Pastor's Pen 12/17/2020
- Published: 22 December 2020 22 December 2020
- Last Updated: 22 December 2020 22 December 2020
A Message from Pastor Hale
John 6 has been controverted within conservative Lutheran circles in recent decades, specifically verses 53-56:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
It has been a hot topic of discussion because it is here that different understandings of the nature of Scripture come out most forcefully. Older Lutherans, before the advent of historical criticism, did not wrestle with this text like we do currently. In fact, in my research, all orthodox Lutherans (before the rise of historical criticism – treating Scripture like a human writing) took Luther’s position in saying that John 6 does not directly refer to the Sacrament of the Altar at all. That should tell us something. But modern “Lutherans” want to correct Luther. But they approach Scripture and do theology differently – and with very different assumptions than Luther held.
William Weinrich’s enormous tome on the first six chapters of John tackles the issue from the modern, sacramental standpoint, so popular in the LCMS today. While the error, in itself, is not a fatal one, the reasons for defending it – and dismissing Luther, Chemnitz, and Pieper, etc. – at all costs are extremely telling for the future of Lutheranism. They illustrate what many pastors have been taught, since Weinrich has been teaching pastors, mostly at the Fort Wayne seminary, since 1975.
Above all, Scripture is complex, deeply-layered, and difficult to pin down to the modern academic interpreter of Scripture – the professional exegete. Every Lutheran has to say John 6 is not entirely about the sacrament, because of the scriptural context and doctrinal implications (not wanting to damn all those who have not received the Lord’s body and blood in the Supper, leaving aside the saints who died in faith before the Sacrament was instituted). In order to take a sacramental view, it has to be underneath the surface of John 6 – lurking in the shadows. Scripture, especially the John of Gospel, is anything but simple and straightforward to the expert interpreter, making his expertise necessary to reveal what lies in its depths. Though John wrote at approximately a 3rd grade vocabulary level, hidden themes and unspoken allusions lie hidden underneath the surface of the text to the modern academic.
John 6 is quite simple, and all Lutherans taught the latter part of John 6 as continuous with the former. Jesus elevates the eating metaphor to unbelieving Jews who simply wanted bread. They wanted Jesus to fill their bellies without work. It is not Gospel (like the Sacrament is), but law for the Jews who would not accept the Savior in the flesh right before them offering them words of life.
Jesus is the true bread, without whom there is no life. We “eat” this bread, gaining life in Him, by believing in Him. The words in verses 32-34 are plain and unambiguous: “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always’.” Christ Himself is the bread they should be seeking – not the physical loaves they had their fill of with the 5000. Jesus intensifies the contrast between earthly bread and Himself – to the point of great offense against human, especially Jewish, sensibilities.
John sets the teaching of faith forward in simplicity from the very beginning of his Gospel: John “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. ... to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:7, 12). The Lord’s Supper would not have been offered to the unbelieving Jews, even if it had been instituted – that would be open Communion of the worst kind! But Weinrich takes the modern critical high-church view: “The Bread of Life Discourse (Jn. 6:26- 58) is one of the most discussed and contested sections in the NT. It is complex interweaving of various ideas and themes expressed through OT allusions and metaphor. A major difficulty is the question of the structure of this discourse, and this question too has received multiple answers” (662). How can the simple Christian hope to understand this so-called problematic text? Only by ditching the themes and confused scholars, simply letting Christ speak through His Word to convict by His Spirit.
By my count, there are 149 pages in this commentary on John 6, but very little of value to actually open up the text, as Luther so cogently does. Rather, it obscures the text. Weinrich starts by saying: “The feeding of the five thousand, with its eucharistic overtones, finds its ecclesial continuation after the resurrection in the communion meal” (635-36). The overtones are undefinable, mere reverberations in the reader’s mind. Much like interpreting art, these “tones” beneath the words are subjective and not solid enough on which to basis any firm conclusions. So we have arguments as to why John 6 is vaguely sacramental, but no substantial help in clarifying Jesus’s words. Even though the Greek Orthodox church uses John 6:53-54 as a proof-text for infant communion, denying justification by faith alone, Weinrich calls John 6:26-58 a “eucharistic discourse” (645). But, of course, he cannot go all the way and still maintain salvation by faith alone, so the Supper becomes only a secondary theme.
