Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Is Cyber-Communion A Valid Sacrament?

Dear Friends,

With traditional mainline churches suddenly scrambling to wrestle with how to do an online liturgical service, the issue of Holy Communion has been causing theological battles even among pastors in the same denomination. Trying to mold a millennia of tradition and theology into the confines of modern technology has created some agonizing decisions  for those who are mainline church pastors. Is “Cyber-Communion” a valid sacrament in an online service? Some denominations say yes and some say no.
I’ve watched several online services these past few weeks and have watched small churches produce thoughtful and reverent services and watched some awkward and embarrassing services. I cringed during one at the moment in the liturgy when the Body and Blood of Jesus would have normally been distributed among the congregation. The pastor had consecrated the elements of bread and wine on the altar in front of him and then waved the sign of the cross at the camera. He said that whatever food and drink you have, it’s blessed so eat and drink it now. His denomination believes in the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated elements. I couldn’t help but to think of the guy watching on a Sunday afternoon in his living room recliner. Did all 25 ounces in the can of Budweiser just turn into the Blood of Christ? Did the entire bowl of Nacho Cheese Doritos just become the Body of Jesus Christ? What is valid and acceptable in an online service? Is coffee and a sugar-glazed donut a valid substitute for the wine and bread? If so, is taking a paper cup of cold water and pouring it three times over your head while standing in the bathtub a true sacrament of baptism?

Sacrament is an English word from the Latin “sacramentum” meaning to consecrate and make sacred (holy). Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century, defined a sacrament as an outward sign instituted by Jesus Christ to impart grace. Something sacred actually takes place during the administration of the sacrament which is why only ordained clergy are permitted by the church to administer it. Through the waters of baptism, God imparts His grace and an efficacious change occurs in the one baptized. Christ becomes present in the consecrated bread and wine which are now His Body and Blood. By receiving Him in the elements of Communion, Christ heals us and saves us. He transforms us through His grace and we participate in the divine nature through this union – this communion – with Jesus Christ. 

Those who believe that Holy Communion is a sacrament are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans. For example: according to “Outlines of Doctrinal Theology,” prepared for the students of a Lutheran seminary, “The sacrament of Holy Communion is a sacred act instituted by God. When the properly administered divine words of institution are pronounced by the pastor over the physical components (bread and wine), God becomes present in the bread and wine and all those who partake of this sacrament receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.” 

Churches who believe that Holy Communion is a sacrament, have forbidden or strongly discouraged any type of online communion. Some Catholic Archdioceses are inviting watchers to say a prayer while the priest partakes of Communion. Some bishops in our Nation’s Episcopal churches are banning online services altogether. One of the Lutheran denominations (ELCA) two weeks ago, March 20, strongly urged all their pastors to not perform online communion and instead use one of the non-communion services from their worship book. The ELCA requests that their Lutheran congregations “fast” from Communion during this pandemic. (On that same date, their local bishop directed that all his churches obey a county health order to no longer gather in small groups to livestream church services, and told pastors they can can only livestream from their own home.) The Methodist church is literally splitting in two this year over LGBT+ differences, and they’re also now theologically split over whether or not Communion is a sacrament that can only take place in the physical presence of a community of believers.

But many churches believe that Communion is not a sacrament but an “ordinance” meaning that it’s a religious practice or ritual prescribed (ordered) by the church. Churches that believe that Jesus is not present in the communion elements believe that they are simply taken in memory of Him. Like lifting a glass of wine as a toast in honor or in memory of someone, Reformed, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Pentecostals believe that as we remember Christ in taking communion, He becomes “spiritually present” to the believer according to their faith. Churches who adhere to the memorialism belief that the elements are purely symbolic have the theological freedom to easily incorporate Communion into their online services. 

We all have an opportunity to now reflect on our own beliefs about Holy Communion. Is it a sacrament or is it a meaningful symbol that helps us to remember Jesus? Does God really impart something to us through His grace when we partake of it? The Catholic church believes the Body and Blood of Christ heals and redeems and so did the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. Do you? Jesus told His disciples that they would literally eat His Body and drink His Blood John 6:53-56 and then at the Last Supper, Jesus lifted up the bread and said “..this is my Body” and then lifted up the cup and said, “..this is my Blood.” Was Jesus just joking around with His disciples when He said that, or did He really mean it? What do you believe? How do your theological beliefs about the real presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of bread and wine guide you in determining whether you should participate in online communion? If after some self-reflection, your beliefs about Communion have changed, would those new beliefs change how you receive Communion once you’ve returned to your church?

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