Dear Congregation at Willoughby Church,
I’ve been in a good deal of discussions recently with many pastors who are struggling with the question of whether or not to participate in the Lord’s Supper during this time of physical absence from one another. A few pastors have had their parishioners partake at home, by themselves, while watching an online service. Another pastor suggested he was thinking of maybe just encouraging each family to participate as a family, in the same sort of way that Israelite and Jewish families would have done with the Passover meal.
Many other pastors have decided that, given that we are physically apart from one another, it’s better for us to wait until we can be together again before partaking of the Table.
I tend to agree with those pastors who see value in waiting until we are together again until we partake of the Table. I’m not dogmatic about it. But the considerations for waiting strike me as theologically weighty.
An Irreducibly Bodily Action
As a sign and seal of the Gospel in visible form, partaking of the Lord’s Table together is one of the most embodied things we do as a body of Christ. It seems strange, then, to offer people a virtual supper experience that disembodies what is meant to be irreducibly bodily (our bodies, eating; the body of Christ, eaten; the body of believers, eating together).
Jordan and Sam Ravensbergen just had their third child, a son. His name is Ephraim. (Congrats to them and the grandparents!) Just imagine how strange it would be to participate in the sacrament of baptism for Ephraim by means of an online virtual platform. I can’t pour the water on Ephraim. Can’t hold him. Can’t walk among the body of Christ while asking you to make your promises. Can’t lift our voices in praise together to give thanks to our promise-making Lord. In the same way, there seems simply too great a disjunction for me to think of sharing communion together as the body of Christ without actually being bodily together as the body of Christ.
The Nature of Christian Worship
A friend of mine, Rev. Dr. Chris Ganski, a fellow pastor in the CRC who serves a church in Milwaukee Wisconsin, wrote on worship and the sacraments for his PhD dissertation. Ganske notes that scriptural worship within the body of Christ is always four things: it’s communal, embodied, participatory, and authoritative. This is to say, worship is something that we do together, in bodily ways, as participants instead of spectators, and under the authority of the Holy Word of God as spoken to us personally from one ordained. Online worship, as we’re engaging in it now, makes every single one of these elements of biblical worship very difficult, if not impossible.
Eucharistic Abstinence: A Way of Resisting Normalization
What this means, then, is that, although we’re engaging in online worship services as an ‘emergency’ and ‘stop-gap’ method (instead of doing nothing, and as we have been doing for years now for the sick and shut-ins via our usual live-streaming), the last thing we want to do is normalize (make normal) online worship services, and pretend that they can be a substitute for the real thing. They cannot.
Refraining from the Table during this time of isolation, then—engaging in what Ganski is calling a ‘Eucharistic abstinence’—may be considered one small way in which we can refuse to normalize online worship and fittingly witness to the reality that there is no substitute for actually getting together with our bodies as the body of Christ.
Another benefit of engaging in such a Eucharistic abstinence is that it will make us hunger. Hunger to be together again. Hunger to receive the means of grace at the Table again. Abstinence is not the denial of desire, but the redirection of it. To abstain from the Table now is not to deny our desire for it; it’s to redirect this desire to our eventual reunion (God willing, soon now).
Another benefit is that it will underscore to us what time it is for us as a church. With our physical isolation from one another, we’re living in a more acute way than normal what spiritual theologians refer to as a time of ‘spiritual wilderness’ or ‘exile’. Jesus himself was thrust into a wilderness period at the beginning of his earthly ministry, as recorded in the Gospel’s temptation narratives. Instructively, Jesus was not fed with bread from heaven as Israel was in the desert. He ate no food at all. Yet this didn’t mean he wasn’t fed. His Heavenly Father did feed him. His food, in his wilderness period, was the Word of God: “For man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Now is a great time for us, too, to remember this, and live into it.
To those who would say that we need to eat the Supper now more than ever, precisely because it is a powerful means of grace, and precisely because we are in a time of crisis, Ganski makes the point that although God binds us to the sacraments, God himself is not bound by the sacraments. Translation: Although we are commanded as believers to participate in the Sacraments, God can feed us and give us everything we need for life and spiritual vitality in times like these when we either cannot or should not or choose not to partake of the Table. So, we need not worry that our Lord won’t feed us if we’re not partaking. His grace truly is sufficient.
An analogy at this point may be helpful to pull the various strands of the above together. Because, for many, I realize, the above discussion might be a bit thick.
Analogy to Sex in Marriage
Think about sex within marriage. Marriage and sex within Protestantism is considered sacramental. Marriage tells forth the truth about the Gospel, about Christ and his bride (see Ephesians 5). Sex within marriage is seen as a sign and seal of the covenant union between husband and wife: it nourishes what it symbolizes—namely, the covenant union—just as the Sacraments do.
When a husband and a wife are physically together, it is altogether good and holy and healthy for them to unite physically and consummate their covenant union—to engage in sacramental action. Again, such intimacy in marriage symbolizes the matrimonial union and strengthens it, which is why Paul urges couples to maintain a robust sex life and not deprive each other except consensually and when necessity calls for it (see 1 Corinthians 7).
What will a husband and wife do when physically separate from one another? Quite likely, and properly, they will not attempt to find a substitute for their bodily coming together. A virtual substitute, in fact, is quite unthinkable. Rather, a husband and wife who are physically separated from one another will allow their desire for physical union to grow. And they will nourish one another at a distance with the word: by speaking to one another, writing letters, using ‘Facetime’.
In the same way, then, body of Christ, it seems most proper and fitting in this time of physical isolation from one another to abstain from partaking in the sacrament of communion together. In addition to allowing our desire to be together again as the body of Christ to grow, and be nourished by the Table, it encourages us to be fed in our union with Christ by the Word, until we are all together again.
May the Lord feed us, one and all, during this time. And may we continue also to feed one another with the love that we ourselves have been fed with.
The Peace of our Lord,