Prioritizing John’s Thinking over His Words
“The terminology of the Eucharist is employed” (648), we are told, but the words are hardly the same. Bread and fish are not bread and wine – the actual elements Jesus gave directly in the words of institution. Jesus prayed before both meals – but Jews, as Christians do now, prayed before most meals – even those not offering Christ’s body and blood. It’s not the “words” themselves given in Scripture, but the philosophy of interpretation, which drives this thought: “it is baffling that the multiplication of loaves, which introduces the Bread of life discourse (Jn. 6:26-58), can be likened to an ‘ordinary’ meal” (by Theophylact)” (648-49). But the meal was not actually the Supper. We have no mandate or permission to use fish or substitute something for the wine. Weinrich calls this the “minimalist viewpoint.” But who are we to maximize and enlarge the meaning of Scripture? Is it not fixed by Christ in the words? Weinrich, like most scholars, disconnects the first part of John 6, which is patently not about the Supper, from the second part – destroying the unity of the inspired text. This is a primary assumption – the argument is not over the words of the text, but the doctrinal approach to God’s Word.
Even more, we must not confuse “body” with “flesh.” They are very distinct words. “Body” (soma) is used in the four accounts of Jesus’ words of institution. It is not used in John 6 at all. “Flesh” (sarx) is a different word, not used of the Supper in Scripture. That does not stop Weinrich from using the later early church fathers to theorize: “The term [sarx], ‘flesh,’ could be used for the Eucharist and in fact was used by the fathers for the Eucharist” (711). That may be so after Scripture was written, but Lutherans don’t use later fallible human tradition to prove biblical meaning – that is completely backwards. The Scriptures – real words that we have been given by the Spirit – must prove it. This argument is very weak and shows a dependence on church tradition over God’s plain words.
The language of most translations in v53 sounds like the Supper. Laymen may be forgiven for hearing verbal similarities. But the scholar and pastor must be more astute, since the Bible was not written in English. Verse 54 (in the ESV) reads: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The word “feed” in Greek (trogo) is to munch or chew, as a cow would. The metaphor of Jesus is heightened to the extreme. To eat Jesus’ flesh (he is following their crass, carnal, bread-munching unbelief) is most offensive to them.
The Supper, to the contrary, gives comfort and forgiveness to the believer. But the unbelieving Jews in John 6 are driven away by thoughts of munching the very flesh of Jesus – cannibalism – whom they did not understand as the Savior. They did not see Jesus as divine food – God’s Son in the flesh – for faith, but merely a snack dispenser. Discarding the unique vocabulary of “munch” as “overinterpretation,” rather than just solid interpretation, Weinrich says it means the same as the basic word used for eat (which is also used of the Supper) (728).
Shockingly, Weinrich admits that the Lutheran confessions hold the view of Luther. “This view [of Martin Chemnitz] is also represented in the Formula of Concord: John 6 speaks of that eating ‘which occurs in no other way than with the Spirit and faith, in the preaching and meditation of the Gospel, although a spiritual eating can occur also in the Supper’ ” (747). This caviler dismissing of the straightforward confessional stance is revealing. This sloppiness in whimsically correcting the confessional standard pastors vow to uphold can only be satisfying to the expert viewing the Scriptures as a complex and academic Rubik’s cube, completely under his purview.
We are told: “The eucharistic overtones are explicit and intended” (669). But overtones are by definition not explicit or direct. No verse or actual words of Holy Write are cited. As to their intention, this expert seems to claim that he knows John’s mind and intentions. But we have his words, not his intentions, to study. A claimed “intention” proves nothing at all!
Not all eating is the Supper, not all water in Scripture is baptism. To take this lazy tact only requires the “right sacramental assumptions” – one does not even have to read the text closely. “In our judgment, to understand the Gospel of John correctly one must take with utmost seriousness the ecclesial dimension that lies within the story of Jesus. The story of the church is not a spiritual add-on that makes the story of Jesus into a mere historical past-tense narrative. The Christological, sacramental, and ecclesial dimensions are perichoretic in nature: in the one lies also the other (732).” But one is tradition outside of Scripture, merely assumed, which we do not have access to: the early church. This makes Scripture to be unclear and unable to be comprehended simply from the words themselves. This is very far from Luther’s Scripture alone principle: “The passover allusions throughout John’s Gospel argue for a real eating and drinking in John 6” (743). Words actually convince and demand obedience, not allusions – which are likely just one’s own self-reflection and biases.
We can’t know the author’s mindset or exact context. But we do know the author’s (which are God’s own inerrant) words – focus on them. We are not to psychoanalyze the human author, nor the divine. This is no way to approach divine revelation – like it’s a puzzle to manipulate. We are simply to submit to Scripture and take the words as divine. The undetectable “eucharistic theme of John 6 continues in the Epilogue of the Gospel,” which is called “a truncated eucharistic narrative” (744). But what does fish, yet again, have to do with the Lord’s Supper? Making vague, unfalsifiable connections is not doing theology proper. This approach to God’s Word does not make salvation in Christ more certain.
