Threefold Communion is a Brethren tradition that reaches back over three centuries, involving a time of reflection and worship, a footwashing service for men and women (separately), a simple meal, and then communion at the tables. It was their way of re-enacting the last supper of Jesus and obeying his commands to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), and “now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
I had my first experience with Threefold Communion when I was a part of Grace Community Church, a new Brethren church plant in Winchester, Virginia. I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled about going. Of course I was looking forward to the meal, but the footwashing part "freaked me right out.” If you know me, I’m not even particularly comfortable with hugs. So having another guy touch my foot seemed way over the line. I intended to sit that part out.
However, when the time came, one of the leaders in the church approached me with a towel around his waist and invited me to come to the footwashing station. I felt a little nudge from the Holy Spirit that this was a good chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, so I went with him. Despite the extreme awkwardness I felt, I found that the experience was deeply meaningful and humbling. He prayed for me, we hugged, and it was (thankfully!) over before I knew it.
As an Associate Pastor, I was soon in charge of future events, and got to witness up-close just how meaningful the experience could be. People always went away profoundly moved—relationships were healed, and Jesus was experienced in an up-close and personal way. So, when I came to Huntsville, I intended to continue this Brethren tradition at Muskoka Community Church. However, I have often struggled with convincing people to participate.
Part of this is because I wasn’t completely clear on why we were doing it or what it accomplished. Early Brethren did it because they believed that was the only Biblical way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Communion). I don’t share that conviction, so I’m not prepared to argue this is the “right” thing to do. I just think it’s a “good” thing to do. Why?
Often I have referred to this as an interesting part of our Brethren heritage. But the truth is, there isn’t one person in our church who was born or raised Brethren (including me), and so heritage is not much of a motivating factor—at least not motivating enough to get me to touch peoples’ feet!
But last semester I took a class in ritual studies and began to learn more about what happens when human beings engage in rituals (like this one). I wrote a long, boring, academic paper on Threefold Communion and how/why it is an effective practice for us to continue engaging in today (you’re welcome to take a look at it if you’re into that sort of stuff—just shoot me an email). This is the essence of what I learned:
Human behaviour is filled with rituals. From our Christmas celebrations to going to the mall, you can learn a lot about our real values by examining these rituals closely. When we engage in ritual action, we are learning (and expressing) things at a deep, subconscious level—inscribing it on our bodies, as well as our brains.
Now, think of the kinds of things we might be teaching ourselves when we engage in Threefold Communion. First, the time of reflection is a recognition that none of us is here because we deserve it. By making space to consider our need for forgiveness, we uphold confession as a practice that we need to continually engage in. By spending time in worship, we set this time apart from “regular” life and remind ourselves of the sacredness of this gathering.
Second, the footwashing, though uncomfortable, embodies many Christian values. In fact, it is because it is uncomfortable that it is powerful—something like fasting, or other “ascetic” practices, that allow us to express our love for God by doing things we wouldn’t normally or naturally do. To force yourself to participate, simply for the sake of Jesus, is a way of training your will to follow Christ even when it’s uncomfortable. To kneel down on the floor in front of someone, for the sake of Christ, is a deep reminder that our posture towards others should always be servanthood. To allow my feet to be washed is a physical, tangible reminder of my connectedness to others in the church, and that I must allow them to meet my needs (something that is much harder for many of us that meeting their needs!).
Third, meals are always sacred signs of fellowship and connection. We sit at the same level, looking at each other as we eat this special meal, a visual reminder that the church is a community of equals. In the body of Christ, every part is important and needed. It is also a reminder that according to the Bible, there will be a great feast at the end of time, where we all eat and drink with Jesus when he comes into his kingdom!
Finally, taking communion is always a moving ritual. To ingest the bread and juice as a reminder of our deep dependence on Christ is more powerful than simply singing a song or saying a few words of thanks for his sacrifice. We admit with our bodies that we are in need of his grace and nourishment. However, often when we take communion there is a sense that it is “just me and Jesus.” We avoid looking around, and take the bread and cup in our own little world. But to take it around tables is a serious visual reminder that a relationship with Jesus involves his family—there is no such thing as “individual” Christianity. “Communion” is not just with God, our Father, but with our brothers and sisters as well, who share the deep bond of being brought together into a church by the Holy Spirit.
Many people have read the story of the Last Supper. Many have seen paintings or movies that portray it in exquisite detail. But to participate in Threefold Communion is to experience this important event in a way that sinks deeply into our souls. It teaches us—in a way that a sermon never could—values like humility, repentance, equality, unity, mutuality, acceptance, servanthood, dependence, celebration, and hope. It is a spiritual discipline that we practice as a group.
I know it’s weird. I have a confession: I am always awkward and uncomfortable, even after 15 years of participating. Every. Single. Time. But I think there are things that I learn when I push through that discomfort to engage in this ritual that I could not learn any other way. I always come away changed. Now, no one will force you or pressure you to do something you don’t want to do (though they might invite you!). But if you’re a part of MCC, from one chicken to another, I challenge you to attend—and to participate fully and wholeheartedly (even if uncomfortably) and see what God does in your heart.