I don't know about you, but the moments right before Communion are some of the most anxiety-ridden for me every time I visit an unfamiliar church.
Single cup, common cup, sipping, dipping, little "shot glasses" of wine or juice passed through the pews. How did one of the two practices (along with Baptism) that are supposed to bind all Christians together become so diverse? And what, if anything does all of this diversity of practice mean?
It is unclear from the texts of the Gospel whether or not Jesus, at the last supper, was referring to a single cup when he said, "this is my blood." There is a certain possibility that the cup he meant when he "took the cup" was the one right in front of him and that he meant for his disciples to do likewise. Consider what you mean when you offer someone "a cup" of coffee or you invite the whole table to "raise a glass" in toast.
Likewise, Paul, in his commentaries on the Lord's supper, is unclear in whether one cup or many is used. His suggestion that some are getting drunk while others are not could be read to suggest that everyone had their own supply of wine, or that some held on to the common cup longer than others.
No matter what Jesus or Paul meant, it is clear that by the end of the Middle Ages, the "common cup" referred to a single cup used during the celebration of communion. In many cases, however, it was not intended to be shared – some held that only ministers were allowed to drink the blood of Christ. Ordinary Christians could only partake of bread.
Since the reformation, communion practices have diversified as fast or faster than the traditions that developed them. Most every tradition allows both ministers and laity to drink the wine (or grape juice – a different post) at communion, but whether that liquid is delivered in a shared, communal cup or in individual servings depends largely on history, polity and culture.
Like so many of the "it depends" answers in this blog, the best approach to this question is to redirect. What is the tradition in your congregation? What do you think it means? Would it change the communion experience for you if you went from using a single cup to multiple ones or vise versa? Have you ever experienced communion the other way?
Everything we do in worship has meaning. Most things have more than one meaning. And sometimes, our desire to put more than one meaning onto a thing clouds or even contradicts other potential or intended meanings. Confusing, right?
Consider the question at hand: communion. Everyone drinking from a single common cup seems to capture something of the 'communal' nature of communion. Jesus says, "take this and share it." If we believe that that means something like "divide it amongst yourselves so that everyone gets a share," then the communal cup holds significant meaning. But what if Jesus had something more like "pass it on to someone else," like we mean when we say "share the Good News" or "share the peace?" Then maybe the little cups in the silver tray better capture the meaning.
Now multiply that by all of the different layers of meaning that we want communion to hold: theological, scriptural, moral, hygenical, architectural, liturgical, medical. Could it be that a single practice cannot hold all of this meaning? Perhaps. It is clear from where we have arrived that a single practice certainly cannot hold every meaning for every group.
And so, some sip, and some dip, and some pass it around. Yet somehow, as St. Paul says, "we all share one bread, one cup."
Go with God.