Here is an example of sloppy, unprovable exegesis: “Should the mention of ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ in Jn. 6:53-56 suggest the Passover (as Jn. 6:4 makes explicit), it would be another indication that the ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ which Jesus speaks of are not a metaphor for faith only, but are indicative of the oral eating and drinking of the Christian Pascha.” But Jn. 6:4 reads: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” It gives real chronology about when this took place, but this historical fact is imbued with hidden theological meaning by assumption – the text does not connect the time this event occurred to the subject matter. If the editor (“redactor” in critical terms) changed the words to fit his theological meaning, we have a historical falsification. All in the name of greater sacramental meaning! Yet, nothing is really said adding to our understanding of the sacrament – either in John, or these 149 pages of commentary.
Weinrich seems to hold to two parallel (yet conflicting) themes as coexisting within the text of John 6: “Although Jesus’ words refer primarily to his sacrificial death, within these words one must hear as well a reference to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood.” Remember that this position is a novelty within Lutheranism. In fact, his footnote for this statement quotes Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), a pietist and one of the first Lutheran critical scholars of Scripture. But why must one hear what is not said and cannot prove? Because that is the starting point for modern interpreters: the early Christians (including the Gospel writers) were sacramental, so the Scriptures must refer to such themes, even when they don’t explicitly say so in words. So the assumed thinking of the evangelist (really the interpreter) takes precedence over Scripture’s words. After all, this account in John 6 is said to not be “a ‘pure’ historical event that lies encased in its own time and place” (710). This is the modern form of historical criticism – not saying the biblical events are false, but inferring that the history is not as important as it was considered in pre-critical times. Facts and statements can’t just be true and inerrant – they must have been imbued with some theological allusions – even at the expense of the text’s actual words – for those with the right lens.
Weinrich dismisses Luther politely: “So, perhaps, Luther made a strategic choice and wished to move the discussion away from John 6 to the Words of Institution, which he thought less assailable” (758). Were all Luther’s many sermons on John 6 merely strategic or politics? No, Luther based his teaching on the words of Scripture, and was willing to die for them, but Weinrich argues from Luther’s supposed thinking instead of his words, which are very forceful: “In the first place the sixth chapter of John must be entirely excluded from this discussion [of the Supper], since it does not refer to the sacrament in a single syllable. Not only because the sacrament was not yet instituted, but even more because this passage itself and the sentences following plainly show, as I have already stated, that Christ is speaking of faith in the incarnate Word” (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520, LW 36:19).
Doctrine from Whence?
If Scripture is unclear, muddled with cascading themes and nondescript allusions, doctrine is implicitly assumed. But from where does doctrine come? Lutherans only have Scripture. Rome has tradition, liberal protestants have culture, but Lutherans lose the basis for all doctrinal authority, if they lose the clarity of Scripture. The words of the Bible must convict and give clear teaching to convict, reprove, and teach. It must be open and available to all to be an authority over all – even the scriptural experts.
Weinrich observes: “It is claimed that a sacramental interpretation of Jn. 6:53 makes the eating and drinking of the Eucharist necessary for salvation and so compromises the sufficiency of faith and implies the condemnation of any who do not partake of the Sacrament. It is fair to note that this objection does not arise from an exegetical consideration of the text but from practical, pastoral concerns” (749-750). But the text says outright: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This eating Jesus says is necessary. In fact, without it there is no life at all in a person. So this eating is salvation. To call a direct proposition from the inspired text a “pastoral concern” is not taking the text very seriously. If we are not getting meaning from the text itself, meaning has to be dumped into the text – but that cannot be from Christ’s Spirit.
Are the non-communed infants damned? This is not a theoretical question, but a serious doctrinal fact that must be answered on the basis of Christ’s Word. To call what the text demands “pastoral” and not “exegetical” is a cop-out. This concern was also part of Luther’s reasoning: salvation cannot be in the work of receiving the Supper, since some receive it to their condemnation (1 Cor. 11).
In this supposed elevating of the Supper, Baptism is made to be worthless, since if Jesus means the Supper in His words, every baptized person is damned without also physically eating and drinking. But the Supper does not offer His flesh to munch like a cannibal – only His body hidden under the bread in a sacramental union. This misreading of John and all of Scripture is heinous and unwarranted. We must expect more of those who teach our pastors.
If everything is symbolism, assumptions, shadows, and hopelessly multifaceted – nothing is concrete and real. Doctrine has no basis, if Scripture is not rock solid and direct. To treat Scripture as unclear, or even claiming it says two contradictory things at once (as in “John 6 is both sacramental, but not really fully about the Sacrament”), is to make all Christian teaching uncertain and up for grabs.
