This is the fifth installment in a series on the sections of our weekly worship service. (See the June – September Pastor’s Corner for the previous installments.) My intention for this series is to help you better understand not only what we do in our worship service, but also why we do it.
I finished last time with the Eucharistic Prayer, but I did not say much about the prayer itself. So a few words about that before I move on to the distribution. In the earliest church it seems that the presider improvised a prayer of thanksgiving on the spot. One writing from the second century says that the presider prays this prayer “according to his ability,” which indicates that some were better at this than others! By the fourth century a standard pattern had evolved, which began with remembering with thanksgiving all of God’s saving deeds throughout history. It continued with the words of institution, specifically remembering the last supper and Jesus words there. These words are taken from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. This is then followed, historically, by offering the bread and wine as a sacrifice to God, a calling down of the Holy Spirit into the elements, intercession on behalf of those who will receive the sacrament, and finally a doxology praising the triune God.
At the Reformation, Luther removed most of the Eucharistic prayer, leaving only the words of institution. These were no longer said as a prayer, but as a proclamation to the assembly. Luther did this because he rejected the idea that Holy Communion is a sacrifice we offer to God, and the medieval Eucharistic prayer was full of sacrifice language. Luther insisted that, on the contrary, Holy Communion is something that God does for us. In modern times, beginning in the 1950s, Lutherans have restored the Eucharistic prayer to the liturgy, but without any reference to sacrifice. The only hint of sacrifice in our prayers these days is mention of us offering our thanks and praise to God. (See Psalm 116.) The words of institution have been returned to their earlier place within the Eucharistic prayer, addressed to God as the culmination of God’s saving deeds that we give thanks for. There continues to be an option in the ELW (as in the LBW) for only using the words of institution instead of the Eucharistic Prayer. We exercise this option at Grace during the Sundays in Lent.
The Eucharistic prayer is followed immediately by the Lord’s Prayer, and then by an invitation to the table. (“The gifts of God for the people of God.”) You will have noticed that the distribution of Communion is done in two different ways at Grace. The early service uses continuous communion while the late services uses “tables,” where those who commune come up to the altar rail. Neither way is better, or more correct, though the “tables” practice has a long history in the Lutheran church. What is important is that the sacrament is offered “in both kinds,” and that the words, “the body/blood of Christ for you” are said to each person. What is meant by “both kinds” is that both the bread and wine are distributed to all who commune. This may seem unnecessary to mention, until you realize that at the time of the Reformation the normal practice in the western church was to give lay people only the bread. And if you have ever attended a service at a Roman Catholic church, you may have seen that this practice still continues in some parishes, even though the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960s encouraged distribution in both kinds. This is one of the reforms that Luther advocated, following the lead of the 15th century Czech reformer, Jan Hus.
Most important for Luther, though, were the words, “the body/blood of Christ,” and “for you.” Let me explain. One of the key historical differences between Lutherans and other Protestant groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation has been in their respective understandings of the nature of Holy Communion. Most Protestants have understood the bread and wine to be merely symbols of Christ’s body and blood, and believe the main thing we’re doing in Communion to be remembering Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Luther, however, insisted that the bread and wine in this sacrament are truly (literally!) the body and blood of Christ. This is something Luther did not want to change. What he objected to in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, which was only 300 years old in Luther’s day, was its dependence upon ancient pagan philosophy in its explanation of how the bread and wine were Christ’s body and blood. Luther thought they tried to say too much. He preferred to say that Christ’s body and blood were present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine. But, importantly, truly present! This makes Holy Communion, for Lutherans, a significant and very personal instance of the gospel promises. To each person is proclaimed the good news that Christ is here for you – unconditionally, “believe it or not,”1 for you and for your salvation, to forgive you, reconcile you with God, and give you life that really is life. And because we do this in community, we hear those same words said to the people next to us, or in front of and behind us in the case of continuous Communion. We are in this together.
Where will such marvelous good news lead us? Stay tuned next month for a consideration of the Sending portion of the liturgy.
+ Pastor Chris Repp