Some churches have opened for public worship, though under social distancing guidelines, but others remain closed. In Illinois, churches and other gatherings of more than 50 people cannot open until the very last phase of the re-opening plan, which requires there to be a COVID-19 vaccine! That means churches may have to remain closed for a year or more, if they are ever allowed to open at all! Some congregations have opened, then closed again, after worshippers contracted the virus.
So virtual services continue. It’s possible to hear a sermon online. To pray and praise online. But what about receiving the sacraments? How can someone be baptized online? Or receive Holy Communion online?
One solution some ministers and their congregations are trying is for the worshippers at home to bring a little piece of bread and some wine (or, I suspect in most of the churches that are doing this, grape juice) and set them before the screen. The pastor says the Words of Institution. And the worshippers take the elements in their own homes.
What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, if you think the Lord’s Supper is simply a memorial meal, or an act of fellowship with other Christians, or a just a symbol, such a procedure would probably pose little problem. But if you believe that Holy Communion is much more than that, as we Lutherans–along with Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and some others– do, problems arise.
The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has issued a statement on the issue, as well as the other alternative of the pastor consecrating a bunch of elements, then distributing them to the worshippers ahead of time, for them to take in an online service. Here are some excerpts from that study:
A video streaming “consecration” with words spoken by the pastor remotely and communion elements in member homes is almost identical to an approach that the CTCR addressed in 2006 in which the Commission said:
- The Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus with words and actions spoken and carried out by him in the direct presence of his disciples (Matt. 26:26-28). Throughout history, the church has sought to be faithful to Christ’s practice in this regard. Pastors speak the words of institution in the presence of the assembled congregation, thereby giving assurance that we are “doing this” as our Lord has instructed us to do (Luke 22:19). Whenever the actual words and actions of the celebrant in consecrating the elements are intentionally separated (by time, distance, or technological means) from the distribution and reception, no assurance can be given that our Lord’s instructions are being heeded and that the body and blood of Christ are actually being given and received for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith (cf. fn. 15 of the CTCR’s 1983 report Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper [TPLS]).
Moreover, this approach turns the words spoken by the pastor from a proclamation into an incantation of sorts. This, too, was addressed by the CTCR:
2. This practice lends itself to the unscriptural notion that the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper are present by virtue of the “incantation” of the pastor in some way, shape or form, rather than by the gracious power of Christ and his Word. “Concerning the consecration,” says the Formula of Concord, “we believe, teach, and confess that no man’s work nor the recitation of the minister effect this presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, but it is to be ascribed solely and alone to the almighty powerof our Lord Jesus Christ” (FC Ep VII, 8; quoted in TPLS, 15). While it is true that “the regularly called and ordained pastors of the church are to officiate at the administration of Holy Communion” (TPLS, 17-18), it is only “through Christ’s word and its power”—not through the mere “sound” or “recording” of the voice of the pastor—“that Christ’s body and blood are present in the bread and wine” (TPLS, 14).
Novelties such as these in the practice of the Lord’s Supper will inevitably lead away from the Sacrament itself as instituted by Christ to humanly-instituted techniques by which the Sacrament is purportedly being given. Note the third point raised by the CTCR in 2006:
3. As emphasized above, the focus in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper must always be on the gracious word of Christ—the word that gives assurance to hearts weighed down by guilt, doubt and fear that the great gifts promised here are truly given and received. The Commission says: “To…insert some personal idiosyncrasy into the consecration is to detract the people’s attention from the Sacrament. The congregation’s focus is to be on Christ’s word and invitation. The celebrant is a servant to sharpen that focus” (TPLS, 15).
The Lord’s Supper is intended to strengthen faith in God’s forgiving grace, a faith which counts on the Word of Christ’s promise that the bread and wine are His body and blood. To introduce doubts or uncertainty about the Sacrament negates this purpose. We can be thankful that God in His mercy has not given the Lord’s Supper as the only “means of grace.” Instead, he showers us with His grace. The Gospel is not silenced, forgiveness is proclaimed, Baptism will be administered even in emergencies, and Baptism is lived out daily by means of repentance and the new life that God’s Spirit enables us to live in any and all circumstances.
I’d also like to show you a discussion I came across by Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian and professor at the high-church Anglican Nashotah House in Wisconsin. He brings to bear St. Augustine, as well as Catholic theologian Henri De Lubac:
From Hans Boersma in First Things, A Wafer-Thin Presence:
[De Lubac] asked his readers to think about what it means to eat the body (the Eucharist) as a body (the church), pointing out the close link between embodiment and community. Turning to 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 (“The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”), de Lubac pointed out that for Saint Paul, participation (koinōnia, communion) of the body of Christ (the Eucharist) turns us into the body of Christ (the church).
All this talk of the “body of Christ” is no mere metaphor. Saint Augustine, in his famous Sermon 227, writes about the Eucharist: “If you have received worthily, you are what you have received, for the Apostle says: ‘The bread is one; we though many, are one body.’” The African bishop seems to suggest that believers, by partaking of communion, are transubstantiated (well, changed) into the body of Christ. When we eat Christ, we become Christ.
The Christian tradition has typically treated body and body (Eucharist and church) as mutually dependent. On the one hand, the Eucharist makes the church. This seems to be the Pauline logic of 1 Corinthians 10 and of Augustine in Sermon 227. On the other hand, the church makes the Eucharist: We offer up our gifts—our entire lives—in Christ on the altar. Body and body depend on each other. Neither can go it alone. The reason is simple: The two are one flesh (Eph. 5:31).
Well, we Lutherans would say that we are not offering up our gifts on the altar; rather, Christ is giving us His gifts–specifically, the gift of Himself in His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
The point, though, is that Holy Communion has to do with “bodies.” The body of Christ that He gives us in the Sacrament and the body of Christ that is the Church. So it requires “bodies” to participate in it. Holy Communion is also about Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament and in the Church. This entails the real presence not only of Christ but of Christians. A “bodily presence,” not just a “virtual presence.”