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Coronavirus and Communion

The strange and difficult time we find ourselves in is exacerbated by our inability to gather for worship. If you are a Christian, you should feel the absence of something significant. Not only have we lost the joy of Christian community through fellowship with the ecclesial body; we are also missing the gift of Christ’s sacramental body in the Lord’s Supper.  No virtual fellowship or live-streamed sermon can replace the weekly ascent to Mount Zion, where this gift – the food of our pilgrimage – is shared by the faithful. The absence of the sacrament of our unity intensifies our feelings of disconnectedness. We long to be reunited with God’s people in the flesh, and to be reconstituted as one body around the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Supper. As Paul said, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17)

Some churches have sought to ameliorate this absence by encouraging individual Christians to administer the Lord’s Supper to themselves. This solution downplays the corporate nature of the Supper, and it also makes things like church discipline functionally impossible. If Christians could legitimately administer communion to themselves, then they could never be ex-communicated.

The Catholic parish in my neighborhood has taken a different approach. They’ve opted to take the elements in communion in procession throughout the city, stopping in front of individual members’ homes. The parish priest was quoted by a local news outlet, “Jesus is in the consecrated host, and they [those homes paraded by] would get a visit from the risen Christ.” I don’t think that either of these—self-communing or displaying the eucharistic elements through the streets—are helpful alternatives to what we currently face.

It’s helpful at this point to remember what we receive in holy communion. By faith, we receive Jesus Christ with all of his benefits. The Sacraments, baptism and holy communion, are like visible words through which we receive the grace of Christ. As visible words, they communicate to us the very same gift the preached word delivers. Preaching is meant to give us Jesus, together with all of his benefits. Christ comes to us and is received by faith in preaching (the preaching itself creates faith). This should comfort us with the reality that while we may not have communion, we still have Christ.

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck noted,

The communion with Christ, which is strengthened in the Supper, is nothing other than that which is brought about by the Word as a means of grace. The sacrament does not add any grace to that which is offered in the Word… Christ is no more enclosed physically in bread and wine than he is in the Word proclaimed… (Reformed Dogmatics [1], 4:577)

Notwithstanding this fact, our present longing is still justified. In the conclusion of his treatise on the Eucharist [2], Peter Martyr Vermigli wrote,

Let no one question us as to what communicants gain, on the ground that since this reception is by faith, they already have Christ joined to them if they believe. To answer is easy, for he is indeed joined to them, but is daily joined more closely, and while we communicate is united to us more and more.

That is to say, the Lord’s Supper strengthens the bond of union which believers enjoy with Jesus Christ.

Note also the words of John Calvin,

I say, therefore, that in the mystery of the Supper, Christ is truly shown to us through the symbols of bread and wine, his very body and blood, in which he has fulfilled all obedience to obtain righteousness for us. Why? First, that we may grow into one body with him; secondly, having been made partakers of his substance, that we may also feel his power in partaking of all his benefits. (Institutes [3], IV.XVII.11 emphasis mine)

There is something organic and experiential about holy communion. In it, our bond of union with Christ is strengthened, and the church is “realized” as one body. It’s this experience dependent on the gathered assembly which is the pinnacle of Christian liturgy, and which we should pray God restores to our churches soon. We rest knowing that Christ is ours through the word, but because we each desire the intimacy offered to us in the Supper, we long to experience his benefits in the sacrament too.

During this present crisis, let’s humble ourselves and confess how often we have failed to appreciate the blessings of community, and communion. I can’t help but think of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer began his classic work, Life Together [4], “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” May we never take it for granted after this.

Let’s also eagerly anticipate the time when we can safely gather with the ecclesial body again to partake of the sacramental body. While we are presently thankful that Jesus is ours through the promise of his word, we long for the sweetness of that promise to be sealed to our hearts through the bread and the wine. We long for more of Jesus, not that we have less of him substantially due to some insufficiency on the word’s part, but that we long to experience his presence through all the means he has given. The presence of Christ in my brothers, and sisters, and the presence of Christ in the Supper.

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church [5], a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program [6]. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their three children.