Rev. Herb hits the nail on the head — the words of God are separated from the elements in virtual communion, which is no communion at all. A communal meal is individualized and segregated in this digital wild-west. A pastor speaking the words of institution online has no idea what is going on and cannot see how the elements (whatever might be on the table or TV tray) will be used. It lets each individual be his own pastor and congregation, and therefore the called pastor abdicates his divine responsibility. The pastor virtually communing (via electrons) cannot possibly examine or see who takes the elements or how they are handled — he has transformed himself from a steward of Christ’s mysteries into an out-of-control virtual firehouse.
Can one person have a “common” meal totally alone, nullifying the institution of the congregation and its divine unity in the Spirit? What kind of message is that? Is the congregation and membership now optional? Unfortunately, these problems have been among us—a real doctrinal epidemic—much longer than the pandemic.
The Supper is not a private devotion for our personal pleasure, to be held at our whim—it is a holy, public act, by its nature. The problem is not the efficacy of the words, as some falsely assume, but the integrity of the meal—which is not just words or elements, but both together for a common people in fellowship, to receive together the holy blood and the one body of Christ. This new individualization, that misuses an electronic tool, strikes at the heart of Holy Communion and makes it a private meal that is “virtually” supervised by a called servant of Christ—meaning it is not at all.
Virtual learning this past year has taught me much, though I am not sure about my children—are they virtually learning or learning virtually? They appear to be learning—but it might only be a virtual illusion. Those who prefer virtual reality over the real thing—are easily dismissed as fools. And those who say they “need” the Supper make a mockery of the Gospel and their own baptism.
Forgiveness is not limited to one means, even though it is divine, nor are those separated from a public gathering without Christ and His grace. Faith is not dependent on any act, even the precious act of eating Christ’s body and drinking the most holy blood shed for sinners.
For something so sacrosanct as the Supper. that Christ gave on the very night that He was betrayed unto death, we must not introduce any human uncertainty or taint it with our subjective power. It must retain its holy character and unimpeachable integrity, even if that does not convenience those not attending public worship. To receive the Lord’s body to eat for our forgiveness, given unto real and bitter death for us, we might have to risk earthly death. But it is a small danger compared to blaspheming Christ’s body and blood. —ed.
Rev. Daniel Herb
Messiah Lutheran Church, Middletown, OH
Jan. 12, 2020
COVID-19 since March 2020 and continuing on to this day has influenced worship, impacting it in many and various ways depending on rulings and guidelines from the Federal Government, CDC, and individual states. The impacts have touched aspects of the Church including gathering together in reduced numbers, temporary closure of churches, voluntary suspension of in-person worship, along with procedures for mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning of facilities. The Church’s practice of Holy Communion has also come under examination due to the various recommendations and rulings.
In my previous writing of administration of the Lord’s Supper, the establishment and practice of Holy Communion was investigated in light the Scriptures and the Confessions. That investigation focused on the institution and exercise that originated with the Lord Jesus Christ himself and the Church’s practice passed down through the centuries by our Lutheran church fathers.
If we are to seriously consider and study further the idea of virtual or on-line communion, we need to thoroughly understand the implications of various actions and how it would be carried out within the parameters of pastoral care, reverence and obedience to Christ’s institution and stewardship of this particular means of grace.
One may rightly bring to bear the scriptural references of Jesus healing as example of the power and efficacy of the Word of God. The power of the Almighty resides in and is communicated through the very words of our Lord. Scripture informs us of Peters confession that Jesus’ “words… are spirit and life” (John 6:36). The fact that the writer of the Hebrews writes (4:12), “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit…” firmly establishes the Word as being pregnant with the power of God Almighty to accomplish that for which it is sent, not returning to Him void (Isaiah 55:10-11).
When the words of the Bible are rightly used by the Church, they are efficacious and beneficial to those receiving those words. We hear of this performative action of the Word in Matthew (18:18) when he writes of the keys of the church, “… whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Here the power to forgive sins is given to the Church to administer on Christ’s behalf. The Church through the process of ordination, the divine call and installation, gives these loosing and binding keys to the pastor to exercise in their midst and on their behalf to prevent confusion, for good order, to assure worthy reception of the Lord’s Supper, and benefit to all. The pastor, according to Scripture, is the “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1) and “are ambassadors for Christ…” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
The pastor, by virtue of his office, stands in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. To the pastor the congregation and Church have given the various means of grace; the Word of Law and Gospel to be preached and taught in its purity as well as the administration of the means of grace among the congregation that he is called to lead as the under shepherd of the Good Shepherd. This ministry is a serious charge and responsibility that should not be taken or entered into lightly. The pastor himself is not endowed with any special grace or power, but is to diligently and reverently discharge the duties and power of the pastoral office as informed by the Scriptures.
So what is the process or mechanism by which the Lord’s Supper could be done in a virtual or on-line setting? Can the body and blood of our Lord be present in a private residence absent the physical presence of a called pastor? These are important questions that we should address in order that there may be no confusion, possibility of doubt, or abuse of the office and Supper.
