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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Discerning the Lord's Body

Failing to discern the Lord's Body in the Lord's Supper, St. Paul teaches, is a serious matter with serious consequences (1 Cor. 11:29-30).  To be indifferent in this case is dangerous, even deadly.  Discerning the Lord's Body is commanded.  Failing to do so is forbidden.

How, then, are Christians able to discern the Lord's Body?  Not with their eyes, first of all, but with their ears, which hear and heed the Word of Christ.  He speaks, and it is so.  Concerning that which can be seen, that is, the bread, He says, "This is My Body."  And again, concerning the cup of wine, "This is My Blood."  The eyes alone would be deceived, but the ears of faith listen to Christ Jesus and believe what He speaks.  So decisive is this Word of Christ, that, for Dr. Luther, the "signs" of the Sacrament are actually not the visible bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ, which are hidden from sight, but given and poured out by His Word, in, with, and under "this bread" and "this cup," for His Christians to eat and to drink.

Discerning the Lord's Body in the Lord's Supper, therefore, is to eat His Body and drink His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving.  It is not simply a matter of inward perception or attitude, but of outward activity and conduct.  Not only heart and mind, but hand and mouth discern the Body of Christ in the Sacrament.  For what is recognized by faith in the Word of Christ, is also received and laid hold of by the body.  Nor can it be otherwise.  One should not receive the Sacrament without knowing and believing what it is, but discerning the Lord's Body proceeds from the knowing and believing to the receiving of His Body and His Blood.

Such discernment is required of all communicants.  The words, "for you," require all hearts to believe, and so to eat "this bread" and drink "this cup" at the gracious invitation of Christ Jesus.  All the more so are those who administer this Sacrament required to discern the Lord's Body.  Not only in what they believe, but in what they teach and confess.  Not only in what they say, but also in what they do.  For our Lord Jesus Christ has commanded His ministers to "Do This" in His Name and stead: To take bread and wine, to bless or consecrate these elements with His Words (Verba Testamenti Christi), and to give this Meat and Drink indeed, His Body and His Blood, to His disciples (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

In this way the ministers of Christ actively discern His Body, by giving to the Church what they have received from the Lord, in remembrance of Him.  With His Words, and according to His Institution, they distinguish "this bread" and "this cup" from all ordinary bread and wine, and from every other food and drink.  For as He speaks, so they are: His Body and His Blood.

This discernment of the Lord's Body is exercised and expressed, in the preaching of Christ the Crucified (1 Cor. 11:26), and in the way that His Body and His Blood are handled, handed out, and handed over to His Church (1 Cor. 11:2, 16, 23, 34b).  In much the same way that communicants discern the Lord's Body in both their believing and their bodily receiving of the Sacrament, so do the ministers of this Sacrament discern the Lord's Body in both their speaking and their doing, in their words (rites) and in their actions (ceremonial).

Three particular points of active discernment on the part of those who administer the Lord's Supper are the consecration of the elements, the adoration of the Sacrament, and the consumption of the Reliquiae.  The conduct of the minister with respect to these three points can be extraordinarily helpful to the communicants in their own faithful discernment.

To discern the Lord's Body requires clarity and specificity, rather than vague ambiguity and generalities.  That is to say, there must be certainty as to which "bread" and which "cup" the Lord Jesus is referring when He says, "This is My Body," and "This is My Blood."  The spoken Word, "This," must be clearly connected to particular elements, for it is the Word coming to "this bread" and "this cup" which makes the Sacrament (Large Catechism V.10-11).

Whether chanted or spoken, the Words of the Lord should be voiced without haste, deliberately and distinctly, with sober reverence (Formula of Concord SD VII.79-82).  In distinguishing the Verba from ordinary speech, already the minister distinguishes this bread and this wine from ordinary food and drink.  He faces the Altar, as the rubrics specify, rather than turning his back on any of the elements which are to be consecrated.  With gestures, likewise, perhaps with the sign of the cross, he clearly designates each of the vessels of the bread and the wine concerning which the Words of the Lord are being spoken.

In a similar manner, the historic elevation of the Sacrament (following the consecration of each element in turn), and the exhibition of the Sacrament at the Pax Domini, differentiate "this bread" and "this cup" from ordinary bread and wine.  As Dr. Luther describes, this ceremonial confesses what is true by virtue of the Word of Christ, as though to say: "Look, dear Christian, here is the body and blood of your Lord Jesus, given and poured out for you to eat and to drink, for the forgiveness of all your sins."  On a smaller scale, holding the Sacrament before each communicant, with a clear and unambiguous distribution formula, makes the same confession, to wit: "This bread is the body of Christ, which is given for you." "This wine is the blood of Christ, which is poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins."

The elevation and exhibition of the Sacrament invite the Adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament.  This, too, rightly understood and practiced, is a discerning of the Lord's Body.  In the narrow sense, historically, this "Adoration" comprises the bowing of the body and the bending of the knee before the consecrated elements, which are the true and essential Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Not as though to worship the bread and wine, which remain as creatures of the one true God, but to worship and adore the Lord Himself, who is actually and accessibly present in and with His own holy Body and His own precious Blood (Formula of Concord SD VII.126).  Nor do we look for Him apart from such tangible means of grace, by which, according to His Word, He is with us and gives Himself to us.  Discerning the Lord's Body means that we recognize and receive Him in "this bread" and in "this cup," concerning which He has spoken; and, therein, we also worship and adore Him.

