There are a lot of things I wanted to investigate before I took on research of the Eucharist/Communion. But with COVID-19 threatening to disrupt Easter celebrations, upon which the Eucharist is a foundation sacrament, I’ve decided to jump the list. I’m not going to cover everything, just one question that came to mind when a friend told me her church was suspending physical attendance for 2 weeks and going to e-church: Do we need a pastor to administer the Eucharist?
We can probably take a good leap and assume that God didn’t intend for the Early Church to address an electronic age two-thousand years removed from them. But I think we can probably find some answers to this question.
In looking for answers to this question, two articles of evidence came up. One comes from the Bible, and the other comes from a first century, very early second century, Christian named Ignatius. From both accounts, it looks like you cannot partake of the Eucharist on your own.
So the first account we have comes from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
‘But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.
I have to quote this in full, otherwise it loses something. At first it just looks like Paul is saying you can’t get together to have food as a community (which seems to go against the grain of Christ’s examples where he is feeding hundreds), but Paul is talking specifically about the Lord’s Supper as a very sacred rite. Thus, the advice is to eat at home so that when you come to the receive the Lord’s Supper, you’re only there to receive food which satisfies the spirit. Despite Peter’s first epistle (chapter 2) which seems to make it sound as though we can all oversee the sacrament, Paul makes a point to illustrate that there are those which are genuine- and by proxy we can surmise that not everyone within the church should be considered eligible to head up the rite. Another point here, is that it seems very apparent that Paul is stating this is a communal rite, not something you simply do at home. Though from various points in the New Testament, it does seem as though it was permissible for ordained persons to deliver the sacrament inside someone’s home.
One other thing to note about 1 Peter, however, is that there is some dispute as to who the letter was written to. If, as some suggest, the letter was explicitly for Jewish converts, then the language in 1 Peter 2:5 may be referring to the fulfillment of Exodus 19:6, where God tells all of Israel that as long as they keep to His laws He will make them a “kingdom of priests”.
Paul doesn’t make any explicit mentions of who can or cannot oversee the holy rite, that tradition seems to be affirmed by Ignatius. Ignatius is said to have been a student of the Apostle John. If nothing else, he is confirmed as being a man teaching righteousness by well-known a student of John named Polycarp. So one could surmise that Ignatius’ words reflect what the Apostle John was teaching.
In Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrneans, chapter 8, he states:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”
In case you’re not sure of whether or not this document should be considered legit, I wasn’t either so I looked into it. Of the pieces I came across, I found that this one was a strong enough argument to at least take 7 of Ignatius’ Epistles into consideration. Of course, I am sorely aware of the fact that it gets difficult to judge authenticity when we are relying upon expert appraisal rather than carbon dating- let alone the fact that it would be difficult to find a copy dating far enough back. But we have what we have. ANYWAYS-
Ignatius lays it out that this sacred rite should be performed by someone who has been ordained. I don’t think this is bad advice, actually. If we take Paul and Ignatius together, what we get is the conclusion that the person who has been ordained to perform these sacraments at least are believed to have the kind of soul which searches themselves before overseeing a rite.
So now we get to the “creative” solutions.
The friend I mentioned in the beginning of this sent me a message about how her church is dealing with the Eucharist. She’s Episcopal, and they have a prayer (from what I can tell, it’s intended to be said in unison with others) in place of the Eucharist:
“My Jesus, I believe that you are truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I love you above all things, and long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”
Such a prayer is one creative solution to overcome the problem that you may not be in the presence of someone who can perform the Eucharist rite. But what about the practice by those which take the Eucharist via a Televised (or live stream) rite? Maybe?
If we take into consideration that the Centurion in Matthew 8 believed Christ could heal his servant without being at his home, and then include that Christ told his Apostles that they would be able to do all he does and more, we could extend that to a live stream. That is something you’ll need to search your own soul to determine. As for me…in doing this piece, I’ve come to realize I do not have that kind of faith in modern clergy to command the same level of blessing as Christ or his first century Apostles.
I guess the good thing about so many places shutting down, is that a lot of us will have plenty of time to reflect upon ourselves before we can take the sacrament though! Thereby adhering to Paul’s words “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself”