Witness of a Diverse Communion
What would Paul say if he toured your city and stopped in a few churches on Sunday? Would he see people from the same ethnicity and same socioeconomic class eating this ancient meal? Or do your communion tables bring together the tax collector and the zealot, the hip-hop-culture kid and the Latino immigrant, the bank president and the hotel maid?
Neighborhoods in our city (Louisville, Kentucky) are racially divided. The neighborhoods in your city are probably similar. These divisions shape people’s habits, which in turn shape their lives. White lives don’t naturally intersect with black lives, and we don’t naturally develop diverse relationships.
Because of the ethnic divisions fragmenting our world, a multiethnic community of faith participating in communion together pictures the gospel’s unifying power. When a church is filled with a multiplicity of ethnicities, the world glimpses something supernatural at work, regardless of whether they admit what they’re seeing. A diverse church doesn’t prove the full truth of the gospel, but it does call into question secular explanations of how such a community can be formed and sustained.
When a church is filled with a multiplicity of ethnicities, the world glimpses something supernatural at work, regardless of whether they admit what they’re seeing.
Nearly a decade after my first overdressed communion at that church with the common cup, I became the lead pastor there. At first, my germophobic tendencies kept me from appreciating how Sojourn Church Midtown practiced communion, but it eventually grew on me. There’s something powerful about watching everyone come forward and partake of the same bread.
And now, years later, there’s something even more powerful in seeing a multiethnic, multisocioeconomic, multigenerational congregation take communion together. By God’s grace, at Sojourn Church Midtown we’ve seen a growth in diversity, and every time we take communion we get hungrier for the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Little by little, God is filling our church with people who have a variety of shades of skin, and we’re thankful. We’ve come a long way, but Lord knows we still have a long way to go.
Jamaal E. Williams and Timothy Paul Jones will help to lead a microevent on “Living in Gospel Exile” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 25–27, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon! This article is adapted from In Church as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating a Multiethnic Kingdom Culture by Jamaal E. Williams and Timothy Paul Jones (InterVarsity Press, June 2023).