Body and Blood

This is who Jesus is. This is who God is. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, that which sustains, provides life for those who have none. And when the question came up, “Just how far are you willing to go for these people, this world, this… nothing good before you?”, Jesus’s answer was clear.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Those of you who were in church last week probably remember that, sitting in the first three rows on one side, were about 16 members of my family. The first ones arrived on that Wednesday, and they stayed until last Tuesday.

Now, I like to keep the parsonage clean most of the time, so there wasn’t more than a day or two of cleaning to be done in preparation for hosting people—my parents and the dogs stayed with us. But there was a lot of work to be done to prepare for the cook-out we had last Sunday for my family and the congregation. We bought paper products, cups, plastic silverware, 48 hamburgers, 48 hot dogs, bratwursts and buns, 2-liters of pop.

We strapped one of my uncle’s grills to his truck so we would have a second one. We frantically tried to finish cutting the grass with a half-working lawn mower (that has since been restored to full working order). We finally noticed that, sometime between Wednesday and Friday, a tree came down in our back yard. We set up tables and coolers and a truckload of chairs.

And then, we threw an amazing party. My dad and uncles cooked up all the food, and we almost went through all the hamburgers. We lit a campfire, we had dessert, and it wasn’t until about 6:00 p.m. that everyone left, because they were having such a good time. When it was finally over, Debbie, my parents, and I collapsed in the living room—we were exhausted! Being hospitable is hard work.

We are now in the fourth week of study in the sixth chapter of John. Remember, this whole chapter comes right after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus feeds the people with bread and fishes. Then he leaves, and in their wonder, they follow him, to see if he could do it again. And Jesus instead lays it all out for them.

He talks to them about what he is doing, that it is the same thing that happened to the Israelites in the desert, when God sent “bread from heaven”, manna, so that every day, the people could gather it from the ground and receive sustenance for that day. They were starving, and God provided, literally, for their lives. Jesus claims to be the same thing, “bread from heaven”, sent by God to a people starving for life.

We’ve heard this text before, and we’ve heard Jesus talk about being “bread from heaven” for a few weeks now. We heard how God uses the ordinary and unimportant to do great things. We’ve heard how Jesus is in the business of doing the impossible. And now, Jesus gets to put his money where his mouth is.

Throughout the long speech in John 6, Jesus makes frequent comparisons between himself and Moses, himself and God the Father, and himself and bread. Moses called on God when the Israelites were starving, and God produced literal bread from heaven. Jesus calls on God when the Judeans are starving, sometimes for bread, but also for something more, a deeper hunger. And God provides, sending Jesus Christ, God’s own son, to fill the hunger that food cannot sate: hunger for a life that means something.

And this is where it starts to get weird. These are, perhaps, some of the most uncomfortable verses in the Bible that we’re familiar with, aside from the brutal massacres and genocides of Joshua or frequent rapes.

Having just explained how he is the bread from heaven, how he has come to fill the hunger of the people who crave more than just a taste of the life God provides, Jesus draws the next logical conclusion. Now, for food to have any sort of effect whatsoever, what do you have to do with it? You have to eat it. And so Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

This would normally be a great jumping off point for the Lutheran belief about the Eucharist, about how we take Jesus at his word, at his plain-faced word, that the bread and wine are in fact his body and blood, but let’s sit on that for a moment.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink from his blood, you have no life in you.”

Does that sound a little barbaric to anyone? It should. We as a society and culture abhor cannibalism, and that’s what Jesus seems to be advocating here. In fact, that’s one of the charges laid against the early church in the Roman Empire, that they were cannibals—they heard Christians talking about consuming the body and blood of their Lord, and their minds went to the logical place—oh my gosh, they’re eating parts of his body. The Judeans are right to scoff and question Jesus when he says such nonsense.

But I don’t want to focus on eucharistic theology today, at least, not right now. Instead, I want to ask a question: what could possibly motivate someone as powerful as God to give up and sacrifice their own body for others?

Earlier, I talked about how much work it was to set up a party on a single day for a bunch of people, especially when I didn’t know how many were coming. It felt like Wisdom, from Proverbs. Wisdom, the divine feminine, builds her own house, carves out the support pillars, cooks a feast, sets the table, makes a ton of preparations; then, she goes out and calls in people, any people to eat at her table. It’s a lot of work and, as I admitted, took a great deal out of me.

