What difference does it make that some churches use wine and others grape juice? What does it matter what beverage is used for communion? Is any beverage ever unsuitable? Why?
Once I was surprised to find myself drinking Ribena from a communion thimble. I felt resentful and wrong-footed. Why? Because the associations of Ribena, for me, are those of childhood. When I was a small boy my mother would sometimes make me a small picnic – a plate with a peeled boiled egg, a peeled piece of carrot, some dates, a triangular shaped marmite sandwich and… a tumbler of Ribena. These are good, even delightful, associations, but to be focusing on the severity of my saviour’s sacrifice and my own sinfulness one moment and find myself with a happy child-hood relic on my tongue the next was disconcerting to say the least. Ribena lacked all the… seriousness of the situation!
Were I only a more spiritually advanced person, (such as I can pretend to be from the safety of my keyboard) I should have instantly realized that I was being stuffy and religious, that God was surprising me out of my theological mindset and that here was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy being childlike in the presence of God-in-Christ. I failed to do that. Instead I fumed at the barbarous mindset that had assumed that any red-coloured liquid would do for communion. This was almost on a par with the penny-pinchers who watered down the grape juice! I was, frankly, appalled.
I’ve always belonged to churches that use juice rather than wine for communion. It’s made sense to me, in the light of Romans 14, that we use the non-alcoholic version, because it really does make things so much easier for those who wrestle with alcohol addiction – and there are plenty of those! So, a reasonable sacrifice, departing from the biblical pattern (yes, it is practically certain that Jesus used fermented wine at the last supper) in one detail in order to conform to an overarching theme of all scripture, and especially of the New Testament – care for our neighbour. But at the same time, I’ve always thought of it as a real sacrifice on my part, and enjoyed the use of “the real stuff” when visiting a more liturgically oriented church. What is it that makes wine more ‘real’ than grape juice?
In part it comes (like my Ribena associations) from childhood. My parents would, very occasionally, have a glass of wine in the evening. Wine was ‘serious stuff’, not for children (except perhaps, a very small sip if we were lucky) nor for daily use. It was expensive and kept locked away. Dangerous even. All very suitable for the substance at the heart of Christian worship. But how valid are these impressions of wine? Is this what Jesus intended when he used it in that very particular way, with those vexing and wonderful, world-turning words? “This, my blood”, “poured out for the forgiveness of sins”, “A new covenant”. Yes, serious stuff.
For the disciples the meaningfulness of the wine (and the bread) were not those of my Anglo –NZ childhood with its very limited wine-bibing. Jews would probably have had wine as a normal part of any meal from childhood on, much as in many Mediterranean nations today. It was more likely than water to be clean and, mixed with water, was not a major danger to sobriety. But this was (in the case of the synoptic gospels) Passover wine. It had a special significance. And in the case of John’s gospel, Jesus had already declared that those who drank… Well, I could go on.
The basic point remains that whether the associations are wrought by childhood memories in NZ or religious experience in Israel, the subject of those associations is one that is appropriate for communion. Wine is not just ‘any old red-coloured liquid’ but an appropriate drink for the occasion; for remembering the significance and the seriousness of Jesus sacrifice – and also for remembering those words of promise, those images of joyful celebration when the kingdom comes in its fullness. Grape juice – wine that hasn’t been matured – is an acceptable substitute where it is decided that such a substitute is needed. Ribena just doesn’t do it for me. But what about other drinks? What about the coke we shared at the first Mainstage festival in Otaki? Was that communion or not? If coke, what about coffee? Is there anything (apart from Ribena – and hey! That’s a purely personal call) that can’t be used for communion? What are the guidelines here, if once we step away from strict adherence to biblical detail?
Well, ok. What about that Coke then. Yep, I think that was ok – because it was the drink at hand at the time. It was a ‘normal’ drink. And at that point in NZ history, most of us just weren’t aware of the global battles between Coke and Pepsi that made branding such an issue, or the whole phenomenon of self-branding that emerged in the late 90’s; so coke was an innocent enough choice – the drink of the people there (young-uns) at Mainstage rather than the mainstream choice of the churches we belonged to. So maybe, in that sense a missionary choice, as using milk in Nei Mongol might be the best choice, or perhaps tea in Japan. That works for me. Once anyway. I’d probably object heartily if someone decided we’d have coke all the time in church. Especially now – and it’s not just that I’ve gotten older. It’s also that coke’s become a less innocent drink.
The other factor here is that it’s meant to be a visual symbol too. Coke just doesn’t look like blood. And I don’t think coffee could ever cut it. Its associations are all of relaxation and luxury – not much there to put me in mind of crucifixion.
But – push me into a corner here – if it became really important that we shared communion for some reason, if someone was about to die, and desperately wanted to have communion first, and all we had was what you’d find in a normal teetotal household, what would I do?
Probably use water. It’s blandness makes it possible for all sorts of imagery to be projected onto it and (in NZ anyway) its purity has something to say about Christ – who also spoke of himself as being a fount of ‘living water’.
So there you go. Beer or coke and such-like might be ok for the odd service where the focus is on connecting with another culture and probably pointing to the celebration of the Kingdom coming, but I could never feel that it was the “real thing”. Our roots are not just in our own experience or in our cultural milieux. We are also rooted in the bible and therefore in 1st century Palestine with its red wine. Jesus really couldn’t have had a more apt substance at hand when he reached for the cup and said “This, my blood…”