Saturday, September 22, 2012

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.


  1. Beautifully put. I wonder if the problem here is a very one dimensional understanding of the Holy Communion as merely a commodity, tangible forgiveness, if you will. I think much of the "sloppiness" does indeed flow from a weak understanding of the Real Presence. And I wonder, again, if that does not find it's heart in Receptionism.


    1. I think it stems from exactly that sort of weakness, Pastor Curtis. And from a rather individualistic and atomistic view of the Sacrament. For all its arguments against "magic" and a "moment of the presence," it is receptionism that has taken a quite mechanistic position on the Sacrament, and has identified a precise "moment of the presence" in the eating and drinking. The "breadth" that Dr. Luther speaks of, in the right use of the Sacrament, embraces the consecration, the conduct, and the consumption of the Sacrament as the Holy Communion, wherein the many become one Body in Christ.

  2. I like the idea - but I think you push it too far. To put it bluntly - as far as I can tell my congregation has never had the practice of consuming the reliquae. Does this then mean... we've never discerned the Body of Christ?

    I think this works to explain why some practices are good -- but the context of the initial verse has negative consequences -- if you do not discern, you die. So to tie other practices directly too discernment I fear may be going too far afield, too strong a point to it. Not that I think you were intending this - but I think it might be an unforseen consequence of your argument. It's been a long day, and I'm too tired to think of a way of keeping the admonishment to seriousness without ---- turning variance in practice into de facto non-discernment of Christ's Body.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Pastor Brown. Your points and cautions are well-taken. I don't think I've gone quite as far as you perceive, however. Discerning the Lord's Body is a matter of faith in the Words of Christ, and of eating and drinking His Body and Blood in such faith. But it is incumbent upon the ministers of the Sacrament to discern the Body, also in their words in actions, in such a way that confesses the truth of Christ's Word and catechizes the people in the faith of His Word. As there are a variety of ways in which that confessing and catechizing can take place, I do not presume to specify a narrow path, but to suggest a few particular ways in which it has been done, and can be done.

      Regarding the Reliquiae, however, I believe that latter-day Lutherans have been negligent in this regard. Belief in the "real presence," according to the Word of Christ, goes hand in hand with eating and drinking His Body given and His Blood poured out, also according to His Word. The "Nihil Rule" has been misused and abused to argue that the "leftovers" (sic) can be treated in any old manner, on the premise that they remain "outside of the use." But they are only "outside of the use" (of the Sacrament) if and when the Words of Christ are divided against themselves and set aside. That is to say, where Christ has spoken, concerning "this bread" and "this cup," that His Christians are to "eat" and "drink of it," it is a contradiction of His Word and Institution to do otherwise. The "Nihil Rule" has thus already been broken, so to speak, by the removing of the consecrated elements from the right use of the Sacrament. Does this invalidate the entire Sacrament, the entire Holy Communion, and the discerning of the Lord's Body on the part of the communicants otherwise? I do not make that claim, nor do I take that position. But the discarding of the Reliquiae, or to relegate the Reliquiae to a common usage, is contrary to the Lord's Word and Institution, and, to that extent, it is a failure to discern His Body.

    2. This is why Dr. Luther responds in the way that he does to Besserer and to Wolferinus. To treat consecrated and unconsecrated elements alike, to mix them together, is a failure to discern the Lord's Body. That is the more serious when it is done deliberately, by those who are entrusted with the stewardship of the Mysteries, and with stubborn rhetoric to the effect that "I know better than Christ and His Church."

      But failing to discern the Lord's Body does not necessarily result in weakness, sickness, or death. St. Paul does not lay that out as a threat, but describes what has happened. Where those consequences occur, it is for the sake of discipline; the Lord in love judges His erring people, lest they be condemned along with the world. It makes sense that the consequences would differ, for example, depending on whether the failure to discern is in the eating and drinking of the Lord's Body (as though it were ordinary food), or in the removal of His Body from the sacred use and returning it to common use (as though it were ordinary food).

