August 18, 2014

Communion on the Moon: a total eclipse of the point

by Clint Archer

This is information is about forty-five years the wrong side of news; but it’s news to me. 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.Moon

Commander Buzz Aldrin had stashed a piece of bread, 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 Eucharistic exploits, I found myself thinking, that’s pretty neat, except for one thing—that’s not communion.

CommunionIndividual 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. Without the sharing, it’s just a guy reverently munching a snack. I’ll grant that the Sea of Tranquility is a grand spot for a snack, and a prime opportunity for praising God. But it can’t 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 labelling professing believers as unbelievers like some rogue spiritual vigilante.

Discipline requires the authority and confirmation of a group. Or at the very least, a pair. I believe the principle clearly transfers to communion too; 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 is again a partial eclipsing of the meaning of the corporate event. If there are only two believers (e.g. two prisoners form a tiny tandem church) then one understands that the while body is present, albeit a diminutive body. But when a bridal couple partakes without the whole assembly, they have inadvertently disqualified some believers on the spurious grounds that they are not getting married that day.

Too many communicants

A more sinister and pervasive error is to permit too many communicants to the Table. I don’t mean numerical abundance, but acceptable candidacy. 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 church when he was summarily dismissed by a congregational vote of 239 to 29.

Had he been disqualified by sinful behavior? Had he strayed from teaching God’s word faithfully? Quite on 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 forbad him from preaching on the topic, but permitted him to write about it. That’s like telling a ninja he can’t use his hands but only his feet.

Edwards, one of the most articulate and methodical theological writers in history, put pen to paper and produced a thorough 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 unbelievers (who by definition are unrepentant) should likewise be disqualified.

So they sacked him.

Buzz AldrinFor 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 any ‘ole child of Satan can nibble on the body and bread 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 of the Lord’s Table next time you partake. And remember that sitting in your pew alongside other members of the Body of Christ is more special (and biblical) than if you were taking communion on the Moon.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • BENDERS

    Interesting view. I think I have to disagree on this one
    though. The text doesn’t say or imply in any way that communion is strictly to
    be a corporate event. To say that communion isn’t communion unless it’s
    observed with at least two others (if you’re a Christian) and somehow you can
    justify using Matt 18 to invoke the three person rule is kinda out there. On the contrary, it is incredibly individualistic. Communion is between me and the Lord, it is personal. We just all take it together since it makes sense to in a corporate setting. So I see no mistake in Aldrin’s decision.

    • So I assume you take the word “communion” as referring to communion with God? Interesting. Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” Was he referring to the breaking of bread into pieces for yourself, and not for sharing? Interesting.

      • BENDERS

        I read it…three times. Now what?

        • Funny. My point is that the passage is about taking communion in a community, in a corporate setting, that taking it is part of body life, it’s all about sharing in it together. Hope that helps.

          • BENDERS

            It does help and thank you.

    • h

      “Communion is between me and the Lord, it is personal.”

      Mark Dever has a great quote:

      “We need to give up trying to live the Christian life on our own. We need to covenant together with others to follow Christ. Christians must stop being selfish in their understanding of the Christian life. The Christian life is not just about you and those you are personally trying to reach with the gospel. God also intends for you to be a committed part of helping to make disciples out of the flock of sheep he has already saved.”

      Part of that not being on our own necessitates that we partake with others of the Lord’s Table in the way he commanded.

      • Yes. What he said.

      • BENDERS

        Let me get this straight.

        1. I’m living the Christian life on my own.
        2. I’m selfish in my understanding of it.
        3. I think it’s just about me.
        4. I’m not committed to making disciples.

        I’ll pass on the response, Why don’t you just read my mind?

    • Larry Miles

      There’s always one. Benders, the first time you see the observance of The Lords Table, 12 people are participating. Later, you see it done in the gathering of believers. You never see it nor is it implied as an individualistic, observance. Why would you “go there?”

      • BENDERS

        Didn’t I make that clear in my original post? Maybe you should read 1 Cor 10:17

        • Ok, boys. Let’s play nicely. This is a blog, not a church. No one is in charge here, nor are we forcing our view on anyone. It’s totally ok if we all move on and read Nate’s post now. It’s a good one.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Curious observation, and it gets me to thinking: Are there any other commands or practices for which Scripture prescribes more than one participant?

    What would you say to Matt 18:19? “If two of you shall agree…it shall be done for them…”? I’d be surprised to think that the prayer of just one is not respected and answered by God (if that’s what “agreeing” refers to, which may not be the case).