Assuming doctrine might work OK for a generation or two, but we are seeing the fruits in the LCMS of not grounding pastors solidly in the actual words of Scripture. We might think we have the themes of the apostles, but we are really getting the minds of the current experts who are elevating their own thoughts above the inspired words. As history shows, the students are less careful and guarded than the teachers. Errors become magnified. So we must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). To be a real, certain authority, we must hold to the clearness of God’s inspired words.
While Scaer and Weinrich make much of the fact that John 6 is used in the Lutheran teaching of Christ in reference to the power of the Supper and Lutheran piety, they have it all backwards. John 6 deals with Christ, who gives His body and blood in the Supper for forgiveness – to be received in faith (the eating of John 6). Of course, they are related, but not because John 6 says anything about the Supper – it speaks forcefully and directly about the divinity and sacrificial death in Christ Himself. This power and life is received only in one way: faith, not by munching the Supper.
The weak arguments to promote some mild sacramentalization of John 6 miss the point entirely. The Supper is about Christ, which is the subject of John 6 – His whole person and how we abide in Him. Not by bare eating and drinking (even in the Supper) do we have salvation, but by faith in Him – including when we eat and drink the Supper rightly, in accord with God’s own Word. – ed.
Dear saints of God at Zion,
Health is a fleeting thing for the dying. Trying to save your own life – at all costs – means denying the righteous life Jesus lived for us. While the virus-induced pandemic is a tragedy we pray for an end to, it has put many souls in jeopardy. This is the greatest risk: the loss of faith and willingness to listen to God’s Word – not catching a contagious virus, or even dying. Spiritual death is far worse.
There seems to be no end in sight, after some seven months, of dealing with the world’s panic and fear. Some say they will not do anything normal, including go to church, until there is a vaccine. But that is not Christian, because God has not promised a solution or cure. We have endured the virus for quite a while and may have to much longer.
Even if there is a vaccine, we have no scriptural promise that it will be any more effective than the annual flu vaccine. We pray to our Father in heaven, who listens to us, for relief. But we dare not tell Him what He must do. He is God and we are not. Saying you will not do what is right and good until your demands are met is not trust, but trying to hold the Lord hostage.
The same could be said for masks – which anyone is free to wear. They have become almost a life-giving sacrament to the world. It is problematic to assume that everyone else is sick and must wear a mask for your sake. Yet, obedience to civil mask laws and courtesy to others, in brotherly love, are Christian duties. There is always risk in being a sinner in a sinful world, but other people are not your main problem. A mask will not protect you from death. You will die – by some means – and to prepare you well for that day is our goal and desire.
This has been a difficult time for almost everyone. Extra stress, more frustration, and general helplessness define our common existence. Some had mistakenly thought that God owed them ease and a certain number of peaceful decades on earth. Hopefully, that false illusion has been shattered. Yet, do not make more of this pandemic than Christ’s life-giving Word.
Many, following the alarm and dread of the world, have lashed out at others, complained, or tried to take out their dissatisfaction on others. This is not what Christ calls His followers to do. We have, right now, even more opportunity to show patience and love toward our neighbor. This pandemic is a test for Christians, so do not lose sight of what God wants you to be about. This is a time to remain strong in faith, not to fall away from the truth of Scripture and the fellowship of the saints.
If you are quarantining yourself from church services, is the Word still the most important thing in your life? Or has your enthusiasm for watching a recorded service and diligently hearing and meditating upon God’s Word from your pastors waned? Has the virus become your god, determining your every move and thought, rather than the God who baptized you? This is the most imminent danger.
Online services are a good resource. But the word “virtual” means “almost real, but not technically.” The accountability, participation, and public aspects of congregational life are missing by passively observing a screen at home. It is impossible to know who is really listening, who is ignoring it, or who is treating God’s Word like background noise.
While Christ does not command church attendance to be saved, there is a real danger in avoiding the saints in the public gathering God commands. Scripture (as also our congregation’s constitution) does not give exceptions for the able-bodied to Christ’s call to publicly gather around the Word and sacraments. Judgment Day is still coming, and there is no vaccine for unbelief and stubbornness. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). Do not let worldly reasons become excuses to not hear the Word, hardening into damaging habits. Our thirst for eternal life and the forgiveness of sins should be increased as we consider our own death and the state of this cursed world.
If you are honoring the Word with your time, treasures, and above all in your heart, but abstaining from public services, for a limited lime, please reach out to us, your pastors, if you have not done so. We do not want to lose any sheep. This pandemic seems to be more a spiritual temptation, than a physical one, for most. Do not use the pandemic as a convenient excuse to absent yourself from the preached Word or from the gift of Holy Communion, which is the promise of salvation. Forgiveness and eternal life are offered in the Supper: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). Do not social distance yourself from Christ!
