The Idolatry of the Lord’s Supper
A Message from Pastor Hale
The Lord’s Supper – Christ’s holy body and blood – is good. That is a great understatement – it is holy and divine. But if some is good – or great – is more better? The push for every week Communion seems to be in the air in Lutheran circles. While good in itself, we must not think any practice will make one a better Christian, let alone be a guarantee of salvation or orthodox doctrine. But who could argue with more of the body and blood of Christ? Not the what, but the why – is the matter of concern.
First, it must be established that other churches have communion frequently and are not orthodox. If the frequency of Communion is all that matters, then the Roman church is a very good church. But they teach that the Supper is a representation of the sacrifice of Christ. It is not just a gift, but a sacrifice to God. That turns the Gospel of the Supper into Law. In a way, their frequency is dictated by their theology, since they don’t teach the full freedom of the Gospel. More sacrifices are needed in their view. In other words, Communion, for them, is a “have to,” not a “want to.” That is backwards and not Lutheran.
The Law emphasis is easy to fall into. For all the many reasons for every week Communion, there is no “should,” without demanding what God did not. Christ left it a free gift, without a specific prescription for how often we should take it: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). It is easy to make rules and coerce to the altar, but it is another matter entirely to cause people to gladly desire the forgiveness it offers. That is done not by talking about frequency, but about what it is and gives. This requires preaching the Gospel – the real work of pastors – not scheduling.
It is always good and godly to desire Communion, but we do not lack Christ if we are not consuming Christ at the present moment. It is not like filling up a gas tank with fuel. Grace is not a finite substance, as Rome teaches, but the favor of God. Christ is wholly present for us in faith which trusts in the Word. Baptism is not incomplete without the Supper (as the Eastern Orthodox show by communing infants). Children who have not been taught and cannot confess the doctrine of their church’s confession of God’s Word are not missing out. If they desire the Supper – good. But we do not have to eat every time we are hungry. The promises of the Word sustain faith, not our doing of church rituals.
If you cannot Commune, be content with the Word and the promise of unlimited forgiveness in Jesus you do possess. After all, there is no Communion without Christ’s Word, which always gives rise to and demands faith. Forgiveness is never piecemeal. There is not a different type of forgiveness in the Supper, though it comes in a unique way. There is one Gospel and one Christ, so to believe is to have all of Him and His righteousness. There is no extra boost of holiness in Communion – the holy meal is also a Word of promise – instituted by our Lord.
There are some who act like a service without Communion is not a real service, as if it were less divine. But Christ is fully present where two or three are gathered in His name. Communion is not a sudden magic appearing act for Jesus – so that He leaves us destitute without the Supper. He gives Himself, body and blood, in Communion, but He has not confined Himself to bread and wine. We dare not be Roman and pit Communion against His sacrificial death, putting them on the same level. Communion is good, but if all you trust in is your consuming Jesus’ body and blood – you are damned. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). That does not mean Communion is less than divine, or somehow optional for the church – but the act of Communing alone cannot save you from your sins. It is never to be apart from faith and the Word which preaches Christ’s death for sinners. The Supper is an external act, commanded by Christ (“do this”), but it is also a Gospel promise offering forgiveness, to be received in faith.
While Communion gives Christ’s most precious body and blood – it is not necessarily for the recipient’s blessing. It is not a cure-all for lousy preaching and poor doctrine: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). It should only be given to those who can discern the body and are aware of their need for the forgiveness it offers. It is also a public, communal act – not a private one. To have the Supper together with other sinners is also to show unity in Christ and His teaching. The biblical practice of closed Communion shows that the Supper is not generically good – what is holy is not always beneficial for sinners. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).
We must ever emphasize that our act of Communing is not identical to being clothed with Christ’s righteousness and being declared holy before God – just as touching Christ’s flesh on earth did not grant life and healing to all: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to the woman with the issue of blood who touched Him in faith. A run-away dog can easily lap up wine and eat a wafer—that does not make a dog a great Christian.
