Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Mary of Bethany gives to Jesus an extravagant, expensive gift—pouring out fragrant oil upon Jesus’s feet and wiping his feet with her hair, and he receives this gift with appreciation and great love, recognizing her devotion.
God also pours out blessings upon us—providing us with everything we need, food and air and sunshine and shelter and everything in creation to care for our bodies. And God pours out blessings in the Sacraments, of which there are two. What are they? Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
In Holy Baptism, the element used is WATER. But not simply water—baptism is more than a bath. It’s water PLUS GOD’S WORD. And in Holy Communion, the elements used are BREAD and WINE, which become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But they’re more than food. These are bread and wine PLUS GOD’S WORD. That’s what makes it a sacrament.
St. Augustine said “Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.” In case you don’t know Latin, that means “When the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a sacrament.”
God’s Word is what makes the difference and transforms water into the saving water of baptism. God’s Word is what transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Maybe you’re thinking, yeah yeah yeah, I already know all this stuff, why do we need to review it again now?
Well, Jesus did not live through a pandemic, as far as we know. And Martin Luther didn’t know about Covid-19 and the science and learning that have helped us navigate a pandemic over the past two years. But Jesus never abandoned us during all this time, and God’s Word has indeed been at work throughout this pandemic.
We have been practicing Holy Communion for the past year using bread and wine in our own homes, for some of the time when we could not gather in person for worship, and some of the time we have used pre-filled communion cups. This was the safest measure for celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar, and this was decided by leaders in our congregation who have watched closely the ups and downs of numbers of Covid infections in our area. I haven’t yet heard of anyone who prefers using the pre-filled cups. Many of us long for chunks of warm bread and drinking wine from the chalice, a common cup shared by the assembly.
But our concern for health outweighed our concern for the manner in which we celebrate the Sacrament. And I want to be really clear about this: any time this assembly gathers around God’s Word and celebrates the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it is 100% Jesus. Communing at home, participating via livestream—this is not a lesser form of Communion. Communing with the pre-filled cups of grape juice and a wafer—this is not a lesser form of Communion. Receiving bread and wine from the altar, distributed by hand from a presider—this is not lesser or greater. It’s still 100% Jesus—always has been, and always will be.
The fact is that the church has always had a concern for believers who cannot gather in person with the worshipping assembly. We have never cut anyone out of fellowship because they cannot physically make the trip to the sanctuary. There has always been a team of faithful communion assistants who deliver communion to people who are homebound or who are hospitalized. Sometimes it’s the pastor, sometimes it’s lay people—again, it’s 100% Jesus, and we have never said that homebound people get the leftovers. All of us are fed by the body of Christ.
You’re free to have your preferences—many of us do. But don’t get confused or disappointed or worried that this or that manner of receiving Holy Communion carries a greater or lesser grace. The manner of receiving communion carries no weight of salvation. The gift of grace always comes from God and we are assured of this by God’s Word.
Martin Luther, as you can imagine, has a lot to say about this, and I’m going to share this with you from the Book of Concord, the great big book of Lutheran confessions. The Book of Concord has got all the greatest hits of the Protestant Reformation: the Small Catechism of Martin Luther, the Large Catechism of Martin Luther, the Formula of Concord, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Smalcald Articles, the Augsburg Confession, and the three ecumenical creeds by which we confess our faith in God. (Can you name all three? Apostles’, Nicene, and—bonus points!—Athanasian!)
There are some real gems in the Large Catechism, and among them, Martin Luther says this about Holy Communion:
“The Word must make the element a sacrament; otherwise, it remains an ordinary element. Now, this is not the word and ordinance of a prince or emperor, but of the divine Majesty at whose feet all creatures should kneel and confess that it is as [God] says, and they should accept it with all reverence, fear, and humility.
“With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and declare: ‘Let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, ‘How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?’ etc. Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in [their] littlest finger. Here is Christ’s word: ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’ ‘Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood,’ etc. Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take the Word away from the elements or view them apart from the Word, you have nothing but ordinary bread and wine. But if the words remain, as is right and necessary, then by virtue of them the elements are truly the body and blood of Christ. For as Christ’s lips speak and say, so it is; he cannot lie or deceive.