Let us consider how the consecration and distribution of Holy Communion would work in a digital landscape. One of the major questions regarding virtual communion is the consecration of the elements. Can the material elements of the Eucharist be consecrated via the internet through Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, Face Book, Face Time, the telephone, or any other virtual communication platform? How can this work? Can it be done? Can a minister consecrate the communion elements remotely that are not in his midst and even miles away?
If the pastor is to consecrate the elements through the information superhighway, how can he be a proper and faithful steward of the body and blood of our Lord? The digital landscape of the internet disperses the signal throughout the digital sphere. Virtual communion really requires “a disembodied voice contacting unseen elements who knows where.” With the service being viewed live and also recorded for viewing at a later date, do the words after the physical service still retain any power? If a person would replay a past service, does that recording of the pastor’s voice and words still hold the full efficacy that was present when they were physically spoken by the pastor live? If so, then there is no need for a physical pastor to conduct a divine service, for his recorded words would perpetually carry the power of God. We know from scripture that the efficacy and benefit of the words are present in the written Sacred Word and that was inspired by the Holy Spirit for the holy men of old who wrote them down as moved by the Spirit according to Scripture. When spoken by the individual Christian and pastor, they accomplish what they say.
What if the distribution of elements would occur in the week prior to the Divine Service so that all participants have the prescribed material contents of bread and wine as used in the physical celebration, does that qualify these simple elements of bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ? This would rest the power and efficacy of the Supper in the elements. The bread and wine of Holy Communion are common ordinary elements of the people that become holy through by the Word of God spoken over them.
If one rightly believes that the bread and wine are simple earthly elements only absent the words of institution, then application of the Word of God is necessary and imperative for the mystical union of bread and body, wine and blood. With the pastor speaking the words of institution over the elements in his immediate presence and those same words being carried out through the internet, are all elements of bread and wine everywhere therefore consecrated by throwing these words out into cyberspace? If so, then the pastor is not capable of proper stewardship of the Supper, for he has no idea who is partaking of bread and wine at that time. As Larry Been wrote in a Gottesdienst post of 3-April-2020:
“Assuming for the sake of argument that this is a real consecration, is Bobby’s sandwich on the [kitchen] table now Christ’s body? Is the half glass of Aunt Thelma’s wine left over on the counter now the blood of Christ?”
If this is possible, then anyone who is tuned into the service has the performative words flow into their home to fall upon any elements of bread and wine and unite them with our Lord’s body and blood? This would mean that the body and blood of our Lord are all over the place and completely out of the purview of the minister. By this logic, the body and blood would be everywhere and would be consumed by the faithful and the heathen. How is the pastor able to properly administer and distribute the sacred meal in such a scenario where it is broadcast out on the world wide web? “If the pastor is not there, he cannot exercise this pastoral oversight by communing those who should be communed, and not communing those who should not be communed.” This would constitute a blatant disregard and defilement of the sacredness of the Supper and a severe breech of the stewardship of the minister. Not to mention that any pastor doing so would be unloving to individuals in that he would be complicit in allowing a person to consume the body and blood of the Lord to their condemnation.
If one would speak against the above situation by stating that only the appropriate bead/wafer and wine are consecrated, how is that to be distinguished and accomplished? There is no mention in Scripture of the “appropriate” elements to use other than bread and wine. Paul mentions these two simple elements in his writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:15-17). So we use simple bread and wine, because that is what our Lord took, blessed and gave to His disciples the night He was betrayed; initiating the Lord’s Supper. The Bible records no such words of “On the night he was betrayed he took the communion bread” or “the bread of those worthy to receive the Supper.” Neither is there any record of the same wording for the cup. If you would go back to the Passover celebration of the Jews, there is not one word spoken by an individual to bless all the gatherings of the people in multiple locations. Each head of the household would recount the events of the exodus and how God had saved them in the presence of the those gathered with the prescribed roasted lamb, unleavened bread, wine, and bitter herbs. As each family celebrated the old covenant Passover, so each congregation celebrates the new testament in Christ’s blood, the Lord’s Supper.
Additionally, how is one able to “control” where the words of consecration land? The pastor is not invested with such power of himself or the office, for it is the words spoken by Jesus, “Take eat, take drink… given and shed for the forgiveness of sins,” that are imbued with such power. To think that a pastor has the authority and power of his own person to selectively consecrate and distribute the bread and wine of the Eucharist is to give man more authority than given by Christ. This line of wrong thinking leads to a Roman Catholic understanding of the priesthood being endowed with special grace and authority. In the record of the man whose daughter was healed from a distance by Jesus even though the girl was not in the presence of the Lord, cannot be applied to virtual/on-line communion. The request for healing came, not from the young sick girl in a remote location apart from Jesus, but from her father who was in the immediate presence of Jesus. His petition and request was granted to him with the result that the girl was restored to health.