But after a few days, even though I’m still not quite fully recovered, life returns back to normal. Debbie and I made a small sacrifice for family and friends, giving of ourselves for others, but it was only temporary, and it was only part of us.

Contrast that with Jesus. Some people will give of themselves to help another. Others will give you the shirt off their back. Jesus gave his back, and his side, and his arms, and legs and hands and feet and head. He gave everything.

What could possibly motivate someone like Jesus Christ to give up everything, to sacrifice everything?

This is who Jesus is. This is who God is. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, that which sustains, provides life for those who have none. And when the question came up, “Just how far are you willing to go for these people, this world, this… nothing good before you?”, Jesus’s answer was clear. There was no distance Jesus would not walk. There was no obstacle he would not face. There was no weeping he would not turn to joy, there was no pain he would not alleviate, there was no feat he would not perform, even going to his own death, that would keep him from giving that life. Jesus went all in, put everything on the table and on the line, and said, “This is how far I’m willing to go.”

This is what the eucharist means. This is what we mean when we say that the very real presence of Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine. This is what we receive when we eat and drink as we were commanded to do. We receive Jesus, everything that he is, everything that he’s done and continues to do, because Jesus held nothing back, not even his own body and blood, his life.

What could possibly motivate him to do that?

Featured Image: “Jesus of East Indian imagining” by TCDavis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Holy Communion in the ELCA

This post is a response to a question that could not possibly fit in a deeply nested comment. For the source of the discussion, please read this post on The Lonely Pilgrim. Though the original question was limited in scope, I have chosen instead to give as complete a summary of the Lutheran position on Communion as my ability allows.

Part I details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Lutheran tradition according to the Lutheran Confessions.

Part II details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

What does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America say about Communion?

In 1997, the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, the highest governing body of the church, adopted The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. The document does what its title suggests: sets the standards by which the use of the sacraments should be followed.

The document upholds the teachings of the Book of Concord and applies them to the present day:

“In this sacrament the crucified and risen Christ is Present, giving his true body and blood as food and drink. This real presence is a mystery.”
Part III: Holy Communion and the Christian Assembly, Principle 33

“According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutheran congregations celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday and festival. This confession remains the norm for our practice.
Part III, Principle 35

“Participation in the sacramental meal is by invitation, not demand. The members of this church are encouraged to make the sacrament a frequent rather than occassional part of their lives.”
Part III, Principle 35, Application 35C

Earlier, it was said that Christians had stopped taking communion for a number of reasons, some of which survived to the present day. However, the main reason that Lutherans, especially in America stopped taking Communion was that, during the early era of American Lutheranism, there were not enough Pastors to give communion at every congregation every year. Churches only had communion when a Pastor was there, and since Pastors were covering more than one location at a time, often far apart from each other, they could not administer the sacrament everywhere every week.

In time, this exception became the expected norm. Even when Lutheran churches were sufficiently staffed by Pastors every week, the expectation was that Communion was only an occassional thing–sometimes once a month, sometimes once a quarter! The ELCA and its predecessor churches fought this trend, and now, weekly communion has returned as the common practice nearly everywhere.

How does the ELCA handle the elements used in Communion?

When it comes to the elements, their use, and their handling (which was the original inspiration for this article), the document says this:

“In accordance with the words of institution, this church uses bread and wine in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Communicants normally receive both elements, bread and wine, in the Holy Communion.”
Part III, Principle 44

Standing firm in the Lutheran tradition, the ELCA affirms that both elements should be distributed in Communion, not just one.

“The use of leavened bread is the most ancient attested practice of the Church and gives witness to the connection between the Eucharist and ordinary life. Unleavened bread underscores the Passover themes which are present in the biblical accounts of the Last Supper”
Part III, Principle 44, Background 44B

No preference is given in this document to unleavened or leavened bread. It does not provide a reference for its assertion that the early Church used leavened bread, however. Since both forms of bread have a precedent in Christian history, both are acceptable.

