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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Corpus Christi 6/7/2015

Before we settle into the green “Sundays after Pentecost” season that will take us through the summer and deep into fall, today we observe this Second Sunday after Pentecost as the Feast of Corpus Christi, not the city in Texas but Corpus Christi translated from Latin means the Body of Christ, so it’s the Feast of the Body of Christ. It’s a day that dates back to the 1200’s and is intended to celebrate the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion; it’s a day that is still part of the Catholic liturgical calendar and in some places is a pretty big deal. In the earliest years of the Lutheran church, the last part of the 1500’s, the day also continued to be observed but, in large part because Martin Luther was adamantly opposed to it, the Feast of Corpus Christi was pretty much dropped in Lutheran churches by the year 1600 although references to it can still be found.

It should be said though, that Luther obviously had nothing against the sacrament of Holy Communion; for him it was always central to worship. He also believed that Christ was truly present in the sacrament although he stopped short of affirming transubstantiation, the teaching that says that following consecration the bread and wine of Holy Communion are no longer bread and wine but they become the real flesh and blood of Jesus. Luther believed that it was still bread and wine but that Christ was truly present not just spiritually but physically and that continues to be the accepted Lutheran understanding of things.

Luther’s problem with the Feast of Corpus Christi was that it became associated with processions involving the display and adoration of the communion elements with participation in such processions understood as another way to earn merit, to earn your way to salvation and any such suggestion always tended to get Luther’s shorts in a bunch perhaps causing him to over react thus losing sight of what might be good about a particular practice or observance. That may be what happened in this case.

Taking all of that into consideration I decided to observe today as Corpus Christi Sunday, this year anyway, because Holy Communion is central to our worship. As evidenced by the letters of Paul, the celebration of Holy Communion has been central to Christian worship from the very beginning, or at least it was supposed to be. However, also evidenced by Paul’s letters is the fact that from the beginning, Holy Communion has been a source of controversy.

That’s what’s going on as Paul writes to the Corinthians. At that time, worship and the celebration of Holy Communion took place in house churches as part of a larger meal, but in the verses just before today’s reading Paul addresses the fact that the Corinthian Christians, especially the wealthy Corinthian Christians, were gathering more for that larger meal, more to eat and get drunk rather than gathering to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a manner consistent with the tradition handed down to them. To translate that into our context you might say that it’s as if a church was more concerned about coffee hour than they were about worship and, on top of that, they weren’t being very good at sharing. Those of lower status were just getting the crumbs.

What Paul then does is to review “the tradition that was handed down” using words that are familiar to us as they are essentially the words of institution that are part of every celebration of Holy Communion. What is interesting though, is that Paul was not particularly concerned with a theology of the Lord’s Supper other than it being an expression of unity among believers. Unity was his focus and it’s interesting because it seems that from the beginning Holy Communion has been a cause for division among Christians, rather than being an expression of unity.

Starting with Paul, the list of issues causing disunity is long, but, for example, in his time, Luther got into nasty arguments concerning Christ’s real presence in the elements of bread and wine vs. other reformers who said that it was all merely symbolic, just a remembrance, after all we say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” to which Luther might respond, “We also say, this is my body; this is my blood.” Related to that is the real presence vs. transubstantiation debate referenced earlier; do the elements actually become Christ’s body and blood or are they still bread and wine? That leads into the question of who is worthy to receive the sacrament; does there have to be agreement on all of this as well as on other points of doctrine for one to be eligible to receive? Some churches say yes, others say no, another example of disunity and there’s more.

Perhaps more familiar to us, in many Lutheran churches, including this one I am told, there was at least some, maybe a lot of controversy when the frequency of communion was changed from once a month, maybe first to twice a month, then to every week. The age at which one can receive Holy Communion has changed several times as well and is still a point of disagreement even with the official church policy that says that baptism is the prerequisite, regardless of age, but even baptism as a prerequisite is questioned by some; should anyone be turned away? Would Jesus turn anyone away? I could go on, but you get the idea; there are points of disunity all over the place.

Going back to Paul, I don’t think we really know what he thought about any of these questions as he didn’t really address them. His concern was that the focus of the supper should be on the Lord and that faith in the Lord is where unity should be found. I suspect that if Paul were writing to churches today he would be pretty disappointed with so much division in the church being centered, at least in part, on different understandings of the nature of Holy Communion thus taking this ritual that has been handed down to us, this ritual that is central to who we are as Christians, taking it and making it a point of conflict.

In instituting the sacrament Jesus didn’t do a lot of explaining either; he broke the bread and passed the cup and said “Do this,” because he knew the power of ritual and symbolic action. I sometimes think Luther was wrong to get into arguments with those who said the sacrament was merely symbolic, or maybe it’s the word merely that I take exception to. Symbols are not “merely;” symbols are powerful; they provide profound meaning, deep meaning. They provide orientation in what can be a confusing world.

Jesus knew that; as he and the disciples gathered for that Last Supper, Jesus knew that his earthly time with them was almost over. But he also knew that through the power of symbol and ritual he could and would continue to really be present with them. He knew that as his followers participated in this simple sharing of bread and wine, he would be present to them as the “Bread of Life” that they needed. Such symbolic actions though have to be experienced; they’re not about theory and explanation. Through repeated use they grow in meaning, triggering feelings and emotions that can’t be rationally explained and with that repeated use the truth of the symbol is made real.

When I was at seminary one side of the chapel had clear glass windows that looked out into the courtyard; since then they’ve renovated the building so the chapel now has clear glass that looks out onto 55th Street. 55th Street is a busy Chicago street so when you’re in chapel you see lots of cars going by and people walking past and even when the windows faced the courtyard people from the neighborhood would walk by using the courtyard as a cut through so either way being in chapel had a fish bowl feel to it.

It makes you wonder though, or at least it made me wonder, what someone would think if they walked by when Holy Communion was being celebrated if they knew nothing about Christian practice. You think about what we do here as people come forward around the altar, most kneel, some stand as they receive a little piece of bread and a small sip of wine. The uninitiated might think, if it’s snack time, they could do better than that. But it’s not snack time. It’s a time of profound meaning and mystery, maybe not every time you receive it, but at least some of the time. For those who worship regularly, it’s something that you miss if you attend a church where communion isn’t celebrated because as you gather around the altar you do sense the real presence of Christ and the forgiveness he represents. You can’t explain it, but you know it’s real and that’s the power of symbol.

As always though, but especially today as we observe this day as the Feast of Corpus Christi, the most important thing is not that we talk about the sacrament and what it means, but that we follow the command of Jesus and “Do this!”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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