Christ’s Communion: “Recognizing the Body of Christ”
Theology of Glory or Theology of the Cross?
Rev. Howard Patten
Editor’s Note: Howard Patten has served the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the larger church for sixty years as a mission developer, a chaplain in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a pastor to multi-cultural congregations, a district executive for mission and evangelism, a district president, and as a presenter, essayist, and retreat leader for major synodical gatherings and district events. He is presently serving as a circuit visitor and pastor to multicultural congregations in the El Paso, Texas-Border region.
The 2019 Synod Convention adopted Resolution 4-11A, which is titled, “To Encourage the Study of the Doctrine of Close(d) Communion and Faithful Practice in all Congregations.”1 In response to that resolution, Pastor Patten wrote the first version of the following essay. That initial version was published last fall in the Daystar Journal. Since then, the LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations published a critique of Pr. Patten’s original essay. That CTCR critique has been published in this issue of the Journal, along with Pastor Patten’s reply to that critique and his letter that he wrote to the LCMS’s Council of Presidents. Since last fall, Pastor Patten has slightly revised his original paper and has asked that the revised version be published with these other documents.
This paper and my deep objection to 2019 synodical Resolution 4-11A and the public practice of “close(d) Communion” grow from a careful exegetical/hermeneutical study of the biblical texts that shape our Communion practice, a review of the history of our Synod’s public observance of Communion, and the present personal and pastoral call of the Spirit to practice both priestly faithfulness to the biblical Word and our Lord’s sacrificial love for his Body, the “Body of Christ.”
Article VII of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod states:
In its relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.
2019 Resolution 4-11A and the consequent public practice of “Close(d) Communion” are neither “in accordance with Scripture” nor “expedient for the “condition of a congregation.” Simply stated, I believe the Synod-mandated practice of “close(d) Communion” is no more in accordance with Scripture or with what is expedient for a local congregation than is the practice of “open Communion.” Both are less than faithful to the whole biblical Word and less than a sharing of Christ’s love for his Body, the church.
A Working Definition of the “Theology of the Cross”
The theology of the cross is not fundamentally a doctrinal statement. It is first a passionate, intentional, and sacrificial lived experience, a mission life-purpose that is shaped by the cross, empowered through baptism into Jesus, and directed by his Spirit. The theology of the cross is suffering with the suffering – embracing the sinner – loving the unlovable – forgiving the unforgivable –- presence to the lonely – justice for the accused – strength for the weak – grace for the undeserving – mercy to the guilty – freedom for the slave – welcome for the immigrant…. The theology of the cross is finally and forever discovered and lived in sacrifice, in the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to Luther, a theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil” (Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31.53). We are both blessed and burdened by the precious proclamation of Martin Luther, “Crux sola est nostra theologia,” the cross alone is our theology (Martin Luther, “Lectures on the Psalms [1519-1521],” WA 5.176.32).
We are Lutheran! We live the theology of the cross! with all the risks, the imperfections, the messiness, the vulnerabilities, the losses, the servant heart and the utter reliance upon the grace that our faithful heavenly Father promises to those who simply trust and live in the freedom of Jesus beneath his cross. In contrast, a theology of glory (“close(d) Communion”) promotes control, demands obedience, promises worthiness, seeks conformity, guarantees safety, practices exclusion, and ultimately teaches that we are saved by our works… by doing things right… by our work righteousness!
The Lutheran-Christian congregation must both recognize and be the Body of Christ immediately. In a twenty-first-century world this “recognition” must be scriptural, intentional, confident, open, warm, inclusive, prayerful, liturgically present, culturally aware, and undertaken always with a spiritually sensitive mission vision. This mission vision or Body-of-Christ recognition in Saint Paul’s Lord’s Supper revelation (1 Corinthians 11:29), as it embraces the hungry, the outsider, the stranger, the visitor, the seeker, and the poor, will always be a less than perfect vision. If we as a Lutheran congregation are truly and deeply engaged in mission to our communities, “they will come”! However, we do not know who will come … We do not know who will come to the Table. At this critical point we must remember who the Spirit is calling us to be. We are Lutheran! We are Lutheran bold!
Lutheran Christians do not practice “open Communion.” This in effect denies the deeply real, the immediate, forgiving and healing presence of Christ in bread and wine. Lutherans cannot practice “close(d) Communion.” This is patently an un-Lutheran “theology of glory.” Lutherans should not practice “close Communion.” The description is artificial and devoid of scriptural origin or content. Lutherans are called to PROCLAIM (“practice”) “CHRIST’S COMMUNION.” This proclamation alone confesses the FAITH that Christ is truly present in his Body and Blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine, and in the LOVE that “recognizes the Body of Christ” in the community gathered for the Word and the Sacrament.
An Introductory Story
Whispering, the nurse ushered us into the hospital room. “He has been in a coma now for three days so he will probably be unresponsive. But you can talk to him and pray with him as if he can still hear you.” As a young pastor I had been summoned to the hospital by the man’s family with the request that I “please give him “Last Rites.” The man was dying of an only recently diagnosed cancer and I was the pastoral presence for him and his family through some highly unusual circumstances. The moment is one of those that many, if not most, pastors face with often little preparation or experience. A kind of emotional/spiritual “high wire” ministry with only the assurance, “underneath are His everlasting arms.”
He was part of a Latvian community that had fled the Stalinist Soviet Union following the Second World War and was establishing a new home in the Atlanta area. Although the immigrant group was ecumenical in religious makeup – some of their members were Jewish (another long story for another time)—they had been led to the United States by a Latvian-Lutheran Pastor who had provided both physical as well as spiritual leadership. The pastor had died rather recently and suddenly and although the members were left with adequate physical and financial support they were without pastoral care or formal spiritual resources. Through a series of mutual acquaintances, relationships, and conversations I had become the de facto pastor to the Lutherans as well as the larger Latvian community. Now the community had asked for my immediate presence with a request for “Lutheran Last Rites,” which I determined rather quickly both included and centered on reception of the Sacrament.
As we entered the room the only sounds were the beeping, clicking, and hissing of the life-support systems. The only object in sight was the apparently lifeless body of the man whom I had met only once or twice before. The only support system was the young woman, Rita Kinis, who would translate these “Last Rites” and last words into Latvian. Among many other thoughts were my deep questions about both the appropriateness and the theological correctness of this sacramental event. The dying man was comatose and incapable of self-examination or confession. He was not LCMS and I had never had a conversation with him about either his faith or his understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Although he had been fluent in both German and English, the disease had left him incapable of communicating in either language. And finally, the very concepts of Latvian-Lutheran culture, piety, and of “Last Rites” were uncomfortably unknown to me. Each of these “red flags” presented significant challenges to my young pastoral sensitivities and strongly suggested some negotiation in these moments of an unwritten and even unspoken pastor-“parishioner” relationship.
However, what I also knew was that I had been “called” to minister to this dying man and his family, and that my Friend and Comforter, the Holy Spirit, in His Word and promise, was quietly in control of this moment and infinitely more compassionate, wise, and present than I could imagine. Finally, as I stood in this strange room over this dying man, I was very clear that at this moment I held the call, I held the cross, I held the promise, and I held the bread and wine of Jesus.
