A reflection on “Virtual Communion”
When the World Stops, the Word Sustains: A reflection on “Virtual Communion” or Observing the Lord’s Supper at Home Amid Covid-19 Pandemic?
Peter L. H. Tie, Ph.D. Associate Professor in Theology Christian Witness Theological Seminary
Is online communion pleasing to the Lord? Specifically, how do we observe the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in a proper, biblical way amid Covid-19 that puts all of us in the “shelter-in-place” mode (i.e., stay home to save lives)?
When the people of God gather to celebrate Christ’s crucifixion (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter Sunday), they are usually prepared to celebrate with a crucial element, the Lord’s Supper, which is one of the two ordinances (or sacraments) commanded by Christ himself. Nonetheless, the Covid-19 pandemic puts churches in a grave dilemma: to observe this ordinance, or not? If so, how should we observe it without physical proximity? Indeed, observing the Lord’s Supper at home with our family during online worship services has been an urgent pastoral-theological issue because the Bible neither commands nor forbids it explicitly. This becomes a matter of Adiaphora (non-essential)—please don’t misunderstand me: observing the Lord’s Supper is a clear command, but the matter of how to do it precisely is not clearly laid out in Scripture, especially during a time when people are not allowed to physically congregate, as per usual.
Lack of direct command or prohibition often becomes the main reason that theologians and pastors debate about what the churches of God ought to do or not to do! In this case, does it mean that churches can do what they deem to be right? Yes, but no!
Essentially, pastoral/practical matters require theological guidelines. There are theological principles derived from the Word (Scripture) that may help churches to administer the Lord’s Supper in a manner that gives God glory, Christ thanksgiving, the Spirit praise, and the people edification. Perhaps we should return to the heart of the Supper, its historical positions and theological meanings, so as to provide us with relevant guidelines.
- Historical positions
- “Supper Sacramentalized” (Transubstantiation): The bread and the wine truly become the body and blood of Christ when an ordained priest administers the Eucharist with the proclamation of Jesus’ word, “This is my body, this is my blood.” This position supports that only the ordained person is qualified to administer the Eucharist. More importantly, Christ is deemed to be physically present among his people because of the “transformed substance.” Most Evangelicals today are hesitant about this “literal’ view because it seems to imply that there were two bodies of Christ, one in the Eucharist and the other (the resurrected body) sitting at the right hand of God the Father. Nonetheless, this theological position had once made the church prohibit the people from receiving the cup because of the fear of desecrating the (literal) blood of Christ at the Eucharist. That was part of the reason that the Reformation called for the return of the cup to the laity.
- “Supper Sanctified” (Consubstantiation): Magisterial Reformers rejected Transubstantiation (“literal” body and blood of Christ) and advocated Consubstantiation (“real” body and blood of Christ), or stated simply, Jesus was “truly” present “in, with, and under” the bread and the cup. Although this theological breakthrough had helped to return the cup (as the bread) to the people of God, it still required ordained ministers to administer the Eucharist with the sacrament of the Word, or else Christ was not “truly present” in the Eucharist, though with some situational exceptions. The pandemic today is part of the exception.
- “Supper Symbolized”: The Lord’s Supper as an ordinance, namely, a symbol that points to the Gospel of Christ—his crucifixion and resurrection. This view is not so much concerned with the “literal presence” or the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist as with the spiritual significance of the Lord’s Supper, or, stated differently, the theological meanings of the Lord’s Supper.
- Theological meanings of the Lord’s Supper
- Reflect on our sins that nailed Christ to the Cross (1 Cor 11:28 “A man ought to examine himself…”). It was not just the sins of the ones who nailed him to the cross, but also the sins of all humanity from Adam to us now, and to the last human; the sins of the past, present, and future that put the sinless Son of God, fully God and fully human, on the cross. We deserved God’s wrath and justice.
- Remember Christ’s crucifixion that forgives our sins, manifesting both the justice and love of God (Matt 26:28 “…for the forgiveness of sins…”). Be grateful (as “Eucharist” means, “to give thanks”) for the gift of forgiveness extended to us all even before we realized we were sinners.
- Renew our faith and hope in Christ’s resurrection and return (Matt 26:29 “I [Jesus] will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (cf. Mark 14:25). Paul, using different words, expressed the same conviction of Christ’s resurrection and return: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26, emphasis added). Eating the bread and drinking the cup remind us that Christ died, has resurrected, and will return as the Almighty King who will judge the living and the dead. Justice will ultimately be carried out in full, and the hope of his people will be fully realized.
- Restore our love in the body of Christ. (1 Cor 11:29, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself”). This “body” of the Lord here also implies the redeemed body of the Lord, the church of Christ. Paul was astonished that that there were “divisions” as they “gathered together” (as a body of Christ, the church) to eat the Lord’s Supper. 1 Therefore, it is “unworthy” if one is eating the bread (body of Christ) without recognizing the church (body of Christ). 2 Observing the Supper involves restoring the unity of the body of Christ. One of the most biblical ways to unite the people of God while people are separated physically is to unite them through eating the bread and drinking the cup, even through virtual communion, a significant reminder that the body of Christ is still united as a loving community, despite physical distance.
- Practical guidelines for observing the Lord’s Supper in unusual times, i.e., no physical proximity:
- Faith: We should observe the Lord’s Supper in a way that renews faith in Christ alone, the God-man in one Person, who is the Lord and Savior, died on the cross, resurrected on the third day, and is seated at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. We are reminded of the Holy Spirit, the seal and down payment of our salvation. He is also with us and, even though we can’t see or touch him, we are still guided and strengthened by him as we yield to his lordship.
- Hope: Lord’s Supper reminds the people that Christ is alive and will return one day. He has gone through suffering and overcome death. The act of taking the Lord’s Supper is a significant way to remind the people that, despite current challenges, we already have victory in Christ’s death and resurrection, as well as his return.
- Love: The blood of Christ was shed to establish a new covenantal relationship with God and a covenantal community of God. The body of Christ was broken so that the body of Christ may be united in showing the world that Christ’s people are truly God’s disciples or ambassadors on earth.
In view of Romans 14:3, 3 those who sacramentalized or sanctified the Supper (make holy the elements) do not judge those who take it as a symbol (not merely symbol, but spiritual significance). The latter should not in turn despise the former two. Whether observing online communion or not, all ought to do it with the conviction to honor the Lord and edify the people. This fulfills the law of God, and even the law of Christ (Rom 14:6, 8, 13-21).
This is an unusual time and we should make an exception for the online communion while still pleasing the Lord. When we return to our normal, usual worship services, we should not excuse ourselves from gathering physically to observe the Lord’s Supper. As Christ, the Son of God, came physically to us to build his body, the church, so we should come together regularly to build up his body.
1. 1 Cor 11:17-22: 17 “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” 2. 1 Cor 17:27-29: So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves 3. “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.”