Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ecumenicals post 18: on the Eucharist

My submission to the Ecumenicals for a collection of posts on the Eucharist.

What is your view of the Eucharist/The Lord's Supper?  Given the differing views (transubstantiation / consubstantiation or sacramental union / symbolic presence) why do you hold to yours?

I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which means that confessionally I believe in consubstantiation, or the “sacramental union” of bread / body and wine / blood.  What Luther believed and taught, and what the Lutheran church has confessed, is that Christ is fully present in the bread and wine.  The elements do not change physically or substantially (as in transubstantiation.)  But Christ has promised to be with us in the breaking of the bread.

I believe this.  And because I believe that Christ is fully present, I believe also this:  that anyone can receive, anyone can distribute, and anyone can consecrate.

The last point might seem the most heretical, but it’s actually the most confessionally sound!  Martin Luther affirmed early in his reform works that all baptized Christians are, through Christ, “priests and kings” (On the Freedom of A Christian).  This Lutheran belief in “universal priesthood” continues to the present day.  All baptized Christians are called to preach the Word, and all are capable of officiating the sacraments (baptism and communion).  Luther also cautioned (and we continue this, as well) that “for good order,” we should prefer that those who are called and ordained to the specific office of priesthood are the ones to offer the sacraments.  But any baptized Christian is capable of offering them “in an emergency.”

Following in the belief of a “universal priesthood,” Lutherans may allow any baptized Christian to distribute the consecrated sacraments.  Certain denominations and congregations take different definitions of “for good order,” here, and some have requirements as far as who may serve:  only adults, only the confirmed, only pastors or deacons, and so on.  The congregation I presently serve allows anyone to serve communion -- including children.  Last Sunday one of our beloved six-year-olds, Annie, served alongside her father.  I stopped singing the communion hymn to watch her wide eyes and careful hands, and to hear her joyous chirp of “Jesus’ blood, shed for you”.

Growing up in the Episcopal church, I knew at an early age that I wanted to become a priest -- to preach and to preside over communion.  But there were rules in my congregation (and perhaps in the whole denomination).  Only adults could serve, and only adults that had been to a weekend training and received certification.  By the time I was “of age,” I was off at college.

Six weeks into my life at Saint Olaf, I was attending the on-campus Lutheran service.  It was homecoming weekend and the chapel was packed.  A friend who served in the sacristy came and grabbed me during the Peace, explaining that they didn’t have enough servers and would I help?  I followed her, thinking perhaps I could help distributing empty cups.  Instead, the campus pastor (who was over six feet tall, thin as a rail, and had a beard and voice like a movie Moses) tried to put the plate of bread in my hands.

“I can’t serve,” I told him.  “I haven’t been trained.”

“Do you know what to say?” he asked.

“I … ‘The body of Christ, given for you.’”

He let go of the plate and I felt its full weight in my hands.  “There.  You’ve been trained.”

And I served communion that day.

You see, Luther’s argument that Christ is fully present in the bread and wine does not just have philosophical ramifications.  For me and for the churches I have served, it is a full embodiment of the Lutheran belief that the Lord’s Supper is a gift.  It is not the ordained priest, nor the right words spoken, or the proper training, that turns the bread and wine into body and blood.  It is only and totally Christ’s promise at the Last Supper, the promise that “This is my body; this is my blood.”  When we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we confess that Christ is present with us, in the eating and drinking, just as much as he was with the disciples on that Passover night.

God is the one who does the work in the Eucharist; we only receive.  It is Christ’s words, not ours, which bear the mystery of bread turned to body and wine to blood.  It is unimportant, then, who is serving, because it is Christ who truly serves.  This is (for me) the meaning of Christ’s full presence, the “sacramental union.”

My first point, that anyone can receive, is the one most likely to cause scandal.  This is not a consistent practice in the Lutheran church.  There are Lutheran denominations which limit communion only to those in that specific denomination, or members of that specific congregation.  There are ELCA churches that limit communion to the confirmed, or to those who have been through a First Communion class.  But the churches I have served in the past five years serve all.  Everyone who comes forward and puts out a hand receives communion.  Every toddler, who clings with one arm to Mom’s waist and with the other reaches for the bread, is fed.  All that is required is an open palm.

What we recognize and teach is that Christ is fully present, and that Christ was given for all.  Not only those of a certain age.  Not only those of a certain congregation or denomination.  Not even only those who are baptized.  Christ was given for the world.  If we believe that Jesus is fully present in the bread and wine, as a gift of grace from God for the work of salvation, then we have no power to limit it.  It is God’s work, not ours -- Christ’s body and blood.

1 comment:

  1. Emmy, I got goosebumps reading this - especially when you write of the moment Pastor Bruce placed the full weight of the bread in your hands.

    Thank you so much for this! You've said exactly what I believe, and you've said it so well! "For all." Amen!!