The quiet, brief, and simple “Service of the Sacrament” was spoken in English and translated into Latvian through Rita’s tears. “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…” Baptism was remembered and celebrated…. I looked for some sign of recognition. There was none. “… I, a poor miserable sinner…,” the traditional prayer of confession, was prayed. I wondered how these words translated into Latvian. I read slowly Psalm 23, Psalm 130, and John 14. “…In my Father’s house are many mansions…. Trust me!” I looked for response. There was none. And now the “moment of truth.” “…On the night in which he was betrayed our Lord took bread.” I broke the host into smaller pieces, dipped one into the wine, and placed it on his half-opened mouth and tongue. The words of life continued, “He took the cup… Take, drink, this is my blood of the New Covenant.” I, perhaps unwisely, took the small private communion chalice, brought it close to his mouth and poured the smallest amount of wine on his lips. Some of it trickled down the side of his mouth. As I wiped the wine with a napkin, Rita translated the last words of Jesus’ promise, “for the forgiveness of sins.”
Suddenly, he sat up, eyes wide open, his arms outstretched. He murmured, loudly and clearly, a flood of words I could not understand. Rita burst into tears and I reached out, in an almost involuntary motion, to help him lie down. No help was needed. He closed his eyes. I urgently asked Rita, “What did he say?” She was now sobbing uncontrollably. As I stepped back I reached out my hand once again and traced the sign of the cross on his forehead as I slowly pronounced the benediction of Aaron and the baptismal Name of the Holy Trinity upon this dying communicant. Now again, no sound except the beeping, clicking, and hissing of the life-support systems and the quiet sobbing of my young translator, who through the sobs and sighs said, “I will tell you outside.” In silence we stood. Quietly we left the room.
As we stood outside the hospital room, Rita was able to speak through her tears. “He thanked us,” she said, “because as he received the Sacrament, he saw heaven opened and Jesus standing with his arms wide to receive him.” I hugged her, thanked her, and again we both stood in silence. We made our way to the hospital waiting room, where my wife was sitting, conversing with the family and other members of the community. They were all deeply appreciative and surrounded us with hugs and Latvian greetings. As we were talking with one another, the nurse who had first ushered Rita and me into the hospital room walked into our midst, found the man’s wife, and with sadness and great kindness informed us that their loved one had just died.
“Location, Location, Location….”
The wisdom of the real-estate expert finds its clear counterpart in the wise and faithful interpreter of the Holy Scriptures: “Context, Context, Context.” The theologian addressing a passage of Holy Scripture will move with devotion and deliberation from the context of the entire Bible to the immediate contexts of book, date, author, language, recipient(s), etc. The faithful interpreter will also seek to dismiss, as much as is humanly possible, any and all personal or preconceived understandings of what the text and, more importantly, what the Holy Spirit is speaking in the sacred words. Lutheran theologians, whether professional or lay, approach the Word with a “sacramental preconception,” with a foundational hermeneutic, and always beneath the cross. Lutheran interpreters confess, “I am baptized!” I am confessing that I am “under” the Word, for the Scriptures are the Word of the Spirit into whom I am baptized, and they bear the light and love of the Holy Trinity into my mind, heart, strength, and spirit.
Consequently, the Lutheran interpreter of the Bible always lives within a wonderful and sometimes difficult tension. We understand that we are born into and are the bearers of traditions that have shaped a Christian perspective and practice for countless generations. We also understand that these traditions themselves must be faithfully examined precisely by the Scriptures with which we are blessed so that the Word of the cross will be faithfully proclaimed in and to the age, in light of the cultures, the history, the languages, the technologies, and the social movements that uniquely inform and shape our generation and our worldview. Simply stated, Lutheran interpreters of Scripture, whether lay or clergy, must understand that as we seek the truth of our Lord in his Word, we also bring to the verses we are reading all the past interpretations, life experiences, and churchly traditions that inform our perceptions, inspire our conclusions, and consequently shape our public practices. We are both blessed and burdened by the precious proclamation of Martin Luther, “Crux est sola est nostra theologia”; the cross alone is our theology.
Nowhere, perhaps, does our faithful interpretation of the Holy Scriptures come into greater conflict with a clear and compassionate “theology of the cross” than in our history of suspicion, exclusion, and separation from our brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominations. And nowhere is our bedrock confession of the “theology of the cross” put to a greater challenge than in our dogmatic and self-righteous practice of “closed Communion.” And finally, nowhere is the failure of a sectarian tradition and the loss of a faithful and humble biblical interpretation more obvious and dramatic than in the unscriptural shibboleth, “LCMS altars for LCMS people.” Not only are we practicing an unscriptural tradition over against our fellow Christians of other denominations but we may be spiritually forming our dear brothers and sisters in Christ within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in an unhealthy, pharisaical, and perhaps even “dark“ vision of Christ’s Body, the church. We have created in the past and continue to create into a troubled and divisive Synodical future an un-Lutheran theology of glory.
In my years as a district president, there was probably no other doctrine or practice that created more conflict and dis-ease in the congregations I served than the “doctrine(s)” and practices compromising and confusing the “celebration of the Holy Eucharist.” The sad ironies and tears surrounding the practice of COMMUNION as a primary source of conflict in our congregations has wounded or done worse to many of our best pastors and people … and then we pray “…the peace of the Lord be with you always!”
“Location – Location – Location….”
(This a good time to open your personal Bible.)
The “location” of the conflict between this retreat into a Lutheran Fundamentalism and the Holy Scriptures is confronted most dramatically in 1 Corinthians 10-12, particularly chapter 11:17-34. Our Lord’s blessed “estin” (New Testament Greek for this “is”) in Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s accounts of the Passover “Verba” (Words of Institution) settles for Lutheran Christians forever the question of our Lord’s “Real Presence” in the Supper. “Take and eat …. This is my body…. This is my blood of the New Covenant.” However, as we pore over and pray over both the location and the context of these words to the church in Corinth, we may be left feeling we need either more information or a little less interpretation, as we seek the wisdom of Paul and our Friend and Comforter, the Holy Spirit.
Paul introduces the reality of “divisions” in the church of Corinth already in the very first chapter (1:10), and the reality of these potentially destructive factions continues in one way or another all the way up to and through the great “resurrection” chapter (15) “…If Christ is not risen, your faith is empty… You are still in your sin.” In chapter 10, Paul begins to make the case for unity in the practice of “Communion,” (Greek – “koinonia” – a dynamic “coming together” of persons or elements), as he writes, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a communion (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
Almost lost in chapter 10 and Paul’s warning against either knowingly or unknowingly participating in food offered to demons is his reference to the “Lord’s Table” (10:21), a simple, beautiful, powerful description of what seems to describe a first-century Christian altar. It is more than worth noting here that the “Table” is not a Corinthian Table, but the “Lord’s Table.” After a brief communion excursion into elements of the “cup of thanksgiving,” the “one loaf,” the “one body,” and the “Lord’s Table” in the chapter, Paul now returns in chapter 11 to a discussion of the subjects of divisions, self-centeredness, the destruction of the Corinthian community, and even the desecration of the Lord’s Supper itself. Paul expresses his deep concerns over the divisive behaviors that were tearing apart the Body of Christ in the remembrance, proclamation, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian congregation:
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because your meetings are doing more harm than good. 18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it … 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
23For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (First Corinthians 11:17-30)
Division – Division – Division
Paul has received reports of what, on its surface, seems almost trivial. Apparently either the more affluent, those with more “Sabbath”-schedule freedom, or simply the more socially interested “insiders,” arrive early for a Corinthian congregational fellowship gathering and a common meal together prior to the Lord’s Supper remembrance, observance, and proclamation at the close of the evening’s gathering. It seems almost strange that in the midst of the many obvious “sins”—incest, lawsuits, idolatry, sexual immorality, denial of the resurrection—that Paul should single out failure to wait for “late comers” as a source and a cause for this deeply serious admonition and warning. It seems obvious from Paul’s profound disappointment that the “late comers” are the poor, the servants, the slaves, the “outsiders,” the physically “hungry and thirsty,” the spiritually “hungry and thirsty,” those who “have nothing.” Paul writes, “or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing …?”
