Faith, Community, and Communion: Lessons from the Last Supper
The word “communion” has different meanings. It could refer to Holy Communion, where Christian churches consecrate and then share bread and wine with each other in commemoration of the Last Supper (Mt. 26:17-30; Mk. 14:12-26; Lk. 22:7-39; Jn. 13:1–17:26). Communion could also mean recognition of a relationship between Christian individuals or communities and a church. Finally, the word could denote a “shared participation in a mental or spiritual experience” (Oxford Dictionary). But communion, no matter the context it is used in, always concerns the idea of community.
The Last Supper was a communion event. Jesus and his disciples came together as a faith community one last time to celebrate the Passover meal. It was a sad and poignant moment, as Jesus was about to be betrayed and delivered for execution shortly after. Imminently, the disciples’ faith will soon be tested as they continue the ministry without their beloved teacher. For centuries, scholars have tried to study this quadruple tradition in the Gospels, and the Synoptic Problem that resulted still remains to this day, although I do not wish to deal with that issue here. I simply wish to read the Last Supper story from a sociological perspective;
I believe that there are many lessons about instilling love and service in the community that we can glean from this Gospel story.
There are four main characters in the story—Jesus, Judas, Peter, and John (see Jn. 13:25). From an anthropological perspective, we notice that all characters except Jesus are not very good models for us to follow. Judas betrayed and sold his own master for thirty pieces of silver; we see in Judas a person devoid of moral character. Peter, rash and impulsive and failing to think before speaking, denied Jesus three times after promising Jesus that he will never forsake him. What about John, the beloved disciple who stuck to Jesus so often and who seemed to think that he was special amongst the disciples? All of them had character flaws, especially when we compare them with Jesus who, of course, was the character to emulate.
We find many kinds of these people in any social community. And I believe that focusing on one’s personality and character in a community does not promote healthy relationships, growth, and progress. This is why a sociological reading of the Last Supper is a better way to understand the story, as it instead focuses on the functions and roles of the characters, which, in turn, highlight those things that should be avoided and those that are to be cultivated in a social community.
Judas’s betrayal, power play, political maneuver, and cunning strategizing are unhealthy practices in a community that run against scriptural moral and ethical standards.
Peter’s failure to honor his words teaches us that modesty is a virtue—that one should mean what they say and say only what they can actually do. John’s case shows that everyone should be on equal standing in a community—each has their own role, and when one suffers, everyone suffers as well.
Jesus knew about these human weaknesses. This is why he told his disciples that whenever they come together as a community, they are to practice communion in remembrance of him—not exactly the proceedings of the Last Supper, but what he did and said for them to emulate and follow. The culmination of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples happened when he washed his disciples’ feet:
“I have washed your feet so that you also may wash each other’s” (Jn. 13:14).
Love and service for one another is the key to nurturing a healthy community, and Christians should fix their eyes on this single core value that truly honors Christ and his kingdom mission.