Siblings in Christ, I have spent the past few weeks in prayerful consideration as to what my duties as a pastor require of me during this pandemic. Re-reading the Letter of Call which states the ministry to which you have called me to serve at Faith, I feel I am fulfilling most of my duties. I give thanks that through modern technology I am able to continue to teach and preach the Word of God in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions, to lead worship, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to provide pastoral care, to speak for justice, and generally to equip the congregation for witness and service. However, there is one item in which I have been derelict in my duty: to administer Holy Communion. I have not administered communion for our congregation since March 15th. That said, many in our congregation remember a time when communion was celebrated in Lutheran congregations only once a month or once a quarter. As such, though I have missed offering and receiving the promise of Christ’s body and blood, I have felt it appropriate that we might forego communion for a time. However, it appears that restrictions for public gatherings of any size will continue for at least weeks, if not months.
For that reason, after prayerful reading of the scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and conversation with my colleagues, I offer the following plan and theological explanation by which for our congregation might fulfill Christ’s command to break bread in remembrance of him, and I might fulfill my call to administer Holy Communion.
First, why is it important that we celebrate communion? The simple answer is because Jesus says we should, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The longer answer is because in communion we receive tangible promises of Christ. In communion we receive the promise that Jesus is fully present with us. To be clear, Jesus is always with us, but we are often distracted by worry and unable to see him (Luke 24:15-16). In the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, we are given the promise that Jesus is with us in a way that doesn’t depend on our wandering thoughts or our doubtful minds. It is a promise that is tasted with our tongue, felt with our lips, experienced on a visceral level, so that we might believe it on a visceral level. Luther says it best,
Although he is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there, yet he does not wish that I seek him there apart from the Word, and cast myself into the fire or the water, or hang myself on the rope. He is present everywhere, but he does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of him in the right way….If Christ were not with me in dungeon, torture, and death, where would I be? He is present there through the Word, although not in the same way as here in the sacrament, where through the Word he binds his body and blood so that they are also received corporeally in the bread and wine. -- The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ: Against the Fanatics
Because we receive Jesus in communion, through him we also receive forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation (Small Catechism: The Sacrament of the Altar). Because we receive Jesus in communion, we become a part of his body, and we are united with all the other saints in every time and place who have become a part of his body through communion. As Paul says to the Corinthians, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). In summary, we celebrate communion because Jesus tells us to, and in sharing the bread and the cup in remembrance of him we receive a promise that we can hold in our hand that Jesus is bodily with us and in us, and through him we have the forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation. And in communion the truth is revealed that because we are in union with Jesus, we are also in union with all people who are united to Christ. Now more than ever we need these promises from God.
How then should Holy Communion be administered? Article VII of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord states, Indeed, the administration of the Holy Supper the Words of Institution are to be clearly and plainly spoken or sung publicly in the congregation, and in no case are they to be omitted….But this “blessing” or the recitation of the Words of Institution of Christ by itself does not make a valid sacrament if the entire action of the Supper, as Christ administered it, is not observed (as for example, when the consecrated bread is not distributed, received, and eaten but is instead locked up [in the tabernacle], made into a sacrifice, or carried around in a procession.) On the contrary, Christ’s command, “Do this,” must be observed without division or confusion. For it includes the entire action or administration of this sacrament: that in a Christian assembly bread and wine are taken, consecrated, distributed, received, eaten, and drunk, and that thereby the Lord’s death is proclaimed, as St. Paul presents the entire action of the breaking of the bread or its distribution and reception in 1 Cor. 10:16.
To summarize, Lutheran doctrine teaches that what makes communion more than eating bread and drinking wine, is four parts: 1) It is done in Christian assembly, 2) The Words of Institution, in which Jesus tells us that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood, are spoken, 3) the bread and the wine are given and received, 4) the bread is eaten and the wine is drunk. I believe that we can in good faith fulfill these parameters, and furthermore, doing so will allow our congregation a deeper understanding of the sacrament.
Here is the plan: During livestreamed worship, I will say the Word of Institutions, and I invite you to say them with me over bread and wine/juice in your own home, and then to share the bread and wine/juice with whomever is in your home using the words, “this is the body of Christ given for you,” “this is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” If you have no one in your home with whom to share, open your door or your window, bread the bread and raise your cup with those same words and then commune yourself. Here is a detailed explanation of why I believe this fulfills the Church’s understanding of right administration of the sacraments.
1) It is done in Christian assembly. When we gather live on Facebook, we greet each other in the comments, we pass the peace, and we share our prayers. Honestly, you all talk more to each other during live worship on Facebook than you do in person. I truly believe our live worship services constitute a Christian assembly. That said, I will ask that you not celebrate communion by going back at a later time and watching the service. I say this because Luther wrote vehemently against private communion, a common practice in his day in which priests would celebrate communion multiple times a day by themselves. Holy Communion is the proclamation of how we are united together in Christ; celebrating it by ourselves apart from the community is antithetical to the meaning of the sacrament. Paul writes, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together (1. Cor. 11:33). And Luther writes, “Thus it is not right (even if everything else were otherwise in order) to use the common sacrament of the church for one’s own devotional life and to play with it according to one’s own pleasure apart from God’s Word and outside the church community” (Smalcald Articles, Second Article, Part 5). I am aware that some people are unable to stream the service live. Starting April 26th, you will be able to call on your telephone to listen to the service live. Instructions are included at the end of this article. If you are still unable to get the technology to work in order to listen live, and you receive a recording of the service, I ask that you wait until Sunday morning to celebrate communion, so that you might do it together at the same time with the rest of the congregation.
2) Together we will speak the Words of Institution. As Lutherans, we teach that each believer is a priest through Christ (1 Peter 2:9), and each of us is therefore spiritually capable of administering the sacraments. For the sake of good, and so that incorrect teachings and misuse of the sacraments do not occur, Lutherans teach that only those with a proper call should administer the sacraments (Augsburg Confession, Article XIV: Concerning Church Government). This is not Christ’s teaching, it is an administrative teaching of the church, and in my office as a called administrator of the sacraments I will be overseeing you in distributing communion, much as I do with the lay Eucharistic Ministers who take communion to those who are sick and homebound.
3) Bread and wine/juice will be given and received. Those of you with family at home can give and receive communion from each other. For those of you alone, I trust that God will bring whatever entity to you that God requires. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears to the disciples who need him, even when they don’t recognize that he is Jesus (Luke 24:15-16). When Elijah was starving, God sent ravens to feed him (1 Kings 17:4-6). Jesus agrees that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table (Matt. 15:27). If you live alone, I ask that you be open to whatever entity God might bring to you to share the promise of Christ’s presence. One way to do this might be to open your window or your door, break bread and proclaim, “this is the body of Christ, given for you!” If your neighbor says, ‘Hey, is that communion? Can I have some?” share it. If the birds come and eat the crumbs, rejoice, for the Holy Spirit landing in bodily form as a dove on Jesus (Luke 3:22). Give yourself the bread and wine/juice confident that Christ gives them for you and to you.
4) Be sure to actually eat and drink. Just watching me on a screen is not communion. By definition a sacrament is the Word united with a physical sign (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV: The Mass). “Virtual Communion” is an oxymoron because communion is an expression of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Your body needs to receive the good news just as much as your mind does. Feed your body with Christ. It is entirely possible that the method of administering communion that I describe is not what Christ intended. Here I must rely on God’s grace. I take comfort that the teaching of the church is that it is not our ritual that makes Christ present in communion but Jesus’ own will (Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article VII: Holy Supper). Luther writes, “Our conclusion is: Even though a scoundrel receives or administers the sacrament, it is the true sacrament (that is, Christ’s body and blood), just as truly as when one uses it most worthily. For it is not founded on human holiness but on the Word of God. As no saint on earth, yes, no angel in heaven can make bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, so likewise can no one change or alter the sacrament, even through misuse” (Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar).
This I truly believe: that as we seek to faithfully follow Christ’s command, Jesus is and will be present with us in the way that we need, for this has always been the promise of Holy Communion, and God keeps God’s promises. Amen.
Your brother in Christ,
Pastor Ben Colahan