A Pastoral Letter regarding Holy Communion During COVID-19
Redeemer Lutheran Church; Hinsdale IL
Pr. Katie Hines-Shah
April 8th, 2020
We are in uncharted waters…
I find myself using this phrase a lot lately. Since the onset of the pandemic the landscape is constantly changing and decision-making needs to happen quickly. Churches are not known for moving quickly, and, when it came to sharing Holy Communion, it has seemed sensible to wait and see how the Spirit may lead us.
With this in mind, early in the COVID-19 crisis, Elizabeth Eaton, our Presiding Bishop, and many of the regional bishops of the ELCA have counseled churches to abstain from Holy Communion. Their concern was both a physical and spiritual one. Many churches engaged in unsafe practices in sharing communion, including gathering publically. Theologians and pastors wondered how online worship would function. Would the faithful be able to believe that Jesus is “in with and under” the elements if the Word could not combine with bread and wine in their physical presence? So we have waited.
As the days have turned to weeks, we have learned much that is new. We have learned how community can be gathered via virtual means. We have learned that some people who were previously excluded from our worship services because of distance, poor health, or transportation needs, now are able to participate. And during our month long fast we have learned how hungry we are for Holy Communion. I’ve studied the scriptures, the Confessions, and the Use and Means of Grace. I’ve consulted with the Bishop Curry and other colleagues. I’ve had conversation with staff and the Worship and Music Committee. I’ve prayed. My conscience leads me to conclude that it’s time.
This Easter we will celebrate Holy Communion even while we are apart.
Prepare for Easter worship this coming Sunday by having the physical elements of communion available. For most people that will mean preparing bread and wine. Gluten free bread and grape juice are also acceptable. You don’t need anything fancy to celebrate. Jesus used the most common and basic foodstuffs to bless so that Holy Communion would be accessible to all.
During our live-streamed Easter Sunday Service I will speak the familiar words, “In the night in which He was betrayed…” The bread and wine you have at home, just like the bread and wine I will have on the altar, will be tangible signs of God’s promise to be present in, with, and under the elements of Holy Communion. We receive this meal and the forgiveness, grace and love it brings as an act of faith. We trust that God will be where God has promised to meet us, transcending physical boundaries during the pandemic.
You then will break your bread and share the cup with all those present in your household. As you serve Holy Communion to your family members say the words, “The Body of Christ given for you,” and “The Blood of Christ shed for you.” I will say these words as well so that anyone who is alone at home can hear them and receive Holy Communion with the whole church. When the service is over, you should either consume all the leftovers or bury them in the ground. We will continue sharing Holy Communion in this way each and every Sunday until we are gathered together again.
Of course, this is no substitute for gathering in person, which we will resume as soon as it is safe to do so. But until that time comes, do not doubt that our God is gracious and merciful. Be confident that Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine we share on Sundays, and that the Holy Spirit remains with us and sustains us.
We may be in uncharted waters, but God is with us. As we will hear in the Thanksgiving at the Table: God was with Noah and his family during the 40 days they sheltered in place. God led the Israelites through the sea saving them from oppression. We remember that Jesus came to the disciples through their locked doors in the days following his resurrection. The Holy Spirit, in the same way, descended on the disciples at Pentecost. God will surely meet us in our own individual homes now.
In confidence and assurance let us therefore keep the feast!
Thanks be to God!
Pr. Katie Hines-Shah
For further reading:
1st Corinthians 11:23-26
In 1st Corinthians Paul gives the earliest witness to the practice of Holy Communion. He reminds us that Jesus commanded his disciples to do this “often.” When we gather to worship and share Holy Communion we obey this command.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Use and Means of Grace Principle 35
The Use and Means of Grace was a document prepared by the ELCA in the early 1990’s to explore the evolving ways we were practicing of Holy Communion as Lutherans. Many of you might remember when Holy Communion was not commonly shared weekly. This document recommends communion at all regular worship and festival services and affirms our need for the Sacrament.
Holy Communion is Celebrated Weekly
According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutheran Congregations celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday and festival. This confession remains the norm for our practice.
Background – The Church celebrates the Holy Communion frequently because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained. This practice was reaffirmed in 1989 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We continue to need “consistent pastoral encouragement and instruction relating to Holy Communion pointing up Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need.”
The Large Catechism: The Sacrament of the Altar 87
Martin Luther’s Large Catechism is a compilation of writings intended to help clergy lead members of their congregations in understanding the Small Catechism (which you can find on page 1160-1167 of the ELW Hymnal). This excerpt reminds us that every family has a responsibility to provide for the teaching of the sacraments and that Holy Communion strengthens us to fight the forces of evil and to love and serve God.
Therefore let every head of a family know that it is their duty, by the injunction and command of God, to teach these things to their children, or have them learn what they ought to know. For since they are baptized and received into the Christian Church, they should also enjoy this communion of the Sacrament, in order that they may serve us and be useful to us; for they must all indeed help us to believe, love, pray, and fight against the devil.