A Pastoral Letter on Living Without The Holy Communion in a Time of Pandemic
Monday in Holy Week 2020
To the members and friends of St Stephen Lutheran Church:
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Maybe you are missing Holy Communion. I know I do. I have not gone so long without receiving the Sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood for many years. It is also painful for me, as your pastor, not to be able to preside at the altar. It is my joy to administer the blessed Sacrament in your midst.
Some might ask, couldn’t we ‘commune virtually?’ For example, couldn’t I, as the pastor, eat bread and drink wine in my home during one of our livestreams, and everyone else could eat bread and drink wine (or crackers and grape juice, cookies and coffee, or whatever is on hand) at the same time in their own homes? This seems like it might be a creative response to this unique situation in which we cannot gather physically because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many pastors and congregations are trying variants on the above, with more or less faithfulness in using only bread and wine. Perhaps your friends or family members are already participating in such services.
But, while I am very grateful that the Internet allows us to share the Word and prayer while we are physically separated, there is good reason to think that the Holy Communion is only celebrated when Christians are gathered together in one place, with an ordained minister present and presiding at the liturgy, using one bread and one cup by the Lord’s command.
The Apostle Paul writes: ‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The worship of the early Church followed the pattern that the Lord set. On Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, the disciples of Jesus in a particular town gathered in one place (usually the home of a disciple) to hear Scripture and preaching and to eat the Lord’s Supper together; participating in the eating of one bread and drinking from one cup, to make tangible the spiritual unity they shared both with Christ and with each other.
As the Church grew and offices such as bishop and presbyter (elder, later called a priest) became commonplace, it was important that the members of the Church be admonished to only receive the ‘Bishop’s Eucharist.’ The Church based on the teaching of the twelve apostles was in competition at the time with various Gnostic sects and mystery cults, some of which observed sacred meals. It was important to be clear that not any sacred meal was the Lord’s Supper, but only that meal celebrated in community with the bishop of a local church.
As Christianity became a more popular religion and finally the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, more and more non-Christians would attend Christian worship, but they were asked to depart before the celebration of Communion. Only baptized Christians were even allowed to be in the church building for the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death for his people.
So we see that these things are necessary for any celebration of the meal the Lord gave us:
· The gathering of baptized Christians; and
· The leadership of the bishop or a presbyter (priest, or pastor) under his authority; and
· The reading of Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel; and
· The sharing of one bread and one cup among the baptized (the disciples), using the words Jesus gave us.
It is this entire act of worship, and not just the eating of bread and drinking of wine, that we call ‘The Holy Communion.’ It’s not only the Words of Institution over bread and wine (Take and eat, take and drink, etc.) that ‘make’ Holy Communion. But when Christians gather, a minister presides, the Word is preached and the congregation receives Christ’s body and blood according to his command and with his promise to be present – that is Holy Communion. In the Lutheran Book of Worship, it’s the whole service, not just the part where we eat and drink, that is called ‘Holy Communion.’
In gathering we are publicly identifying ourselves with Christ and we are receiving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, taking up each other’s space and giving up space to the other, a receiving of the other’s whole person as a fellow member of the body of Christ, that is made concrete in the sharing of the Peace. Can tuning into the same livestream really be ‘togetherness’ in this full sense? Don’t we understand this intuitively? We are grateful for a text from, a phone call or a video chat with a loved one, but we most dearly wish to be in their physical presence. I certainly love doing the virtual worship, but I really want to be together with you in church.
The ordained minister is both the representative of the whole Church in the midst of the local congregation and is the person responsible for presiding at the altar. Not only is the minister to ‘say the right words,’ but must ensure that the Lord’s Supper is being administered correctly and received in a worthy manner; that the Lord’s body and blood is treated with reverence and respect, and insofar as possible to ensure that it is the baptized alone who receive Holy Communion. None of these responsibilities of the ordained minister can be accomplished except in physical community.
When we eat and drink together, Christ’s body and blood is distributed from one altar, and the people receiving it are not only united with Christ in their eating and drinking, they are united with each other in what is called ‘the Sacrament of Unity.’ St. Paul’s metaphor of the Church being the body of Christ applies here: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing 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’ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). It is impossible to express this unity from several places gathered around our separate meals.
If we cannot receive Jesus’ body and blood, are we then without the consolation of our Lord, who gave himself for us? By no means! God gave us both Word and Sacrament as means of grace by which we receive Christ. In this time, we focus on the Word, especially the comforting passages by which Christ assures us of his presence with us: ‘I am with you always’ (Matthew 28); ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (John 15); ‘What can separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Romans 8); ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2). These words and others like them are sure consolation in a time of physical distancing from others and from the Holy Communion.
This Word is heard in reading and hearing Scripture, in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, in preaching and teaching, in prayer, in confession of the Creed, in confession and forgiveness, and in Christian conversation (from six feet apart, of course, but also over the phone, on a livestream, in an email or a letter or in a group chat or videoconference.) We also have those words which we have memorized from our parents since childhood, and the promise of our baptism in which we were made children of God and inheritors of new life.
We can use this time without the Holy Communion to reflect upon how much we need it and treasure it. We can repent of the times we took our Lord’s gift for granted. We can be grateful for the religious freedom of our nation in which, in normal times, we may gather publicly to worship our Lord. This can be a time when we become conscious of Christians, who for whatever reason, must live without gathering, without hearing the Word, without sharing in the Lord’s Supper, but still retain their faith in Christ. We share, for the moment, their isolation, and we claim the same faith as they.
We are never without our Lord Jesus – and never more do we rely on that promise than in this Holy Week, when we must live without his most precious means of grace in Holy Communion. He understands, indeed he shares, our eager longing for the day we can once more respond to his salutary command: ‘Take; eat, drink; do this for the remembrance of me.’
In Christ’s love,
 In the Lutheran Confessions, to which our congregation subscribes and to which all Lutheran churches adhere in some form, we read: ‘…the recitation of the words of Christ’s institution alone does not make a Sacrament if the entire action of the Supper, as it was instituted by Christ, is not kept…Christ’s command ‘This do’ must be observed unseparated and inviolate. (This embraces the entire action or administration in this Sacrament. In an assembly of Christians bread and wine are taken, consecrated, distributed, received, eaten, drunk, and the Lord’s death is shown forth at the same time…)’ (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII.83-84).