Whether you read the version in Matthew, Mark or Luke, there has always been disagreement. There's the argument about whether to emphasize the "this IS" or the "DO this" portion of the Words of Instituion. There's the argument (foreshadowing a US president of recent memory) asking how we should understand "This is..." There are folks who believe that if the bread is leavened, or doesn't have wheat in it, or if some restriction or other isn't met, the Eucharist is "not valid" or "is not efficacious." And there are people who think that "do this..." means exactly what was done twenty-plus centuries ago. Or sixteen centuries. Or four. Or one. And so on.
I'm not going to resolve any of those arguments, though I certainly have my ideas. But I'm going to pose three views...one from my own experience, one from my adoptive hometown, and one from history, on the topic. My purpose is not to annoy you in your understanding of what it is to "have Communion," but to simply ask if maybe God's purpose might just be bigger than our understanding (whatever that happens to be).
In my seminary class on leading Lutheran worship, we had to break into teams and be videotaped while either presiding or assisting in leading worship. We had a team of 5 - and each time, one person would be the "senior pastor," one would be the "assisting minister," and the other three would be ushers/congregants. This was done in the seminary worship space, with the real robes, the real implements and paraments, everything just like real worship. Well, almost...but more on that in a bit.
We'd been told by our professor - definitely an authority on Lutheran worship - that there was no element of "zapping" in our service; no magic, no hocus-pocus. We learned at least the basic concept of consubstantiation. In very simple terms, this term means that the real presence of Christ (whatever that is) is present along with the unchanged reality of the bread and wine - "in, with, and under" the elements is the stock dogmatic line. The bread and wine are still bread and wine, but Christ is "with" the elements. (I still struggle with this, by the way.)
We'd also been told that in order for the Eucharist to be valid, there had to be (a) the gathered community of faith, (b) the Word of God, (c) the bread and wine, and (d) a Eucharistic prayer. The concept of personal, solo communion, or of communion without a worship service or without at least the words of institution was to be anathema for us seminarians. And for our Worship class video, almost all of these things were present.
In the place of the bread and wine, however, there was a host-shaped cardboard disk and a flagon of water. The message seemed to be that if it had been "real" bread and wine, we might have had "real" Eucharist - and since none of us were regularly consecrated and ordained clergy, that would have been dead wrong, eh?
But by the time I'd left our video session, I was really wondering about how hard we work to limit God's activity in the world. After all, the five of us were certainly true believers in the community of faith. I (in my turn as presiding liturgist) had read the Gospel, said the Eucharistic prayer, and had spoken the words of institution and the epiklesis, calling down the Holy Spirit on these pseudo-elements. My question to the group was, "If I had torn off pieces of the cardboard disk and given them to you to eat, and shared the cup with you, would that have been a valid Eucharist? Would the Spirit of Christ be 'in, with, and under' these elements as well?" But the group was uniformly weary from the video session, and just moaned and left the chapel...
It's not as silly a question as you might think. Every youth pastor who has stood before his or her youth group on the side of a mountain and spoken the words of institution over a plate of Wheat Thins and a cup of Dr. Pepper asks the same question. In fact, forty years ago in the book The Shoes of the Fisherman, the Pope-elect (who had been a Russian political prisoner for years in their gulags) spoke of sharing a Communion meal of bread crusts and water with people who he knew were not Catholic.
In the time since my seminary career ended, I have come to believe that if the Gospel is preached, the prayers are prayed, the elements (whatever they may be) are consecrated and shared in good faith, then it doesn't matter who does it, where, with what materials, or with what specific words. In fact, it could be argued that the youth-group pastor probably had the most "real" communion, because there was so little of the "traditional" church service and trappings to prop up the truths underlying the sacrament. The more we erect barriers between people and the Lord's Table, the worse off the church is. (Note, too, that it's not the Church's table.)
It's probably a good thing they aren't going to ordain me....
A second view
Excerpted from an article from the independent newspaper, the Chicago Free Press:
Obeying the Vatican and Cardinal Francis George, celebrants at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral denied communion to two people wearing rainbow-colored sashes May 15, then watched as others receiving communion shared their wafers with the Rainbow Sash protesters.I've always found it interesting - Jesus shared the Last Supper with Peter, who was still waiting for Jesus to pick up a holy light-saber and lead the Jews in whacking the Romans. What if Jesus had denied communion to "the Rock upon which I will build my church," because Peter didn't agree with Jesus' party line about the Romans? What price apostolic succession then, eh? Was it OK back then because he wasn't wearing a sash? Just wondering...
"We were told many years ago, 'Do this in memory of me,' and that meant sharing and that meant the eucharist, for anyone," said Sister Donna Quinn, a Catholic nun who took her communion wafer, broke it in half and walked over to share it with the Rainbow Sash protesters.
(Thanks to Damien's Spot for the hat-tip on the Free Press article.)
A third view
Pastor John Buchanan told a story in his sermon a week ago that stuck with me. As I remember, a Scotsman in the British Army in World War II was captured and kept in various POW camps for nearly five years. As the war dragged on, and things were not going well for the Germans, food and supplies for the prisoners was being diverted to the front-lines, and the prisoners got hungry. Soon, almost every prisoner had open, running sores and every kind of malnourishment disease. Several tried to escape...and were caught and executed. A few more threw themselves onto the electric fence, choosing to end their own suffering the only way they could.
One night, this soldier had enough. Starvation was an awful way to die, and so he resolved to throw himself on the electric fence, ending his suffering once and for all. But as he approached the fence, preparing to jump on it, he realized he was not alone. A local farmer stood on the other side of the fence, and as the prisoner stared in disbelief, the farmer threw something over the fence at him. The prisoner walked over, and was shocked to find a large potato.
And then the farmer, in broken English, managed to say, "The body of Christ" ... and walked away.
That farmer would have flunked my Worship class. But I imagine there was cheering in Heaven that night...
A final view
And the call is to community - the impoverished power that sets the soul free... (from Michael Card's song, The Basin and the Towel)
John Michael Talbot was one of the first Christian musicians I ever heard; I still think his Heart of the Shepherd CD is one of the most serene recordings I've ever heard. So years later, when I heard that Talbot (a contemplative Catholic) had joined with Michael Card, a Protestant, to sing each other's songs, I was delighted and amazed. Brother to Brother is a CD that I'd recommend to everyone.
Hearing the recording of Card's classic song Come To The Table, with the addition of the lush orchestrations so familiar in Talbot's word, and hearing both their voices lifted in joy and in praise, brought me to tears this morning as I finished this post. Their work is an example of the unity in Christ which is just so scandalous to those who would keep us apart.
Lord God, may we all set down our doctrines and dogmas and rules and holy nonsense, and just follow the example of these two men.
The Bread of forgiveness, the Wine of release!
Come to the table and sit down beside Him -
The Savior who wants you to join in the feast!
To which I can only say amen, and ever amen.