Paul learned from community leaders that, in the midst of all the other divisions by sin and station, the body of the Corinthian church is being fractured, and the unity promised in the “Sacrament” is being defiled to the point of “sickness” and “death” (1 Corinthians 11:30) by the blindness, ignorance, and rejection of the “outsiders,” the “hungry and thirsty,” the ragged edge of the Body. Paul is absolutely clear that failure to “recognize (discern) the body of Christ” is to “eat and drink unworthily… to be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ, and to eat and drink judgement on oneself.”
In the larger contexts of both chapters 10 and 12—most immediately verses 17-22 of chapter 11, but especially the words, “or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing …?”—it becomes clear that Paul is addressing precisely those “who despise the church of God,” that they are the ones who must “examine” themselves…. For Paul, examination is not simply repeating a mental checklist of the communicant’s confession of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine. This “Real Presence” has long since been established for Paul in the “Words of Institution” that he repeats once again—word for word—from the three Gospels (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). The “examination,” the “discerning,” the “recognition of the “Body,” is the recognition, the acceptance, the deep and very intentional love, for “those who have nothing,” the recognition of the “outsiders,” the “left out,” those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” those whose very presence constitutes and completes the real “Body of Christ” in the Corinthian congregation.
The entire discourse on the pious, proper, and powerful practice of worthiness to receive the body and blood of Christ is tied to “recognizing the Body of Christ,” that is, the church, the Corinthian community, the “late comers,” the “left out,” “the hungry and thirsty.” Context here is everything, and the context for “discerning the body” begins already in chapter 10, with the “coming together,” the communion (koinonia(s) of the “cup of thanksgiving” and the “one loaf” that draw together the “many” into “one Body” (10:17).
Following Paul’s admonition to “discern or “recognize” the Body of Christ in chapter 11, the context continues deep into chapter 12. Paul writes, “The Body is one even though it is made up of many parts…. They form one Body” (v. 12). “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one Body” (v. 13). “Now you are the Body of Christ” (v. 27). In fact, probably so that we do not miss it, Paul speaks of and uses the concept of “body” seventeen times in chapter 12. Written to a young congregation torn by division and in danger of losing the “unity of the Spirit” and the vision of the “one body” (Ephesians 4:3), Paul proclaims the Lord’s Supper as central to the Body of Christ, and “recognizing the Body of Christ” as critical to the health of the congregation and the “Real Presence” of Jesus Christ, his true body and true blood in the Sacrament.
Fundamentalism, Exclusivism – The Systemic Sin of “Missouri”
It is precisely at this point that there exists an obvious and fundamental disagreement about the interpretation of the Scriptures and consequently a disagreement about the practices that will be faithful to this Word. It is clear that “eating the bread and drinking the cup proclaims the death of our Lord until He comes again.” It is equally clear that anyone eating and drinking unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of our Lord. What seems to be unclear is exactly what renders one “unworthy,” what we must “discern,” and for what we ought to “examine ourselves.” (A piece of “ancient history” may be worth remembering at this point in our interpretive prayer and process. As a church body, we may still live, either consciously or subconsciously, under the cloud and with the vestiges of fear that—as many of us learned in our youth confirmation classes and as the KJV darkly warned us—“he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body….” [1 Corinthians 11:29]. Many of us “learned” to navigate, with some quiet anxieties, our way toward Holy Communion. We longed for the forgiveness that was promised, but we were also silently anxious about the looming “damnation” because of a failure to properly “discern the body.”) As fresh and more accurate translations have moved us from “damnation” to ”‘judgement” (RSV), a careful interpretation of this “examination” and the required discernment also makes clear that those “who eat and drink unworthily,” those who “eat and drink God’s judgment upon themselves,” are those who fail to “discern,” to “recognize” the “Body of Christ,” the Corinthian Ecclesia, the gathered community. (An interesting and helpful footnote in a recent edition of the NRSV suggests that the phrase, “answerable for the body” (11:27), “means that those who fail to discern the body, i.e., the community, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”2
Permit me to quote from three other biblical commentaries that support this interpretation of “discerning the body” in 1 Corinthians 11.
According to Gregory Lockwood:
Paul proceeds to issue a solemn warning of the dire consequences of unworthy eating. By unworthy eating he has in mind the type of behavior described in 11:20-22 and 11:29-30. Many of the Corinthians were sinning against faith and love. They were sinning against faith by their failure to discern that in the Sacrament they were receiving the body and blood of Christ (11:20-22). And they were sinning against love in not showing consideration for the poor and needy (11:29-30). What Paul said about the arrogant Christians in 8:12 is equally true here: by sinning against weak and lowly Christians, “you are sinning against Christ.” To eat the bread and drink the cup in this manner is to be unworthy of the food offered in the Supper.”3
According to G. G. Findlay:
[T]he explanation of some Lutherans, that ‘to soma’ means ‘the substance’ underlying the material element, is foreign to the context and to Apostolic times.4
According to Bruce J. Malina:
If a person does not “discern the body” and participates in the Lord’s Supper, that person stands condemned. Evidence of such lack of discerning the body among the Corinthians is that many are weak and ill and some have fallen asleep. As indicated in verses 33-34, the condemnation in context is due to not waiting for one another and eating while others have nothing to eat. Hence, “to discern the body” refers to group awareness; to being attentive to one’s fellow Jesus-group members, who together form “the body of Christ,” as Paul will shortly explain (12:12).5
Context!…. Context!…. Context!
In the early 1960’s, the ground-breaking scientist and philosopher of scientific methodology, Thomas Kuhn, was initially a kind of scientific gadfly but he gradually became recognized as father of the idea of scientific “paradigm shifts.” 6 Kuhn discovered that the concept of “pure science” was a very well-established and universally accepted “myth.” Pure science posits that in the process of scientific experiment and experience, all presuppositions, all predispositions, and all personal biases are rejected, and consequently the pursuit of facts is always, or almost always, ruthlessly objective. There is neither room for, nor acceptance of, subjectivity in the world of the hard sciences. Kuhn’s “discovery,” however, was that physical scientists, like those who explore and experiment in any other discipline, are often and highly likely to find exactly what they expected; to discover what they were already seeking. This is as true of theologians as it is of the physical scientists. We “find” in our exegesis what we have already discovered in our historical interpretations.
