The Impossibility of Online Administration of the Lord's Supper

"The Lord's Supper is not the private experience of individuals. Rather, it belongs to the Christian community. It unites the many recipients into "one body" (I Corinthians 10:17). It is fellowship, or communion."1

The Lutheran Confessions bind us to celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar according to its institution by Christ our Lord (I Corinthians 11:23-25; Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). To use the words of Luther, "it is the Lord's Supper, not the Christians' Supper."  The Formula of Concord speaks of how the Supper of the Lord is to be administered in our congregations in such a manner as to leave no room for doubt or uncertainty as to the fact that according to Christ's word "the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed and received on the basis of the power and might of the very same words that Christ spoke in the first Supper" (FC-SD VII:75, K-W, 606). These words are not a magical incantation but the testament of Jesus Christ by which He gives what He promises, his body and blood under bread and wine for us Christians to eat and to drink.

The words of institution (verba) are spoken by the called and ordained servant over particular bread and wine within a particular and circumscribed context. Hence the Formula continues "Indeed, in the administration of the Holy Supper the Words of Institution are to be clearly and plainly spoken or sung publicly in the congregation, and in no case are they to be omitted" (FC-SD VII:79). But the speaking of Christ's words alone do not make the Sacrament. The Formula reminds us that these words (the consecration) are set within the framework of the contingent actions of distribution and eating and drinking (see FC-SD VII: 85-88). The pastor is responsible not only for speaking the words of Christ over bread and wine but also for distributing them, literally "handing them out" (see Augsburg Confession XIV:1 where German word reichen is used). The pastor also has the responsibility to deliver the Lord's gifts including the responsibility as a steward of the Lord's holy things, admitting some and denying others (see AC XXIV:36, K-W, 71). This cannot be accomplished in absentia.

Christ's institution of the Sacrament (that is what He has set in place and authorizes) must determine how His church uses this precious gift. The Formula rightly warns us that those who depart from Christ's institution "have only bread and wine, for they do not have the words and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination" (FC-SD VII:32, K-W, 598).

We would also caution here those who might be tempted in this time of crisis to resort to their own imaginations as if our dire need overrides what Christ has instituted. We may not resort to spurious claims that individual belief is more important than these alleged external matters of consecration, distribution, and eating and drinking. Against such a view, we confess "Faith does not make the sacrament but only the true Word and institution of our almighty God and Savior Jesus Christ, which is always power and remains efficacious in Christendom" (FC-SD VII:89-, K-W, 608).

The Lutheran Reformers rightly rejected such things as private masses, reservation of the consecrated host, and Corpus Christi processions as these humanly-devised practices fall outside of Christ's institution. "If some want to justify their position by saying that they want to commune themselves for the sake of their own devotion, they cannot be taken seriously. For if they serious desire to commune, then they do with certainty and the best way by using the sacrament administered according to Christ's institution. On the contrary to commune oneself is a human notion, uncertain, unnecessary, and even forbidden. Such people also do not know what they are doing, because they are following a false human notion and innovation without the sanction of God's Word. This is not right (even if everything else were otherwise in order) to use the common sacrament of the church for one's own devotional life and to play with it according to one's own please apart from God's Word and outside the church community" (SA II-2:8-9, K-W, 302-303). In these challenging times, we surely ought not devise such things as internet consecration or carry away communion packets but seek to find responsible ways to comfort God's people in accord with His will and institution.

John T. Pless, M.Div.; D. Litt.

1 Werner Elert, "The Lord's Supper Today" in Closed Communion? Admission to the Lord's Supper in Biblical Lutheran Perspective ed. Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), 387.