“For pressing reasons of health, individuals may commune under one element. In certain circumstances, congregations might decide to place small amounts of non-wheat bread or nonalcoholic wine or grape juice on the altar. Such pastoral and congregational decisions are delicate, and must honor both the tradition of the Church and the people of each local assembly.”
Part III, Principle 44, Application 44C

“Some communicants suffer from allergic reactions or are recovering from alcoholism… It is appropriate for them to receive only one of the elements… While our confessions speak against Communion “in one form,” their intent is to protest the practice of withholding the cup from the whole assembly.”
Part III, Principle 44, Background 44D

The Lutheran prohibition against Communion in one kind was meant to prevent abuse. But when that prohibition itself becomes an abuse, forcing those with life-threatening gluten-allergies and alcoholism to put themselves in danger, it, too, must be challenged. Therefore, the practice must be revised, but with care and pastoral sensitivity.

“The bread and wine of Communion are handled with care and reverence, out of a sense of the value both of what has been set apart by the Word as a bearer of the presence of Christ and of God’s good creation.”
Part III, Principle 47

I connect this Principle in part to the references above that detail from where the power of Communion comes. This principle clearly states that Communion’s power is from the Word, God.

The amount used for Communion can be a frightening subject. There may be times when the bread and wine on the table are not enough on a particular day, and more must be brought in after the words of institution are said:

“Nonetheless, in the rare event that more of either element is needed during distribution, it is not necessary to repeat the words of institution.”
Part III, Principle 47, Application 47A

I like to call this the “magic spell” effect. The Lutheran tradition very strongly rejects any notion that the presiding minister has “magic hands” that turn the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. And there is no “magic circle” within which bread/wine inside is converted, but which bread/wine outside are not. Why is this so?

The early Lutheran theologians strongly argued that the sacrament could not be performed part-way. Its power comes from God, not from the minister, and is present even when humans mess it up. When the sacrament is done properly, fully, with blessing, and consumption, the elements used are the body and blood of Christ–even if they do not occupy a certain (humanly-ordained) space.

“Any food that remains is best consumed by the presiding and assisting ministers and by others present following the service.”
Part III, Principle 47, Application 47B

Likewise, any element not consumed was not a part of the sacrament, as it was not used in accordance with God’s command to eat and drink. It can be seen by the arguments of the early Lutheran theologians that any remaining elements should not be stored in order to prevent abuse. It also dispels any notion that Communion is still Communion when it is not being practiced according to God’s command, that is, distributed in the community.

Who is welcome at the table in the ELCA, and why?

The Eucharist in the Lutheran Church.
The Eucharist in the Lutheran Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the church to those who are baptized.”
Part III, Principle 37

This has always been the understanding in the Lutheran church. However, there have been recent conversations about how this principle works in practice. One application of the principle is this:

“When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ’s presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need by ashamed. Rather, Christ’s gift of love and mercy to all is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion.”
Part III, Principle 37, Application 37C

This is the expectation of the ELCA–that Communion of the unbaptized lead to baptism and a fuller, more faithful participation in the faith community.

Yet, the ELCA practices eucharistic hospitality, or what is in other places known as “open Communion”:

“Believing in the real presence of Christ, this church practices eucharistic hospitality. All baptized persons are welcomed to Communion when they are visiting in the congregations of this church.”
Part III, Principle 49

This is not the most common practice of Christian churches. It is a logical conclusion of the arguments first made in the Book of Concord. The power of Communion does not come from those who administer it or what they believe about it. The power comes solely from God. There are both worthy and unworthy recipients of Communion both inside and outside the church, and it is impossible for those administering communion to tell the difference. Therefore, all should be welcome to the table. Those who eat in faith receive the gifts of the sacrament, and those who do not, do not.

Further, if Communion offers forgiveness and salvation to those who need it most, and all are in need of forgiveness and salvation, it stands to reason that all should be welcome to the table. Since the power of Communion comes not from the sacrament itself but from God, its gifts cannot be given “accidentally”, but only as part of God’s will, for those who need it, which is everyone. That is why the ELCA practices eucharistic hospitality.

——————————————————————————–

All citations from Lorraine S. Brugh and Gordon W. Lathrop, eds. Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship Vol. 1, The Sunday Assembly. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008.

