Some Guidance about Elements for Communion at Home During a Pandemic

Some Guidance about Elements for Communion at Home During a Pandemic

At a recent meeting of the Worship Committee, we talked about how we would be celebrating communion this week, namely at home. As we talked, one person suggested that maybe some people might want guidance on what to use for communion. Like, is it okay to use a cracker? Or perhaps a chip? What about juice? Or wine? Or soda?

As I thought about his question, it really struck me as suggestive of everything communion represents for us. When I said to a group of ministerial colleagues that I thought this was a great learning opportunity, hopefully explaining why, for example, we use ordinary bread in the church rather than, say, Doritos, one of my peers shot back, “I told my congregation that Jesus accepts whatever you use, chips, Doritos, whatever.”

Let’s just say, in brief, in a pandemic, all things are permissible, including Doritos. . . but not all things are helpful, including Doritos.

On the side of permissibility, yes, my peer in ministry is correct: Jesus accepts all that we are. God takes us as we are, not as we want to be or should be or could have been. In fact, with the sacraments, our tradition says much more than this: God sanctifies all matter as good. We can worship God in any place, at any time because God sanctifies all time, all space as good. With that logic, we can, in good conscience, take whatever we have in the kitchen and prayerfully use that in our communion together. God will be glorified.

What’s good by God, is good by me. My only request: on Sunday, we’ll all want to have our communion elements, whatever they are, on hand during the service. Have it all set out on the table, ready for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Check out this brief video from Rev. Adrian Pratt giving some practical tips on preparing for physically distanced communion.

If you need assistance in getting the elements for this Sunday, please reach out to the church office at information@firstfranklin.org no later than 3 p.m. this Friday. Mike Johnson has offered to deliver elements to your residence.

If you would like the “learning opportunity” version, continue reading . . .

 

“All Things & Some Things Set Apart”

Even as God sanctifies all creation, God also sets apart specific times, specific matter, and specific places for the worship of God. We worship on the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath, each week. Sunday is like any other day except it’s set apart. Jacob sets up a memorial, to “set apart” a place where he never expected to see or hear God: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” When Rabbis tell the story of Moses and the burning bush, some say that all the bushes on that mountain were on fire with the holy presence of God — Moses happened to turn aside and see this one bush on fire. It wasn’t the only one, but one among many. It only became significant because he turned aside to one specific bush on fire with the presence of God.

Perhaps this is why the pandemic has been such a shock for many of us and also a surprising (and happy) discovery. On the one hand, we miss our beautiful sanctuary, a space set apart for worship. On the other hand, we are pleasantly surprised that God meets us in our living rooms and at our kitchen tables, places where we perhaps did not imagine ever singing a hymn of praise, much less celebrating communion — the Lord is in this place and we did not know it!

But most of you, when you meet with us in virtual community, choose a space in your home that makes sense to you. Some choose a study. Others a dining table. Others a couch in your living room. You can think of a few places in your home where you might not choose to meet with the gathered community of faith. Maybe there’s something like that with communion, too. There are some things in my kitchen that I probably wouldn’t use as elements for communion if I had a choice and most of us do.

 

“Nurture Improves Nature”

I love salt and vinegar chips. LOVE THEM. But, if I had an alternative, I would not use them in communion. Why? The general principle is that whatever we take for the sacrament comes by way of the creation — flour and rice come to mind as staples common to humankind. Flour, most familiar to western cultures, is used to make bread. But it takes someone with traditional, local knowledge to know how to make that bread. It’s created in a kitchen rather than a food laboratory. So, also, with the fruit of the vine — a vintner makes wine, probably using the knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s the way nurture improves nature.

What, if any, boundary or limit does this imply? It doesn’t mean crush your own grapes; grind your own wheat and make your own bread from scratch. A jug of grape juice or any kind of juice will work. Wine, too, if that’s something you choose. Whatever you take as your bread, gluten-free or otherwise, is fine. Plain is better than complex (e.g. raisin bread or jalapeno cheddar cheese bread — one of my favorites). More seriously, it may mean avoiding, if possible, highly processed foods, like Doritos, Cheez-its, or pretzels. There’s a fair amount of chemistry in any of these possibilities; not as much nurture. There’s also a lot of capitalism embedded in highly processed food, a fact that shouldn’t be lost on us in a time of food insecurity and nutritional inequity. A simple cracker, without pretense, will suffice. Again, these are not absolute rules. God will accept what you have as communion and Christ promises to share his real presence with you through the Spirit.

(Incidentally, this view of communion is distinct from the Roman Catholic tradition and memorialist traditions. In the former, the elements become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, through the actions of the priest. In the memorialist tradition, the bread and cup are symbols without intrinsic spiritual realities. Reformed views of the sacrament are sometimes called “virtualist” since we hold that Jesus is virtually — i.e. really present — through the Spirit.)

In the Letter of James, the writer says, “Offer what you have, not what you don’t.” Put slightly differently, since the sacraments orient our hearts and minds on God in Christ, the elements are not themselves important — it is the spirit or heart that makes that into an offering to God. God is decisive and God will be glorified. But by the same token, if God is in the middle, it may help us to avoid certain choices. The elements should not draw attention to themselves or cause you to doubt or trivialize the promises of God. So, in this sense, a Cinnabon might be a bad idea, since it almost shouts, I’m a Cinnabon! I’m not saying you can’t experience Christ in a Cinnabon (someone probably says that they have!), I’m just saying your spiritual palette will be a bit overcrowded. You should experience the elements “glancingly” even as you prepare your hearts to see Christ more fully through the sacrament. Of course, if all you have is a Cinnabon. . . .

Likewise, with juice or the fruit of the vine. Err on the side of simplicity. Fermentation is acceptable; carbonation gets iffy. While God sanctifies all things, God sets apart specific things for use in holy worship. When in doubt, just remember that the idea is that we taste and see that the Lord is good — it’s less about the juice (or the vintage) than it is about the One with whom we commune.

Robert Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD
21201

April 29, 2020