There is always risk in dealing with others in this world (since death is 100% certain), but the greatest risk is Satan making your heart cold and hard to the Word of forgiveness. Fear of dying is not to replace hope in being raised to eternal life. Christ rose over death, giving us victory – no matter what happens to our body in this life. Jesus says to you: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).
Examine your attitude and heart. Consider whether you still take your sin and certain death seriously – because disobedience of God is the cause of all death ultimately. Do not be deceived: Your wages for sinning will be death (Rom. 6:23), no matter how much you do or do not do now. But life reigns over all through Christ’s life. Cling to the Word to live forever. “For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).
God’s Word Remains Firm
God’s Word does not change to suit the current news cycle. The pandemic has changed much about our daily lives and routines. But it has not changed our goal as your pastors. We are not trying to help people avoid temporal death – as the world appears so concerned with currently. We preach against causing death by murder, but not avoidance of anything that might possibly contribute to death. First of all, it is impossible to avoid death. Instead, we are preparing sinners to face sin and death in hope, trusting in Jesus who is greater than death. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1 Jn. 1:4-5). This Light is still giving life. So confess and turn from living in fear, trusting Jesus will raise you. We have a hope the world cannot know or take away.
Hell is still a worse danger to you than the virus, even if you lose your earthly life. Jesus warns us not to love our lives in this world too much, but to love Christ and our eternal life in Him above all things: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:25). This is a tough saying of our Lord. What does it mean? If you love your life or health now, more than Jesus’ will, you will lose your soul eternally. Staying safe and avoiding anything that appears risky can be a god – a false one though. Your God is not your thoughts or what you think may happen. Your God is Christ who already died. He calls you to live in Him, to turn from your fear and panic, and pick up your cross. The crosses in your life are not just risky – they are deadly! The cross is an instrument causing death. So be prepared to die – as you must – in hope.
Never getting close to another person, doing nothing in public, and taking all precautions will not save your soul. So do not be ruled by fear, but stand firm. Our God lives and is in control, ruling all things for the good of those who love Him. Trust His promises and consider the Scriptures to know more than the world’s experts. Do not be thrown off course. Your heavenly call in the Gospel has not been altered in the least. Take reasonable precautions, yes, and do not test God, but believe your true life is in Christ, not how well you manage to sanitize or avoid people.
Trust the power of God’s angels to protect from things seen and unseen. If you do not remain in this world for as long as you want, take solace in the heavenly glory you have been promised. It is far better to be with Christ than to live in a mortal body (Phil 1:23). Know that your baptism remains firm, even when you do not. This pandemic has not made good works and walking in love toward your neighbor optional to God.
Satan uses guilt, fear, and dread to unsettle people, casting them into despair. But Christ uses the preached Gospel to put your soul at rest from works and the curse of the law. We are not to be controlled by the unknown, possible risks, or probable percentages, but by the Holy Spirit who gives us confidence that Jesus will not die again. Sin has been answered by Christ’s death. His resurrection to life means God the Father has been reconciled to the whole world. An earthly pandemic does not make good works or pleasing our Father optional.
Our salvation and God are certain, so the Spirit gives us boldness to live in faith. The Word always gives life, although we are surrounded by death – and will continue to be this side of heaven. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Our goal is not simply to get people in a building, but to see to your eternal welfare in Christ. So if we do not see you, reach out to us. Email or schedule a phone call or visit. We are concerned for you, especially those we cannot see, in this time of trial and wish to fulfill our call to serve you with God’s saving Word. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).
A Message from Pastor Hale
The Lord’s Supper – Christ’s holy body and blood – is good. That is a great understatement – it is holy and divine. But if some is good – or great – is more better? The push for every week Communion seems to be in the air in Lutheran circles. While good in itself, we must not think any practice will make one a better Christian, let alone be a guarantee of salvation or orthodox doctrine. But who could argue with more of the body and blood of Christ? Not the what, but the why – is the matter of concern.
First, it must be established that other churches have communion frequently and are not orthodox. If the frequency of Communion is all that matters, then the Roman church is a very good church. But they teach that the Supper is a representation of the sacrifice of Christ. It is not just a gift, but a sacrifice to God. That turns the Gospel of the Supper into Law. In a way, their frequency is dictated by their theology, since they don’t teach the full freedom of the Gospel. More sacrifices are needed in their view. In other words, Communion, for them, is a “have to,” not a “want to.” That is backwards and not Lutheran.
The Law emphasis is easy to fall into. For all the many reasons for every week Communion, there is no “should,” without demanding what God did not. Christ left it a free gift, without a specific prescription for how often we should take it: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25). It is easy to make rules and coerce to the altar, but it is another matter entirely to cause people to gladly desire the forgiveness it offers. That is done not by talking about frequency, but about what it is and gives. This requires preaching the Gospel – the real work of pastors – not scheduling.
