Lectionary 20 B

Communion, cannibalism, and the entomology of a word no one else uses. (No, not autolaborological!) And also a TheoThorough on the two Lutheran understandings of receiving communion.

Semicontinuous Psalm: Psalm 111

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
-- Psalm 111:4-5

Verses 4 and 5 of the eleventy-first psalm are quoted in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 24: The Mass (AP 24.72) in the section on "Sacrifice and the Use of the Sacrament." Melanchthon quotes these verses  as a reminder that what happens in Communion is by "the will and mercy of God" as we remember what Jesus has done for us and are given life through reception of this gift. This is not to say that Communion is only a memorial meal, but the remembering does matter.

Ephesians 5:15-20

...as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts...
-- Ephesians 5:19

Verse 19 is cited through editorial insert in Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 2: Original Sin (AP 2.20). I think this may be a typo. This citation comes as Melanchthon is reflecting on the image and likeness of God. He writes in the sentence of the citation that "Paul shows that the image of God is the knowledge of God, righteousness, and truth." While I could get to 5:19, citations in the Book of Concord are normally more direct.

Ephesians 3:19 and 4:24 both fit Melanchthon's argument better. Ephesians 3:19 hits the knowledge component of his argument, stating that "to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." And Ephesians 4:24 fits the righteousness part, nothing that "the likeness of God in true righteousness." So I'm guessing this was supposed to be 3:19, but I'd be open to other suggestions.

John 6:51-58

As was mentioned last week, massive chunk of John 6 (verses 35 thru 58) is cited in Formula of ConcordSolid Declaration, Article 7: Holy Supper (SD 7.61). This block of text is cited to argue for the first, and arguably most important, sense in which we receive communion: the spiritual eating. Being drawn by the Father to the Son through the Spirit will lead us to receive communion in faith. Without the gift of faith, without the spiritual eating of communion, communion is in no way salvific, but actually damning! How challenging that question of who is worthy to receive, for how do we measure the gift of faith?

As also mentioned last week, verses 48 thru 58 are cited in Solid Declaration, Article 8: Person of Christ (SD 8.59) as part of the third point showing that Jesus' divine and human natures are joined in such a unique way that Jesus' human body can give life. He is unique in this way because of the union of his two natures.

[Jesus said,] "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
-- John 6:51

Verse 51 is partly quoted in Solid Declaration, Article 11: Election (SD 11.28) as part of the biblical argument that the gospel is for all people. The promise of this verse is that the bread of heaven that is Jesus is for "the world."

Verses 52 thru 65 are cited in a footnote to Formula of ConcordSolid Declaration, Article 7: Holy Supper (SD 7.64, n. 202) that explains the word "Capernaitic." This uniquely Lutheran word is scattered around Article 7 in both the Epitome and the Solid Declaration to point out one kind of misunderstanding the sacramental reception of communion. Capernaitic is deeply insider language used as a shorthand for misunderstanding communion as a literal eating and drinking of Jesus' body and blood that would amount to cannibalism, which is how those at the synagogue in Capernaum misunderstood Jesus.

[Jesus said,] "This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
-- John 6:58

Verse 58 is cited in a footnote to Formula of ConcordEpitome, Article 7: Holy Supper, Affirmative Thesis 6 (Ep 7.15, n. 50), which is the first use of  "Capernaitic" in the Book of Concord. The footnote explains that Lutherans were being accused of having this understanding of communion. This is why so much time is spent in both parts of the Formula refuting the Capernaitic understanding. (I've now used that work four times in this post. That's probably enough.)


For Lutherans, there are two primary ways to receive communion: spiritual and sacramental (cf. Formula of ConcordSolid Declaration, Article 7: Holy Supper, starting at paragraph 61). The spiritual reception of communion is faith in God's promises made in and by Jesus. The sacramental reception of communion is the oral eating and drinking of the consecrated bread and wine. These two ways together are considered the normal way that the faithful receive communion.