We can wax eloquently about the holiness of the Supper and its great gifts, but without faith created by the Word, our act of communing can be idolatry – most literally. We can think we are justified by the bare act, thinking Christ will be satisfied with my sin if I just eat a small wafer and chug a bit of mediocre wine. This is an unworthy reception – and not all eating and drinking, the outward act – is to one’s benefit. A sinner might think it is a small trade to eat and drink once a week to buy off God’s justice – but this is idolatry, no matter how often one does it.
The Supper, for all its divine significance and blessings, is not a substitute for the applied Gospel – and for the entire Christ who fills all things. It may even be shocking to find out that all the Old Testament saints were saved without even communing one time. The Supper does not replace faith or make righteousness less necessary. This is why traditionally Lutherans did not get all emotional and preachy about the frequency of the Supper – and had no emergency (or virtual) Communion. Our external reception of it does not determine our righteousness before God – it matters more what we teach and believe about the Supper – and the Christ who offers His body and blood in it. Our physical reception of it is the least important aspect. “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.” The words are to be proclaimed and preserved by preaching and teaching – not eating.
The gift is not just Christ – it is also His forgiveness for us in the Word, without which no one can be holy to God and know Him. “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins’.” He seals the promise of full forgiveness with the same body and blood offered unto death for your sins. That faith is counted as righteousness. But doing is not believing. The Supper is not just a ritual man does, it is a divine promise for faith. Doing the act, by itself, will not automatically create faith, but faith certainly desires to do the act – but it cannot always be done.
We must not abandon our families and vocations to commune 24/7 – thinking that is the essence of Christianity. Yet this meal must be taught to be done and received the right way, according to Christ’s own will, since it is His Supper. Christianity, after all, is not an intellectual philosophy. Our enfleshed Lord instituted a real action – for us to eat and drink in faith.
The Apology to the Augsburg Confession speaks in the German version of the Roman mass as “Baal Gottesdienst” or “Baal Worship” (XXIV, 98). But Rome had (and still does) Christ’s true body and blood on the altar – even every week! Having the consecrated elements and even consuming buckets of them does not make one holy, by itself. This was the very Roman teaching that was condemned by the first Lutherans: simply doing the act was said to be enough – it didn’t matter in Roman teaching if one believed, repented, or knew what they were receiving from the living Christ in the Supper. True worship the Father desires is not only external, though it will entail doing things. It is ever worship in the Spirit and truth of God. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).
Today, we must again preach against robotically doing the bare act of Communion without being repentant or believing what the Words of Christ say and deliver: the forgiveness of our sins. Truth be told, we have too many pastors “teaching” the frequency of Communion, but not the doctrine, right reception, public fellowship implications, and the true spiritual blessings of the Supper. Scripture does not command just the act, but the whole will of Christ who comes to forgive sinners in this meal. To preach Christ is to preach the Supper, since He Himself is in it for sinners! Only the pure Gospel can preserve the gift of Communion. The act alone cannot, and repeating it more frequently, cannot sustain and uplift the promise it truly offers. Words do it – not actions. Idolatry is always about our works – not obeying and believing God’s Word.
My flippant retort to every week Communion is why stop there? Isn’t every day Communion better than every week? Surely if I take it every hour or half-hour, my holiness will increase? No, more is not always better, if we are talking about our actions. Every instance of the Supper gives full forgiveness for every sin. There is no expiration date on this forgiveness. It is not only for past sins. The Word is eternal and lives beyond the human act of consuming the elements. And faith by the Word which grants the Spirit to us is not a human act – like going to an altar to eat and drink. Sure, we should desire to commune frequently, if we believe we are sinners and know what the Supper offers. But we dare not put the act of receiving the Supper in the place of faith in the risen Christ, lest we find a Baal idol in what we exclaim should happen more often.
- Published: 09 December 2020 09 December 2020
- Last Updated: 09 December 2020 09 December 2020