Rev. James Woelmer
Rev. Kenneth Wieting wrote a book titled "The Blessings of Weekly Communion." It was published in 2006 by Concordia Publishing House. In this book, he outlines the usage of Holy Communion throughout Christianity all the way from the early church to our modern day.
His thesis is that the normal practice in the Church from the beginning was to have sermon and supper together every Lord's Day. He states that the center of life for the Christian was clearly the weekly gathering to hear the preached Word and to receive the Sacrament of the Altar.
In this paper I will give you a short summary of his book. Much of what is written here has been taken directly from his book.
The Lord's Supper after Pentecost
Following Pentecost, we learn that the Church “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). From this verse, we see a brief description of the religious life of the first Christian congregation. The Greek word for “devoted” means a persistent and faithful devotion in something. The Church was not only devoted to the preaching of God's Word “the apostle's teaching or doctrine” but they were equally devoted to the Lord's Supper (the breaking of bread).
At the heart of the early Christian's fellowship with God and with one another was this treasure of Word and Sacrament. The preaching of the apostles and the reception of Christ's body and blood went hand and hand. The early church always had sermon and supper together. The Lord's Supper is the climax of the sermon. The two go hand in hand.
There is another gathering for worship described in the Acts of the Apostles that bears witness to this same order of Word and Sacrament. Acts 20:7–11 tells us that the Church at Troas gathered together on a Sunday. The description begins, “And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread …” (Acts 20:7). The clear indication is that the celebration of the Lord's Supper was done on a Sunday — the first day of the week.
Around AD 55, about two decades after the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). The Words of Institution recorded in 1 Corinthians 11 is in perfect harmony with Jesus' words at the Last Supper. The gift Jesus gave in the upper room is the same gift Paul had received from the Lord and was also delivered to the Church at Corinth.
When the people of Corinth gathered together for worship, the Lord's Supper was the norm. Their gathering was to be for eating the sacred meal. So, when abuses altered that purpose, Paul wrote to correct the matter so that the Lord's Supper be restored to the place our Lord intended for it in the worship of His people.
The problem that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 11 was that, when the believers gathered together, their shared meal beforehand had become their high priority rather than the Lord's Supper. Although the Sacrament was celebrated, it had become a secondary thing. Saint Paul writes, “When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:20). The apostle not only condemns them, but he also implies that the purpose for coming together should be to eat the Lord's Supper.
The Lord's Supper in the Early Church and during the Middle Ages
The Didache (Di–dah–kay) was an instruction manual that was intended for those desiring to be baptized. Scholars date it as early as AD 40 or as late as AD 70. This document gives us a picture of how the early church worshiped. In chapter 14, the Didache briefly describes Sunday worship in this way: “On the Lord's day, His special day, come together and break bread and give thanks.” It is of great significance that the Didache, in its description of Sunday worship, puts the Lord's Supper at the center of worship.
In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote a document called the First Apology. This document was written to the Roman authorities to show them that there was nothing about Christian faith and worship that should cause the state to persecute Christians. The First Apology describes worship in the Church at Rome as a Sunday morning gathering which included readings, a sermon, prayers, and Holy Communion. The focus is clearly on the Sunday service that culminates in the Lord's Supper.
Persecution was extremely severe in the third century. Emperor Decius required that everyone in the empire receive a certificate from an official, witnessing that the person had sacrificed to the emperor. Before Cyprian died as a martyr he wrote: “We must equip those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary with the armor of the Lord's food.” His letter expresses how Christians should be strengthened by the Sacrament for suffering in times of persecution. The letter goes on to make the correlation between the cup of martyrdom and the cup of the Lord in Holy Communion.
After Constantine came to power in the fourth century and was converted to Christianity, persecution ceased. Christianity now became the state religion of the Roman Empire. All the orders of worship that we have received from this time period contain both the service of the Word and the service of the Sacrament. There is no record of a Sunday morning non–communion order of worship.
While Gregory the Great was pope (AD 590–604), he introduced many positive things. However, significant harmful errors also entered the life of the Church such as the offering up unto God the Body of Christ (i.e. the sacrifice of the Mass) and the celebration of private Masses. Masses were said for special needs, for every kind of trouble, or to help the souls of the dead. Instead of pressing their pastors to serve them the Lord's Supper each week for the forgiveness of sins, the laity paid the priests to perform an act believed to have power over some need in life or some relative or friend in death. This, of course, is not the nature of the gift that Christ gave His Church nor what the Church celebrated and received in the first centuries after Pentecost.
Because of these abuses, the reception of Communion by laypeople dropped to approximately three times a year at the beginning of the Middle Ages to only once a year after the thirteenth century. The decline in lay participation must be laid directly at the feet of the incorrect teaching and harmful practices that were at work.