Featured image: EucharistELCA” by Jonathunder is licensed under GFDL 1.2.

Holy Communion in the Lutheran Tradition

This post is a response to a question that could not possibly fit in a deeply nested comment. For the source of the discussion, please read this post on The Lonely Pilgrim. Though the original question was limited in scope, I have chosen instead to give as complete a summary of the Lutheran position on Communion as my ability allows.

Part I details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Lutheran tradition according to the Lutheran Confessions.

Part II details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

What did the original Lutheran reformers say about the nature of Communion?

The most  basic explanation is presented in the foundational Lutheran document, the Augsburg Confession, in Article X:

Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio.
Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Concerning the Lord’s Supper it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and are distributed and received there. Rejected, therefore, is also the contrary teaching.”

This article was not disputed by the Confutation, the Roman Catholic response to the Augsburg Confession. Even in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in which Philipp Melanchthon refutes other responses to the Confession, he writes that the only reason he spends any time on Article X is so that others who may read it may better understand that the Lutheran tradition is consistent with the position of the whole church. Aside from a disagreement over transubstantiation, the Lutheran theologians disagreed with Rome very little over the nature of communion. Instead, Lutheran theologians had to contend with other Reformation theologians who argued against the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Lutheran theologians had to repeat the point over and over again:

“We maintain that the bread and the wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that they are not only offered to and received by upright Christians but also evil ones.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §1

“What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.”
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §1-2

“1. We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, truly distributed and received with the bread and wine.

“2. We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are not to be understood in any other way than the way they literally sound, that is, not that the bread symbolizes the absent body and the wine the absent blood Christ, but that they are truly the true body and blood of Christ because of the sacramental union.”
Forumla of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §6-7

Everything that the Lutheran tradition teaches about Communion is based on this fundamental truth, which is why I have repeated it so clearly.

What does Communion do?

The Lutheran tradition holds that grace, forgiveness, and salvation comes through the Sacrament:

“What is the benefit of such eating and drinking? Answer: The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’ show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §7-8

The arguments in the Book of Concord all take this fact for granted–the arguments that it presents to support this teaching are based on the fact that in Communion, Jesus Christ is fully present (see above). Because Christ is present, so is forgiveness. It does not seem to concern itself with why or how Christ’s body and blood effect forgiveness, only that Christ’s presence is necessary for it.

How is Communion distributed, and why?

The Lutheran theologians argued fervently that all Christians, clergy and laity, receive Communion in both kinds: that is, everyone should receive both the bread and the wine in the sacrament, every time:

“And we maintain that no one should distribute only one kind in the sacrament. Nor do we need the lofty learning which teaches us that there is as much under one kind as under both. This is how the sophists and the Council of Constance teach. Even if it were true that there is as much under one kind as under both, one kind is still not the complete order and institution as established and commanded by Christ. Especially do we condemn and curse in God’s name those who not only allow distribution of both kinds to be omitted but also dictatorially prohibit, condemn, and slander the distribution of both kinds as heresy. Thereby they set themselves against and above Christ, our Lord and God, etc.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §2-4

It should be noted that much of what Lutheran theologians argued against in the Roman Catholic church were abuses. As a result, the arguments can only be understood properly in that context.

Lutherans today consistently hold that Christ is truly and fully present in each kind. What Luther himself argued against (he wrote the Smalcald Articles himself, which is why they are so “colorful”) was the teaching that, since Christ is present in each kind fully, only one kind should be given to the laity. A good teaching had been warped to create an abuse, and the best way to get rid of the abuse was to challenge and reform the teaching. Later theologians clarified this (while simultaneously asserting that Luther’s mouth was not “Word of God”, and that one person’s interpretation is not over the community’s).

Communion should also be offered as often as possible:

“However, you may say, ‘But the words are added, ‘as often as you do it’; so he compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice.’ Answer: That is precisely true, but it does not say that we should never partake of it. Indeed, precisely his words, ‘as often as you do it,’ imply that we should do it frequently.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §471

Luther observed that many among the laity were choosing not to receive communion, either because they were afraid of taking it unworthily, or its opposite, that they felt they didn’t have to. Frequent distribution was a problem during the Reformation and in the recent past, but for different reasons, as will be seen.

