I want to begin by stating that this is not a theological treatise on the Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of communion. It is also not a critique or criticism of the variety of ways faith communities have found to celebrate the sacrament even when they have not been able to gather in person for worship. This is a reflection from someone who has been serving this church for over 36 years as an ordained pastor and is now a bishop, who loves having communion and presiding at the table, advocating from the beginning of her ministry the importance of weekly communion, having the communion table open to all, including young children, and authorizing lay people to preside if there was no ordained pastor available, AND who during these weeks of fasting from communion has done a lot of thinking and reflecting about the meaning of communion for me and for our church.
Many years ago in confirmation class, studying Luther’s Small Catechism, I learned that the means of grace are the Word and the sacraments (baptism and communion) and that to be a sacrament, three things are required – a physical element, commanded by Christ in Scripture, and the ability to convey life, forgiveness, and salvation. When I grew up in the church, you had to be confirmed before you could begin receiving communion. But the year I was confirmed was the year the larger church made the decision to lower the age when children could begin receiving communion. What?! I had to wait. I had to memorize the Small Catechism. I had to take sermon notes . . . . Why were these younger children allowed to have communion when they hadn’t done all the work and obviously didn’t understand what it meant?
But if communion is a means of grace (and it is!) then how can any of us earn it, whether by our age, our recitation of correct doctrine, or even our understanding of the sacrament? How is it even possible to really comprehend how Christ is truly present in a little piece of bread which remained bread, in a sip of wine (or grape juice) that remained wine. It always comes as a gift, as an undeserved gift. With this growing appreciation and awakening I started to ask – then why can’t children, even young children partake? Why isn’t everyone welcome at the table? What a joy it was for me as a pastor, when I accepted the call to serve at Our Savior’s in Topeka, KS where children of all ages took communion, to be able to stand at the altar and say, “The table is ready and you are all welcome.” And by all, I meant ALL. Why would we gather for worship and NOT celebrate this gift? Of course, we would celebrate communion every Sunday. To do anything less made no sense to me.
With this understanding, I was surprised by my own decision to fast from communion once we suspended in-person worship services throughout the synod. There are many individual spiritual practices that I have and continue to engage in to experience God’s grace and know that Christ is with me, practices that bring me comfort and peace. I read Scripture and other devotions, write in a journal, pray, walk, listen to music. But for me communion takes place in the gathered community, a communal meal shared with people of God. And the reality is in this pandemic, in these weeks of sheltering at home, that has not been able to happen for me. Fasting from communion is my honest recognition that things are not as they should be, that this is painful and hard, but that God is still present. More than trusting the means of grace, I trust the grace will carry me through.
Again, this is not a critique of those who have chosen to participate in some kind of “virtual” or “on-line” celebration of communion. But I do wonder at what point communion shifts from being an invitation by God to come to the table to a demand by us to be fed. I also wonder if we are looking to communion as some kind of “mystical” pill that will give us the strength we need to make it through this. Yes, it is comforting and powerful, gives us a sense of peace, connecting us to Christ. I understand why people long for it, but isn’t is Christ that we are truly longing for who is with us even when we do not celebrate communion?
My other wonderings and reflections have been around the authorization of lay people to preside at the communion, something that has a long tradition in this synod but is not universally recognized even within the ELCA. I have in the past questioned the insistence on having only ordained clergy preside at the communion table. Isn’t it the words of institution, those words from Scripture, along with the bread and wine what make the meal communion, not the person who says the words? Yes, I believe that is true, but I also understand that we have called ordained clergy to do this role, not simply for the sake of good order, but to consecrate this meal on behalf of the whole church. Communion is not an individual spiritual practice or a private family affair, but a means of grace that is a mark of the church. The Lutheran Confessions define the church as the gathering of believers where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered in accordance with gospel (and I would add so that the people can be sent out to participate in God’s mission in the world.) We have set apart individuals and ordained them to carry out these roles on behalf of all of us, entrusted the gift of the sacrament so that it is administered in accordance with the gospel.
But we all know that there is a clergy shortage and that many of our congregations are not able to call a pastor to exercise this role on their behalf. So, do we deny these congregations the ability to receive this means of grace? Do the “rules” requiring an ordained clergy outweigh the need to share the gift? I have emphatically said “no” and so as the Bishop, I have authorized lay people to preside. I see my authorization as the bishop as necessary because it connects the presiding of this sacrament to the whole church. I believe it also reminds us that the sacrament is not something that individual congregations “own” and therefore can just celebrate however they want to without this connection to the whole church. It is not a right that we are entitled to have, but a gift that is entrusted to us, again on behalf of the whole church. As the Bishop, I am called to care for this gift which may mean authorizing lay people to preside in certain circumstances but it may also mean reminding faith communities that it is Christ we worship, not communion, and that Christ is fully present in the Word.
I am not sure where all of these reflections and wonderings will lead me. I continue to reflect as this crisis continues to evolve. But as hard as it has been to fast from communion, as frustrating as it has been to not have the answers, to not know what is the “right” thing to do about communion, this time has also invited me more deeply into a time of relying not on myself, my own wisdom, or even my own experiences. This time has invited me more deeply into grace.
Could it be that this time is indeed a means of grace for me and for the church?