What Lutherans Believe About Holy Communion
TEN QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON EUCHARIST
Prepared by The Reverend Aubrey Nelson Bougher
*Excerpts from this booklet are used here
There is a revival in churches today of an old custom which to many seem new: that of celebrating the Holy Communion as the chief service of Sunday worship in some congregations. Those who find the frequent celebration of the sacrament new and perhaps confusing may easily ask why it is that this Sacrament, highly regarded by all who confess the Lutheran faith, is celebrated often in one parish, and rarely in another.
Some are surprised when they hear that Holy Communion (also known as Holy Eucharist, or among some Lutherans as the Mass) is celebrated every Sunday among some of us. Some Lutherans believe that infrequent celebration serves to enhance its meaning for them.
More and more Lutheran congregations are celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday, and many Lutherans are receiving the Holy Communion each Lord’s Day. Many pastors are advocating this practice in their congregations because they believe it is God’s will. But now let us ask and review some questions and see what you think.
- Did Jesus Say How Often to Have Communion?
In the Words of Institution (Mark 14:22; Matt. 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20; and 1 Cor. 11:23-25), we not only find the identification of the Bread-Body and Wine-Blood which forms our doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, we also find the command, “Do this as my Memorial.” “Memorial” here means more than our remembrance, but the active work of God bringing to the present that which is commemorated.
In 1 Corinthians 11, which is seen by many scholars as a quote by Paul of the early liturgy’s use of the Words of Jesus, we find – or “as often as you do it” – phrase. That Jesus commands the Apostles to “Do this” cannot be doubted. But how often to “Do this”? If we just look at the surface – of the words of the Bible, we must answer, “No, Jesus didn’t say how often” to the question.
Therefore, some background is needed for us to understand what Our Lord meant for us to do – and how often we are to do it – when He said “Do this.” The twelve Apostles and Jesus were all good Jews, and followed the Jewish rules and regulations; when they didn’t follow the rules of the Jews it was noted in scripture, as in the picking of the grain on the holy Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8). Jewish people at that time, as attested in their prayer books and liturgies, saw every meal as sacred; there were specific blessings to say before the meal and following the meal. These customs were the natural atmosphere in which the earliest Church – all Jews – gathered.
So, there was no question in Jewish practice about how often Jews would follow Jesus’ command, and it seems that Our Lord knew this. When they had their daily or weekly gathering for meals, they would not only use the regular Jewish meal blessings, so customary in the past, but would now add the words He gave them at the Last Supper, and by them His followers would not only share in earthly food, but in heavenly, with Him.
So, when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, He is not giving a new format, but a new meaning. The Apostles will meet constantly – with or without His command – to share food with customary Jewish blessings. He changes the meaning of the gatherings, and will meet with them at their fellowships (“communions”) making them Holy Communion…fellowship with the Holy One. Jesus did not have to say how often. He knew that His followers would desire to be with each other and with Him. Thus, the meal setting used before the Last Supper became the focus of Jesus’ meeting with His own in the present age, after the Resurrection, and before the Last Day.
2. How Did the Apostles Interpret His Command?
Holy Communion was for them a weekly gathering at the very least…and for those in
Jerusalem it was daily. How do we know this? Although Acts 2:42 gives us an outline of worship, verse 46 tells us when they did it: With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people.
The preaching service customarily used by many Lutherans is really a “Christianized” synagogue service. The definitive Christian act of worship, the Holy Eucharist, identified the early Christians each time they met as a congregation for worship. Daily gatherings was apparently not possible outside of Jerusalem, and so a weeklygathering imitating the Sabbath worship was begun on Sundays, the day commemorating the Resurrection of Christ. It was called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), and was the common day for gathering the Christian fold for Eucharist outside Jerusalem where Communion already was daily.
3. How Did The Church Develop Communion?
Holy Communion, as we call it, was the chief Sunday Service everywhere recorded in all
Nonheretical churches throughout the entire history of Christendom, of East and West, to the early 16th century, and then only was omitted in certain non-Lutheran Protestant sects and denominations. This was attested by an early Christian document known as The Didache, written around the year 100: On the Lord’s day – His special day – come together and break bread and give thanks. Around the turn of the second century, the synagogue service was added to the Eucharist to form what we now have as the Liturgy of Word and Sacrament, in its basic outline.