      What God has joined together, let no man separate. Where His Word has come to the elements, it is the Sacrament, the Communion of His Body and His Blood. And the same Lord who says, "This is My Body," also says, "Take, eat." We say "Amen," both to what it is, and to what it is for, and to what we are to do with it; and we act in faith accordingly. To remove the consecrated elements from sacred use, and return them to ordinary use, and then to argue that that they are no longer the Sacrament, is no different than a man divorcing his wife and then sending her away on the grounds that she is no longer his wife.

      The best practice, I believe, is the one that Dr. Luther urges in his response to Wolferinus (to which the Formula of Concord approvingly refers in its discussion of these very things): That is, for everything to be consumed before the pastor leaves the Altar. A larger amount of Reliquiae may require that all be consumed by the pastor and other communicants, perhaps immediately following the Divine Service. I have also acknowledged the practice of reverently setting apart the Reliquiae against the next Holy Communion, although I do not believe that is the best or most salutary practice (and it was decidedly not the historic Lutheran practice). Where the Reliquiae are set apart against the next Holy Communion, that does not mean confusing them with unconsecrated elements, but "discerning the Lord's Body" until it shall be eaten, as He has spoken. In such a case, the "use" of the Sacrament has not been broken, but extended; and the Lord's Words have not been divided against themselves, but drawn out over a longer time. I have come across comments in my reading which admit to such a practice, but not as though it were ideal or to be preferred. Eating and drinking at the Altar within the same Divine Service, and leaving nothing "until morning," is the strongest way of honoring the Lord's Words and discerning His Body.

    3. Fr. Brown,

      One more thing needs to be said in this regard: just because your parish has always done it, does not mean that it's a good practice. Surely we all must gain a little distance from ourselves, a little objectivity, and perhaps a little thicker skin so that we can increase in faithfulness. We like to mouth the words "nobody's perfect" and "we are all sinners" - let us also take them to heart and consider our own need for repentance. I know that I and my parish have a long way to go, I can think of two specific incidences where brothers in the ministry have pointed out deficiencies in my practice. I thanked both of them and tried to improve.


  3. Just to note - I am not trying to self-justify (indeed, linking my own congregation was meant to personalize the objection, but it's hard to personalize without bringing in the air of self-justification). Indeed, I'd be happier bringing in the practice of consuming the elements -- but, in consultation with my elders that hasn't happened yet. Eh, if I am overly patient, so be it.

    However, here remains the problem -- "But failing to discern the Lord's Body does not necessarily result in weakness, sickness, or death. St. Paul does not lay that out as a threat, but describes what has happened." I don't think I buy that argument. The Law accuses, the Law always threatens -- and to say that just because there is not always sickness and death (that is open and obvious) is just an attempt to undercut the law. If one does not discern the Body of Christ -- THAT IS BAD. Don't mince around it -- don't mollycoddle things that lead to death. The Law is and must be preached in its full severity. In the day that you eat of it, you shall die, Adam. And he did -- he might not have seen that death for 930 years, but HE DIED. Then. Right then. Death was his.

    Not discerning Christ is to ignore Life Himself. It is not a small thing -- don't minimize it.

    And because of that fact, that the Law always accuses, I think -- whether it is you go too far or neglect the impact of the Law -- that connection is too harsh and goes beyond the proper severity of the Law. While consuming the reliquae does indeed show that you see the Body of Christ - reserving does as well. And even if folks were to mix (which I stopped when I got here) -- does that mean the years before I arrived my congregation did not discern Christ's Body and Blood in the Supper? No -- they just assumed things were over... I would not put that in the same category as the one who says, "This is just a mere symbol" - denying our Lord's Words out right.

    Or to put it this way -- to say "this is how the Body is to be discerned" that concretely when the Scriptures do not expressly say so is... potentially swinging around a condemning law of our own devising rather than one which God Himself has ordered us to speak.

