Consecration of the Holy Supper, the Office, and Local Fellowship in Dispersion

by Rev. John A. Frahm III

In his 1533 treatise, “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests,” Luther mentions how Christians in isolation in Turkey are advised to respond to their lack of clergy and their desire for the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood:

And what must the Christians do who are held captive in Turkey? They cannot receive the sacrament and have to be content with their faith and desire which they have for the sacrament and the ordinance of Christ, just as those who die before baptism are nevertheless saved by their faith and desire for baptism. What did the children of Israel do in Babylon when they were unable to have public worship at Jerusalem except in faith and in sincere desire and longing? Therefore, even if the church would have been robbed completely of the sacrament by the pope, still, because the ordinance of Christ remained in their hearts with faith and desire, it would nevertheless have been preserved thereby, as indeed now in our time there are many who outwardly do without the sacrament for they are not willing to honor and strengthen the pope’s abomination under one kind. For Christ’s ordinance and faith are two works of God which are capable of doing anything.[1]

Notice here in this radical situation, nay “emergency,” what Luther does not suggest or improvise.   The further one departs from the institution of Christ, the more doubt creeps into the picture and consequently the certainty and foundation of faith begins to fall away. The solidity of hope in Christ turns into nothing more than a wishful leap into the Deus absconditus (the “dark” unrevealed aspects of God, apart from His Word). Nothing can be more certain than that which is done according to the mandate and institution of Christ.   Faith clings not so much to what could possibly be in the abstract, nor to what we think “God would understand in our circumstances,” but rather to His mandate and institution and the promises therein.  

Luther makes the point in 1533, in “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests” that the reason why he holds to the position on the consecration he does is that all may be certain for faith. The private mass Luther is dealing with are masses performed by Roman priests for money often to release souls from purgatory. They are celebrating masses without the congregation gathered.   Such masses were done where none of the people communed, and the notion of the propitiatory sacrifice of the mass was promote in the Roman church.   The Lord’s Supper was turned into something human beings do rather than something Christ does.  In discussing the private mass, Luther says:

But I have not been commanded to perform the private mass and it is uncertain. In short, as St. Augustine says: Tene certum, dimitte incertum – “Rely on what is certain and abandon what is uncertain.” Yes, I even add, because it is uncertain whether the body and blood of Christ are present in the private mass and because it is certainly a purely human trifle, therefore you should never in your life believe that Christ’s body and blood are present; for faith should be sure of its affairs and have a sure basis concerning which one must not and should not be in doubt.[2]

Luther notes the instrumentality of the called servant:

So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ which make the bread the body and the wine the blood, beginning with the first Lord’s Supper and continuing to the end of the world, and it is administered daily through our ministry or office.[3]

Throughout this treatise Luther deals with the certainty for faith which comes from heeding the institution of Christ.   Previously, in 1527, Luther wrote in his tremendous, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” in summary form:

We know, however, that it is the Lord’s Supper, in name and in reality, not the supper of Christians.   For the Lord not only instituted it, but also prepares and gives it himself, and is himself cook, butler, food, and drink, as we have demonstrated our belief above.   Christ does not say, in commanding and instituting it, “Do this as your summons to mutual recognition and love,” but, “Do this in remembrance of me” [Luke 22:19, I Cor. 11:24].[4]

Perhaps, in part, has explained a Luther preference for referring to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar as ‘the Lord’s Supper,” or the ‘Holy Supper.’    We receive this sacrament, as with all the mysteries of God, as it is given from the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).    The pastor is particularly charged to be the local steward of the mysteries of God, which includes, but is not limited to the Lord’s Supper.    He is steward but does not own it.   He may not do with it as he pleases or as it seems best to him.   As it is given to us from the Lord through the apostles so we deliver it to the Church for her nourishment in the wilderness of this world in the end times.   It would be a foolish, arrogant, and troubling thing to tinker with what the Lord has given even with “missional” motivations of heartfelt origin or vision.  There is no ecclesial bureaucratic license to exception. The Bride of Christ receives what the Bridegroom has provided.  The Lord’s mysteries do not need adjustment for the culture to be relevant or adequate, but the Blessed Sacrament is the medicine of immortality and antidote to death as we confess with the ancient church.