“Hence it is easy to answer all kinds of questions that now trouble people—for example, whether a wicked priest can administer the sacrament, and similar questions. 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. For the Word by which it was constituted a sacrament is not rendered false because of an individual’s unworthiness or unbelief. Christ does not say, ‘If you believe or if you are worthy, you have my body and blood,’ but rather, ‘Take, eat and drink, this is my body and blood.’ Likewise, when he says, ‘Do this,’ (namely, what I now do, what I institute, what I give you and bid you take), this is as much to say, ‘No matter whether you are worthy or unworthy, you have here this body and blood by the power of these words that are connected to the bread and wine.’ Mark this and remember it well. For upon these words rest our whole argument, our protection and defense against all errors and deceptions that have ever arisen or may yet arise.”
Martin Luther wrote these things five hundred years ago, and I’m telling you: sometimes his words sound so fresh and contemporary and relevant that it weirds me out. So that was the part about why Holy Communion really is Jesus and why, when we receive the body and blood of Christ, we are obedient to Christ’s command to take and eat and drink. But what’s in it for us as individuals? Luther has some words about this too. He writes:
“[Holy Communion] is appropriately called food of the soul, for it nourishes and strengthens the new creature. ...We are born anew through baptism. However, our human flesh and blood…have not lost their old skin. There are so many hindrances and attacks of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint and at times even stumble. Therefore the Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened that it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses. But it has a suffer a great deal of opposition. The devil is a furious enemy; when he sees that we resist him and attack the old creature, and when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks about at every turn, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or lose heart and become indifferent or impatient. For times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.”
Receiving the body and blood of Holy Communion is obedience to Christ, and it is good for your soul. This is true for everyone gathered here in the sanctuary who comes forward to receive bread from me—there will be bread as well as gluten-free wafers, wrapped in plastic, which I’m happy to provide to anyone who asks. It’s true for everyone in the sanctuary who chooses to use the pre-filled cups of grape juice and a wafer—these will continue to be available for people who have a concern for their health and wish not to walk around the sanctuary.
The sacrament is true and holy as well for people who come here in the sanctuary and aren’t physically able to come forward to the altar—we call it “processing up” because we are physically connected to the ritual of coming forward to the altar of the Lord. If you want to receive the bread from the altar but cannot physically leave your seat, let the usher know and the usher will convey that to me and to the assisting minister.
And because we’re not leaving anybody out, Holy Communion restores the souls of people who worship from home or who join from the livestream, as well as people who receive communion during a home visit from a leader who delivers the elements.
What makes it a sacrament? God’s Word. Jesus is the host of the meal, not me. So when it comes time for communion, in a few minutes, you will be invited to the table. If you choose to use the pre-filled cups, or if you’re at home joining by livestream, I’ll let you know when we’ll take the bread and wine together. Then the ushers will direct people forward, and there are printed instructions to follow—find these in your bulletin on a piece of cardstock.
It looks like a long list of things to do! This is simply a way to explain our movements. You will not be graded on your performance. All of this is wrapped in God’s grace. There’s a diagram of what lines are on the floor—you’ll see the distinctive blue tape—and ushers will guide you. The instructions mention when to keep and when to remove your mask.
I’ll be handing out bread, and I’ll have my mask on for the whole time! You can remove your mask when you step to the side to eat the bread, in obedience to Jesus, and then take a cup of wine or grape juice from the tray which will be set up here. Wine is the darker-colored drink; the grape juice is the lighter-colored drink and those cups will be in the center of the tray. The assisting minister will be nearby to help, and the assisting minister will also keep their mask on as people pass by.
When everyone in the line has received communion, the ushers will come through the line to receive communion and will let me and the assisting minister know who is remaining seated and wishes to receive the bread distributed from the altar. The assisting minister and I will then come to you, bringing the bread and a tray with cups of wine or grape juice. It’s important to indicate that you do want to participate; if you choose not to receive communion, that is between you and God. I will not force-feed anyone.
When everyone has been served, finally the assisting minister and me will commune, using bread and dipping it into the chalice—this act of dipping bread is called “intinction.” The chalice will always have wine in it—we don’t hold up an empty chalice—and at some point in the future, at the advising of our re-opening committee, we may again use the chalice for distributing communion to the worshipping assembly, but we’re not doing that at this time.
Whew. If you’re confused, raise your hand. Me too. Take a deep breath. And remember that all of this is the grace of God. If you only receive bread, you’ve received 100% of God’s grace. And if you’re allergic to wheat and can’t receive the bread or you drop it on the floor, and you receive only the wine, you’ve received 100% of God’s grace. No more, no less.
Holy Communion is God’s love poured out for us in abundance. Let us go now to the banquet. Let us feast in the presence in the Lord!