500 years ago, in his famous confrontation with Zwingli, Martin Luther insisted strongly and correctly that our Lord’s words, “Take, eat… This is my body…. This is my blood…,” allowed no possibility for symbolic interpretation. Lutheran Christians have been blessed with this simple, clear Sacramental confession for five centuries. However, I would humbly suggest that, in our understandable desire to lift up and establish the Real Presence of Jesus Christ “in, with and under” his true Body and Blood in the Sacrament, we have shifted away from Paul’s focus, namely, discerning and recognizing the Body of Christ, the church, the priesthood of all believers, and have shifted toward an understanding that focuses solely on the elements of bread and wine. The above commentaries return us to Paul’s true focus, which is on the church as the Body of Christ. In our passion for Christ in the Sacrament we have dismissed, neglected, or found what we expected and discovered what we were already seeking in our interpretation of Paul’s larger admonition to the Corinthian Christians. I would also suggest that, in our singular obsession with worthy reception (faith), we are failing to grasp and to proclaim our Lord’s larger sacramental gifts to the precious saints gathering at the Table, the Body of Christ (love). (I would also claim “Saint” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, who have rightly taught that “recognizing the body” refers to “recognizing the gathered community,” the koinonia. This interpretation best fits the context of Paul’s letter.)7
Classic LCMS theology, bound here to a sixteenth-century narrative, shaped by our historic exclusivism and enshrined in over 150 years of sectarian practice and theological education, holds that the Scripture’s charge to examine oneself before eating the bread and drinking the cup so as not to eat and drink “unworthily” is based exclusively on the believer’s commitment to the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Sacrament and the consequent rejection of any other “contrived” theology of mere” symbolic” or “representative” presence.
Historically, in order to insure that the communicant does not approach the altar unworthily or bring judgment upon himself through unworthy, impure, or misguided reception of Communion, a person is first given appropriate LCMS confirmation instruction and makes a formal public confession as a part of their confirmation or prior to their “First Communion.” The Synod’s multi-generational institutional assumption is that the multi-faceted processes of faith maturation and catechization are adequate for the life-long disciplines of self- examination, worthy reception, and holy living. Following this preparation for worthy reception, one becomes a communicant member of an LCMS congregation and his or her access to the Sacrament is guaranteed. (It is somewhat telling that everything from driver’s licenses to medical certifications must be renewed regularly, but a Scriptural/theological “exam” that is undertaken in an LCMS congregation at the age of fourteen is considered sufficient for a lifetime. It must also be “recognized” that in our church body less than 14% of our members attend regular Bible study and thus mature in these deeper dimensions of their sacramental life.) This theology and practice are understood to assure examination, preparation, and worthiness for “Missouri” communicants. This confirmation process also assures that by restricting reception of other confessing Christians who are not members of the LCMS and are consequently “ignorant” of the disciplines of examination, of the “Real Presence,” and of what it means to be “worthy” to receive the Sacrament, will not be knowingly communed. This Communion preparation and practice, much summarized, is preserved and presupposed under 2019 Synod Convention Resolution 4-11A on “closed Communion.”
The great irony of this well-thought-out but deeply flawed theology and practice that combine to create the doctrine of “closed Communion,” is that Paul’s deep concerns and directions regarding worthiness/unworthiness, the unexamined sacramental life, and the very real prospect of divine judgment in these 1 Corinthians passages are only partially addressed by our exclusive emphasis on the “Real Presence,” as important and as critical as this must be. Luther writes in his Small Catechism simply and clearly that the one “who is truly worthy and well prepared” is the one “who has faith in these words, ‘given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ …For the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” We are deeply blessed with this simple summary of our sacramental faith and practice in the LCMS. However we are virtually silent to another presence, which, according to St. Paul, is perhaps at least as critical a “presence” in the celebration of the Holy Supper as “the Real Presence,” namely, the presence of the Body of Christ, the discernment of Christ’s people! Paul writes, “those who eat and drink without discerning the Body of Christ, eat and drink judgment upon themselves.” As a church body, the LCMS fails utterly, in its present formal convention resolution on “closed Communion,” to “discern” (recognize) the Body of Christ.
Recognizing the “Other” in the Body of Christ
As they were leaving worship, I reached out to shake the hand of a young woman to introduce myself to her while our elders engaged her husband in conversation. They were new and had come to Communion with us this day. As we visited, I asked her if they had recently moved into our community. She quietly responded, “No, my husband and I have been stationed at Fort Bliss for a little over a year. He has been in the sergeant-major program. We are both being deployed. I am going to Afghanistan and my husband to a somewhat classified location. We will be apart for about a year and wanted to share worship and Communion together before we are separated.” I asked her how she found us and if they had a Lutheran background. They had found us on the internet, had called the church office, and were informed they would be welcome to commune with us even though neither of them presently claimed a Lutheran membership. I took their names and assured them we would hold them close in our prayers in the months ahead. With a bit of a tear she thanked us, and after a brief introduction she and her husband were gone.
This “sacramental event” is not unusual, as Zion has visitors, military and “just passing through,” both long- and very short-term, virtually every Sunday. We kept this young couple in our public prayers each Sunday and were most pleased, and perhaps a little surprised, to see them seated and communing with the congregation one summer morning about a year later. The greetings that day were somewhat extra special, both that they were together again and “home safe.” This morning however they lingered a little longer to express their gratitude for the congregation’s prayers and also to inquire as to whether there might be a Lutheran congregation near their next duty station.
This simple story illustrates many emerging dynamics in a congregation’s mission and ministry today. Often urban, inner city, or suburban congregations serve “on the run.” That is also true of particularly young “Christians,” who live “on the run.” Denominational affiliation and sometimes church attendance in general are more an afterthought than an intention. “Church shopping” is a given. In previous generations, the question asked of a congregation by visitors was, “What do you believe?” Today the question of priority is, “Do you offer worship where I feel like I belong?” Visitors need to know we pray for them, members or not. We often have only one or two very brief opportunities to touch a life with the love of Christ. We will not be the first and hopefully we will not be the last congregation to express this love. The experience of this young couple offered some clear signs that they “belonged”; from a warm conversation with the church secretary, to the opening greeting and welcome to worship, to the Communion Liturgy in which they participated, to the “welcome” in the Communion Statement, to the intentional focus on the “seeker” in every aspect of their worship at Zion.
1962 – Believing – Behaving – Belonging
2018 – Belonging – Believing – Behaving
As I began my first missions as a “mission developer” fifty-five years ago, the sequence and process that led to church membership was simple, clear, and familiar: first, you “believe,” second, you “behave,” and finally, you “belong.” Whether the process was brief or lengthy, the sequence was the same. First, the beliefs of the congregation and denomination were explored, examined, taught, and accepted. Second, the worship style(s), education, organization, expectations, and unique practices were experienced, and behaviors were adjusted, and comfortability established. Third, a warm sense of belonging to our Lord and his people began and, ideally, grew.
This sequence today has been turned on its ear. The “seekers/visitors,” whether young or old, have ordinarily only one thought and expectation as they seek a place to “go to church.” “Is this a place, a people, a pastor, a parking lot, a service that makes me feel like I belong?” Believing and behaving may or may not be immediately important, but in an increasingly impersonal, high tech, low touch society the experience of belonging becomes the experience and expectation of priority. This was the experience of this young, highly transient, but spiritually hungry couple.