Kneeling for the Holy Communion is a case in point.  The Lutherans received this tradition and practiced this custom of the Church (1 Cor. 11:2, 16), understanding this ceremony to be an appropriate adoration of Christ in the Sacrament.  In this way, also, they discerned the Lord's Body.  For they confessed with their bodies, with their bowed heads and bended knees, that "this bread" and "this cup" are, in truth, the very Body and very Blood of the very Son of God.  The Anglicans also retained the custom of kneeling for the Holy Communion, and they, too, recognized the implications of this practice; wherefore they inserted a didactic "black rubric" in their 1662 Book of Common Prayer, explicitly denying that any adoration "of Christ's natural Flesh and Blood" was thereby intended or ought to be done, and asserting to the contrary that "the natural Body and Blood of our Savior Christ are in heaven, not here."  We beg to differ with that rubric, but it does illustrate the point in a backwards sort of way.

The particular form and extent of outward bodily adoration is free, that is, neither commanded nor forbidden.  Discerning the Lord's Body does not require (nor does it prevent) any amount of bodily bowing or bending.  The heart of faith, however, in any case, bends and bows itself before the Words of the Lord, and so discerns His Body and His Blood in the Sacrament.  Where the heart thus worships and adores the Lord by faith, the Christian's body follows in some manner, in order to confess what the Lord has spoken, and to eat and drink His Body and Blood at His invitation.  Because this Sacrament is the Lord's Supper, to be eaten, the discerning of the Lord's Body necessarily includes and involves the Christian's body, as well (1 Cor. 11:28-30).

So, in this discussion, I refer to "Adoration" in a broader and more general sense, encompassing the way in which the Body and Blood of Christ are handled, distributed and received, and the way in which the pastor and the communicants comport themselves in the celebration of the Sacrament and in relation to each other.  Here I have in mind that outward behavior and decorum should honestly confess what we believe and teach (1 Cor. 11:4-10), notwithstanding the danger (and the fact) of hypocrisy on the part of us poor sinners; and that we should also discipline our bodies to act with reverence before God, and with courtesy toward one another (1 Cor. 11:22-23, 28-31).  Neither irreverence nor selfishness and animosity are adiaphora!  But, no, St. Paul instructs the Church that discerning the Lord's Body ought to be exercised in approaching His Altar (1 Cor. 11:27-28), in the eating and drinking of His Supper, and in the gathering of His disciples for this Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34).  The pastor should follow the Apostle's lead, not only in teaching the congregation these things, but in demonstrating the same reverence and courtesy in his actions.

Whether kneeling or not, the Christian's body is intimately involved in discerning the Lord's Body, because this discernment culminates in the bodily eating and drinking of the Sacrament (1 Cor. 11:28-29).  Precisely because it is the Lord's own true Body that is present, distributed, and received in the Holy Communion, to discern His Body rightly involves more than mental affirmation, more than intellectual agreement and assent, and more than emotional attitude or verbal acknowledgment; it is finally exercised in bodily activity.  To say "Amen" to the Word of Christ, is not only to believe, teach, and confess the real presence of His Body and His Blood, but also to eat "this bread" and drink "this cup," as He has spoken.

Everything depends upon the Word and Institution of the Lord Jesus Christ, that is, both the consecration (1 Cor. 11:23-25) and the consumption (St. Matthew 26:26-28) of His Supper.

Therefore, if more bread and wine are needed to complete the distribution of the Sacrament, then these elements must first be consecrated with the appropriate Words of Christ (Verba Testamenti Christi).  There can be no discerning of the Lord's Body apart from His Word, because His Body is neither given nor received apart from His Word (Formula SD VII.79-82).

By the same token, when all have communed, whatever remains of "this bread" or in "this cup" (and flagon), concerning which the Lord has said, "This is My Body," or "This is My Blood," must also be consumed according to His Word: "Eat," and "Drink."  Whether that eating and drinking (and the cleansing of the vessels) be done by the pastor at the Altar within the same Divine Service (as Dr. Luther advised), or immediately afterwards in the Sacristy (by the pastor and other communicants) — or whether what remains of the Body and Blood of Christ, that is, the Reliquiae, be reverently set apart against the next Holy Communion (as some more recent rubrics suggest as an alternative) — the Words of the Lord should not be divided against themselves, nor should His Sacrament be terminated in contradiction of His Institution.  By no means should the Reliquiae be treated like ordinary "leftovers" at home; no more so than the Lord's Holy Supper should be entangled and confused with ordinary potlucks and drinking parties (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34).  Rather, to distinguish the consecrated elements from ordinary bread and wine, and therefore to consume them as the Body and Blood of Christ, in accordance with His Word and Institution, is to discern the Lord's Body rightly.

While the particulars of these several rites and ceremonies allow for some latitude and flexibility, even so, the actual discerning of the Lord's Body — in the consecration and the conduct of the Holy Communion — is given by the Lord and belongs to the "Do This," which He entrusts to His ministers for the benefit of His Church.  God grant that we, who are so called and ordained, would be found faithful and sober-minded in the administration of this Sacrament, and so fulfill this ministry as good stewards of the Mysteries of God.