What’s the Right Way to Receive The Lord’s Supper?

lords-supper_mainThat may sound like a strange question, but it’s a very good one. Is it wrong to touch the common cup? Is there anything holy and special about the cup and bread or is it just a cup and bread? Is it wrong not to kneel?

Depending on where you attend church, may determine the answer you receive, and that’s not necessarily wrong. As long as the theology of what’s happening during the Lord’s Supper is right, the practice of how it’s received has room to shift around (and the practices have shifted around over the course of history). But whatever is done should be done for a reason rather than just “because”.

What’s happening when we receive the Sacrament? We received Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Does it change into Jesus’ body while in the ciborium (the thing we use to hold the bread), or does it change when you consume it? Does it remain Jesus’ body and blood or does it change back into bread and wine after service? Those questions are interesting, but not the point and can lead to problems if focused on too heavily. We don’t get bogged down in the “how does this all work?” Instead, we understand Jesus’ Words that this meal is his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Then we read Paul re-emphasize this reality throughout 1 Corinthians. (check out Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25) At the same time, if we confess it is Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, some of those questions I started with do come to our minds because, “If this is Christ’s body and blood, how SHOULD we interact with it.” It’s not that those questions are horrible and heretical, it’s just that too often, people get distracted by them that they miss the point and can get into problematic teachings.

There’s a lot of history behind the practices and traditions of the Lord’s Supper. There was a time when people started turning the Lord’s Supper into a superstitious good luck charm, making shrines in their homes to the bread they smuggled out of church…after all, it was Christ’s body, right? This is also the reason why the church had stopped giving the wine (well, you don’t want people to spill Jesus’ blood…yikes!) and soon after the bread. Instead, the priests would consume it on behalf of the people out of such a high reverence for the elements, and you had to be at the service in order to get the blessing of what the priest was doing for you at the altar. Then during and after the reformation, some people went too far in the other direction and said, “Meh, it’s just bread and wine that ONLY REMINDS us that Jesus loves us. Jesus didn’t really mean the stuff about forgiveness of sins or being his body and blood, and it’s not THAT important to have to receive it often.” Or, “You don’t have to use THOSE elements, just use some grape juice or water…it’s the meaning behind it that counts.” Then, you get to some “hip” churches today that say, “We’re going to be ‘out of the box’ tonight and celebrate the Lord’s Supper with beer and pizza during our party.” (Yes that happens).

As Lutherans, we are reverent when dealing with the bread and wine because it is Christ’s true body and blood according to Jesus, but we don’t worship it or try to explain how it all works apart from what Scripture reveals. You often hear Lutherans use the phrase “Christ’s body and blood are ‘in, with, and under’ the elements.” That’s a fancy phrase Luther used in order to say, “We’re not sure how it works, but we believe what Jesus says.” We don’t treat the elements like good luck charms to ward off evil. Instead, we acknowledge that it, like baptism, is a plain old element attached to God’s promise of forgiveness. So we don’t take it lightly, but we also don’t worship it. We don’t believe that the elements have a magical property attached to them. Instead, by faith, we trust God’s promise which is attached to them, that God has given this as a means through which to deliver the grace and forgiveness won for us on the cross. It’s not magic. (bonus detail: While there is some dispute, most scholars agree that “Hocus Pocus”…the thing people say before pulling the rabbit out of the hat…comes from the Latin phrase “Hoc est corpus meum” [this is my body]. That was the part in the Latin Mass when the priest held up the host and the bread became Jesus body. People understood it to be, “Ta-da! This is now Jesus” type of thing. Therefore the phrase got convoluted, pulled from it’s meaning and applied to other “magical” activities.)

With all of that in mind, it’s understandable why people might take various stances on how to interact with the Lord’s Supper, and why many people land on different points of the spectrum of reverence. Some people won’t touch the bread or chalice with their hands. Instead, they have the pastor serve everything without any assistance from themselves. Others (and this applies to most members in our congregation) will receive the bread with their hands and consume it reverently and then use one or both hands to help guide the chalice to their mouth as the pastor or server presents it (though there are some who don’t touch the chalice themselves despite receiving the host with their hands). Of course, at Immanuel, we have individual cups as well, and in that case, people simply pick up a cup and drink consume it for themselves. It all depends on the person.

There’s no one right answer for this one. There’s no one right way that has come down through time for whether to touch the cup and elements or not. Most of history has involved people receiving the Lord’s Supper from a common cup, and there’s some neat significance to that (unity and fellowship), but it isn’t the only way it’s ever been done. It’s mainly due to the germaphobic (fear of germs…not Germans), individualistic, and desire to be as-efficient-with-time-as-possible characteristics of our culture that churches have the individual cups as we have them today. I’m sure there were other cultural influences, but those were some of the big ones. Anything we do in worship should be done in a decent and orderly way (1 Corinthians 14:40), but there is room for what that looks like. Some would argue that the only way to receive the Lord’s Supper is to kneel and receive it together one “table” (i.e. set of people at the communion rail) at a time, while others would say, “We’ve got 400 people in service and a timeframe due to other services on a Sunday morning, so we should have more of a continuous line and then everyone gets dismissed at the end.” Both can be right and based on the context of the congregation, both can work. Now, if people are saying, “We need to do continuous line for the 10 people in our only service because the game comes on in 10 minutes!” Well, then we may have a problem because we have to ask ourselves, “Are we receiving this gift of God through faith in a reverent way and acknowledging the significance of what’s happening, or just going through the motions and trying to get something done?” Again, there isn’t one right way to receive the Lord’s Supper, but we also shouldn’t just do things “because” without any understanding of the significance. I, personally, like our semi-continuous style. People take a moment to receive the sacrament (kneeling if they’re able) and then return to sing or reflect in the pew. At the end, the body of Christ – the whole congregation together – is dismissed as one group showing our unity in the Supper.

Regardless of how we receive the supper, we do it reverently acknowledging that we, poor, miserable sinners are blessed to have a loving God who forgives us for our imperfection and continues to strengthen and sustain us in the one true faith now and forever. We don’t hope that we can experience God somehow or know him through a feeling inside, but we have his true Word that says, “Here is where you have forgiveness. There is where I locate myself for your own assurance of salvation.”

Have a question you would like answered or have some questions based on this response? Send me an email or come on in to chat.