We, as a congregation, must both recognize and be the Body of Christ immediately. In a twenty-first-century world this “recognition” must be scriptural, intentional, confident, open, warm, inclusive, prayerful, culturally aware, and undertaken always with a spiritually sensitive mission vision. This mission vision or Body-of-Christ recognition, as it embraces the outsider, the stranger, the visitor, and the seeker, will always be a less-than-perfect vision. We do not know who will come to the Table. At this critical point we must remember who the Spirit is calling us to be. We are Lutheran!
We are Lutheran! We live the theology of the cross!—with all the risks, the imperfections, the messiness, the servant heart, and the utter reliance upon the grace that our faithful heavenly Father promises to those who simply trust and live in the freedom of Jesus beneath his cross. In contrast, a theology of glory (“closed Communion”) promotes exclusivity, promises worthiness, demands obedience, seeks conformity, guarantees safety, and ultimately teaches that we are saved by our works… by doing things right! There are, perhaps, few moments in the life and vision of a congregation when the sheer raw, pulsating experience of grace and the invitation to “come unto me” are more powerful than in the moment when the words, “take and eat, the body of Christ for you… The blood of Christ for you…” are spoken, and the bread and wine of God are pressed into the hand and heart of a member of our family, a family that we recognize at the Table of the Lord, especially the strangers, the stragglers, the sinners, and all… as the Body of Christ.
The Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Table are not given by our Lord to an institution, but to the Priesthood of Believers – to a congregation – to a gathering of the baptized, who alone in this Location and in this Context have the ability and responsibility both to be the Body of Christ and “to recognize the Body of Christ.” The Sacrament of the Altar must never become “open Communion,” “close Communion,” or “closed Communion.” The Holy Communion must be always and only Christ’s Communion! This confession and this proclamation alone are created by and worthy of a Christian, a congregation, a church body that lives the theology of the cross.
If sectarian or questionable doctrine can ever be amusing, the recent publication of the Concordia Publishing House Book, Closed Communion, approaches both questionable and amusing. This apology for the doctrines of closed Communion runs to over 500 pages (small print), interpreting essentially seven verses of First Corinthians 11. (This disproportion reminds one of the seminary legend in which homiletics students find a copy of their professor’s recent sermon and discover a handwritten note at the side of one paragraph that reads “shout loudly! point particularly weak!” Even Stephen Hawking, the recently deceased British theoretical physicist and world-famous cosmologist, produced his life’s work, A Brief History of Time, in less than 250 pages in paperback.) However, there is nothing amusing about an institution prescribing and circumscribing “correct” Communion practice for a local congregation. The Scriptures and our Lutheran Confessions are quite clear, as they shape for us our ecclesiology: “The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII). To this assembly alone is given the gift of Jesus Christ in his sacramental presence of Body and Blood, and this assembly is blessed with the responsibility of both being and recognizing the Body of Christ in that location.
“Sin against Conscience”
The office phone rang late Sunday evening. A late-evening call is seldom good news, but a call this late to a district president is virtually never good news. I picked up the phone to the sobs of a woman’s voice. She introduced herself, “Pastor, this is Alice.” I ran through my mental filing system for a further identification of Alice as she began both to apologize and to explain the reason for the late-evening call. She was calling because of a particularly troubling experience the morning service had created for herself, her family, and her four aging siblings, who had gathered in a small, rural congregation for what could well be a last time together.
She, her three brothers, and a sister were all confirmed many years before in this small congregation and were looking forward to worshiping together in their “home congregation” as a kind of fitting conclusion to their reunion—particularly, she explained, the moments at the altar for Communion together where the five of them had been confirmed. Alice had anticipated that communing together could be a bit of an issue as two of the brothers were no longer members of an LCMS congregation. There was no local LCMS congregation where the one brother lived, and the other, who lived in another state, had become part of his wife’s family’s congregation in which she had grown up. Alice was quite sure, however, that communing together would not be a problem as the brothers were both still Lutheran Christians and would surely be communed in the church where they had been confirmed.
Alice made an appointment with her pastor to both share her excitement and to inform him of her brother’s unique circumstances. Her pastor listened carefully to her explanation of the “somewhat unique circumstances” and to her hope that she and her family could commune together. After a few more thoughts and questions, the pastor said he really needed some time to think about her request and perhaps even to discuss the situation with fellow pastors. A few days later, her pastor called to inform her that he could not “in good conscience” commune her two brothers. Alice was devastated. She scheduled another appointment with her pastor, and, after much discussion and a few tears, he concluded both his decision and the conversation with his understanding that by her request to commune non-LCMS members she was asking him to “sin against his conscience.”
Her phone call to me was at the close of this long, highly emotional day, filled now with pleasant memories, quiet happiness, difficult “goodbyes,” and, at least for her, with an emptiness, sadness, and questions she could not get beyond. She was clear: she respected her pastor and did not want to “create any problems,” but she could not understand either the position of our church body or his concern that she was asking him to “sin against his conscience.” I did more listening than talking in this conversation, both to give her opportunity to share her questions and deep disappointment and to make sure I was understanding as much as possible the entire series of events and discussions. I secured her permission to visit with her pastor, a young man in only his second year of pastoral ministry who I liked very much. The woman and I then briefly visited about the family’s wonderful reunion. We closed our conversation with prayers for understanding and of thanksgiving.
Later that week I was able to visit with the pastor to discuss at some length his understanding of the request, the discussions, and his decision to reject both Alice’s understanding of the meaning of communing non-LCMS members and her implied further request to “sin against his conscience.” I pressed him a little further as to what sinning against his conscience meant to him. His answer was simple, straight forward and from his understanding clearly consistent with our LCMS position understood as “closed Communion.” He expressed his pastoral understanding clearly: “We believe that Jesus Christ is truly present with His body and blood in the Sacrament. Other Christian denominations and consequently other Christians either do not believe this or join in Communion with other denominations that do not believe this. If I knowingly commune someone who either does not believe in the “Real Presence” or fails to examine himself or herself as to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament I am in effect complicit in “sending them to hell” (his exact words). “In this act as a pastor I am sinning against them and against my conscience as a pastor.” I asked where he had learned this. He answered, “at the sem.”
It seemed wise at this point in our relationship to suggest perhaps a visit with one of the professors he knew well and trusted would be helpful in working through this difficult theological process in pastoral care. I contacted the professor he suggested, a personal friend, and shared with him my concerns. I also suggested a process for continuing pastoral counseling and conversations. (I was not privy to any of the following conversations between the pastor and his former professor, as I understood that this was not primarily an institutional issue, but rather a pastoral and personal concern.) I heard no more from Alice, the pastor, nor from the congregation. The pastor received and accepted a call to a congregation in another district less than a year after the event. I was saddened to hear later that he had resigned from the pastoral office about two years later.
This sad vignette may be a kind of “exhibit A” for both Luther’s and a Lutheran understanding of why the authority and responsibility for Word and Sacrament practice in all its power has been bequeathed by the Holy Spirit to the baptized, to the priesthood of believers, in a particular location and context, and not first to a distant, impersonal, institutional resolution. It is also a difficult but necessary example of why God’s people do not simply reach for the nearest traditional “fundamentalism” of faith and practice, but together keep searching the Scriptures from generation to generation to grow into his mission to deepen our understanding of and love for the Body of Christ. Jesus promises, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is still guiding. We are still learning.
