Just as God is identified as Trinitarian, so are His people, and so is His world. We have been created in God’s image, and God is Trinitarian. Christians are to understand the world through God’s eyes, and God’s eyes are Trinitarian. There is nothing outside of or apart from God. God is all encompassing, “infinite in being and perfection” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2:1). The point is that God is ultimately one and at the same time God is ultimately three. In God alone there is ultimate unity and ultimate diversity and/or individuality at the same time.
Let me illustrate and apply this idea. How can I be an individual, a unique whole, and at the same time be part of a distinct individual corporate entity (the body of Christ)? I am who I am in and of myself, yet my identity as a Christian is interwoven with all other Christians through the doctrine of Christian unity. While we use these distinctions all the time, it is quite difficult to provide an ultimate and rational explanation for such definitions and distinctions of personal and corporate identity.
While it is difficult to explain the Trinity, it is at the same time the most ordinary concept imaginable. Everyone intuitively understands that a thing can be both individual and corporate at the same time. Everyone intuitively knows what it means and uses such distinctions every day — everyone, not just Christians. And yet, a complete or comprehensive explanation of what the Trinity means or a survey of its implications is impossible. We use a lot of things that we don’t understand — cars, computers, microwaves. We don’t need to understand everything about a thing to use it. Yet, we can live more fully and more effectively when we understand more about how life works, about how reality is ordered. So, how does the Trinity effect our lives and our perceptions of things? Allow me to try to provide an explanation.
Being a Christian means being an individual Christian and at the same time being a member of a group of Christians, a member of a Church — the body of Christ. An individual person may be a Christian, but he cannot be a Christian by himself because being a Christian is always a matter of corporate identity as well as individual identity. Christians are called to love, so there must be an other — someone else to love. There’s no such thing as a “Lone Ranger Christian.” Christianity is always both an individual and a corporate affair.
Becoming a Christian means being born again, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts, minds and lives of believers. Ask a young Christian under three feet tall how he knows he is a Christian and he will likely tell you “because Jesus lives in my heart.” This is deep wisdom, and not mere childishness.
While “me” and Jesus live in the same body (sort of), it is not simply a matter of my individuality because Jesus, who lives in my heart, also unites me with a larger group of people, who also have the same Jesus living in their hearts, so to speak. Jesus also unites me with something beyond my own physical body, something eternal — God. Jesus is the bridge between me and God, and also the bridge between me and His people — the Church or body of Christ.
Paul asks, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (a communion, a fellowship) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (a communion, a fellowship) in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). They are not real questions, they are rhetorical questions. Paul is stating facts about the Trinitarian God. To receive the cup is to participate in or unite with Christ. To receive the bread is to participate in or unite with Christ. Communion is for faithful Christians because it is a participation in and/or a union of sorts with Christ. It is an acknowledgment of corporate membership in Christ. It is not a mere memorial or mere assent, but involves all of the actual spiritual and legal rights and responsibilities pertaining thereunto.
It is not to be received casually or indiscriminately and especially not unfaithfully. As we will see when we get to the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, people are to identify themselves as faithful Christians before coming to the Lord’s Table, lest they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). Participation in the body of Christ requires self identification as a Christian and faithfulness to that identity.
Most translations translate the Greek word as communion rather than participation, but either will do. Communion is not simple union, but it is a kind of union. Where union is a kind of merging or loss of self in something greater, communion is not a loss of self, but an expansion, a clarification or extension of self. In communion both self and other remain clearly defined in the same way that God’s Trinitarian parts — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — are clearly distinct, yet identical.
Christians have a unique individual identity, yet an overlap of common identity with Christ and with the community of Christ here and in eternity at the same time. There are common elements that belong to the self, to other Christians, and to Christ. The Christian identifies with Jesus Christ, but He does not become Christ, nor does he lose himself in Christ. Rather, his identification in Christ makes him — his self, his individuality — more unique, not less. The sharing of Christian values and Christian character gives his personality increased definition, increased clarity. He becomes more himself in Christ. People become more in Christ than they could ever be apart from Christ.
To participate in something is to take an active part in it. Participation and communion provide the foundation upon which social mores are built. Mores are strongly held social norms or customs, which derive from the established practices of a society or group. Taboos are a subset of mores that forbid a society’s most unacceptable behaviors. Taboos are things like incest and murder. The word morality comes from the same root, as does the noun moral. Morality — behavior — is both individual and communal, personal and social. God’s covenant is both personal and social. Being a Christian is both personal and social. God is both personal and social.
The point is that participation in the Lord’s Supper provides the foundation for social mores and personal morals, which issue from the expression of Christian character through the imitation of Jesus. In other words, the Lord’s Supper makes us who we are in Christ. It informs us as it forms us, both individually and corporately. It defines us as Christians and sets us apart from non-Christians. It is not magical, but it is mysterious. It is spiritual, but it is also real.
Paul goes on to say that our Christian identity is like the bread that we share. It is one loaf, but it is torn into many pieces. Yet, the tearing does not diminish the oneness of the loaf, but rather it enhances it because the loaf is not merely one loaf of bread, but it re-presents the one body of Christ. The division of the loaf into parts is an expression of the unity of Christ and actually increases the glory of Christ.
The same thing is true about the cup. It begins as one kind of grape, one flask or bottle of wine. Interestingly, the grapes from which it is made have only a resemblance to the wine itself. And again, the oneness of the bottle or skin in which the wine was carried is not diminished by those who drink from it. It remains one bottle (or skin), yet, it too is enlarged by the drinking because it re-presents the blood of Christ, the one sacrifice made for the people of Christ. It becomes part of the identity and the unity of the people of Christ. And the glory of Christ is increased with every individual who participates in it whether they ultimately come to salvation or damnation.
In the Lord’s Supper there is an intermingling of the elements, an intermingling of the unity and diversity of the elements, and of those who participate in the Supper, in such a way that the sum of the individual parts (or participants) is greater than the unity of the whole. Christ Himself is enhanced and expanded by the participation of His people in the Supper (if we can think of God in terms of size, which of course we can’t. Nonetheless, Christ grows with His people, as they grow more mature in the faith and as they grow in numbers.)