In 321, Emperor Constantine, who had declared Christianity legal in the Roman Empire, made every Sunday a legal holiday, and encouraged membership in the Church. Crowds thronged to churches, but only a few would receive Holy Communion. Fear of an angry God in the Sacrament and excessive mystery developed a Eucharist for the priest alone while laymen said prayers and only occasionally would come to Communion.
4. What Did Martin Luther Do and Say About Communion?
Part of the Reformation dealt with giving the communion back to the laity, and in both kinds
(bread and wine). Luther restored preaching to the Communion Service (it had been made optional years before), and in essence he restored that unity the Service had in its early days. And, as the Reformer, through the end of his days, he would receive Communion himself not less than every other week. Seeing the reconciliation of God and man in the forgiveness of sins, Luther stressed the forgiveness received in the Sacrament, and man’s constant need to receive God’s grace. Much more could be taken from Luther, but his point was that the church should continue to offer the Sacrament publicly on at least weekly basis, and more often in larger areas.
5. What Did Protestants Do With Communion?
While Lutherans continues the universal custom of the weekly Sunday Communion during the
Reformation era and for about 200 years thereafter, other Protestants had differing solutions to the problem of the Roman Mass. Luther retained the form, commanded by Christ, and restored much of its original meaning, missing in the Church of Rome at his time.
6. Why Did Lutherans Give Up Weekly Eucharist?
Some Lutherans never did give up. But there are many factors among those who did. Some were:
Rationalism. Rationalism was a belief that the mind was the supreme organ of the human being. Only the ignorant needed signs and symbols, actions and ceremonies, went this view. Humanity, enlightened now, needed only to hear and read and thus be aware of the Gospel. Pulpits were more important than altars. In America and the German-English countries of Protestanism, Communion was administered once or twice a year in many places by the turn of the 19th century.
War and Frontier Conditions. During the 17th century, European wars destroyed many cities; churches were in ruins, pastors were dead or drafted, and therefore were not able to celebrate communion on the old schedule in many places.
Pietism. A movement originally to help the church be more itself, pietism stressed inward religion. Later on, it became opposed to the “outward” or “formal” worship. Both the preached Word and the administered Sacrament were put in subjection to one’s “heart” and Christianity became for many Lutherans a sentimentalized religion with the right emotions being more important than the right belief.
Overemphasis On Communion Preparation. Some Lutheran pastors, taking 1 Cor. 11:28 to mean a long and church organized period of repentance before communicants were deemed “worthy”, taught that people shout not take communion without long and personal introspective preparation. They might profane Christ’s Body and Blood and therefore make an “unworthy” communion.
7. What Revived Frequent Communions?
Renewed scripture study leads many to believe that Christ as understood by His Apostles sees the
Eucharist as the chief gathering of His flock, not a “special service” for those who just want that kind of thing. Seeing the “Do this” in context of His command leads many to believe in the centrality of the Sacrament. In addition, we see how the early Christians saw the Sacrament as central to their life in a daily and weekly gathering. During the 300thanniversary of the Reformation, interest revived in the Lutheran Confessions among Lutheran who had not taken them seriously for some time. One effect was the realization that the Church had lost its ground of worship in the balanced form of Word and Sacrament which the Reformers had taken for granted. Finally, God’s grace is not to be held back as a treasure in a box, but freely given to all who are able to receive Him. He wants to give. This is the very nature of His love.
8. Why is Communion Central to Our Life?
Because of its basic meaning: the restoration of the Baptized into baptismal unity with Christ and
all that that unity implies both in heaven and earth through the forgiveness of sins. While Christ is present in many ways, certainly including the preached Word, this Sacrament embodies the fellowship and full action which alone actualizes the promises of communion with the Holy.
9. How Often Should I Receive Communion?
Often! Normally every week, or at every celebration. Why? To be one with Christ and to be
Renewed in the forgiveness and love in which He enfolds you. It is not for the sake of ceremony that the Church has had this, but so that God’s grace may be yours! We must be reminded that there is not a day that goes by without some sin…thought, word, or deed (usually all three)…as an offense against the commandments and our calling as Christians. Luther once wrote, “Because I always sin, I always need the Sacrament.” That applies to all of us.
10. Isn’t Weekly Communion “Too Catholic”?
Our concern is to be true to our own Biblical traditions of Christ and the Church. And if they are true to the same traditions, as they increasingly are, why should we worry about whether or not our practice is like or dislike theirs? We have seen that weekly Communion on Sunday is backed by Luther and Lutheran documents. We should like to add that the ELCA, in its work “The Use of the Means of Grace” also advocates for weekly celebration of Communion.