“Setting” the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Table
She—a visitor—sat toward the back of the small “mission church” in the mountains of New Mexico. At the last strains of the Liturgy’s closing hymn, the visitor slowly raised her hand Encouraged, she stood and said quietly, “I just wanted to thank the congregation and pastor for your care for my husband and me last summer. I don’t know if any of you remember, but we attended Sangre de Cristo a year ago with the Hanson’s who vacation here and are dear friends back in Tyler. We already knew that my husband was terminally ill with a brain tumor when we were with you. He had become a Christian just about a year before and was so hungry to learn everything he could about his new faith. You had Communion that Sunday and he wanted to know if he was invited. We are Baptist. We talked with the Hanson’s during the offering and they showed us the Communion “Welcome.” We decided to receive Communion with you and our dear friends. It was for the two of us very moving. My husband’s condition worsened rather quickly, and he died this past year just after Christmas. The reason I came here this morning is to thank you because that Communion together with you meant so much to him … and to me. He reflected on that Sunday several times as he was dying. He said that it was the only time he received Communion the way you do it and that he felt so comforted and confident in his faith as he thought about receiving Jesus in his body and blood. So, thank you so much….”
Needless to say, our visitor was soon surrounded with new friends and many, many hugs and perhaps even a tear or two. I was deeply grateful for her “testimonial” as she affirmed once again that this little gathering of the priesthood was faithful to their Lord, faithful to his Spirit’s vision in recognizing His Body and faithful also to our visitors and his guests, in welcoming them through the congregation’s “Communion Statement”. The statement of welcome and confession of Sacramental faith was for this woman and her dying husband both a simple “Come unto me…” and a challenge to new life in Christ through His Supper in the Spirit.
The couple had read together these words almost a year before:
Today we celebrate TOGETHER the Sacrament of Holy Communion AT SANGRE DE CRISTO. Here our Heavenly Father promises anew His unconditional love, renews His pledge of forgiveness in Christ, and offers His Holy Spirit as strength for daily faith and life. You are invited to commune with us. However, since our Lord reminds us that thoughtless or faithless reception of the Sacrament can incur His judgment, (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) the Scriptures call those who commune to personally examine themselves and, in their communing, publicly confess:
+I am a baptized Christian and I trust In Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
+I am a sinner daily in need of God’s forgiveness.
+I believe that Jesus Christ is truly present with His body and blood under bread and wine offering me forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
+I will live in the strength of the Holy Spirit to God’s glory, in ministry with His people, and in mission to His world.
We trust that your communion with Christ and His people will strengthen your faith, increase your love, and empower your witness to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you have questions about your communing, please speak with the Pastor. Children are invited to accompany parents to the altar for the blessing.
This Communion statement, like hundreds of others in our church body, both recognizes the non-LCMS members of the Body of Christ present in this sacred time and gives substance and scriptural content to our communing together. The sweet irony of this “invitation” is that it is also important not only for the “outsider” who may wonder about personal welcome and “worthiness” but also for the congregation’s members who themselves need, in their sometimes sporadic attendance, both a refresher and a renewal of what can easily become mere ritual and more afterthought than remembrance and proclamation….
A Final Setting of the Lord’s Table – The Divine Service
Finally, there is at least one more “presence” of the Body of Christ that must be recognized if our discernment is to be somewhat near, clear, and complete: the Body of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy itself. Centuries of piety, practice, art, and drama have provided for our generations a presence of Christ that may be either unknown or unnoticed as the “Story of Jesus” unfolds in the Holy Eucharist’s narrative of the presence of the “Body of Christ.”
The British author, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” legends, creates a conversation between a hobbit and a great tree of the forest. The hobbit, standing all of three feet tall, stands beneath the forest Lord and demands to know his name. As Tolkien imagines it, the tree shakes its massive limbs, looks down upon the little creature, and proclaims softly, “I cannot tell you my name. If you would know my name, you must first know my story. My story is very old, very beautiful and set in a great mystery. If you will be seated and listen, I will begin to tell you my story and perhaps then you will come to know the beauty and wonder of my name.” Tolkien could well be describing the great Communion Liturgy of the Church and the Body of Christ it both reveals and creates, the Liturgy that is “very old, very beautiful, and set in a great mystery.”
Preparation: As the Service begins the liturgist steps before the congregation to introduce the story that the Body of Christ will celebrate and share this Lord’s Day: setting the Table for the Sacrament. He will welcome the visitors “in the Name of Jesus” and then very briefly, but very clearly, present the theme(s) of Scripture, sermon, song and Sacrament for this Day. The liturgist may also invite the congregation to pray with him a Mission Prayer written out in the worship folder. The Mission Prayer reminds the “members” and assures the guests that we are gathered not simply for personal blessings or benefits, but to pray and prepare for the mission the Spirit gives us again in this new week. The prayer will ordinarily be “church year” in orientation. Following is a simple model for the season of Pentecost:
MISSION PRAYER: Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You invite us in this Season of Your Holy Spirit’s Pentecost to celebrate Your gift of life in Christ and to pray for Your Church and world. We offer You new this day our lives, our thanks, and also the heartaches and hopes of the world; we bring before You the names and needs of our families and friends, our neighborhoods and our nation, our city and our world, Pour out Your Holy Spirit upon Your Church and upon us as Your people of Zion that we boldly live the joy and healing power of Your Son’s resurrection. In the precious Name of Jesus. Amen.
The Invocation: As the Processional Hymn closes, the congregation enters into the Liturgy and re-enters as a scattered, broken body into the Body of Christ in Whose Death and Resurrection we are baptized. As the Sign of the Cross is signed on head and heart we proclaim together: “In the Name of the Father… and of the Son… and of the Holy Spirit….”
The Confession and Absolution: The congregation is now invited to “recognize” (discern) the Body in all of its personal and corporal brokenness and divisiveness as together we confess our sins against God, our neighbor, all creation and finally even ourselves; together we seek His forgiveness. The words of the Confession are scarcely out of our mouths when the broken body becomes One Body in the greater Word of Absolution and reconciliation in Jesus … “I forgive you all your sins….”
The Kyrie: Immediately, the “Body’s” sacred Narrative begins in earnest as the once separate voices now sing together in reconciliation, recognition and celebration for our Lord strides, bearing peace and power, down the main streets of history and the main aisle of our sanctuary; We shout and sing in jubilation, “Kyrie Eleison!”, “Lord have mercy!”
The Gloria in Excelsis: “Glory to God in the highest!” The Body of Christ together now finds its way home as the “hymn of the angels” leads us in the Christmas, “Gloria in Excelsis” and into the birth narrative of our Lord Jesus.
The Collect: This ancient prayer of the Church that follows our brief Christmas celebration gathers not simply the Body of Christ’s petition in the moment, but gathers the Collects of congregations over the ages teaching the Body to continue in prayer through these precious prayerful “hand-me-downs.”
