Sleep on This: Virtual communion—is it permitted? (April 7)

Sleep on This: Virtual communion—is it permitted? (April 7)

Good evening, friend!

As you know, I write this blog each evening because I want to offer you encouragement and comfort as you prepare to take your night’s rest.  On this third night of Holy Week, I would like to offer a different kind of encouragement…and forgive me for taking longer than I normally do; this is a complex issue.

In two nights we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, a re-enactment of the Last Supper.  This service, a favorite of those who prefer more traditional worship, always includes a celebration of communion. 

There are actually important rules in our denomination for celebrating communion, based on what we find in Scripture.  It is to be officiated by an ordained pastor (1 Cor. 4:1), is always a part of a worship service that includes the preaching of the Word (1 Cor. 11:20-22), is intended for those who have placed their trust in Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-21) and should include an admonition to partake only in a “worthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).  (This latter act is called “fencing the table.”)

Part of our job as Shepherds of the flock is to ensure, as best we can, that communion is celebrated in a proper and holy fashion; a gift of spiritual sustenance to the people of God.

BUT…what happens when we cannot gather?  What happens when quarantine forces us to remain apart?  When a pastor is unable to consecrate the elements?  Is it appropriate to make an exception in order to serve Communion in these extreme circumstances?  In other words, is it possible to offer “virtual” communion in our homes?

One of our members asked that question of me.  Although she was eager to partake, she was aware that some theologians have spoken out forcefully AGAINST such practice.  In sum, they argue that to do so violates the model found in scripture in which the Lord’s Supper is only shared in gathered community.  It also risks allowing those who are unprepared or unworthy to serve or receive the sacrament. 

Instead, they argue, we should “fast” from the sacrament and allow our longing to grow for it so that finally, when we ARE able to be reunited, it will be all the sweeter.  Meantime, however long this lasts, we lament that we are deprived of communion… but deprived we are.

I responded to this member with a letter.  She, and others with whom I shared it, found it helpful.  So, I include the letter below for your edification and encouragement. 

Hi friend:

Thank you for your thoughtful question.

In short, I could not disagree more with those who would withhold the sacrament under these circumstances. The early church ONLY met in homes—and further, do we not consider a family to be a “gathering?” Where “two or more are gathered, there I am in their midst.” And to those who say we ought to “fast” from the sacrament, I would ask, “What if this were to endure for a year? Three years? Are we thus deprived from partaking of the body and blood of Christ because of these circumstances? Do we not know of stories of imprisoned, persecuted Christians who used makeshift elements to share the Lord’s Supper prior to their death? Would we have withheld that, too?”

Jesus once said regarding the Sabbath—the single topic upon which he was attacked more than any other by the Pharisees—that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Was man made for Communion—or Communion made for man? This was a Grace-Gift to us.

Ought we to instruct in how properly to do this? Absolutely. Ought we to “fence” the table so that those who do not know Jesus will not “unworthily” partake? Absolutely. Even so, we can only do so much. Every time we pass the elements in church, there is a likelihood that an unbeliever seated there, who has not heeded our warnings, still takes the elements “unworthily”; still passes the elements to another and intones the words we have instructed them to speak “unworthily.” Does that mean the Sacrament “didn’t work” for those who had the misfortune of receiving it from an unworthy “passer?” The heresy of “Donatism,” which viewed the sacraments as illegitimate and inefficacious if they were offered by an “unworthy” priest, was condemned by the Church. (Good extra credit reading if you are interested!”)

There is really a more fundamental question here: is our virtual “gathering” a legitimate expression of the Church—or not? If it is—if we can pray “together” and worship “together” and listen to God’s word “together” in a virtual fashion, are we not able to receive the sacrament “together.” And if it is NOT a legitimate gathering, why are we even doing this? Ought we just pray alone, and fast from corporate worship as well until that time we can come together again in the flesh? Such a view limits the work of the Holy Spirit, unnecessarily and legalistically, in my judgment.

Those are my thoughts and the reason I felt this to be appropriate. But I hope that the clincher will be that I have received a letter in which the head of our denomination, Dr. Jeff Jeremiah, answered my question on this matter, offering a judgment that it was, indeed, gracious and permissible under these circumstances.

For all these reasons, I feel comfortable and confident that this is appropriate. Even more, however, I rest in the grace and mercy of the Holy Spirit who takes ALL of our inadequate expressions of worship, purifies them and presents them to Jesus as our holy acts of praise.

I hope this helps. Blessings to you.

Pastor Mark

I invite you, friend, if you love Jesus and are repentant for your sins, to purchase bread and juice, prepare it lovingly and join us at 7:00 pm this Thursday as celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Lord Jesus, as I lay me down to sleep, thank you that even in my isolation, you are not far from me. You come to me, in rest and in waking, comforting me, strengthening me, encouraging me, nourishing me. Would you do so this night as well? Amen.