Unless one is over 100 years old, none of us has lived through such a serious worldwide pandemic. While we can stream our worship service online, the Lord’s Supper poses a particular problem for Lutherans, who in the last fifty years have gone from quarterly to monthly to weekly communion in many of our congregations. What should we do?
The first thing to say is that, outside of following the guidance of medical professionals, there is no one “right answer” to this problem, and we must be very careful not to project our anxiety upon others who may find other solutions to this practical problem. The frequency of the Lord’s Supper is not fixed in the New Testament and is not part of the Ten Commandments, so we must not assume that what we do is the only right way. It is adiaphora, a word that does not mean that it is not important but rather means that we cannot clearly tell what the right or wrong practice is. Thus, we should not judge one another. In the Formula of Concord’s article on adiaphora (art. 10), the concordists remind us:
Now, when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, as I said, there is no magic number of times to celebrate. The fact that Roman Catholic priests were required to celebrate the Mass daily in Luther’s day led the reformers to emphasize a comment from the ancient church, which described how the church in Alexandria, Egypt did not do this. The fact that many of us celebrate weekly does not necessarily mean that this is the only practice. Indeed, not receiving the Lord’s Supper during Lent this year would remind us that we are in solidarity with those who were preparing for Baptism in the ancient church, who would first receive the Supper after Baptism on Easter Day. Perhaps this virus is forcing on us a better Lenten discipline to impress upon us once more just how precious the Meal is and how we all need to return to the promises of the baptismal waters and God’s Word.
In 1523, followers of John Hus in Bohemia posed a question to Luther about the sacraments, given that many of them were bereft of pastors as a result of their struggle with the church of Rome. Luther, giving it his “reverent best guess,” responded with Concerning the Ministry (Luther’s Works [LW] 40:7-44). There he reminded his correspondents that in each household the head of that household could preach and, in this emergency situation, baptize. But, for Luther, the Lord’s Supper was somewhat different and was intended to take place in the Sunday gathering and not privately. He also had high respect for the public office of ministry, so he did not think that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated without a properly called minister. Given that the church in Bohemia could not receive such pastors, Luther advised them to do without pastors in the emergency. He wrote (LW 40:9):
Upon reading a draft of this reflection, Gordon Lathrop reminded me of this (included here with permission):
First, some congregations and their ministers may decide not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper until the threat of this virus is over. The danger here, of course, is that people suddenly get the idea that the Lord’s Supper is optional even on days when we are healthy—even pointing to Luther for support, when in fact he was speaking especially to the emergency in the Bohemian Church.
Second, one could find a way to distribute the Lord’s Supper as people drive up in their cars. Here we are in danger of turning the Sacrament into something other than the community gathered around Christ’s table. Faith and proclamation would disappear as if the Sacrament were effective by the mere performance of the work, by simply finding a way to “do the thing.” The church is not a drive-through restaurant but a Christian assembly, gathered around Word and Sacrament.
One could also, I suppose, send out bread and wine that would be “live streamed” consecrated by the pastor somewhere else. Here, too, the trouble revolves around trying to create a virtual community and, again, turning the Supper into something that is about our works rather than God’s once-for-all work to save.
Another possibility might be to consecrate the elements and leave them on the altar for people to commune themselves as they come in individually to pray during the week. Here, too, the very communal nature of Holy Communion could easily get lost, and the meal becomes a support for individual piety rather than what it is: “Given and shed for you” [always plural in the Greek New Testament text].
Perhaps one of the ways to sort out our approaches is to ask, “Why do you or I want to do this? What’s the point?” I regularly warned my students that when it comes to the sacramental practices, the reformers saw two dangers. Either we make the sacrament into something effective by virtue of some work we do and virtue we possess (“Only if you’re a real believer who does the right thing is the sacrament effective”) or we make the sacrament into something effective “by the mere performance of the rite” apart from faith. Even in an emergency such as what we face today, these temptations are lurking, and such practices threaten to undermine why we use the sacraments and the Word they help proclaim. At the heart of it all is the gospel of God’s truly undeserved mercy and love to us, which creates and strengthens the faith that receives all the grace-filled goodness that our Lord so richly gives.
Timothy J. Wengert
Holy Week, 2020