During these weeks when we can’t meet together in a normal worship service, we’ve tried to use on-line social media to create an inspiring virtual service at our usual meeting time, 11 am Sunday morning. We’ve done our best to keep all the familiar elements of our service — welcome, praise songs, announcements, receiving the offering, prayer time and sermon –so that the worship experience will feel familiar and reassuring.
But this Sunday is special in two ways: it’s Palm Sunday, and it’s the first Sunday of the month, our Communion Sunday. We’ve decided not to try to send children to the front lawns of all ABCers, waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna.” Instead, we’ll read the exciting account of the Triumphal Entry from Matthew’s Gospel. But we felt it was important to have some sort of shared Communion Service experience. We’re going to ask those who will be listening to participate by finding a piece of bread or cracker and a small glass of juice in your own home. We’ll try to make it respectful, but we feel we are free to ad lib on the actual physical food and drink we use, because we believe they are just symbols.
You may be surprised that the two last words I wrote, just symbols, would be very offensive to some of our Christian friends from other denominational traditions. This goes back 1200 years to the Holy Roman Empire, shortly after the time of its first great leader, King Charlemagne (Charles the Great).* Theologians of the time began to have great debates about the elements Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper, the bread and the wine. He said to them, “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” Some church leaders took his words as obviously symbolic, meaning, “This bread is a metaphor for my body,” “This cup is a metaphor for my blood.” But others argued that his words had to be taken literally and that he miraculously changed the bread and wine into his body and his blood as he handed them to the disciples: “This is my body,” “This is my blood.”
Over the next six centuries of theological debate, the latter view, known as the doctrine of Transubstantiation, won the argument and became part of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, today, when the priest lifts the bread and cup above his head in the Eucharistic prayer, a miracle takes place, and the substance (not the physical appearance) of the elements become the body and blood of Christ, often referred to as the Real Presence. So, you can see that the stakes are higher for Catholics (and other faith traditions that hold similar beliefs). They can’t do what we’re planning to do on Sunday for two reasons: no priest will be involved to consecrate the elements, and the elements will be food that is available from your kitchen.**
However, the Protestant Reformation of the16th century challenged all of this. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Reformed denominations rejected the doctrine of Transubstantiation, while still holding onto some partial form of this centuries-old belief that some sort of spiritual change of the bread and wine takes place in the prayer of communion. Baptist and other groups that took the Protestant Reformation farther than the rest, reject this medieval teaching altogether. For us, the elements, the bread and wine, are clearly just symbols that Jesus selected from the table in front of him to use as teaching tools; he could have chosen olives and coffee. (My Catholic friends are cringing now.) For us, the closing words of Jesus to his disciples are our motivation for joining in our monthly celebration of Communion:
“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
It’s remembrance, reminding ourselves and each other, of what Jesus has done for us.
So, we’ll celebrate our salvation in Christ this Sunday through a simple, makeshift, stay-at-home Communion service. We don’t believe in the traditional Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but we do believe that we’ll experience the real presence of Christ in another sense, because he promised,
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
I look forward to our virtual gathering this Sunday at 11 am.
-Pastor George Van Alstine
*This was the beginning of the unholy alliance between church and state that lasted, in various forms for the next 1000 years, to the time of Napoleon.
**I found a Catholic site where people are encouraged to participate in the Mass (Communion) in this way:”At this time of pandemic, the bishops have removed the obligation to attend Holy Mass on Sundays and Solemnities. You can make a Spiritual Communion, for example while watching a video-streamed Mass, pray: My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.” Sounds like what Baptists do regularly.