It is always good and godly to desire Communion, but we do not lack Christ if we are not consuming Christ at the present moment. It is not like filling up a gas tank with fuel. Grace is not a finite substance, as Rome teaches, but the favor of God. Christ is wholly present for us in faith which trusts in the Word. Baptism is not incomplete without the Supper (as the Eastern Orthodox show by communing infants). Children who have not been taught and cannot confess the doctrine of their church’s confession of God’s Word are not missing out. If they desire the Supper – good. But we do not have to eat every time we are hungry. The promises of the Word sustain faith, not our doing of church rituals.
If you cannot Commune, be content with the Word and the promise of unlimited forgiveness in Jesus you do possess. After all, there is no Communion without Christ’s Word, which always gives rise to and demands faith. Forgiveness is never piecemeal. There is not a different type of forgiveness in the Supper, though it comes in a unique way. There is one Gospel and one Christ, so to believe is to have all of Him and His righteousness. There is no extra boost of holiness in Communion – the holy meal is also a Word of promise – instituted by our Lord.
There are some who act like a service without Communion is not a real service, as if it were less divine. But Christ is fully present where two or three are gathered in His name. Communion is not a sudden magic appearing act for Jesus – so that He leaves us destitute without the Supper. He gives Himself, body and blood, in Communion, but He has not confined Himself to bread and wine. We dare not be Roman and pit Communion against His sacrificial death, putting them on the same level. Communion is good, but if all you trust in is your consuming Jesus’ body and blood – you are damned. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). That does not mean Communion is less than divine, or somehow optional for the church – but the act of Communing alone cannot save you from your sins. It is never to be apart from faith and the Word which preaches Christ’s death for sinners. The Supper is an external act, commanded by Christ (“do this”), but it is also a Gospel promise offering forgiveness, to be received in faith.
While Communion gives Christ’s most precious body and blood – it is not necessarily for the recipient’s blessing. It is not a cure-all for lousy preaching and poor doctrine: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). It should only be given to those who can discern the body and are aware of their need for the forgiveness it offers. It is also a public, communal act – not a private one. To have the Supper together with other sinners is also to show unity in Christ and His teaching. The biblical practice of closed Communion shows that the Supper is not generically good – what is holy is not always beneficial for sinners. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).
We must ever emphasize that our act of Communing is not identical to being clothed with Christ’s righteousness and being declared holy before God – just as touching Christ’s flesh on earth did not grant life and healing to all: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to the woman with the issue of blood who touched Him in faith. A run-away dog can easily lap up wine and eat a wafer—that does not make a dog a great Christian.
We can wax eloquently about the holiness of the Supper and its great gifts, but without faith created by the Word, our act of communing can be idolatry – most literally. We can think we are justified by the bare act, thinking Christ will be satisfied with my sin if I just eat a small wafer and chug a bit of mediocre wine. This is an unworthy reception – and not all eating and drinking, the outward act – is to one’s benefit. A sinner might think it is a small trade to eat and drink once a week to buy off God’s justice – but this is idolatry, no matter how often one does it.
The Supper, for all its divine significance and blessings, is not a substitute for the applied Gospel – and for the entire Christ who fills all things. It may even be shocking to find out that all the Old Testament saints were saved without even communing one time. The Supper does not replace faith or make righteousness less necessary. This is why traditionally Lutherans did not get all emotional and preachy about the frequency of the Supper – and had no emergency (or virtual) Communion. Our external reception of it does not determine our righteousness before God – it matters more what we teach and believe about the Supper – and the Christ who offers His body and blood in it. Our physical reception of it is the least important aspect. “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.” The words are to be proclaimed and preserved by preaching and teaching – not eating.
The gift is not just Christ – it is also His forgiveness for us in the Word, without which no one can be holy to God and know Him. “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins’.” He seals the promise of full forgiveness with the same body and blood offered unto death for your sins. That faith is counted as righteousness. But doing is not believing. The Supper is not just a ritual man does, it is a divine promise for faith. Doing the act, by itself, will not automatically create faith, but faith certainly desires to do the act – but it cannot always be done.
We must not abandon our families and vocations to commune 24/7 – thinking that is the essence of Christianity. Yet this meal must be taught to be done and received the right way, according to Christ’s own will, since it is His Supper. Christianity, after all, is not an intellectual philosophy. Our enfleshed Lord instituted a real action – for us to eat and drink in faith.
