It’s probably almost routine at this point: we sing “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us…” You await an usher to come by your pew, you stand and process to the rail, you kneel (or stand), the pastor comes by saying “Take, eat…” and distributes to you the Body of Christ under a small piece of unleavened bread. Likewise the Blood of Christ under the wine. In this way we receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Though it may have become almost routine, it’s worth considering what we are doing (or not doing) as we receive the Lord’s Supper.
Over the next months I’m going to instruct a bit as to how we receive the Lord’s Supper. This month, the physical eating and drinking.
Whenever we talk about anything having to do with God, we should begin with His Word. In the case of eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper, we should look at the words of our Lord. What does Jesus say when He institutes the Lord’s Supper? In particular, since we’re talking about eating and drinking, what words are used by Jesus?
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, ESV)
I want to draw attention to two words of our Lord in this passage. The first is the words “eat” and “drink.” Note that Jesus gives a command as to how the Lord’s Supper is to be used. The very words of Jesus teach us that the Lord’s Supper is to be consumed: “eat” and “drink,” Jesus says. These words are a prescription, like your doctor’s command to “take two of these and call me in the morning.” Jesus doesn’t consider this action optional. He intends and expects his Body and Blood to be eaten and drunk by Christians who receive them.
The notion of doing anything other than eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper has led to significant abuses in the Christian Church’s past (and present). For example, at the time of the Reformation the Blood of Christ under the wine was withheld from the laity, for various reasons. It was argued that they were still receiving the Body of Christ and therefore were fulfilling His command to “eat.” The Lutherans rightly argued from Christ’s clear words that His command is actually both to “eat” and “drink,” and then corrected the practice after teaching the people that Christ wanted all to receive both kinds, bread and wine, body and blood. Another abuse is the custom of the Corpus Christi (body of Christ) procession, wherein the consecrated host is placed into a large device called a monstrance and paraded around, worshipped, etc. While it is true that the bread truly is the living Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, He has not instructed us to do anything with it but “eat” it.
A question tends to arise here: If Christ commands me to “eat” and “drink,” then is there a proper way to eat and drink?
This brings us to the second word of our Lord Jesus Christ to which I want to draw attention. Note that Jesus gives bread “to the disciples,” plural. That is, Jesus intends for the Sacrament to be eaten together by His gathered Church. Now, just as every person who was trusting in the Lord’s promise of a Messiah at that time was not present with Jesus in the upper room, but only those whom He had locally called together to hear Him and to receive His Supper, so we in the local congregation are those whom He has called together to hear Him and receive His Supper in this place, yet we are not the whole Church. So we know from these words that it is not in keeping with His institution for us to eat the Supper alone. Jesus intends us to eat it together. Even when homebound members receive the Supper, they don’t alone; I receive it with them as part of this congregation to which they are joined. Likewise we all, as we receive the Supper here, are mystically communing with the whole Christian Church on earth and throughout time, as we hear in the Communion liturgy, “…with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven…”
When we receive the Supper, we are actually receiving it from Jesus Himself. It is Jesus giving us His Body and Blood. He does it through the hands of the pastor whom He has sent to a particular place, but it still is truly Jesus doing the giving. This is why I commune myself at the Altar, rather than having someone else commune me. I, the pastor who is celebrating the Sacrament, am the hands of Jesus feeding the Sacrament even to myself.
I find that the method of receiving the Sacrament that fits this reality best is not to take the host into my hand from the pastor, but instead merely to open my mouth and let the pastor place the host into it. My action is expressing completely that Jesus Himself is doing all of the giving and work in the Lord’s Supper, even so far as He Himself putting His body into my mouth. Practically, the way this is done is by opening your mouth and gently putting forward your tongue. The pastor can then place the host on your tongue without having to touch your mouth. Would you consider giving a try to this way of receiving the Lord’s Supper?
How best to receive the Blood of our Lord in, with, and under the wine? Consider the words of Scripture: “And he took a cup…” It’s important to see that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, there were not individual cups. All of the Christians there, receiving the Lord’s Supper together, drank from one cup. This was the practice of giving the Blood of Jesus for almost 2,000 years. It is not until around the beginning of the 20th century that the practice of individual cups came into use, and it started in churches that deny the true presence of Christ in the Sacrament. It was not until well into the 20th century that any Lutherans received the Sacrament in this way, and the vast majority of Christians who believe in the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament – Roman Catholics, Orthodox, some Anglicans, many Lutherans worldwide – have never used individual cups. If we consider that we are communing together, being united, made one, in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, then the common cup shared amongst all of those receiving the Sacrament is a wonderful symbol of that unity that many individual cups cannot be.
I encourage you to consider whether to personally begin using the common cup rather than the individual cup. As expressed above, this is the original and ancient practice of receiving the Blood of Jesus. It’s what Jesus and the Disciples did, based on the clear word of Scripture. It’s how Augustine, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, C.F.W Walther, etc. received the Lord’s Supper. It also helps to confess, as we all drink from the same cup, that we are one, united. Practically speaking, it significantly reduces the workload of the Altar Guild in cleaning up after the Sacrament. It also helps you have just as much or little of the wine as you’d like, without the irreverent messiness of wine left over in individual cups in the communion rail, just waiting to be spilled.
I know there are questions and objections raised when it comes to the common cup versus individual cups, so let me cover what comes to mind:
- It is not necessarily a sin to use an individual cup. There are some good reasons to need to use one. If you are seriously susceptible to illness but are wanting to receive the Sacrament, it can help avoid illness (more on germs in general below). Someone who for medical reasons needs to have alcohol-removed wine will likely need an individual cup.
- You are very unlikely to get sick from the common cup. I have included in this newsletter a brief article from the American Journal of Infection Control, published by the Center for Disease Control, on the topic of Risk of Infectious Disease Transmission from a Common Communion Cup. In short, you are much more likely to get sick from just being in Church with a bunch of people than from the common cup, due to alcohol content, precious metals, etc. To quote the article, “a theoretic risk of transmitting infectious diseases by using a common communion cup exists, but that the risk is so small that it is undetectable.” Please don’t take my word for it, though. Read the whole article. It’s only about a page, in a big font. It’s short. In your worry about sickness, trust that the Lord is only giving you good in the Supper. To borrow a phrase from a Lutheran hymn, “No poison can be in the cup / That my physician sends me.” (LSB 760)
- I’m not going to take away the individual cups. Again, I encourage you to use the common cup. I hope that all here at Good Shepherd would use the common cup except those who have necessity for the individual cups. I believe that sharing a common cup has tremendous spiritual benefit as we all see our unity clearly expressed in how we receive the Blood of Jesus together. Nevertheless, Scripture does not clearly forbid the use of more than one cup, and therefore it would be sinful on my part to force communion in this way, as it likewise would be sinful to force everyone to use individual cups.
- I’m not going to take away the individual cups. I repeat this to make it very clear.
- I don’t know how to use the common cup. It’s very simple. When the chalice bearer comes to you, open your mouth to receive the cup. Take one hand and use it to grasp the bottom of the cup. This way you control the pitch of the cup and thus how much wine you receive. Use the hand to tip the cup; the chalice bearer’s handhold serves as a pivot point.
I welcome your questions and comments. Especially feel free to come to Scripture Study after Divine Service to ask, as often questions, comments, and answers benefit many more than just you! Next month we’ll cover how to prepare to come, receive, and eat and drink the Lord’s Supper.
Peace in Christ,