The institution of the means of grace and the office which is charged with divine authority to deliver them for the church is a divine office that is enacted in real flesh and blood men.   The Book of Concord begins the discussion of the office of the holy ministry, with a bridge from Article IV to Article V of the Augsburg Confession. The office of the ministry is established so that such justifying faith in Christ (by grace) may be created, conferred, and sustained through the spoken and sacramental Gospel. The German speaks of the Predigtamt – the preaching office, which implies someone in the office. The Word and Sacraments are confessed as the exclusive salvific, faith-engendering instruments of the Holy Spirit. And then there is the condemnation of the Anabaptists and other schwärmer, who teach that the Holy Spirit works apart from the external Word and sacraments through our own preparations, thoughts, and works.   In the teaching of these fanatics, the working of the Holy Spirit was separated from the external Word and moved to an internal experience, desire, or concept.  The claim to be spiritual does not detour around the apostolic word.

The liturgy is not the “work of the people” as Rome has said, or put in protestant terms, our praise and worship experience for God.   To be sure there is response, but the initiating, primary, divine monergism of the Divine Service is so that everything in the Church, as the Large Catechism says, may be so arranged that we may daily receive the forgiveness of sins.   This is done through the Christ-provided means of grace.   The point of the Divine Service isn’t about “getting people involved” (work of the people, ala Rome, said in a protestant way) but being at the receiving end of all that the Lord desires to give in His particular way in His spoken and sacramental gospel.    So, indeed, as St. Augustine says, for the sake of faith, cling to the certain, and depart from the uncertain.   And the glory of the means of grace is that they are plural.   This blesses us even in situations of pandemic social distancing, travel, or other forms of local separation.    “Behold, I am with you always” at the end of the Great Commission to the apostles is not a separate saying but is indicative of the localized presence of the Lord for them and the Church in the means of grace (“all things I have commanded you”).    As Luther put it succinctly, “If you want to have God, then mark where he resides and where he wants to be found.”[5]   In times of distress it does us no good to try to relocate the Temple from Jerusalem to Mt. Gerizim, or to baptize by a fire hose.   While all baptized Christians are priests by faith, our understanding of the office of the ministry is not primarily priestly (sacrificial) but as ambassadors and householders of the mysteries as spiritual fathers.   The sons of Korah (Numbers 16) thought Moses and Aaron were free to re-allocate the callings of the Lord since all in Israel were holy by His name. 

In the apostolic ministry the teaching and miracles of Jesus continue in the Word preached and the holy sacraments administered (Acts 1:1-5; 1 Corinthians 3:5-11).    When considering the administration of the Lord’s Supper it is not merely that the pastor can broadcast his voice in a “live” setting (over a public address system, television, or internet) but rather is the whole and undivided sacrament administered.   If the intent is to consecrate bread and wine (or grape juice, sic!) over a “livestream” or broadcast to another location with lay administration on the other end.   The one broadcasting a recitation of the verba testamenti cannot “take the bread” or “give it to them” etc where the sacrament is intended to be administered.    It has lost its union or never had it.   It is utterly dubious.   St. Augustine shouts out:   tene certum, dimitte incertum!    The “this do” is violated.    Stewardship is broken.   Faith needs the marks of the church to have divine integrity not human imprimaturs or licensure or pastoral exceptions by authority of personal feelings.   Our first LCMS President, Walther, writes:

The great majority of our theologians, Luther in the forefront, believe that the holy Supper should never be administered privately by one who is not in the public preaching office, by a layman. That is partly because no such necessity can occur with the holy Supper, as with Baptism and Absolution, that would justify a departure from God’s ordinance ( I Cor 4:1; Romans 10:15; Heb 5:4); partly because the holy Supper “is a public confession and so should have a public minister”; partly because schisms can easily be brought about by such private Communion…[6]

On the other end of the livestream or by delegation by pastoral letter, directing the laity to take upon themselves what Luther was unwilling to suggest in 1533 and what the Augsburg Confession denies in Article XIV is schismatic and good old-fashioned fanaticism.    No doubt, one can engage in vision casting over an internet livestream, but dividing what Lord has joined together dislocates the object of faith as the speaker and the bread cannot complete the action.   In Luther’s day the church inherited whispered Words of Institution in a problematic canon of the mass eucharistic prayer.   Now recent ersatz pastoral innovations to adapt to the temporary state of quasi-quarantine, while not done in malice, are ill-conceived, and attach an urgency to a temporary disruption of corporate Divine Services that is incongruous with the typical tangential use of the sacrament in many liturgically loose locales.

