Log in Newsletter

Holy Communion


By Earl Vaughan Jr.

When Oct. 31 arrives later this month, it will mark far more than the annual observance of Halloween.

It is the 500th anniversary of a momentous event in the history of the church, when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.

According to Dr. Steven Brey of Methodist University, Luther’s intention was to start a local debate. But his words were picked up by the 16th century’s version of the Internet, the printing press. His charges were duplicated and shared throughout Europe, making his local squabble an international debate that led to the Protestant Reformation.

The central argument Luther wanted to share involved the selling of indulgences, or pardons, by the Roman Catholic Church.

But he had other issues. One involved Holy Communion, a sacrament that remains significant to various Christian denominations 500 years later.

“Communion was central to Luther’s Christian practice and theology,” said Brey, who specializes in the early church and the history of Christianity. “He certainly agreed communion was one of the places where Jesus had promised to be present, and he took the sacrament quite seriously as a means of grace.”

One part of communion Luther didn’t have a major issue with was how it is observed. In the modern church, there are different practices of the sacrament, everything from the elements of the bread and the cup being distributed to congregants seated in pews, to having them come forward and receive them at a common table, to intinction, where the bread is immersed in a cup of wine or grape juice and then eaten.

Brey said the different methods of distributing the communion elements are matters of style and practice and not rooted in theological differences. “Theology goes to the heart of what we believe as Christians,” he said. As a contemporary example, he said there’s nothing sacrosanct about worshipping at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., or in using contemporary music versus traditional hymns.

Where Luther did have an issue with the Roman Catholic Church of his day was the practice of the priest receiving bread and wine while the congregants got only bread. “This struck Luther as being elitist,” Brey said. “He insisted that the people receive the wine as well.”

Once he was no longer part of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther changed the way communion was received. “The Great Thanksgiving prayer during Roman Catholic communion stresses that the bread and wine, the body and blood, is a sacrifice unto God,” Brey said. “The Lutheran prayer removes the sacrifice language. Christ is present during communion, but his sacrifice took place in the past.”

Quotes attributed to Luther indicate he had no issue with the use of wine in the sacrament. It is said he once stated that beer causes people to sleep and when they sleep they don’t sin, so drinking beer is considered a good thing. He also supposedly said beer is from man but wine is from God.

Brey said issues with using wine in communion didn’t develop until the prohibition movement in the United States.

Wine is still used in many communion services because churches are trying to be true to the model of what Jesus did. “Jesus drank wine,” Brey said. He added to be truly faithful to the Bible’s accounts of communion, it should be served with a full meal like Passover and the Last Supper.

“It depends on how much you want to stick to the original model versus how much you are willing to adapt to changing something that comes from grapes in the fellowship of Christ,” he said.

Save for his issue with withholding wine from congregants, Brey said Luther held more to the Roman Catholic tradition of observing communion than he did with reformation contemporaries like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. “Luther took quite seriously and literally Jesus’ promise with his fellow reformers over how to read the Last Supper in the Bible,” Brey said. “Zwingli and Calvin took Jesus’ words symbolically: Jesus’ spirit is with us, to be sure, but Jesus’ body is in heaven with God, they argued.”

Brey said Luther thought we should believe in Jesus’ promises, even if we don’t understand them. Therefore, he argued, Jesus’ body was present during communion.

“You could argue that Luther has more in common with the Roman Catholic view of Holy Communion than the Reformed Tradition,” Brey said. “His objection was ‘how’ the Catholics talked about Christ’s body being present. They used terms such as transubstantiation, which required an understanding of Aristotlean philosophy.”

Brey said that struck Luther as being unscriptural.

“The irony, of course, is that Holy Communion is meant to be a celebration of Christian unity and an experience of the presence of Christ,” he said. “But in our hands it has too often become simply another reason for Christians to squabble with each other over who has the best understanding of God's mysteries.”

As Christians of all denominations mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Brey said the most important thing that people on all sides of the event need to understand is God isn’t through with the church and that it continues to change.

Going forward, all Christians need to consider this question, he said: "Where is God calling us today and where does the church need to be reformed today as we move into the 21st century?”