Communion During COVID-19

When the order to stay home happened in March, I assumed we would only be out of church for a week or two. When April arrived, I remember thinking, “Oh well, no communion this month…” But then the weeks turned into months and suddenly, it was three months without communion!

Now for some people this wouldn’t be a problem. But for me, as a United Methodist, I started to feel a certain anguish. “The body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.” I missed hearing these words and receiving the elements!

In the United Methodist Church, when we celebrate communion, we are not only commemorating the death of our Lord and obeying His command to “Do this in remembrance of me;” we are experiencing a means of grace. Any action or practice that brings us closer to God (like reading our Bibles, praying alone or with others, going to worship, and talking about our faith) is a means of grace; an opportunity to encounter the presence of the risen Christ.

If we can experience this presence every time we take communion, who wouldn’t want to do that on the regular? That’s why John Wesley, the 18th century Anglican priest who founded the Methodist movement, encouraged his followers to take the sacrament as frequently as possible. Which brings us back to the challenge of celebrating communion outside of live worship.

“Orthodoxy” (right belief) and “orthopraxy” (right practice) dictate that communion be celebrated with consecrated elements within the context of the gathered community. During live worship, the “celebrant” (pastor who presides over communion) consecrates the elements (prays over them) before they are distributed to the congregation. In the case of homebound persons, those in hospitals, or those in long-term care, the “gathered community” (as few as two people) can still receive the sacrament as long as the elements have previously been consecrated. But when folks are worshiping online in their homes, how can the elements be consecrated? How can there be a gathered community for someone who lives alone? How can this be orthodox?

This is where we found ourselves at the end of May – between a rock and a hard place. We knew that the Lord commands that we celebrate the sacrament. We sensed that our spirits were hungry for the presence of Christ. And yet distanced and isolated in our homes, how could we celebrate communion together?

This “wrestling” led to a conversation among our pastors about the possibility of serving communion online. As I thought about where I stood on this question, I began to reflect on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…” If the wind blows where it chooses, who am I or anyone to say that the Spirit does not consecrate the elements online? I asked myself, “Am I going to be so bold as to claim that the Holy Spirit will not move under certain circumstance? Am I going to be so rigid as to insist that the sacrament can only be offered in the context of a live worship service?” Absolutely not! The wind blows where it chooses! I made a conscious decision to trust that as we celebrated communion “together” – alone or as a family in our separate homes – the Lord’s presence would be among us.

And so, I took action. First, I celebrated communion through zoom with one of my Bible study classes. Then I celebrated it through Zoom with the Chancel Choir. Seeing the faces of the people on my computer screen, openly weeping as they took the bread and the cup, there was no way I could doubt that the presence of the risen Christ was indeed among us!

I don’t know if and when other pastors began celebrating the sacrament in their own small group settings, but the Sanctuary worship team decided to extend the table to everyone watching our services online beginning in June. We encouraged families to create an altar in their homes. We invited them to use what elements they already had on-hand – anything that resembled “bread” and the “cup.” And we shared ideas and recipes for baking their own communion bread.

My belief is that the experience of gathering around our home-made altars, listening to the words that are spoken and the prayers that are prayed as the elements were consecrated online, and passing the “bread” and the “cup” to one another (or alone) has deeply formed us both individually and as a faith community. That is my experience and my prayer.

Tammy Heinrich
Pastor, Outreach and Worship Ministry