Online Communion

Recently, an “unofficial” group of United Methodist theologians, bishops, church agency executives and pastors discussed the possibility of offering communion over the Internet. Even though the group was made up of people on both sides of the discussion, the majority of the group decided that communion should be experienced in a space that is shared physically. In other words, they don’t think you should bless the elements online.

The argument was simple: “communion must involve the physical sharing of the consecrated elements.” and “a pastor visiting a shut-in with consecrated bread and cup is fine. But that pastor mailing the same elements goes against the traditional understanding of the sacred feast.”

I have to be honest. This makes sense. It seems logical that in sharing the body and blood of Christ we would need to be in the room together—whether that is the whole congregation or members sharing it with the shut-ins. It would seem logical and only reasonable to share it physically with each other. I agree, except for two problems I have with it.  

 First, so many modern Christians place an unusual amount of focus on the “community” part of communion. I remember sitting down with some Christian friends who argued passionately that the real point behind communion was not the miracle of God showing up in a unique way, but in the practice of breaking bread together. In fact, for them, there was nothing sacramental about communion other than the beautiful esthetic of sharing a common meal. It was the community that made it special. I sense some of this thought behind limiting it to a physical space. I fear that reducing communion to a physical space supports a modern, anti-supernatural perspective of communion.

Second, I am forced to think about the miraculous works of Jesus and the importance of physical touch in the Gospels. Jesus would lay hands on people, use mud spread on their eyes to give sight, and when a women touched him, he could sense the power leaving. Nearly every time he heals someone, it involved sharing a physical space and physical touch. Touch was important to the ministry of Jesus.

The same could be said with the Lord’s Supper. They shared a table, and broke bread with one another. So in a sense, it only seems logical to insist on this model in our churches.

Except, lodged in the Gospel is a story of a Centurion’s faith (Matthew 8:5-13). What I love about this story is that the Centurion doesn’t follow the rules of religious behavior. He comes up to Jesus with a problem he needs fixed. The Centurion has a servant that is paralyzed and he believes Jesus can heal him. So Jesus, as would only be logical and acceptable, agrees to go to his house. The appropriate response would be to welcome him in and show hospitality. But here is where the Centurion breaks the norm. He tells Jesus that he understands how real power works. The Centurion has a lot of people under his control. He tells them what to do and it’s done. He certainly doesn’t have to watch over everything that happens in his squadron. Thus he concludes: “Jesus, just heal my servant from where you stand; no need to bother yourself going to my house.”

I feel like modern Methodists would have Jesus say: “Oh, but I must go to your house because the real healing is in the physical embrace and the sharing of space.” No! The real healing is not in the embrace. The servant was paralyzed. He wanted to be healed. He needed a supernatural work of God in his life. It’s not about community. It’s about being able to walk. Let’s not overcomplicate it.

Thankfully, this is in line with the response that Jesus offers. Jesus doesn’t argue or chide him for not inviting him in. Instead, Jesus praises the Centurion. He says: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith…. Go, let it be done as you have believed it would.”

Really? No one had faith like this guy?

What if communion wasn’t about “community” as much as it was about the miraculous healing we encounter when we partake of Jesus’ blood and body? We are spiritually paralyzed. We want to be healed. We need a supernatural work of God in our life.

I wonder what would happen if we asked Jesus to show up in the elements of someone on the other side of a computer screen? Would Jesus argue with us and insist it be in person? Or would Jesus respond like he did with the Centurion: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in the UMC with such great faith…”

What is our goal in communion? Community; physical touch; sharing space?

I think those are noble things that should be expected as the standard. But, I think the greater purpose is in the miracle of the sacrament. Christ meets us where we are. Sadly, there are few like the Centurion who are willing to believe that Christ is more than a warm embrace.

Let’s not limit God’s power. If God can heal from a distance, God’s people can share in the miracle of communion from a distance. Let’s not overcomplicate it.


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