…And what if we have no bread or wine?

So, something either funny or sacrilegious happened at our meeting on Sunday. It is the usual practice of our church that the person appointed to lead the service will also be responsible for organising the elements for communion. It is just the easiest and simplest way to make sure someone has that practical matter covered and everyone knows whether it is them or not.

Only, this Sunday, the person who was due to lead was sick. So, a last minute replacement was ushered into the task of leading on Sunday morning. So far, no problem. Only, given the last minute nature of the replacement, and given the other responsibilities that person had, the practical matter of ensuring there were communion elements was, let’s say, overlooked.

Now, so far as having some red juice was concerned, we keep that at church. So, despite totally forgetting to bring anything, we had our usual means of remembering the blood of Christ shed for us on hand. No problem. But, and here’s where we potentially get sacrilegious, we had no bread. What we did have, however, were the remaining items leftover from our Theology Breakfast. In this case (yes, I know), some individually wrapped pain au choclats.

So, when it became clear we didn’t have any bread, came the question: are these close enough to bread that they qualify as legitimate? Is it okay for us to take what is sort of bread, but possibly more a pastry, and still say, ‘this is my body broken for you?’ This sort of discussion usually takes place about the appropriateness of leavened or unleavened bread (a discussion that someone shortly after decided to bring up, as if we weren’t deviating far enough from the notion of bread at this point!) But what do we do? Do we skip communion because there’s no bread or do we press on, albeit not how we would usually do it, on the grounds we’ve got something close enough? I am grateful someone was concerned enough to even ask the question!

I have been fortunate enough to have these discussions before in a totally different context. Not, it should be said, whether using pain au chocolat is acceptable for communion. Rather, the question that came up was about communion in missionary settings where there simply is no bread nor evident equivalent in the culture. Can those folk never take communion because there is no bread available or is it okay to find something else? Is the principle Jesus laying down that we must use bread per se or is he using a readily available, basic food stuff to communicate the symbolic point at issue?

As noted here:

To insist on bread where bread is unknown and wheat isn’t even grown would seem to hinder Christianity from ever taking on an indigenous form in such cultures. I guess Christian missionaries could teach new Christians how to grow wheat and make bread, but would that not communicate that Christianity is a foreign religion, and make of an indifferent thing a barrier to the gospel taking root?

For example, you are planting a church in Papua New Guinea; they have never seen wheat or eaten bread. After a congregation of believers gather, you want to introduce them to the Lord’s Supper. What do you do? Import bread? Teach the nationals to grow wheat and make bread? In such contexts I’d recommend using any common staple food that can be broken to fit the symbolism of Christ’s body broken for us.

There is also a case to be made that doing this would undermine the very point Jesus is trying to make. He is our basic sustenance. When he called himself the Bread of Life, he was purposefully hitting upon a common, regular and ordinary food stuff that most people would eat as a staple. To insist on bread in a context where bread neither exists nor is ordinary acts against something of the symbolism Jesus intended.

This, then, is the question. Is bread essential or incidental to the Lord’s Supper? Similarly, we have to ask whether wine is similarly essential or incidental to the Lord’s Supper. Given large swathes of churches do not use wine at all, but gladly use some form of red juice, it seems on the question of drink we have largely concluded wine to be incidental. Which surely means, if the wine is, the bread is to some degree too?

John Calvin, in his Institutes, insists: ‘Whether the bread is leavened or unleavened, the wine red or white—it makes no difference. These things are indifferent, and left at the church’s discretion.’ Whilst I wouldn’t want to argue that we switch from bread as a matter of course, nor for the sake of novelty, there are occasions – such as missionary settings where there is no bread or, dare I say, a church service where someone has forgotten the elements but there is a credible substitute – where it is okay, I think, to use something else.

What, in the end, is the core principle behind the emblems? To remind us of Christ’s body broken for us. To remind us that there is one body, to which we now belong, as believers together in Christ. Similarly, that Jesus’ blood was shed for us and likewise that there is one cup in which we all share as believers united together by Christ. The emblems exist to serve that purpose and you do not want your emblems to undermine the reality of the thing symbolised.

So, if we don’t happen to have bread to hand but we do have some pain au chocolats available, is that okay? I’m not saying we should aim for it. It makes sense, particularly in our context where bread is readily available, to stick with what Jesus actually prescribed in the ordinary run of things. But if we find ourselves in a situation where there is no bread, does it matter that the body of Christ tasted a little bit sweeter this week because we found something close enough? Honestly, I don’t think so. I suspect the Lord did not mind either. Thankfully, we do not think our salvation stands or falls on such things.