The Elementary of Elements

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when we speak about our practice of Communion (The Lord’s Supper) we use the word ‘elements’ to refer to the bread and wine.   That’s a bit of an odd usage, isn’t it?  If you had guests over for wine and cheese at your house, would you say: “Here, try these elements?”  Probably not!  On the other hand, what would be the right collective term for the bread and wine of communion?  Probably not ‘food’; certainly not ‘snacks’!   Do you see the problem?  Though this is a ‘meal’ it’s far from ordinary, and we want a word that sets it apart – one that indicates a special meaning of the foodstuffs that are employed.  So, for better or worse, elements it is!

But because this IS a special sacramental meal, people sometimes have questions about the ‘rules’ regarding our use of these elements.  Do we need to have a particular kind of bread or wine?  Or do we need to use bread and wine at all?  So, let’s talk about that.

But first let’s clarify a few Lutheran beliefs about this important meal:

  • We consider Holy Communion (along with Baptism) to be ‘sacraments’ – that is sacred rites that are commanded by God and convey spiritual gifts: faith and forgiveness.
  • We believe in the ‘real presence.’ Though we don’t believe that the bread and wine are physically transformed into Christ’s body and blood, we believe that the body and blood of Christ are actually present “in, with, and under the bread and wine” (in the words of Martin Luther).  So, when we receive the bread and wine, we are truly receiving the body and blood of Christ.
  • Lutherans do not believe that the spiritual gifts depend on any special powers of the bread and wine or the actions of the presiding minister. What makes this meal a ‘means of Grace’ is not the kind of bread and wine or what the Pastor does at the altar but rather it is the promises of God which the Pastor pronounces in our presence.
  • We strongly believe that this meal should be conducted with reverence. Even though there is nothing about what we do that makes this a sacred meal, it still IS HOLY because Christ is present in it for the feeding of His disciples, and our practice should reflect that.

So, now that we’ve clarified our Lutheran understandings some, we’re better equipped to talk about the elements.

First of all, the details of the bread and wine don’t add to or detract from the sacrament.  Remember, this is God’s meal and it is His promises realized in the sacrifice of His Son that makes it ‘Holy Communion’ rather than just an ordinary meal.  So, you might think that we shouldn’t care about the bread and wine at all.   Yet we do!   This is because we also want to show appropriate reverence for this great gift that God has given us.  So we try to model our practices on the way Jesus celebrated this meal with His disciples.  (Matthew 26:17-30)   Since this was a Passover meal, the bread on the table would have been unleavened and the wine the ordinary table fare consumed by first century Jews.   So that is the ‘gold standard’ that we generally aspire to, but practical and esthetic considerations also enter in – as well as personal preferences.  Some pastors and congregations are quite picky about the right kind of bread, the right kind of wine, and even the right kind of cup from which to drink the wine.  But that’s a matter of local practice, rather than a theological requirement.

The ‘bottom line’ of such things for Lutherans is that we trust fully in the promises of God and that His Grace extends to some flexibility in our practices when that is for the good of the community.  For example, with our modern understanding of germs, we realize that many people are uncomfortable drinking from a common cup, as was the practice for centuries.  We also know that some people cannot (or should not) imbibe wine or ingest gluten, so we provide alternatives.  But we do take a very dim view of ‘novel’ substitutes for the elements (such as cookies and soda!) when there is no compelling necessity.  This is God’s meal provided for the nurture of His children, and we don’t want to do anything that detracts from or trivializes the gift that was won for us at such high cost.

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