The single service of Word and Sacrament by which the risen Christ came weekly to teach and feed His gathered Church had not been clearly proclaimed or widely received during the Middle Ages. Such clear proclamation was soon to be heard again as God moved Martin Luther in the recovery of understanding the sum and substance of the Gospel.
The Lord's Supper during the Reformation
From 1522 to 1530, more essays flowed from the pen of Luther on the Lord's Supper than on any other single topic. Next to justification, the Lord's Supper is the theme Luther wrote about most. First, he made clear that the Mass (i.e. the celebration of Holy Communion) was not a sacrifice offered to God.
When Luther published an order for worship, he removed those sections of the liturgy that emphasized sacrifice. He also emphasized the Words of Institution as a Gospel proclamation. His changes clarified that the direction of the Sacrament was from God to us as a gift. There was a rediscovery of the purpose for which the risen Christ comes into the midst of His gathered people — to teach them and to feed them, to forgive them and give them life, to comfort them and give them rest, to strengthen them and give them peace.
The second battle front that Luther confronted regarding the Lord's Supper was the false teaching by Zwingli and others who believed in a representative or figurative view of the Lord's Supper. In effect, they taught that the words in Jesus' words “This is My body” really meant “signifies.” Under Zwingli's teaching, the Lord's Supper is therefore not the Lord's act, but something Christians do to obey Christ or to remember Him.
Christ, who comes into the midst of His gathered people, is not limited to time and space. He is both God and man in one person, and he can do what His Word says. For Luther, there should be no tampering with His words “This is My body.”
Some pastors in Nurnberg objected to celebrating the Lord's Supper once or twice on Sundays. In 1528,Luther writes to them saying, “First, that all masses without communicants should be completely abolished. Second, that one or two masses should be celebrated on Sundays or on the days of the saints in the two parish churches. Third, during the week mass should be celebrated on whatever day there is a need for it, that is, if there are some communicants present who ask for it and desire it. In this way, no one would be forced to come to the Sacrament, and yet everyone would be served [with the Sacrament] in an orderly and sufficient way” (Luther's Works 49:206). Luther made it clear that pastors were to administer the Lord's Supper when the Church gathered on Sunday.
In the introduction to the Small Catechism, Luther writes, “Our preaching should…be such that of their own accord and without our command, people will desire the Sacrament and, as it were, press us pastors to administer it to them…. For Christ did not say, “Omit this” or “despise this”, but “This do, as often as you drink it,” etc. He most certainly wants it done and does not want it left undone and despised. “This do”…only emphasizes clearly the benefit, need, usefulness, and blessing connected with the Sacrament, and also the harm and danger of neglecting it.” So, the weekly opportunity to commune was central to the reforms Luther made as he sought to return to the worship practice of the Scriptures and the early church.
In answer to the Roman charge that Lutherans had abandoned the Christian faith and sacraments, Philip Melanchthon writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the Sacrament is offered to those who wish for it” (Apology p. XXIV).
The Lord's Supper after Luther's death — the Seventeenth and Eighteenth century
Immediately following Luther's death, there was pressure to compromise the true confession. The chief cause for the disintegration of the Lutheran Church was the failure on the part of its people and leaders to cling to the pure doctrine as proclaimed by Luther. One area of compromise was on the Lord's Supper. Many Lutherans held to a spiritualizing interpretation of the Lord's Supper. They denied the straightforward meaning of Jesus' words “This is My body.” As a result, many were not interested in receiving the Lord's Supper. So, some parishes decreased from the weekly schedule of offering the Sacrament to a more occasional practice. In other words, the opportunity to receive was adjusted downward.
In the seventeenth century, a religious movement became prominent that called for personal piety (godliness) and spiritual discipline. These are not bad emphases. This religious movement, called Pietism, did not abandon Scripture. Rather, the Pietists emphasized reading and discussing the Bible. The spiritual danger of this movement, however, was that the pursuit of piety was given predominance over the pursuit of revealed truth. There was an emphasis on a personally meaningful relationship of the individual to God and a pressure toward perfection. Emotions ruled. Sermons were practical, focusing more on the ethical than the theological and were often legalistic. There was liturgical deterioration as the influence of Pietism increased. There was not the anchored–in–Scripture faith of Luther, nor was there a focus on Word and Sacrament as was practiced in the early church.
