As I write this, it is Easter Tuesday. At this point we have gone without gathering for worship for over a month. As yet, we still do not know how long we will have to go on in these present circumstances. The reality is, we could have several more months of physical distancing, quarantine, and stay-at-home recommendations. Yet, far worse than not gathering together, is going without receiving the True Body and True Blood of our Lord and Saviour. Since gathering together to receive Holy Communion is a defining feature of what it means to be “The Church”, many are having a hard time dealing with going without Holy Communion.1 That may even include some in our own parish. Our life together as a church does not feel complete without gathering around the Altar. Our celebration of Holy Week did not feel complete without receiving Communion of Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.
Why Holy Communion is so important can easily be understood when we remind ourselves about what the Bible teaches about it. When we receive communion, we receive in our mouths not only bread and wine, but along with the bread and wine, the very Body and Blood of Jesus.2 This, of course, is proven by the simple words of Christ himself, “Take, eat; this is my body,” “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood,” (Matt. 26:26-28).3
But, receiving the Sacrament with our mouths and receiving it in such a way that we benefit from it are two different things. This is an important distinction. The prayer entitled, “Thanksgiving after receiving the Sacrament,” on the inside of the front cover of our Lutheran Service Book helps explain this distinction: “Send Your Holy Spirit that, having with my mouth received the holy Sacrament, I may by faith obtain and eternally enjoy Your divine grace, the forgiveness of sins, unity with Christ, and life eternal.”4 Did you see the difference? We receive with our mouths the Holy Sacrament, but we will not benefit from the grace that God offers except by faith. That explains why the Apostle Paul warns that a person without faith can receive Holy Communion to his harm and judgment (1 Cor. 11:27-30).
Christ our Lord also makes the same point. In the Gospel of John chapter six, commonly called “The Bread of Life Discourse,” Jesus shocks the people of Capernaum by claiming, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:54). It is not hard to see why these verses have been cited throughout the centuries as referring to the Lord’s Supper. However, Martin Luther disagreed. Referring to this passage Luther remarked, “There the Lord refers to spiritual eating and drinking, to the eating not of the mouth but of the soul.”5 What Luther is saying is that this passage is actually about obtaining the benefits of Jesus’ flesh and blood. But wait! Jesus is talking about eating his flesh and blood. Surely this is a clear reference to Communion! Can you really eat Christ without the Lord’s Supper? In fact, Christ himself makes himself very clear. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst,’” (John 6:35). Here, Jesus is saying that to come and believe in Christ is to eat and drink his flesh and blood! He is referring to another type of eating, one done by faith.
Our Lutheran Confessions also refer to two types of eating, and understanding this will help us get through this difficult time where we cannot partake of Holy Communion. The Formula of Concord says,
There is a twofold eating of Christ’s flesh. One is spiritual, which Christ describes especially in John 6:54. This “eating” happens in no other way than with the Spirit and faith, in preaching and meditation on the Gospel, as well as in the Lord’s Supper. By itself this is useful and helpful, and necessary for all Christians, at all times, for salvation. Without this spiritual participation the sacramental or oral eating in the Supper is not only not helpful, but is even harmful and damning.
This spiritual eating is nothing other than faith. It means to hear God’s Word (in which Christ, true God and man, is presented to us, together with all benefits that He has purchased for us by His flesh given into death for us, and by His blood shed for us, namely, God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life). It means to receive it with faith and keep it for ourselves. It means that in all troubles and temptations we firmly rely—with sure confidence and trust—and abide in this consolation: we have a gracious God and eternal salvation because of the Lord Jesus Christ.6
So, while during this difficult time we are unable to receive Holy Communion, we can still “eat” Christ. What does that mean? It means that despite our time of separation, the Word of God is still available to us.
To eat Christ spiritually means to believe the promises of the Gospel. It means to appropriating for ourselves by faith all that Jesus did for us on the Cross.7 God is still offering us His “divine grace, the forgiveness of sins, unity with Christ, and life eternal.” He does so through the Word, wherever it is read or heard. The exact same grace and forgiveness which God offers to us when we receive the Lord’s Supper in faith is offered to us when we trust God’s promises to us offered in the Word.8
Our greatest comfort and during this time is that God has not left us alone. No, we are given the sure and certain confidence that because Jesus Christ has died for our sins, to pay what we owe, and rose again, we know that God is gracious to us. Jesus Christ is the bread of life, and this is the bread that, “is given, and given to be broken in death, so that those who eat of it may not die, but have eternal life in the present and the future and be raised up on the last day.”9 God has not abandoned us in wrath, but because of Jesus, he continues to extend mercy and forgiveness to us. When we trust in this God, who extends forgiveness for Christ’s sake, then we are truly eating of Christ!
This is why during this time we have opted to offer services which are streamed through the Internet. It is vital that the preaching of the Gospel continue so that you may receive the promised forgiveness by faith, so that you may feed on Christ. But, this crisis is also an opportunity for you to read and meditate upon God’s Word for yourself. In fact, the Word is available to us in abundance! There are numerous resources to choose from! If you have not got into the routine of regular Bible reading, then now is a good time to start. Podcasts and Christian literature are readily available. Other faithful Lutheran pastors are offering prayer services and occasions to hear preaching and God’s Word. If you’re looking for something specific, just ask!
In this time of crisis, we have had to unfortunately suspend our gathering together and thus also our reception of the Lord’s Supper. But we have not suspended God’s Word. The promise of forgiveness of sins, unity with Christ, and life eternal continues to be taught and proclaimed so that you may feed on Christ. Take heart then. God has not abandoned us. On the contrary, He is near to us. He calls us all to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures, so that by the patience and comfort offered in His Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast to the blessed hope of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. May we always eat of Christ in this way!
1 “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” Augsburg Confession, VII:1. Citations from the Lutheran Confessions are from Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).
2 “We believe that in the Lord’s Supper Christ’s body and blood are truly and substantially present and are truly administered with those things that are seen (bread and wine) to those who receive the Sacrament.” Apology, X:54.
3 Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4 The Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book, Pew Edition (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), Payers for Worship.
5 LW 22:317.
6 Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII:61-62. This distinction between two types of eating is not only a Lutheran one. It can also be found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. See specifically Summa Theologica, III, q. 80, ad. 1. See also Hermann Sasse, This is my body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1959), 51-53, 178-180.
7 Johann Gerhard, A Comprehensive Explanation of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (1610), trans. Elmer Hohle, (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1996), 340-345. Martin Chemnitz, “The Lord’s Supper” in Chemnitz’s Works, Volume 5, trans. J. A. O. Preus (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 231-241.
8 See Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), III.108-114.
9 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 87.