The Scripture Lessons: As the Body has joined together in prayer and praise, the promise of growing deeper into the story now continues to gather the hearts of the worshipers as the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament are read and heard, pondered and embraced. Suddenly the exciting narrative of the earliest days of an infant church are opened through the Letters” of Peter, Paul, and other first-century Body-of-Christ witnesses. As the Liturgy leads us through the Epistle into the continuing Jesus story of the early church’s mission, we now prepare for the heightened presence of Christ Himself in the Holy Gospel. The Body of Christ rises at the bidding of the Holy Spirit and inhales into itself the very Word that gives it identity and life.
The Creed: The gathered saints pause for a moment as they prepare to gather the “faith” of centuries into their corporate mind and spirit – the faith of thousands of years, millions of saints and hundreds of Body of Christ declarations – In high confidence the Body confesses“ Jesus Christ is Lord!” In the pause, the common declaration of the “I believe…” begins. And if our hearts and eyes are open in this moment we are blessed to discern, to recognize, that in this common profession the Body of Christ confesses its unity in the great “Credo” of Christianity.
The Sermon: At this moment only one voice speaks for the Body. It might at first appear that the Body has become merely an audience somewhat detached from Communion unity. However, the appearance is deceiving, for now the Spirit’s Word breathed through the homily, calls to an even deeper unity in the Body of Christ. The Word of Law calls us out from our sin-filled separation and crushes the self, the self-sufficient, the self-important, the self-centered, the self-satisfied. The Gospel of the cross and Resurrection calls us to Christ, who in his embrace of the whole church and his mission to the whole world prays again and anew that in His Body, the church, “they may be one as we are one, Father – I in them and You in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
If the sermon is not the Spirit’s preparation of the Body gathered this day beneath the cross for our common recognition, remembrance, praise, and proclamation at the Lord’s Table, then that preacher has no business in a Lutheran Christian pulpit! “Unum Predica Sapientiam Crucis!” “Preach only the wisdom of the Cross!” (Martin Luther)
The Body’s Prayers: Following the congregation’s prayers for all sorts and conditions of humanity, we remember and pray also for the members of the Body of Christ who cannot be present and include in our prayers preparation for their reception of the Sacrament in home, hospital, hospice, retirement community, or other extended center of the congregation’s care.
The Sanctus and Great Thanksgiving – Palm Sunday: Almost suddenly, following the Prayer of the Church, the Liturgy sweeps the congregation in Spirit from the life narrative of our Lord in general to experience the events of the Holy Week in particular. Following the invitation to Thanksgiving and the specific praise in the Preface the Body joins the Jerusalem crowds in the “Holy’s” and “Hosanna’s” of Palm Sunday.
“Lord, teach us to pray….” The plea of the apostles becomes the prayer of the Body as we “say grace” before the meal. In the infant church the grace and mystery of the “Our Father” was once revealed only to and prayed only by the baptized. Today the prayer has become, for better or for worse “public property”. However, in this sacred space, the Body of Christ is taught new and drawn together once again not only in the words of the prayer but by him who in the Sacrament is the Word present in our prayer.
The Words of Institution – Maundy Thursday: The Palm Sunday praise and the Family Prayer must now give way to silence as we gather with the Maundy-Thursday disciples in the Upper Room to hear and to ponder Words, “very old, very beautiful, and set in mystery”: “Take and eat… This is my body… Drink of this… All of you… This is my blood of the New Covenant….” In these words and in this moment of Christ’s “Invocation,” if the Lord’s Table was ever claimed as a denominational property, the claim crumbles before the infinitely greater reality. In these Words of Institution… the Celebrant is Jesus! Lord of the Universe! Lord of the Kingdom! Lord of the Sacrament! Truly, Eternally Present! The pastor(s) now steps quietly down into his rightful place, together with the other Communion assistants, as blessed acolyte, faithful to their Lord and to his Body, the church.
The Agnus Dei – Good Friday: Perhaps all too quickly for our guests and perhaps also too quickly even for the regularly gathered Body, we remember together beneath the cross the suffering and death of our Lord for us as the whole Body intones the ancient words, “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us….” There is a temptation at this point in the Body of Christ narrative for ushers, elders, acolytes, and other assistants to become busy preparing for the procession to the altar. This, however, is deep, holy time; a time for no worship, no movement other than the Body’s deep and quiet remembrance of her Lord’s suffering and death in this ancient prayer… chanted by the “unworthy.” We are deep into the theology of the cross awaiting our Savior’s invitation to his Wedding Feast. The time for quiet reverence and devotion is clear.
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Easter: The only possible response to the Gift of Resurrection is to rise as one Body, hungry and thirsty for the presence of Christ in His Bread and Wine. From His own hand and heart, we receive love, grace, peace, and promise… His Body and His Blood. This is the last place on earth for anyone to be rejected! We have all joined as the Body of Christ in the Invocation, the Confession and Absolution; in the historic Kyrie and Gloria; in the ancient Word of the Scriptures; in the common baptismal promise of the Creed; in the proclamation of the sermon; in the shared experience of Holy Week, and now in the invitation of our Savior, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest….” The story in the Sacred Liturgy has not been merely re-told by the gathered Body of Christ this Sabbath, but reclaimed, re-experienced, re-lived, and renewed for the future Body of Christ.
A Brief Parting Vision of the Body of Christ and a Sacrament of Healing for the Body
Bruce was brilliant, eccentric, and a dear brother in Christ. His suburban acreage was part truck farm, part R&D center, part animal breeding ground, and part retreat for him and his beloved wife Hazel. He held a doctorate in animal husbandry from the University of Georgia and was a deep and devout convert to Lutheran Christianity. The first time I visited him, I had to be admitted through a somewhat elaborate fencing system designed to both protect and contain his animals and birds as well as his research facility. I noticed and asked him about a large number of free ranging and unusually shaped turkeys. He explained that he was researching a cross between domestic and wild turkeys, domestic for breast and wild for endurance. I asked him if he had actually ever eaten one of his creations. “No”, he explained, “I’ve never been able to catch one.” The twinkle in his eye left me wondering.
Bruce would make an appointment with me about monthly for coffee. We would open the Scriptures together and linger for hours over coffee and his fat, cheap cigars. About three years after the growth of our discipleship began, I noticed there seemed to be a growing anxiety in his behavior, a restlessness, an intensity, a preoccupation. In a few weeks he confessed to me that he was going through a professional near disaster. He had literally “bet the farm” with two business partners on the development of the “perfect egg.” This egg would be the perfect product for shipping, shelf life, taste, appearance, and protein. The development process was going much slower than anticipated and his partners were becoming nervous to the point of threatening to back out of the deal. The process continued to deteriorate until the morning he confessed that not only had his partners backed out but had taken all his research with them. This confessional visit was brief, frenetic, and alarming. He excused himself several times to vomit. Within a week Hazel called. Sobbing, she whispered that she had to hospitalize Bruce, and with little available funds the ambulance transported Bruce many miles away to Milledgeville State Hospital.
The next week Hazel and I visited Bruce at this pauper’s institution. “Milledgeville” was reputed to be the largest mental institution in the nation and was the setting for Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar winning performance in the1948 movie, appropriately entitled, “Snake Pit.” The visit was very painful for both Hazel and me. There was virtually no recognition, no emotion, and no response to either the Psalm or the prayer. The “Insane Asylum” setting was particularly difficult. I visited Bruce with Hazel three to four times in the following months with little response and much personal discomfort and professional pain.