The Church’s practice of consecrating additional bread or wine in the Sacrament should also give us pause to reconsider the idea of virtual communion. The common practice when the elements on the altar that have been consecrated and distributed run out is to bring more bread and or wine to the altar from the credence table. And since those additional elements that were not on the altar during the initial consecration, they are consecrated for the first time. This salutary and ancient practice should clearly inform any notion of consecration of elements in a remote location by the pastor as not being in accordance with Scripture.
If a pastor would deduce that the words of institution, transmitted over the internet or broadcast by radio waves, falls only on the elements of those worthy to partake and have them in front of their person, this seems as though it runs down the path of receptionism. Defining receptionism as only those of the true faith that participate in the Eucharist receive the body and blood of Christ in the Supper for their benefit and those persons who do not correctly believe only receive the bread and wine with no adverse effect. In such a setting, the determining factor or action that actually unites the bread and wine with the very body and blood of Christ then is the faith of the recipient. This makes man the vesting agent of consecration and not the words of institution. This idea strips the power and efficacy away from the “living and active” Word to wrongly place it in the hands of man. This denies the very record of the events in the Bible of the night Jesus was betrayed, thus rejecting the very Word of God.
If one would consider the possibility of a pastor consecrating elements in advance, having people pick these elements up to take home with them or having a member deliver the elements to an individual as a way of eliminating or getting around any possible concern of virtual consecration, is separating the pastor from his duty and the responsibility of the pastoral office for properly administering Holy Communion. This is not in line with the teachings of the Confessions, Scripture and the practice of the Church throughout the centuries. The Lutheran Confessions – a correct exposition of the Holy Scriptures – clearly state that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a continuous series of actions of elements, consecration, distribution, and reception as recorded in the Gospel accounts and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. “Pre-consecrating” elements to then be picked up or delivered by an individual for a person to eat and drink at a later time (such as a livestream or pre-recorded service) and in an alternate location, remote from the actual service location, is a mishandling and abuse of the Sacrament.
As Lutheran pastors who believe in the inspiration of Scripture and its inerrancy, we should look at the actions of Israel during their wilderness wonderings for forty years. God supplied for them manna from heaven – which they had not known – for their benefit and so that they might live. They were instructed to only gather enough for their family for that day and no more. If they were to gather extra to save for another day, it spoiled and became maggot ridden and uneatable. God’s only exception to this command was the manna collected on the day of preparation before the Sabbath. At that time only were they able to collect two days’ worth of manna since they were not to work on the Sabbath. The body of Christ, the new manna from heaven, is to be used immediately in the Lord’s Supper.
Let us as pastors and the Church universal adhere to our Lord’s commands, teaching and institution for His Supper to make sure that it is administered appropriately for the benefit of those receiving the Sacrament and the integrity of the office of the ministry. God has graciously given us more than one means of grace so that we can know His love, compassion and forgiveness. We should daily look to our Baptism to know His choosing and cleansing us from all our sins along with the regular and frequent use of His Word in worship, Bible study, devotions, and meditation of that Word. The Lord’s redemptive work of forgiveness and salvation won on Calvary is bestowed through faith in Baptism, Word and Lord’s Supper. No one means of grace is more beneficial than another. They all carry with them the full and complete redemptive work and benefit of Christ.
We should focus on what are good practice options now in the midst of the pandemic that are both orderly, and yes, also ones that will comfort the conscience, rather than the possibility to introduce doubt and error. For instance: 1) some pastors have suspended the Sacrament of the Altar for a limited time by consent of the congregation, 2) a pastor seeks to call and visit people individually in their homes, 3) individual people or families come to the pastor’s study or sanctuary for Word and or the Sacrament, 4) the pastor works within the civil regulations scheduling multiple small services throughout the week to allow opportunity for all people who desire to attend and receive Holy Communion. And there may be other salutary and beneficial ways to proceed which I have not recorded or thought of. The sacraments do not just require an earthly element and God’s Word, they also assume the physical presence of a body! This gets back to how Christianity is a faith that is incarnational. So too are the sacraments as they were instituted and practiced in real time with real people gathered around the Word.
Yes, circumstances and contexts for each individual congregation do differ, but that does not excuse laziness or an attitude of “It’s my church therefore…” or “These are unprecedented times and call for unprecedented actions.” If the goal of pastoral care is a good conscience which The Sacrament of the Altar gives, then as stewards of the mysteries of God, we should strive to not burden a conscience or create doubt and confusion. As pastors, we are called, not for ingenuity and creativity, but to be faithful.
As our Synod Presidium is to be studying and investigating this topic of virtual/on-line communion to give clarity and guidance so that we in the LCMS may walk together in confidence, I pray that this writing may help in those discussions to come to a God pleasing and biblical result and clarification of the practice of Holy Communion.
May the Lord work within all of us, by His Spirit, both to will and to do, according to His Word and institution.