Discerning the Body: Online Communion as Oxymoron

While I understand and even empathize with how online communion is a novelty born of necessity, in this case a pandemic which has Christ’s Body quarantined in isolation from one another, nonetheless— on Pauline grounds— I take online communion to constitute a contradiction in terms. Indeed I believe the grounds for withholding the eucharist from a communicant clarify the extent to which online communion is an oxymoron. This September marks my nineteenth year as a parish pastor. The Sunday after September 11th was my first Sunday in a pulpit. That that pulpit was in New Jersey where several people would no longer the pews they once did forever shaped the seriousness with which I regard the preaching task. In nearly two decades of ministry, I’ve only ever withheld or threatened to withhold the sacrament from a parishioner on two occasions. 

In that first congregation, a church member first objected to and later railed against an interracial marriage I performed in the parish. In keeping with Christ’s command in Matthew 18, I confronted him about his racism and invited him to repent and seek reconciliation with the couple. Later, leaders in the church did as well. He remained prideful and persisted in his attempts to divide the congregation over the “issue.” I was just a student pastor and had not learned yet that the unspoken goal of United Methodist ministry is to be what Stanley Hauerwas calls “a quivering mass of availability and acquiescence.” I therefore told Fred that I would no longer serve him the bread and the wine of the eucharist if he stubbornly insisted on receiving them unfaithfully. 

“St. Paul’s pretty clear,” I told him, “the bread and wine could kill you if you’re cavalier about your sin.”

Maybe I wouldn’t say that today, but in general I do not regret my dealings with Fred. 

Thus far, the only other occasion I’ve withheld the eucharist came with a communicant in my present parish. This church member repeatedly antagonized my associate pastor, who is black, on racial grounds, particularly her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Rather than speaking directly with the pastor as I insisted (Matthew 18 again), this church member shared her acrimony with practically everyone in the congregation but the pastor in question. On a couple of Sundays, she theatrically hopped out of my associate pastor’s communion line to enter a different line so as to avoid receiving the body of Christ from those particular black hands. In response, I told this parishioner she could no longer participate in the eucharist if she “persisted in making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper by ignoring the summons to peace which precedes it.”

I thought of these two stories when I received an email (an email?!) this week from the powers-that-be informing us that United Methodist pastors in Virginia are now permitted to celebrate online communion during the COVID-19 quarantine. Immediately I saw clergy colleagues on social media extolling the announcement and arguing that online communion can still be “meaningful” and “intimate” and “personal.” 

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a liberal tradition like Methodism, which long ago made the individual the subject of theology rather than God, would circumscribe its sacramental theology  to the sentiments it engenders in the recipient. We can justify anything if what’s truly important is how it makes us feel— what the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies. And certainly it seems that a decision to dis-incarnate the eucharist, making the meal a matter of gnosis rather than sarx, should be the sort of decision Christians reach only by consensus with the larger Body of Christ rather than a decision reached by an individual bishop in a particular corner of a very specific branch of the Christian family tree. To alter the historic form and practice of the Lord’s Supper should require another Nicaea not an email forward. I appreciate that these are odd and trying times and we’re all just muddling through with how we adapt ministry; however, it is not new to Methodism to wait for the occasion when Christ’s body can rightly celebrate the sacrament. Indeed the majority of Christians around the world are Catholics whose parishes have no regular priest. As the Advent people we all are, they’re accustomed to waiting for the day when together they can break bread and drink from the common cup. 

Speaking of Catholics, it’s odd that Protestant Christians should so yearn for the Lord’s Supper that they would take the step of dis-incarnating it. What sustains us, as Karl Barth said, as we walk like Elijah forty days and forty nights is the faith gifted to us by the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s Supper bears witness to this nourishment of the Holy Spirit. As the Book of Common Prayer makes clear, we feed on Christ by faith. We do not feed on Christ through bread and wine. The bread and the wine are not themselves the nourishment. 

The bread and the wine testify to the nourishment. The specificity of that verb, testify, is critical. Like a witness in a courtroom, Karl Barth says, the Lord’s Supper: 

“bears witness to us that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ which he himself has accomplished on the cross once for all; and that through the Holy Spirit we have been incorporated in Christ so that with him our lives are hid in God.” 

What frees us to apprehend the truth of our situation in Christ are not the creatures of bread and wine but the Gospel promise attached to them— for you. In our rush to render the eucharist into a virtual format, we’ve forgotten that the Gospel itself is an aural sacrament, and its one made to order for the limitations of online worship. The Lord’s Supper does not mediate Christ’s reconciliation to us. It attests to it as an accomplished fact. The eucharist does not unite us to Christ. It celebrates that Christ, who is the only true sacrament, has united us unto himself. The communion liturgy is the visible act which confirms the proclaimed promise. It’s the sign by which the promise of our objective union with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, becomes subjectively real to us. 

The sign and the thing signified are inextricable. 

To change the performance of the sign-act is to alter the construal of the thing signified, the promise of union with Christ. 

And it’s precisely this objective fact of union with Christ that I believe online communion problematizes. 

As the New Testament makes clear, the Lord’s Supper testifies not simply to our union with Christ but also to our union in Christ with one another.

Just as the person and work of Christ cannot be separated, the doubled-sided union to which the Supper attests cannot be divided. 