Assumed-emergencies, quasi-exiles, and exuberant pastoral desire deliver the gifts by innovation can bring out the pre-existent fractures more dramatically and reveal the need for further study and reflection so that the marks of the church are not compromised and zeal for accomplishing something does not undermine the goal of faith being given certainty in the Word and the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  

The Words of our Lord which used within the institution command “this do” inhabit a context for the mandate to be fulfilled.   With regard to the office of the ministry we ought to bear in mind the fact pointed out earlier, that in “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests” of Luther in 1533, he does not condone or recommend any attempts of “lay consecration” of the Supper but simply recommends for exiled Christians in Turkey to be content, given their situation, with their hunger and thirst for the Sacrament.   The Lutheran fathers, including Chemnitz and Formula of Concord, walked a fine line.   So in their denial that, “No man’s word or work, be it the merit or speaking of the minister,” brings about the real presence is not to deny that the body and blood are, “distributed through our ministry and office” (cf. FC-SD, VII.74-77). Chemnitz states clearly that, “it is with those who are legitimately chosen and called by God through the church, therefore with the ministers to whom the use or administration of the ministry of the Word and the sacraments has been committed.”[7]

The office is not the source of the authority but the means by which Christ serves His people in the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Service. It is “apostolic” in that pastors are called and sent by Christ for the benefit of the church.   They are “your servants for the sake of Christ.”  They have His authority in the mandates He has given the holy office. We may point to Apology XXIV, under the discussion of the term “Mass,” where the liturgy is identified with “the public ministry.”   Even when the “emergency” case is cited from the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, it must be pointed out that this emergency only mentions Baptism and Absolution and not the Holy Supper.  The Lord’s Supper cannot be an emergency need the way Baptism or Absolution can be.   Means of restoration and conversion are not the same as means of sustenance or the “solid food” of faith.

The “action” of the Lord’s Supper, as it is described by the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians is a threefold action of the Supper.   Consecration, distribution and reception are what belongs to the institution. The office bearer consecrates and distributes, all receive. Not only are the body and blood present in the reception, but also in the distribution (according to the Lord’s word), in the thought of the Confessions.   The Formula of Concord summarizes (emphasis added):

In the administration of Communion the words of institution are to be spoken or sung distinctly and clearly before the congregation and are under no circumstances to be omitted. Thereby we render obedience to the command of Christ, ‘This do.’ Thereby the faith of the hearers in the essence and benefits of this sacrament (the presence of the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and all the benefits which Christ has won for us by his death and the shedding of his blood and which he give to us in his testament) is awakened, strengthened and confirmed through his Word. And thereby the elements of bread and wine are hallowed or blessed in this holy use, so that therewith the body and blood of Christ are distributed to us to eat and to drink, as Paul says, “The cup of blessing which we bless,” which happens precisely through the repetition and recitation of the words of institution.

The Words of Institution “are under no circumstances to be omitted.” More than this they are to be spoken or sung “clearly and distinctly before the people.” Through this, the bread and the wine are consecrated. Hence in the understanding of Formula of Concord-Solid Declaration VII and the Large Catechism, the Words of Institution are said simultaneously over the elements and before the people.  Does a livestream do this?   Let’s cling to the certain and depart from uncertain.   Let’s not in times of crisis, when faith is tried, further introduce doubt or shadows on the object of faith.  Let’s avoid the edge of the cliff, the shadows, the lay ministry, the grape juice, the video communion, the postal delivery, the coffee creamer hermetically sealed elements, etc.   Cling to what is certain and depart from what is uncertain.   Be stewards of the mysteries of God, be a brave and steadfast spiritual father.

In such unusual times as a pandemic we rejoice in the manifold instruments that the Lord has given to bestow forgiveness, life, and salvation, by the work the Holy Spirit.   The reading of Scripture does not require an emergency circumstance for its verbal delivery in , as Luther admonishes the head of the household (hausvater) to teach the Small Catechism in his home, which includes the use of Scripture.  The royal priesthood of baptized believers in Christ and the pastoral office each have their realm of service and duties.   We appreciate each best when we receive them as the Lord uniquely gave each one rather than in terms of comparisons or even in terms of lists of functions.    The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus is a great resource in times of exile, temporary separation, and waiting upon the Lord.   It is also an opportunity to recover our devotional use of Scripture, rejoice in our Baptism, and speak words of forgiveness to one another in our households.    Even when we go through a period of not communing, we have been sent forth from the altar to our homes to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” to one another.  


[1] “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests” (Luther’s Works, AE:38; p.207).

[2] “The Private Mass…”, p.163

[3] “The Private Mass…”, p.199

[4] “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics” (Luther’s Works, AE:37, p.142).

[5] Sermon on John 6:51, Luther’s Works AE: 23, p.121

[6] C.F.W. Walther. Pastoral Theology. Trans. John M. Drickamer. (New Haven: Lutheran News Inc, 1995); p.134  

[7] Martin Chemnitz.  Examination of the Council of Trent: Volume II, p.97

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