    1. Well, okay, I guess I understand your point more clearly now, but I disagree with you. I'm not minimizing anything, nor am I trying to molly coddle anyone. I'm saying that a failure to discern the Lord's Body is flat out wrong and should not be done, whether there are this or that particular consequences or not. I've allowed that reserving the consecrated elements against the next Holy Communion is a discerning of the Lord's Body. But I maintain that mixing the consecrated with unconsecrated elements is not. I don't believe I'm making that up. It belongs, for one thing, to the critique that St. Paul is making, namely, a failure to discern between ordinary food and the Lord's Supper, along with other problems that were occurring as a consequence of that basic failure.

      I do not believe that a failure to discern the Lord's Body in respect to the Reliquiae invalidates the entire Lord's Supper. But the fact that the Lord's Body is discerned in the Supper does not mean that the Reliquiae may legitimately be dealt with in any old manner. You have not addressed my basic point, that the Words of Christ include, not only, "This Is My Body," but also, "Take, eat." It is a denial of the Lord's Word to disregard the latter, no matter how much one affirms and confesses the former.

      I don't believe you are correct to say that I have invented or devised a condemning law apart from what God has spoken. I'm working directly from the Words of our Lord Himself, and from the Words handed over by His Apostle. It is the Lord Jesus who says, "Take, eat." How would you say that I have spoken more concretely than that? It is, rather, a human devising to take the consecrated elements -- concerning which the Lord has spoken, "Take, eat, this is My Body," and "Drink of it, all of you, this is My Blood" -- and to do otherwise with them than the Lord has spoken.

      Modern Lutherans have made a common and deliberate practice out of doing something that divides the Words of the Lord against themselves -- a practice that Luther and the early Lutherans regarded as a serious offense.

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    3. So the mixing of consecrated elements with unconsecrated elements doesn't discern the Lord's Body by rejecting our Lord's statements "This is my Body/Blood." The reservation of the consecrated elements for the purpose of adoration doesn't discern the Lord's Body by rejecting our Lord's command to take eat. So that the two statements of our Lord--what it is and what is to be done--remain inseparably united so that if we drop either off or ignore either, the Lord's Body is not discerned. Is this the essence of what you've written Pastor Stuckwisch?

    4. Yes, Pastor Braaten, this is precisely to the point. We are only able to discern the Lord's Body by the Lord's Word, which determines (and tells us) what "this bread" is, what it is for, and what we are to do with it. Rightly to discern the Lord's Body, therefore, is to receive and eat His Body given. And you have discerned correctly that the same point obtains against the private mass, as also against the mixing of the consecrated elements with unconsecrated. In fact, the arguments of Luther and Chemnitz against the private mass contributed significantly to my thoughts on discerning the Lord's Body. But this really goes back to the Lord Jesus, and to St. Paul: The right discerning of the Lord's Body culminates in the faithful eating of His Body.

      So far as I have been able to determine, the sixteenth-century Lutherans were very consistent (if not unanimous) in consecrating only as many elements as they expected to need for the distribution of the Holy Communion, and in consuming whatever remained at the conclusion of the distribution. In this way, they honored the Word and Institution of Christ, and they avoided any ambiguity, confusion, or uncertainty.

  4. Pastor Stuckwisch,

    What role does an eternal light in the chancel have in identifying the presence of the Lord's Body and Blood? I thinking of those that reserve the Reliquiae in a respectful manner on the Altar. In other words what is the purpose of the eternal light?

    Stephen Harris

    1. Thanks for your question, Stephen. As I understand it, this is the proper sort of purpose for an "eternal light," namely, to signify that the Reliquiae have reverently been set apart against the next Holy Communion. That sort of usage rightly connects the presence of Christ to His tangible means of grace. Of course, that is not the way that an "eternal light" is typically used or understood among Protestants. In that case, it is perceived as a sign or symbol of a "spiritual" presence, even apart from the Word and Sacrament. Given that prevailing ambiguity, a congregation would certainly have to be catechized in a deliberate usage of the "eternal light," if it were going to be used to demarcate the reserved Sacrament.


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