As Will Willimon jokes, “I love Jesus. It’s his friends I can’t stand.” The creatures of bread and wine remind us in an unavoidable way that Christ’s redemption of us has come in a manner we would never choose. By his shed blood and empty grave, he has incorporated us into himself alongside Judases and Peters and Pilates, people we would never choose for friends or neighbors. 

Communion is a communion not only with our Lord but with all those whom our Prodigal Lord foolishly and gratuitously loves. 

The Holy Spirit alights only upon flesh, the Bible makes clear, but in the Lord’s Supper its not only the creatures of bread and wine upon which the Spirit rests. It’s also the person sitting next to you with bad breath and odious political opinions. Just as “This is my body…” refers not simply to the bread but to the whole redemptive work of Christ, as Karl Barth says, in the epiclesis the Spirit condescends upon the gathered body as much as the elements on the table. 

The most fundamental problem with online communion is not one of ontology, therefore, but ecclesiology. 

What’s bothersome to me— if not terribly surprising— in these discussions about online communion is how little attention we give to the biblical texts. Appeals are made to congregants’ felt needs. “Our Wesleyan heritage” is cited with great ambiguity. The urgency to adapt and innovate to a modern mission field is used as though a self-evident justification. But we spend little time with scripture. 

The most extended biblical meditation on the Lord’s Supper occurs in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which the Apostle rebukes the Corinthians because they do not “discern the body” during the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:29). 

The context makes clear that by “discern the body” Paul does not mean the bread or wine themselves; he means the diversity of members that comprise the Body Christ has elected as his own.

It is our mutuality, our union with one another in the Lord, that is Paul’s central focus.

An individual celebrating and serving and receiving bread and wine before an inanimate object like a computer screen with, at best, only our friends and family alongside us, undermines this central reality of the sacrament. When we approach the altar to eat from the same loaf and drink of one cup we are brought into the closest possible personal communion with other disciples of Christ in the fellowship of His conquering love. 

Paul’s admonition to discern the body was, in Corinth, a rebuke of the way in which the Church had segregated rich from poor, male from female, spiritual from irreligious, Jew from Greek. The New Testament, then, instructs us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in such a way that we are forced to reckon with the nature of the motley crew Christ has chosen to elect as his people. To celebrate with bread and wine in a way that allows you to avoid those whom you would never choose as friends were it not for you having been befriended by Jesus is to celebrate something other than the Lord’s Supper of the New Testament. 

The irony of “online communion” is that based on everything we know about how we spend our online lives, the internet is the last place we go to make ourselves vulnerable to uncomfortable views and spend time with people different from us. Instead our virtual spaces look even more siloed and segregated— tribal— than First Church Corinth. As a preacher, online communion does not force me to place Christ’s body into the hands of the woman who leaves anonymous complaints in my mailbox. It does not force me to hold the cup out for the homeless man I might otherwise ignore on the street corner had I not admitted him into church membership. It does not force MAGA minions and Never Trumpers to stand in line and kneel at the altar together like beggars or knights of the same king. 

That is— 

Online communion does not force us to discern the body. 

It doesn’t even permit us to perceive it. 

I’ve withheld the sacrament from two people during the course of my ministry on the grounds that they refused “to discern the body.” They refused to reckon with and embrace, even if fitfully, the diversity of those whom Christ has elected for his body. What they would not do none of us can do in an online format, making “online communion,” I believe, a contradiction of terms. 

In chatting with church people during the quarantine, I’ve noticed how some of my more difficult, pain-in-@#$ members have all made the same comment. “I’m doing great,” they’ve all told me, “I’ve never been better.” Turns out, without the frustration of dealing with other church members who are not like them at all, their lives have much less drama in them. They’re healthier and happier from not being at church where they’re forced “to discern the body.” Truth be told, my life as a pastor is in some ways easier without having to rub elbows Sunday after Sunday with some of Jesus’ ill-chosen friends.

It’s a testament to the odd God we serve that Jesus does not want us happy and healthy in this way. 

When I hold up the chalice during the words of institution— perhaps it’s the way the light plays through the stained glass window, the shape of the cup maybe— I can see the faces of the whole congregation reflected and stretched across the silver sphere. There’s something biblical about such an image. Maybe it’s the light in my dining room but on Sunday mornings during the pandemic, looking at my computer screen, I’m just as often staring at myself. 

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One Response

  1. Thanks, Jason, for keeping before us the sacramental reality of Holy Communion. I, too, feel that for many we have reversed the grammar of the Gospel and have essentially become Zwinglian in understanding and practice.

    During a 35-day monastic retreat at Holy Cross Abbey when I retired, the question of my receiving during the daily Mass was enthusiastically embraced. Knowing how conservative the Arlington Diocese was at that time and the fact that was known in the Berryville area where many attended services at Holy Cross, I was afraid my participation could be objected to and reported to the Arlington Bishop and cause concern for the monastery. The monks laughed and said the Abbot is a bishop, too. But I decided in our discussions that I would observe a “Eucharistic fast” as a sign of our ecclesial brokenness and pray for our unity. That act had a profound effect on the community. Often one of the monks, returning from the Table would say, “I received for you today.” This fasting became a profound experience of the Body for both me and the monks.

    While I often lament our UMC preference for functional thinking over more biblical grounded guidance, I do think this pandemic experience might well serve to raise important sacramental issues that will further our understanding of things sacramental. I continue to be strengthen during this time of Eucharistic fasting, especially as it challenges us to “discern the Body.”

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