Lately I’ve been chatting with colleagues in my denomination about our theology of the Eucharist. Or maybe I should say our ecclesiology of the Eucharist, because more than we have a theology of what the Lord’s supper means, we seem to have a structure around who can preside at it.
\In this post, I’m going to try and describe why I have a “radically adjacent” ecclesiology of the Lord’s Supper compared to my denomination and many colleagues. On the one hand, this is going to go deep into the weeds of church practice, so move along if that doesn’t interest you. On the other hand, I’m not going to go out and try to quote everything about this from other sources.
You can find a ton written about the sacraments. I mean, there are shelves and shelves of books just on the Supper and Baptism. But for the purposes of this blog post, you probably just need to know that our denomination has a statement on the sacraments called the Use of the Means of Grace, and we have some things written about the sacraments in our book of confessions. The most central of these are articles X and XIII of the Augsburg Confession, but the one pastors most frequently debate (and the one actually most congregations really practice) is Article XIV (Of Ecclesiastical Order).
Plus, Jesus said some stuff about the meal, so there’s that.
So, here’s my basic set of theses on the Lord’s Supper:
I. Jesus instituted this meal when he said, after distributing wine and bread as his body and blood, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
II. He really meant it, both in the sense that this really is in some way his body and blood present in bread and wine, but also that we should do it in remembrance, and often (because he also said, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this wine…”
III. That’s about it. So, when any community gathers that is centered in Christ, they are commissioned to share this meal.
IV. By necessity, they’ll have to come up with some way to share the meal. One very common way for that to happen is for the community to say to one of its members, “Hey, could you bless this meal for us?” So then that person does it.
V. This meal is and signifies many things, but at root its doing in a meal what it is in actuality–the embodying of Christ in the world, faithing the people who have faith in it.
VI. Was Christum treibt–it’s a motto of Luther’s worth contemplating. We need more of doing Jesus as we together see fit, and the enforcement of bourgeoise forms of church on the denomination as a whole simply isn’t working well.
A lot of complications have crept in around this meal that go way beyond what I’ve outlined above. As just a few examples, most churches now believe you have to be or should be “ordained” in order to “consecrate” the meal. And diverse denominations and communities aren’t always sure they can “recognize” each other’s ministries, which in the end means they aren’t sure that the other communities are really sharing the Lord’s Supper or not.
Almost all of these arguments (and they are legion) revolve around WHO can preside. Even most churches (at least churches in my denomination) would be reluctant to share communion without an ordained pastor presiding.
I am the called pastor in my church, so most weeks I preside. If I’m gone on vacation, we bring in ordained clergy either from within our own denomination, or from full communion partners. In my case, this typically means retired ELCA clergy or local Episcopalian clergy.
I don’t “gate” the meal and the presidency of the meal, but I’m kind of under the impression this is the piety of my parish. On average, they probably want an ordained pastor to preside.
Additionally, and here’s where things get really tricky, I’m ordained in “apostolic succession.” This means there were certain conditions on the presence of bishops and such at my ordination that made my ordination more authentic and easily recognizable by other denominations. In my case, I’m ordained into at least three forms of apostolic succession (Anglican, Latvian Lutheran, and Swedish Lutheran).
Most of my congregation probably doesn’t care about this part at all. But our ecumenical partners do, and our denomination does.
Why does all this matter to me, and why do I suggest, often with considerable zeal, that we should throw the floodgates open and let anyone preside at the meal?
For me, it’s about mission, and a better sense of the community trusting that Christ is present among them.
Here’s what I think, if I’m being REALLY critical. I think our current ecclesiology implies that Jesus is only present when the bishop shows up.
I know I know, people are going to say that isn’t what we believe. And they’re right. But our practice implies it, because you can only consecrate the Lord’s Supper in our tradition if you’ve been ordained, and you can only be ordained by one of the bishops and become “rostered,” so in practice, if you’re really strict about it, we only let Jesus show up under the hands of bishops.
But what I think we actually believe as a church is something more along the lines of real presence in every community. That is, Jesus shows up wherever two or three are gathered. Which led me to post this a while back:
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name.” “As often as you eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me.”
“Wherever there are enough households able to build a church building and afford a pastor with benefits, there am I in the midst of them.” “Whenever you can find an ordained pastor, do this in remembrance of me.”
That’s not Scripture.
Obviously, this is an over-simplification. But I think it’s a simplification with merit, because honestly, we’ve started to operate as if the second quote, which isn’t Scripture, actually is. The proof would be: Does the average ELCA member receive communion regularly outside of a church building, or in a community with a pastor who isn’t on the church payroll?
I bet not. And they don’t because nobody is imagining alternatives. Not only that, but some pastors are so territorial, they’d be bothered if Eucharists just started happening in their churches without them. And some parishes have such strong pieties around the Eucharist that they’d be uncomfortable with small groups or families gathering to share the Lord’s Supper apart from the Sunday morning assembly with the ordained, consecrated pastor in apostolic succession presiding.
It’s about this time in the conversation that clergy-types will bring up some funny things. They’ll mention “good order” (because that’s in our confession) or they’ll mention ecumenical agreements (we have a few). And they’re right, there’s language in the confessions about the sacraments being presided over in “good order” and we need to make sure we’re being good neighbors with the Episcopalians.
But what does that mean? For example, whose good order? Does good order mean a structure for ordination and training pastors? Or might good order mean “organized in such a way that people are sharing Jesus all over the place”?
What if the average parishioner in an ELCA congregation was equipped by their pastor to preside at communion? You know, the Bible did say pastors “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” So is that just supposed to be making coffee for the narthex after worship, or might it be serving communion themselves in their small groups, at nursing homes, at prisons?
What if the meal Jesus instituted was established not to be guarded by a priestly class, but carried out by all disciples of Christ to be a priestly presence in the world?
There are a ton of ways to slice this onion, and one way is to imagine that all pastors (by which I mean, the kind like myself who serve congregations large enough to hire them as full-time employees) are actually bishops, and our responsibility is to ordain the people of God to preside at the meal Jesus instituted.
Perhaps I haven’t done a good job training my people to be presiders at the Eucharist. In actual practice I’m pretty old school. My people get communion when they come on Sunday morning, and I speak the words and lift the bread and hand it out. But what if the mission of God is more living and active when the pastor stands in the midst of the assembly in persona Christi, and says, “Now go out and share this meal with others. You be the pastors.”
This is not an either/or. We organize at all kinds of institutional levels, and I’m quite sure we’ll always have synods and denominations, and bourgeois congregations with full-time staff clergy. If we can do a both/and approach, we can imagine lots of ways presiding at communion can be isomorphic rather than hierarchical.
But we can do a lot better job of recognizing the presence of Christ in households, small groups, and mission sized communities, and recognizing that they have everything in their midst to share the Eucharist–a group of people, a bit of bread and wine, and somebody, or a few, they can ask, “Would you offer the blessing?”
Addition: Perhaps one could say the difference between my proposal and the traditional proposals is that I locate the meal primarily in an event, whereas the traditional approaches locate the meal under the presidency of a person. So, is it the meal Christ instituted when the right person under the right hierarchy presides, or is it the meal Christ instituted in its happening among those who have heard the command? This doesn’t have to be a complete either/or, but it does center things for us a bit.
In other words, I’m for things like mutual discernment, community, and apostolic succession: I just want to move the goal posts on what that looks like.