As to giving Communion to the worthy and the unworthy:

“We believe, teach, and confess that not only those who truly believe and are worthy, but also the unworthy and unbelievers receive the true body and blood of Christ, though they do not receive life and comfort, but rather judgment and damnation, if they do not turn and repent.”

“We believe, teach, and confess that there is only one kind of unworthy guest, those who do not believe… We believe, teach, and confess that no genuine believers–no matter how weak–as long as they retain a living faith, receive the Holy Supper as condemnation. For Christ instituted this supper particularly for Christians who are weak in the faith but repentant, to comfort them and to strengthen their weak faith.

“We believe, teach, and confess that the entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations.”
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §16-20

The writers of the Formula were not writing at a time when there was widespread division between a multitude of denomiations, churches, and sects. Though the separation between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church had occured, the vision is still of one body of believers. Nevertheless, the Formula helped shape the modern Lutheran approach to Eucharistic hospitality, which I shall discuss later.

What “makes” Communion? From where does its power come?

For the Lutheran theologians, the sacrament was not the source of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The sacrament, like all sacraments, was a way through which forgiveness, life, and salvation came. Communion has no power on its own.

“Here, too, we do not want to quarrel and dispute with those who despise and desecrate this sacrament. Instead, as in the case of baptism, we shall first learn what is of greatest importance, namely, that the chief thing is God’s Word and ordinance or command. It was not dreamed up or invented by some mere human being but was instituted by Christ without anyone’s counsel or deliberation. Therefore, just as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed retain their nature and value even if you never keep, pray, or believe them, so also does this blessed sacrament remain unimpaired and inviolate even if we use and handle it unworthily. Do you think God cares so much about our faith and conduct that he would permit them to affect his ordinance? No, all temporal things remain as God has created and ordered them, regardless of how we treat them.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §4-6

Out of context, this sounds like an invitation to do whatever one wishes with the sacrament. This is not so. This is instead an introductory statement, which is later clarified, to emphasize that the power and validity of the sacrament is not in human hands or even in the doing of the sacrament. The power of the sacrament is with God.

For Communion, like all sacraments, is only valid because of God’s promise and God’s work in the sacrament, not the human doing of the act:

“So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ that make the bread the body and the wine the blood…

“Likewise, ‘Here, too, if I were to say over all the bread there is, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ nothing would happen, but when we follow his institution and command in the Supper and say, ‘This is my body,’ then it is his body, not because of our speaking or our declarative word, but because of his command in which he has told us to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.”
Forumla of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §77-78

The Lutheran theologians firmly believed that the sacrament was only the sacrament when it was done properly and completely. The sacrament consisted of two parts–the original promise and power of God, and the complete act of the sacrament. This is why they rejected the adoration of the elements, which they considered to be an abuse:

“Likewise, we reject the teaching that the elements (the visible species, or form, of the consecrated bread and wine) should be adored. Of course, no one–except an Arian heretic–can or will deny that Christ himself, true God and truly human, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper when properly used, should be adored in spirit and truth in other places, but especially where his community is assembled.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §126

“They [who teach transubstantation] assert that under this form of the bread… the body of Christ remains present, even apart from the administration of the Supper (for example, when the bread is enclosed in the tabernacle or is carried around in a spectacle and adored). But, as has been shown, above, nothing can be a sacrament apart from God’s command and the practice that he has ordained, as insituted in God’s Word.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §108

It was considered an abuse because they felt it was being used against the people. A consecrated host, meant to be consumed by the people as part of an act of forgiveness, life, and salvation, was not being used in the manner for which God commanded it to be used. If it was not being used sacramentally, according to God’s command, offering grace as God promised, then it was not sacramental. “Eat” and “Drink” were the commands given for the sacrament, not “parade.”

This is why Lutherans do not generally reserve the sacramental elements. A reserved sacrament is not being used in accordance with God’s command. The exception to this is when the consecrated sacrament is being sent to those who could not physically join the community, as it is being explicitly and quickly used for its intended purpose.

Continued in Part II.

————————————————————————————————

All citations from Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Featured image: EucharistELCA” by Jonathunder is licensed under GFDL 1.2.