The Apology to the Augsburg Confession speaks in the German version of the Roman mass as “Baal Gottesdienst” or “Baal Worship” (XXIV, 98). But Rome had (and still does) Christ’s true body and blood on the altar – even every week! Having the consecrated elements and even consuming buckets of them does not make one holy, by itself. This was the very Roman teaching that was condemned by the first Lutherans: simply doing the act was said to be enough – it didn’t matter in Roman teaching if one believed, repented, or knew what they were receiving from the living Christ in the Supper. True worship the Father desires is not only external, though it will entail doing things. It is ever worship in the Spirit and truth of God. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).
Today, we must again preach against robotically doing the bare act of Communion without being repentant or believing what the Words of Christ say and deliver: the forgiveness of our sins. Truth be told, we have too many pastors “teaching” the frequency of Communion, but not the doctrine, right reception, public fellowship implications, and the true spiritual blessings of the Supper. Scripture does not command just the act, but the whole will of Christ who comes to forgive sinners in this meal. To preach Christ is to preach the Supper, since He Himself is in it for sinners! Only the pure Gospel can preserve the gift of Communion. The act alone cannot, and repeating it more frequently, cannot sustain and uplift the promise it truly offers. Words do it – not actions. Idolatry is always about our works – not obeying and believing God’s Word.
My flippant retort to every week Communion is why stop there? Isn’t every day Communion better than every week? Surely if I take it every hour or half-hour, my holiness will increase? No, more is not always better, if we are talking about our actions. Every instance of the Supper gives full forgiveness for every sin. There is no expiration date on this forgiveness. It is not only for past sins. The Word is eternal and lives beyond the human act of consuming the elements. And faith by the Word which grants the Spirit to us is not a human act – like going to an altar to eat and drink. Sure, we should desire to commune frequently, if we believe we are sinners and know what the Supper offers. But we dare not put the act of receiving the Supper in the place of faith in the risen Christ, lest we find a Baal idol in what we exclaim should happen more often.
A Message from Pastor Hale
Reactions like these from pagans (an actual statement by a concerned citizen concerning OPS), by those unmoored from divine morality and guilt, made frantic by pandemics, are unthinking and rash. But they are religious. Whether it be masks, singing in church, or having in-person school – murder is the charge of guilt leveled by some of those opposing these activities. But guilt is a religious term. Christians define it by the Bible, not emotion and wild speculation.
The spread of disease is unavoidable for the living. The only way to not be a potential “murderer” by spreading the virus is to not be alive. We are simply the hosts for undesirable germs and viruses. This is not self-chosen and willing, except indirectly by being sinners. When Adam fell, we all fell. This curse still haunts us: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17) But the divine curse of human mortality is precisely the issue that is not being addressed – making death completely another person’s fault – instead of owning up to the personal guilt before God which makes death a just sentence of condemnation.
Guilt is accountable to God, as David says: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4) The author of justice is the One to whom guilt is owed. Feelings of guilt are not god, nor always correct. We are good at judging others in obvious ways, but fail to condemn ourselves for our in-born rebellion against God’s holiness.
Am I guilty for passing on my hereditary diseases, weaknesses, and imperfect eyesight to my children? Perhaps medically and genetically, but not before God. But my sin I have and will commit from my evil heart I must actively repent of. Participating indirectly in the wages of death and the sinful conditions common to sinners is not the real problem. Every child born must die – if Christ continues to allow this blind world to continue for long enough. We all share in death – death is not avoidable, the modern unbeliever must be reminded. But without a doctrine of original sin, only other people are left to blame, since we cannot try and execute a virus in the public square.
Death is everywhere and it comes in all sorts of forms and means, not just by contagious disease. But the root of all mortality is sin. Death as divine punishment is unavoidable. The only way not to be subject to it is to cease living. But Christians learn to embrace dying to sin, by being joined to Christ who died for our sins: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom. 6:3). Christians see death as a door to paradise, because its sting has been removed – the guilt of sin. Our lives are not about avoiding death, but dying the right kind of death – one that is God-pleasing and acceptable in Christ.
Jesus was the guilt offering made for the world – the perfect sacrifice for our guilt. He satisfied not human justice, but divine justice. Whoever turns from his sin is forgiven by the power of Christ’s name. This is a better victory than a completely effective coronavirus vaccine. It defeats all death and removes the eternal torments we deserve, not just the possibility of death from communicable infection.
While a cold can turn into pneumonia, and sadly, will eventually lead someone weak to die, that does not make a little child picking it up at a school playground and giving it to a doting grandfather eligible for death row. Earthly justice must be based on controllable actions – not uncontrollable infections – but alas, people helpless in this pandemic cannot punish a virus, so those at its mercy are being attacked.
But mortality – the fact that we do not deserve to and cannot live on earth very long – and have no say in the matter – is not being addressed. God breathed into us the breath of life, but now our sin has made death a certain punishment, since we are separated from God and His holiness: “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Ps 39:5).