    But you do make a good point regarding “corporate” activities. It’s just that, in the accounts of the Last Supper, while Christ does say, “Take and eat [or drink], ALL OF YOU”, is it because the ceremony is meant to be a corporate event, or is it simply that there were 12 there and He couldn’t very well say, “Peter, this is for you”?

    Don’t know. Worth further study. Thank you for the article. How did the NASA lawsuit turn out?

    • Good questions, especially the last one. I don’t know. I think church history helps with the other questions in that communion and church discipline were always practiced corporately.

    • h

      I would think baptism by definition requires at least two participants: the new believer being baptized, and the believer who is baptizing them…?

      • You obviously haven’t seen I Robot. One day lazy pastors will staff out everything to robots and interns.

        • h

          Is that before or after said lazy pastors are themselves replaced by robots and interns…?

  • Greg Pickle

    Spot on. 1 Corinthians 10:17 makes clear that communion is an activity to be shared by the church in fellowship with other believers.

    Also, I hate to say this, but I do think Edwards sealed his fate 20+ years earlier when he came to Northhampton and acquiesced to Granddaddy Stoddard’s Half-Way Covenant standard. Who should be surprised that changing his position and enforcing it upon others would cause a stir? A lesson for all of us in being upfront at the beginning of a pastoral ministry role.

    • I agree that it was the half-way cov that was the problem. I think we can forgive him as a young man who came to a growing conviction over 22 years of faithfulness.

      • Greg Pickle

        Agreed. Though learning from his mistake to beware of such things, I can’t fault him, and can only hope there isn’t a similar thing I have missed as a young buck shepherd.

  • Ted Bigelow

    Discipline requires the authority and confirmation of a group. Or at the very least, a pair. I believe the principle clearly transfers to communion too; 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.

    In 1 Cor. 10:16-17 Paul connects the Lord’s Supper not by a body part, as Clint seems to, but something to only be participated in by a local body of Christ. Otherwise, it isn’t a sharing in Christ Himself:

    Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. (1Co 10:16-17)

    So yeah, individual communion is out. But so is communion for 2 or 3. What the Scripture upholds as the minimum number is the local body of Christ.

    • Good points. Except that it is conceivable that one has a church of 2 or 3 people. I know this sounds overly theoretical, but I have heard of prisoners in North Korea forming a church consisting of the only two believers. I don’t think they are being unbiblical, and could celebrate communion in a biblical way.

  • Johnny

    Interesting post, as I was just reading an Edwards bio last night and remember thinking, man, what a rotten bunch of folks he had to deal with in his church (maybe I missed the bigger point)

    • They were just being consistent to what they had been taught for decades. He was just being consistent with what he saw in the Bible. A classic collision of tradition and exegesis. Also, their view of (pedo)baptism led to a congregation that included unbelievers.

  • Doug

    Would you take communion to church member in the hospital? This was asked at my ordination and I am still wrestling with it. 🙂

    • Ooh, good question. Personally, I would, if the person were a member of our congregation and were absent for medical reasons, I would serve communion, but preferably with a group of other members of our congregation. I trickier question is if the youth pastor should serve communion at youth camp.

    • h

      Yes, and there is at least historical precedent from the early first century church if not indirect Biblical precedent.

      Justin Martyr writes:

      “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.”

      The bread and wine is a reference to what he calls “the Eucharist” in a previous paragraph.

      Indirectly, we see support for what you suggest in James 5:14. The idea in that verse is someone who is sick and unable to attend the gathering, but that still doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to be ministered to, and it doesn’t absolve the elders of their responsibility to minister to them. It may be a bit of a stretch to include communion here, but I think the pattern and principle fits.

      • h

        Sorry, I meant “early second century church”…

      • Thanks h.

  • If I were going to be on the moon, and away from my congregation on a Sunday, and knew that they were going to have communion, and they had sent me with the elements, I would take communion with them, “in absentia” even if I was on the moon. I could be with them in spirit.

    • Praise the Lord for Skype.

      • lqtm, technology can be helpful. That brings up an entirely new scenario. What if you had a flat screen Pastor preaching as sermon to a camera that connects a world wide congregation via Skype over smart phones? Would that be the same as the oracle of the beast? Just sayin’

        • As one who lives in Africa, and judging from our broadband access speeds…we are a very long way away from that being possible!