My wife Marilyn was on summer break from teaching when Hazel called to ask if we would like to visit Bruce for a picnic. He had been hospitalized for almost six months and was now able to walk the hospital grounds if accompanied. The three of us were admitted to the hospital and informed that the usual meeting and eating rooms were being used with the suggestion that we might like to picnic in the large outdoor quadrangle surrounded by the hospital buildings. The four of us—Bruce, again, without words or feeling—found a picnic place in the center of the quad under the only tree, a huge cottonwood that provided limited shade against a hot Georgia summer sun. Marilyn, Hazel, Bruce, and I sat on the ground and ate our picnic lunch while attempting conversation, often punctuated by shouting and screaming from the open hospital windows. Bruce ate, but did not otherwise join us.
As Hazel was clearing our picnic setting, I began to prepare the Communion for the four of us. The setting as I remember it, if warm, was otherwise strangely beautiful; thick green grass, magnificent tree, my wife, two dear friends, bread, and wine. I confessed for all of us… “I, a poor miserable sinner….” Then, “Is this your confession? If so, please answer, ‘yes.’” Only two responded. The Psalm, the Gospel, the Thanksgiving, the “Our Father.” Finally, the Words, and the receiving, “take and eat… the blood of Christ for you… and for me.” The quiet words of Benediction. …Nothing!…. We sat for a few moments in silence. As I began to put away the Communion vessels, I heard Bruce speak, quietly and clearly. “I’ve been to hell and I’m never going back!” I turned and said “Bruce?” Looking at me, he said it again slowly and clearly, “I’ve been to hell and I’m never going back!” I walked over to him, bent down, and hugged him. We all hugged and cried.
A week later Hazel called to tell me Bruce was coming home…. And it just got better.
This brief theological study and essay—a plea and a prayer for a reinterpretation of “discerning the Body” and for interpreting a “theology of the cross” in our contemporary cultural sacramental settings—is filled with and bracketed by the exceptional and the exceptions. However, in the normal course of parish and pastoral life today, exceptions often become the rule, and the rule is always under the cross. Luther writes, the theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.” [LW 31.53] Do we commune the comatose, the Methodist, the lapsi, the Catholic, the incompetent, the stranger, the Presbyterian, the unprepared, the gay, the unknown, the seeker, those who carry no worthiness other than a hunger and thirst for a touch or a taste of a loving Savior? Is our confidence in the grace of Christ large enough, deep enough, expansive enough, that we can embrace with the Sacrament “those Christians for whom” (in the Communion exhortation of former Seminary and Synod President, Franz Pieper) “Christ intends it?”
Robert Frost was once asked, “What do you believe is the ugliest word in the English language?” His thoughtful response: “Exclude.” We in the LCMS have managed, in our brief history, to transform this “ugliest word” into a virtual lifestyle. What is most ironic and near tragic about this unrecognized “theology of glory,” is that if any congregation in “Missouri” would be surveyed with the question, “are you a ‘friendly’ congregation?,” the response would be an immediate and a most positive, “of course.” The realty is something quite different. Our fear of “unionism,” our formal practice of “closed Communion,” and our relative comfort with a failure to faithfully interpret Paul’s admonition to “recognize” the “Body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11, create and continue our long synodical history of separatism, sectarianism, and exclusivism. I am not sure if our “Missouri” default tradition to “exclude” begins or ends at the Table, but I know that we can never freely, joyfully, nor powerfully practice in the world what we have not first practiced, experienced, and celebrated in our congregations. As a missionary, chaplain, campus pastor, parish pastor, evangelism executive, district president, convention essayist, conference speaker, retreat leader, and cross-cultural servant in our beloved “Missouri” for almost sixty years, I have observed and been deeply burdened by the tragic reality that the practice of “closed” Communion in our sanctuaries inevitably issues in “closed” hearts and “closed” tongues in God’s world. “For those who eat and drink without discerning the Body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
This gulf between exclusive and inclusive, between a virtually unrecognized “theology of glory” and an often uncomfortable and even threatening “theology of the cross,” has divided our Synod almost from its founding. Where there has been patient, loving, and humble acceptance and even affirmation of leadership committed—under the cross—to tradition (confessional, liturgical, and ecclesiastical) and of affirmation of other leaders equally committed—under the cross—to mission (evangelical, experiential, and experimental), our church body has thrived. This has seldom, if ever, been true of Synod as an institution, but often has been a blessed reality in circuits, districts, seminaries, and universities. Synodical resolutions designed by one faction to limit or eliminate the other have been destructive of our history and our hope for the Spirit’s leading. Church politics by majority vote is always, only, a surrender to a theology of glory and a mere caricature of Christ’s church.
Our Lord’s “mission statement,” which begins with his words, “for God so loved the world…,” is his Father’s radical call to a repentance so profound and – in our baptism – so daily, that it not only refuses to exclude the “other” but seeks to embrace the enemy, the Samaritan, the leper, the tax collector, the adulterer, the centurion, the woman, the child, the poor, the immigrant, the prostitute, the Pharisee, the outcast, the denier, the coward, the doubter, and those whom Paul lifts up in 1 Corinthians as the “humiliated who have nothing.”
The spirit of exclusion may, perhaps, leave us on the wrong side of history.
Exclusion in the Body of Christ will always leave us on the wrong side of Jesus!
“Crux sola est nostra theologia.” “The Cross alone is our theology.”
A “Concluding Unscientific Post Script”
The “new” (2006) edition of the “Lutheran Service Book” is an extraordinary treasury of worship graces, both ancient and modern. One of the quiet new hymns, whether known or unknown, but easily learned and loved, is “Lamb of God” (LSB 550), by the contemporary musician and songwriter, Twila Paris. (It also serves powerfully as an occasional substitute for the traditional “Agnus Dei” in the Communion Liturgy.) Paris has written many hymns and songs, however there is another hymn-like offering she has written that summarizes and celebrates a vision of the Body of Christ as, I believe, St. Paul intends for us to see, to recognize, to discern, to embrace the Body. Entitled simply, “How Beautiful is the Body of Christ,” the song and a variety of videos on YouTube and other websites that share the song, lyrics, and visuals, identifies, interprets, and celebrates the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians infinitely better in five minutes than the book Closed Communion manages in 500+ pages of small print. Crank up your computer, type in “How Beautiful is the Body of Christ,” Twila Paris, in one or more of the song settings, and be prepared for a truly beautiful vision of the Body of Christ, from the Upper Room, to Calvary to the Bride of Christ, to your congregation. The beauty of the Body of Christ is in Jesus; the vision is in the Spirit; the grace is in you and your congregation.
- To read this resolution, see the Convention Proceedings of the 2019 LCMS Convention (St. Louis: Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 2019), 111.
- New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, ed. Michael David Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 284 (New Testament section).
- Gregory Lockwood, First Corinthians, Concordia Commentary Series (St. Louis: CPH, 2000), 399.
- G. G. Findlay, “St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Greek New Testament Commentary, vol. 2, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1917), 883.
- Bruce J. Malina, A Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006), 111.
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).
- See DBWE 14.830.