In looking back 500 years to Martin Luther’s words and actions that initiated what we now know as the Protestant Reformation, there are very many aspects of church life and theology that we can see which have changed drastically through the years.
But just this past week, I was struck by one particular aspect of worship which has remained a constant in form not only from the time of Martin Luther, but from the time when Jesus instituted it himself. And that part of worship is the act of Holy Communion for Christians.
The words spoken are taken almost directly from translated scripture, and the actions are about as literal as one can get. Bread and wine are shared, eaten and drank, with Jesus’ words from the last supper repeated, “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
And yet it struck me that I had not talked directly about this weekly occurrence for many Christians in these reflections on 500 years of Luther’s influence on Christianity.
Now, given what I just said, that the form does not seem to have changed since the beginning, you may think that Luther had little to say on the matter. On the contrary, Luther found himself at odds on all fronts when it came to trying to give explanation and meaning to the Lord’s Supper.
Though I have written about this elsewhere, Lutheran clergy are ordained to a ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Word part of that covers Scriptures, preaching, sort of Jesus the Word revealed in actual words. The Sacrament part of that is what some refer to as the Visible Word.
I tend to liken sacraments to the tangible kinds of communication that a hug brings forth in contrast to simply saying the words “I love you.” Luther said that sacraments have three criteria: a command from Christ (the aforementioned “Do this,”) an earthly element (bread and wine) and a promise (in the case of Holy Communion, it is forgiveness of sins as Jesus states at the Last Supper).
For Luther, using those criteria, there was only one other sacrament — baptism — which I wrote about in my March 31 column. And although baptism is the entrance rite into the Church, Communion is an intricate part of worship in which every form of Christianity participates in some form or fashion and which many denominations share as a regular weekly part of worship.
Its regularity is not so strange as it is the sacrament of the meal, and as we know we are in constant need of meals. So as we regularly need the nourishment of food to help us live and grow in body, we regularly need the nourishment of forgiveness to help us live and grow in spirit.
Though there can be elaborate liturgies built around the time of communion, at its heart is still the words of Jesus and bread and wine, but Luther’s hinge point 500 years ago was more in “What did this sacrament mean?”
Some extreme Roman Catholic theologies wanted to say that the bread and wine became actual body and blood of Jesus in a process called transubstantiation, which then resulted in some bizarre abuses such as making extra bread/body so one could have real Jesus to put on a crucifix. To this, Luther’s practical side argued, “It looks like bread, tastes like bread, smells like bread. I think it is bread.” But, he would argue, Jesus promised to be present in the sacrament and that Jesus is “in, with, through and under” the bread and wine in what Lutherans refer to as the “real presence” of Jesus in the sacrament.
On the other side of the argument, some of the other reformers wanted to say that Communion was just a memorial event of worship, not really understanding what either the Greek or Hebrew words for “remembrance” really mean, which is basically remembering an event to the extent that you are actually taking part in that event being remembered. To which Luther would swing out the words of Jesus “This IS my body.” “This IS my blood.”
He would emphasize the “is” (usually in the Latin “est” as it was the language of debate) to show that there was more than imagery at work here and something of substance, to the point that Jesus means to be really present in this supper he asks his disciples to share.
Such that, for Lutherans, the byproduct of all of this is the very definition of Communion.
Communion, as I tell my Confirmation class, is “union-ing together.” It stands to reason that if Jesus is truly present with you, and Jesus is truly present with me, then by the transitive property, I am present with you. And ultimately, if as we say in many of our liturgies, this sacrament is a gathering of God’s people of every time and every place, then the Communion table (much like the Passover table in the Jewish tradition) is a singular gathering of God’s people which transcends our perceptions of different times and places to the singularity which is the presence of the person of Jesus.
This last piece is the part that makes Communion the most special part of worship for many. For as it is a visible word of love and forgiveness wherein Jesus is hugging me, at the same “time,” Jesus is hugging those who have shared that meal before me as well, and we are all — all of us, all of God’s children — gathered around God’s family table forgiven, loved and nourished.
And that indeed is something to be thankful for!
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.