This statement of the normal is then usually followed by all kinds of questions about outliers. Such questions can usually be grouped into one of two categories: reception by unbelievers and issues with the elements.

Elementary Issues

Issues with the elements are easier to address, so let's start there. If for whatever reason you are unable to receive one of the two elements, there is the pre-Reformation doctrine of concomitance, which states clearly that the fullness of Jesus is completely present in either the bread or the wine alone. This doctrine has been misused in this history of the church to withhold the normal reception of communion by withholding one of the elements, usually the wine. However, with a clear understanding, those who cannot receive either the bread or the wine still receive the full benefits of communion with one element.

For all kinds of people, this doesn't feel right, so many congregations have gluten-free and non-alcoholic options for receiving communion. Strictly speaking, these options are unnecessary, though not necessarily harmful. Offering these other options does tend to lead to questions like, "Why bread and wine?", which we're not going to get into in this post because this is already too long and we haven't even made it to the complicated part.

For those who can't receive either the bread or the wine, there is some hope in the spiritual reception of communion--as long as you don't go too far with it.

Receiving in Faith

The spiritual reception of communion is complicated to unpack. Reception by those who do not have faith has long been read by Lutherans through the lens of 1 Corinthians 11:27, which warns us that "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord," and John 3:18  where Jesus says, "Those who believe in [the Son] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." Paired with the warning from 1 Corinthians 11:29 about "discerning the body," the concern of receiving communion without faith has been taken literally in order to keep people from eating to their own condemnation.

Measuring Faith

This is a misreading of 1 Corinthians 11:29, which is Paul holding the church in Corinth accountable for excluding people from communion because of class--the rich folk who didn't have to work met early and ate all the food leaving the leftovers for those who had to work--not making sure everyone who receives communion is a true Christian. The misreading, however, has and is used to exclude people from receiving communion because they aren't the right kind of Christian, their pastor isn't known to the pastor distributing communion, they aren't known to the pastor, or they aren't members of this particular congregation.

Personally, I believe this falls too much on the other side of caution, taking the warning to discern the body to a paternalistic extreme, which even when interpreted graciously, still comes off as, "Since I, the one distributing the sacrament, don't know if you are a true Christian and to keep you from condemning yourself will not serve you communion." The problem with this approach is that being a true Christian is redefined as being a member of the right kind of Christian congregation. If taken seriously, no one should receive communion because there is no way in this life to know if someone is a true Christian (cf. The Augsburg Confession, Article 8: What is the Church?). This leads directly to the next challenge.

Both Saint and Sinner

The line between believer and unbeliever is very fuzzy in Lutheran theology. You don't have to believe me on this as Luther spends more than half of the Part 5 of the Large Catechism thinking about who receives worthily (LC 5.33-84). For Luther, it comes down to recognizing you're a sinner and trusting God's forgiveness in Jesus. But even the faith to see our sin and trust God is a gift of the Spirit because in this life, we are at the same time saint and sinner.

When I receive communion, the saint in me is forgiven and strengthened and the sinner in me is condemned. This precarious position is the point where trust in God's promise makes the difference. I need to receive communion, but I am not worthy to receive communion. My hope is in Jesus' words, "Given for you... and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin." 

So what about those who cannot receive either the bread or the wine? The desire to receive communion, the spiritual reception, is true reception of communion. What could that look like? Be creative. So long as you don't start insisting that everyone has to stop receiving the elements in order to truly receive. But the challenge of not being able to receive the elements at all does point to the need for some intentional reflection on what you believe as you prepare yourself to receive communion.

Seriously Messy

I don't have a neat way to tie up all these thoughts, especially since the question of who should receive communion is an ongoing question. Hopefully, however, there's enough here for us to start reflection on how and why we receive communion. As much as we might want to think this topic is settled, there's even more about receiving communion that I haven't even broached. How often should we receive communion? With whom can we receive communion? Where should we celebrate communion? It's all really messy, but those thinking about these questions strive to do so faithfully. When you actually stop to think about what happens in communion, it all becomes serious quite quickly.