Some Pietists saw baptism and the Lord's Supper only as ceremonies and signs. Others saw them as mere natural things when piety was not present. The Lord's Supper was celebrated less frequently and was given less emphasis in preaching. The hymns and preaching directed the hearers inward to find in themselves the genuine marks of a true conversion to God. The general focus of Pietism that favored a subjective or internal test of religious truth did not direct the focus to the objective, external gifts of God delivered in the Lord's Supper for us and for the forgiveness of sins.
Adding to this swell of deterioration in Word and Sacrament worship was the rise of Rationalism. Here, reason became a tyrant. Here, the Church became a lecture hall. Here, human reason gained the upper hand over revelation. Here, was indifference to the Church's past. Here, religion was reduced to a system of ethics and common sense.
Pietism and Rationalism directly affected the worship of the Church in Europe immediately before the immigration to North America. These two movements blossomed in the eighteenth century. The thing that they had in common was a decreased value placed on doctrine and the Lord's Supper. The presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament was de–emphasized in favor of internal or subjective religion. There was a deterioration in Word and Sacrament worship. Hermann Sasse described this eighteenth entury deterioration in Europe as the “Supper crisis” or “the dying of the Sacrament”. He also noted from church records that there was a drastic drop in Communion attendance.
The Lord's Supper in the Nineteenth Century
Because of the effects of Pietism and Rationalism, doctrinal indifference was quite common. There was the goal of uniting all Christian denominations through compromising doctrine.
So, in 1817, the Prussion king declared a voluntary union of the Reformed and Lutheran churches in Potsdam (later known as the Prussion Union). He encouraged the people to put away their Lutheran and Reformed liturgies and use a new one. He wanted pulpit and altar fellowship, the sharing of preachers and communion altars between the Reformed and Lutherans. Later, this voluntary portion of this proposed union was replaced with mandates. The Words of Institution in these liturgies was compromised. The addition of the phrase “Our Lord Jesus Christ says…" allowed each communicant to make his own interpretation of Christ's presence in the Sacrament.
Confessional Lutherans who continued to use Lutheran orders of worship saw their pastors suspended and imprisoned and their property seized. Laity who refused to cooperate with the union had their homes confiscated and sold by the government. Troops were used to force compliance with the king's wishes. Unionism was considered loyalty to the king and an expression of German patriotism.
However, there was also a faithfulness to our Lutheran Confessions in Germany at this time. One proponent was Wilhelm Loehe, a Lutheran pastor in Bavaria. The Church was the center of Loehe's thought, and for him the Sacrament of the Altar was the center of the Church. He taught that the sermon leads to the Lord's Supper “as to the innermost mysterious connection of Christians to their Christ.”
C.F.W. Walther had also developed his confessional convictions in Germany. He arrived in the United States as part of the 1839 Saxon immigration. This immigration had been sparked by a desire to escape the pressures of Rationalism and the Prussion Union.
In the early history of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), there was frequent Communion in a few of the founding congregations. For example, the Lutheran church in Frankenmuth, Michigan celebrated the Lord's Supper every Sunday in the 1880's. Churches in the St. Louis area celebrated the Lord's Supper every second week. It is important to note that this would not have been true in the majority of situations in the LCMS because of pastoral shortages, multiple parishes over considerable distances in frontier conditions, and the pietistic and rationalistic attitudes inherited from Europe.
The Lord's Supper in the Twentieth Century to the present
In the twentieth century, most Lutheran congregations offered Communion four to six times a year. In the 1950's and 1960's, monthly Communion was the prevalent practice. By the end of the twentieth century, most LCMS congregations were offering the Lord's Supper two weeks of the month. Thus, the trend has been to increase the frequency of the celebration of the Sacrament.
In 1995, the LCMS in convention adopted Resolution 2–08A, “To Encourage Every Sunday Communion.” Rev. David Schoessow, in a 1998 article in Concordia Journal, wrote about the scriptural, historical, and the Lutheran view of every Sunday Communion. The former LCMS President A.L. Barry stated in his 2000 pamphlet What About the Sacrament of the Altar: “We receive the Lord's Supper often because of how much we need what the Lord gives in His Supper. We dare never make a law about how often an individual ‘should’ or ‘must’ receive the Lord's Supper. But this is a separate question from how frequently Holy Communion is offered in our congregations.” Dr. Barry goes on to state: “Our Lutheran Confessions make it clear that the Lord's Supper is offered every Lord's Day and on other days when there are communicants present (AC XXIV.34 and Ap. XXIV.1).”
Dr. Barry makes a good point in that the Lord's Supper is the Gospel, not the Law. In fact, as Luther said, it is the sum and substance of the Gospel! No pastor should advocate that people be made to commune. But a layperson should not be denied the opportunity to commune when they come for regular weekly worship.