          • h

            TIA–This Is Africa

  • tovlogos

    Hi Clint — So you are not suggesting any negative connotation in Buzz’s private celebration of communion — you’re simply not recognizing its validity?
    Yet, his circumstances were extraordinary. Our Messiah routinely showed flexibility which contrasted the rigidity of Pharisees. Certainly our Lord never contradicted Himself; but had a better understanding of the grace to which the Law was required to yield. For example ceremonial unwashed hands.
    So, I’m trying to stay within an exegetical context; but finding it hard to believe that Jesus would refuse to recognize Buzz’s intent. Of course, I am willing to be wrong, no problem.

    Mark

    • I’m not trying to pick a fight with Buzz Aldrin. The guy’s a hero. Just using that unique scenario as an illustrative backdrop to the discussion. Incidentally, Aldrin stated later in life that if had to to it over again, he would not have chosen to do that.

      • tovlogos

        Thanks brother for getting back to me. By the way, I have never even thought of having a communion by myself. Honestly, it’s not Aldrin that I am defending per ce. We know that (Roman 10:4) Christ is the fulfillment of the Law; and the law is “good.”
        However, only Jesus can navigate that ship.
        I was more focused on the fact that God is very concerned with the sincerity of man’s heart. Humans seem more concerned with man’s actions. This does not mean that His children can deliberately break His laws; but that the heart is the all important measure of man’s sincerity. As I am writing, I realize we agree.

        • Let’s agree to agree. 🙂

          • tovlogos

            Amen

  • Charlie

    Indeed, you are very right about the importance of the body of Christ partaking of Christ’s body and blood in communion with each other, but what about the communion of the saints? Since we are all members of Christ’s mystical body can’t we communion even we are separated by space and time? Don’t we commune with the saints who are with the Lord now?

    • I think some people find it easier to think in terms of mystic communion than others. I prefer to stick to the intention of the Lord’s command to do this in remembrance of him.

  • bwilson1983

    in my parish, when people are not able to be with us, we set aside a bit of the blessed sacrament so that they may commune at home. under the extraordinary circumstances of the moon landing, i think i see a theological analogy to this, especially if it was reserve sacrament. i understand the teaching moment aspect to all of this, but i think you’re missing the point a bit.

    • Not sure which point I missed, but I guess that makes your point. 🙂

      • bwilson1983

        the point of why Aldrin did it in the first place, apart from a ‘body of believers.’ if it was sacramental bread & wine that had been laid aside from an earlier communion service, in a sense he was not taking it alone – he was taking it with his brothers and sisters, at a different place. much as if i took it to a homebound brother or sister. only this place happened to be the moon!

        • I like that. Let’s face it, the Moon issue is not one most churches need to cover in their membership class. Maybe just Webster Presbyterian.

  • eagles.metal

    I think sometimes people miss the forest for the trees. You can discuss this ad nauseum, but the Scriptures are not unequivocally clear. And I tend to believe that God was very honored by Aldrin’s actions that day on the moon. Communion, at its heart, is a commemoration of the death of our Lord Jesus for our sins. Taking the elements in a place where you are alone is not wrong or unbiblical, unless you are willingly rejecting the church. Aldrin didn’t do that. He chose to worship and honor the Creator by taking communion in perhaps the most solitary place any human has ever gone. I can scarcely understand how Christians can find fault in this. We would do well to focus our time and attention on far more pressing issues in the church – issues that are unequivocal and absolutely clear in the Scriptures.

    • Thanks for focussing your time on commenting on this issue. Just to reiterate: I’m not dissing an astronaut. I’m discussing the principle of communion in general as an event for a church to partake in together, as opposed to individuals.

  • Great title. Good point about Aldrin. Although, I do not see anywhere in 1 Cor 11 where Paul excludes anyone from the Lord’s Supper. I simply see the pronouncement of divine judgement up on those who partake unworthily.

    As far as excluding non-believers, I think that is done by default by reserving communion for local church activities and explaining the purpose to all in attendance so that they may examine themselves and either eat worthily or unworthily.

    A subtle distinction, I suppose. I just don’t see the time of communion to be a time where you want to be arguing with nonbelievers. I guess the implementation of the exclusion would be up for discussion if you disagree with me. I just can’t imagine a person who does not profess Christ trying to grab a piece of bread during a communion service and a pastor or church member obstructing that and THAT ACT not being disruptive to the proper mood.

  • Clyde Herrin

    One comment brought up the question of bringing communion to a church member who is sick. Paul told the Corinthians that many of them were sick because they took communion in an unworthy manner. There is always the possibility that this is the reason for the member’s sickness and bringing communion to him would only make things worse for him.

    • It should be served with a warning: “Take at own risk, and not in combination with other meds.”

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