The world wants to get rid of judging tangible actions, real motives, and willful intentions, conflating the potential result with every action that does not possibly prevent the transmission of a virus. This is not just illogical, it is a bad theology of guilt – a false justice. But closing down schools or wearing non-medical masks is not guaranteed to stop an invisible virus, nor will it – or anything you attempt – stop death from knocking on your door. Neither will blame stop you from sin’s death sentence.
Today, it is as if every single person actually engineered the virus in his basement, and is purposely spreading it. To equate not wearing a mask, or wanting to be around people, with intentional murder is not just sloppy logic, it is an attack on Christian virtue. It causes people to live in fear, motivating them not to love their neighbor. And love is not simply inaction or avoidance.
Only a dead person, safely tucked in a grave, can be truly loving in this pandemic, it seems. Our God defines love as interacting with others, even when our lives are put in mortal danger: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Our holy Lord Jesus took on our divine curse, the possibility of disease, our just judgment, and our mortality – in order to die for us. He did not separate Himself from sinners facing eternal death. He came to give life by joining us in the flesh of man and now shows us divine love in taking away the fear of death, which we are privileged to show forth in good works to those around us. Do not apologize for this privilege, but use it for others!
Interacting with others to help them in a Christian way is not murder, even if death is the tragic result. God judges the heart, but we cannot. Death is always the result of sinners breathing in this world. We want to blame someone, but not ourselves. We want to control and guilt others, but go easy on ourselves. Only when sin is personal and deadly, does Christ the Lord over death and sin offer full release.
Human guilt is easy to throw on others. Yes, we are murderers, but not for failing to social distance, or going to church to hear of Christ’s victory for us over death. In our hearts and minds we fail to honor God’s justice and law. We think in human terms, thinking we deserve to live and prosper, but we do not as sinners. Only the Gospel of Christ can give confidence in the face of impending mortality: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:13-14). Jesus, the righteous Son, faced death for us, so we can face it without fear. Our hope does not stop at viruses or the possibility of death. We die to sin, in order to live in righteousness with Christ – to be resurrected to glory in this very body of death.
Only free from guilt and the slavery of death can we live in this world as Christians, putting others before ourselves and mortal fears. Do not live in the blame-game mentality of the world. We have Jesus’ death in us, the solution to the problems that actually cause all death. The resurrection is our hope, not avoiding possible dangerous interactions. Christians have conquered death by faith in Christ. They need not live in fear, casting guilt like a net around everyone they see. We have true life, enough to share with the dying and hopeless.
Mask guilt, white guilt, wealth guilt, and every man-made idea of guilt, are all too shallow and limiting. Real guilt before God must be hammered home to damn us fully, so it can be removed by the forgiving Word of Christ. Hatred is murder. Looking down on any neighbor, and blaming him for your sin and mortality, is murder before God. And we answer to Him alone. He alone can forgive, and He does. Christ did not social distance Himself from us and our death. Amen. --ed
A Message from Pastor Hale
We have every reason to be thankful that the Lord has preserved us, so far, in body, but also in unity. This pandemic has been a trying time of heightened emotions and stress. The world has fought over small things and made mountains out of molehills – dividing and fighting over the silliest of items. The world has seemingly forgotten how to act civil to one another. But that has not been the case at Zion.
This steadfastness is a statement to the character of Zion. Even when not all came to services, you supported Zion by honoring the Word in your heart, by your faithfulness and charity, and your generosity in giving to support the proclamation of the Gospel here. That speaks well of what Zion stands for – this pandemic did not rattle you. Zion, the people, have been tested, and also approved during this great test of suffering.
We are also thankful for the ability to hold public worship of the true God. It is not something to take for granted we have learned, hopefully, anew. While we do not minimize the health risks in this cursed world, Christ’s victory over death does not leave us quaking in fear.
We do not know if there will ever be a “normal” as we once took for granted. So, we cannot relax and pretend Satan will not try to divide us and cause us to bicker over non-essential things. But we have adjusted the best we can to difficult circumstances. We trust Christ to sustain us no matter what happens. Thanks be to God for what we have endured.
Church, the Word itself, is important. It prepares us for all trials – even death. We have the call to give out eternal life – and that is the real antidote to fear, anxiety, guilt, and division. Zion was prepared by the Word of God – and has stepped up in a big way. It has been a real encouragement to hear and observe how the Word has preserved your hearts and sustained your hope during this trying time. It has revealed what is truly the one thing needful. And, above all, we give thanks that we were able to work together, not dividing over external things, for the sake of Christ. The Word of God is to continue to be our focus, since it alone keeps us together in Christ, united in our heavenly goal.