In 1995, Rev. Kenneth Wieting conducted a survey of all pastors in the LCMS. The survey was designed to learn about the current practices, trends, and attitudes within Synod concerning the frequency of celebration of the Lord's Supper. A total number of 2,494 responses were tabulated from pastors serving in parish settings (i.e. more than 48 percent of the total parish pastors at that time). Almost 20 percent indicated that the Lord's Supper was made available in each weekly Divine Service. Many of these pastors said that this practice had taken place in the previous five years. Another 16 percent indicated that the Lord's Supper was available each week in the parish they serve but at alternating services. The largest number of pastors, 46 percent, indicated a celebration of the Lord's Supper twice monthly. Only 2.3 percent responded that Holy Communion was offered just once a month. The survey also indicated that 20 percent of the pastors were studying the Sacrament with their congregations with the hope of leading them to recover weekly Communion.
The survey also revealed that there are four chief concerns anticipated by pastors as barriers to recovering weekly Communion.
(1) The first concern is that the Sacrament will become too common. It is true that too much of a good thing quickly becomes wearisome. But the Lord's Supper is no ordinary “good thing”. It is the body and blood of our Lord. It is heavenly food that is every bit as holy and healing as God's holy Word. What would you think if someone argued that we should not have a sermon each week because it would become too common? The problem with abuse or treating the Lord's Supper in a common way lies in our sinful hearts, not in the availability of the gift.
(2) The second major concern is that the Sacrament will take too much time. There are a number of factors that squeeze the clock. Time is like money in our day — valuable and in short supply. Someone has said that in our hurried, over committed, hyperactive age, time is the new currency. There are extra and unnecessary things that sometimes squeeze their way into the service. But in view of the time we spend at our children's sports or music events, the time we spend reading the paper, the time we spend watching a movie or television, and the time we spend for ourselves and others, is the real problem an additional fifteen minutes on Sunday morning? Of all the food in the world, only our Lord's body and blood can refresh our souls and prepare our bodies for the resurrection of all flesh.
(3) The third greatest concern was the lack of understanding of the scriptural and historical witness for every Sunday Communion. For this, the best remedy is for pastors to patiently teach. Sensitivity and patience in teaching is needed, but so is serious purpose and persistence.
(4) The fourth concern is that occasional Communion is considered the Lutheran tradition. A careful look at the Lutheran Confessions along with the teachings and writings of Luther will help alleviate this concern. Pastors that served in the past should not be scolded because they did not teach and recover weekly Communion. They had their own battles to fight. Let us not find fault with the service of others. But it must be said that the early church as well as the Lutheran reformers always emphasized Word and Sacrament in regular weekly worship.
There are other concerns as well. But again, when we understand the gift that is given and that the Lord's Supper is the sum and substance of the Gospel, then we should seek ways to overcome concerns and give people the opportunity to commune. When we recognize the great gift given in the Lord's Supper, then nothing should prevent our reception of it. No pastor should advocate that people be made to commune. But a layperson should not be denied the opportunity to commune when they come for regular weekly worship.
Because of our sin, we are in constant need of receiving God's forgiveness. In this heavenly meal, the risen Christ is truly present to feed us His very body and blood and to forgive us. We can hear the Gospel through preaching, but we can also receive this Gospel in visible form — through bread and wine giving us the body and blood of our Lord.
Luther says in the Small Catechism that the chief benefit of this sacrament is the forgiveness of sins. He writes, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” He also writes in the Large Catechism, “In this sacrament [Christ] offers all the treasure he brought from heaven for us, to which he most graciously invites us…” He also writes, “We must never regard the Sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body.”
In this gift, the Lord of the Church comes to His holy bride to feed her the Bread of Life. Here, the Good Shepherd comes to restore the souls of His sheep. In the face of temptations and trials that face us each week, in sickness and suffering, amid pressures and pain, facing disappointment and death in this sinful world, the risen Christ comes into our midst with pure, wholesome, soothing medicine. From the altar, He gives us food for our journey to heaven.
The Sacrament of the Altar is not a footnote in an article, but the Holy Supper is the Church's heartbeat. Along with the preached Gospel, it is what keeps the Church alive. The Scriptures place the Lord's Supper at the center of worship and not as an appendage.
It must be clear that the normal practice in the Church was to have Word and meal during Sunday worship. They were never separated. The Lord's Supper is the climax of the sermon. The two go hand in hand. They complement each other. During the Divine Service, there is one meal with two servings. The Word is given to us and our Lord's body and blood are given to us as well. Again, one meal in two servings. Word and Sacrament is how our Lord feeds us His dear lambs.
May our Lord keep us faithful in hearing and receiving His most precious Gospel for the sake of saving faith in Christ.