Refraining from Holy Communion; participating in the “broken body of our pandemic exile”
For the first time since we cancelled “in person” worship on March 12, I joined Trinity’s ‘virtual’ congregation, participating in the live streaming of worship from home yesterday. Sunday, August 2 was the day that my nephew William was to be married in Minneapolis and I had arranged to be away to officiate at his wedding with Pastors Dan and Karen. After their wedding venue closed, William and Janay’s alternative marriage celebration was held in July on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, so I was at home Sunday with Rebecca engaging in virtual worship, well led by Pastors Dan and Karen. It was good to have Pastor Karen back among the worship leaders, and I was grateful for the ongoing efforts of our AV team to provide the gift of a good worship offering for the people of Trinity. As of this morning, more than 400 households had tuned in to yesterday’s service from Centennial Hall, perhaps 800 or more individual worshippers.
Still, I join with many of you in finding this time of distancing unsatisfactory. At the heart of worship is our coming together, our communion with one another in the place where our liturgy unfolds. We are getting a taste of that good gathering in our monthly outdoor services of Holy Communion on the west lawn, but it is significantly different to “watch worship” at 9:15 a.m. on Sundays than it is to be together. With some intentionality and discipline, the live streaming of worship can be meaningful participation. But the relational aspect of praying the liturgy together, even when we text, email or use social media to greet one another and share the Peace, is most certainly compromised.
I attended a webinar last week with a panel of seminary professors, bishops and pastors leading a discussion entitled “Communion and COVID: Eucharistic Practices and Perspectives.” Some panelists spoke of their experiences of ‘virtual communion’ in this extraordinary time, with worshippers communing from home during live streaming, providing an assurance of God’s grace and some measure of comfort with bread and wine/juice from their own pantries. But most of the panelists embraced Presiding Bishop Eaton’s suggestion that, during this time of pandemic, we refrain from the practice of Holy Communion.
The webinar included the teaching of Ben Stewart, a professor of liturgics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. An old friend from the days of my sabbatical in 2003, Ben reminded participants in the webinar that context is important in the administration of the sacrament, and that pastoral refraining from Holy Communion was mindful of those without access to the sacrament. He noted that the Sunday Eucharist, in which we gather together for the liturgy of Holy Communion, is typically where we know ourselves united as the one body of Christ. Now, he stated, our distance is a primary sign of our community, of life and of healing. The Body of Christ is being broken apart and it is being broken open for the life of the world in this pandemic time. By refraining from the sacrament, he said, we are doing something entirely eucharistic, participating in that brokenness, in the broken body of our pandemic exile.
He went on to remind us of Martin Luther’s teaching that if we privatize the mass (our Sunday liturgy of Holy Communion), we are hoarding our daily bread. In communal worship the bread becomes our common bread, the cup becomes our common cup, not the resources of our own pantries. Stewart noted the “economic proposal of the Eucharist,” that there is enough for all when shared, with limits on our own consumption. Evoking last Sunday’s story of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000, that sharing of what we have in community makes private bread into communal bread. And in the spirit of sharing material well-being, Jesus teaches us to share our bread. To some degree, Stewart asserted that “computer assisted Holy Communion” abandons the common bread, and we are off to our own pantries . . .
It is important to note that the webinar panelists did not condemn one communion practice while advocating another for the churches of the ELCA. But most sided with refraining from the Eucharist until we can gather again together in community.
Friends in Christ, on the short term, be welcome to join us for the monthly outdoor service of Holy Communion – we meet again on the west lawn on August 16 at 11 a.m. But as per our reentry plan, we will continue to refrain from Holy Communion on Sundays during “virtual worship,” and long for that day when we can meet face-to-face in the sanctuary and Centennial Hall. First steps into that re-entry in the Trinity plan will align with Phase 5 in the MI Safe Start Plan.
For now, we wait.
Our Sunday morning statement of that intent reads:
We are reminded that Holy Communion is a gift to strengthen faith. As we gather for live streaming of worship on the Sundays after Pentecost, we hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper, but we feast on Christ present in the Word of God, in our shared worship, and in our daily lives until we can gather again at the Lord’s table.
But we have a way forward even as we refrain from the Eucharist. In solidarity with all who are not receiving Holy Communion today and in anticipation of the feast to come, we dwell on the words of Jesus, and it is enough.
The Word of God will sustain us. And each time we pause before a meal and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest . . .,” and break bread in Christ’s name, we feast on Christ present.
Christ is given for you, Christ’s body and blood are broken and shed for you.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love, even as we await the day when we are together again for the gift of grace in Holy Communion.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom