Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper as a sacramental meal for his church to celebrate together as a means of grace whereby he feeds his people spiritually. Since Jesus gave this meal to the church and the Scripture urges us to celebrate it, clearly it is something important for us to do. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 88, describes how the sacraments are one of the ways that, joined with the Word of God and prayer, God effectually conveys the benefits of Christ to us.
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (emphasis added)
Since the Supper is an effectual means of grace, those who have a strong desire to keep it are not guilty of Roman Catholic or ceremonialist sympathies or anything of the sort.
The trouble for observing the Supper right now is that the coronavirus pandemic has forced congregations to cease gathering for public worship for extended periods of time. In an attempt to answer this problem, many evangelical congregations have hosted so-called virtual communion services during which people watch a video of their pastor performing the motions of a worship service, including the consecration of the communion elements, and then eat their own bread and drink their own wine at home, as though this eating and drinking is the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, many confessional churches have been clear that the ways that they are providing spiritual encouragement while they cannot assemble are not worship services in the way that we are called to observe the Lord’s Day in normal circumstances. In that respect, we should recognize that Scripture teaches that the church’s formal actions need to take place when we are assembled. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5, Paul clearly stated that instances of church discipline need to be addressed “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus,” showing that the physically gathered church must handle formal disciplinary matters. Yes, Matthew 18:20 says Christ is present when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, but that is more about how a small church is still a real church rather than about how individual families constitute a church in itself.
What about the notion of virtual communion, then? One of the passages that records Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper is Luke 22:14–20.
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
In these verses, Jesus repeatedly used the word “this,” indicating something in his presence. If someone mentions “this shirt,” you know that they mean one that is with them. So, in Luke 22, when Jesus points to the first cup in verse 17, to the bread in verse 19, and to the second cup in verse 20, we know that “this” meant the meal that was in his presence.
There are several reasons why the meal that was in Jesus’ presence which he constituted as the Lord’s Supper cannot be shared across the internet’s bandwidth. First, this Supper is a churchly meal. The Supper that we receive has to be “this meal” that has been blessed by the prayer of consecration and words of institution. Just as Jesus instituted it with formal words, the Lord’s Supper has to be consecrated with those words by an ordained minister. People may well eat bread and drink wine as they watch a video from their pastor, but that is not really the Lord’s Supper. Even homes where an ordained teaching elder is present lack a full contingent of elders to preside at the table, which is another requirement for the Lord’s Supper to be properly administered.
The necessity for a plurality of elders being present raises the next reason why virtual communion cannot occur. The Lord’s Supper is a mechanism of church discipline in negative and positive senses. Negatively, the minister is supposed to fence the table so that only true believers are permitted to take the Supper, and the session is supposed to oversee the distribution of the Supper to make sure that people who do not belong at God’s table do not steal food from it. It is impossible to fulfill that negative aspect of church discipline if pastors apply the words of institution to bread and wine that were purchased and set up by laypersons. Anyone could participate in that supposed celebration of the Supper, which would undermine one serious dimension of the Supper.
Positively, however, the Lord’s Supper has to be celebrated together if it is to be the Lord’s Supper because there are important aspects of that togetherness which entail that the Supper cannot occur in the figurative sense of being together virtually, even if we are glad to have those means of virtual fellowship in order to stay in touch, pray together, and receive encouragement from biblical messages. As Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer 96 says,
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace. (emphasis added)
The Lord’s Supper as a means of communicating grace to us requires that the bread and wine be given and received. That cannot happen if we are not together (this is one reason why we call the Lord’s Supper “communion”). Bread and wine are not given by the minister and elders nor actually received by the congregation if we are not assembled. The Supper is fellowship not just between Christ and the individual, but between all of the saints together too. It reminds that we are all sinners in need of grace as we come to Christ’s table together.
So far, we have thought about some reasons why we cannot do virtual communion, but there are also some reasons why we should not even try. First, we should not try to normalize our present situation. The present pandemic is a really difficult time for churches. Certainly, we should be together under Word, sacrament, and prayer as the primary driver of our Christian life ordinarily. Those things are ordinary means of grace, but this is not an ordinary time. Yes, God will provide his people with necessary spiritual nourishment, but we should not try to force God’s ordinary means into God’s extraordinary providence. We need to endure through this time the best that we can in the ways that God will provide for us now. In one sense, Christians should feel as though they do not have everything that they want from church at the moment. Christians should feel a tension about this time when we cannot assemble because they should long to be together again in person to receive Word and sacrament. Rather, than feeling normal about our present circumstances by pretending that we can receive God’s ordinary means of grace over the internet, we should pray vigorously for God to end the present crisis.
Second, we need to take an important point from the text of Luke’s Gospel at Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper: “And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’” (22:15-16). Jesus emphatically wanted to eat this meal that he constituted as the Lord’s Supper with the disciples. His assertion in verse 16 that he would not eat this meal again until he could eat in with them in person when he returns, confirms that his desire for this meal was to eat it with his followers in a very literal sense. Christ’s own disposition at the first Lord’s Supper presents us with a pointedly direct application. He committed not to eat that meal until he could eat it with his people in person. That is profound because he instituted this meal so that he could have ongoing spiritual communion with his people as he gives his body and blood to us spiritually when we eat the elements. Still, he would not partake of that meal unless he could eat it while physically present with his people. We should follow suit.
Although it useful to think theologically about the details of eating the Lord’s Supper in the face of modern challenges, there is a chance that this can feel like a discussion of just what we are not supposed to do. But that last point that Christ waits to eat this meal until he can eat it with his people should be immensely encouraging. Christ still earnestly desires to eat the Lord’s Supper with his people. Christ is not a distant Savior; he is a Savior who longs to be near his people. We share spiritual communion with him now, but he wants to be with you physically too.
Christians, then, are people who are accustomed to waiting in anticipation because even the Lord’s Supper is a pledge, a down payment, for the wedding feast of the lamb, when we all sit together with Christ in perfect in-person fellowship. That means we can certainly be content waiting in anticipation to be together again. Even as we sit with that eagerness to be together again as a church, even so that we can have the Supper, let us let that anticipation remind us how eager we are to see our Savior return, so that we can be together with him in every way for eternity.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).