1 Corinthians 11:23-26
During the first four months of 1517, Johann Tetzel preached his message of indulgences all around Martin Luther’s home of Wittenberg. Hearing statements like “When the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory” (27) convinced Luther’s parishioners to give money to buy their dead relatives into heaven. While Luther had already begun to question the practice of selling indulgences, the claims of the indulgence preachers led him to further study. As a result he drafted his list of 95 Theses challenging the practice and posted them on the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517. While he wrote them in Latin for academic debate, someone took them and printed them in German making them available for a larger and popular audience. What concerned Luther about the practice of selling indulgences? Salvation became portrayed as something that could be purchased or earned. On a practical note, Luther said “Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.” (46) Four years later, on April 16, 1521, Luther was entering Worms called to recant his writings. He replied that he could not reject his teachings unless shown by Scripture that his opinions were in error.
During the years from Wittenberg to Worms, Luther focused his attack on another significant practice of the church, the Mass or the church service celebrating the Eucharist [Communion or the Lord’s Supper]. In the years following Worms, Luther instituted major changes in the Mass as he prepared first a revised Latin Mass, then a German Mass. He focused his revisions on the liturgy of the Eucharist. As with indulgences, Luther objected to the teaching that human action, in this case the prayers of a priest, made salvation possible. Luther’s understanding of the meaning of the words of Christ in I Corinthians 11:23-26 proved to be the key issue.
Luther objected to the liturgy of the Eucharist called the canon of the mass where the priest consecrated the bread and wine. Why did Luther view the Mass as leading to works righteousness?
In the offertory and following prayers, the priest prayed for the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. As Christ’s actual body and blood, Christ again became a sacrifice for the sins of those in attendance. So, in the Eucharist the priest offered Christ to the Father for the salvation of those who partook of the bread and cup.
Extreme practices resulted from viewing the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. One, they had to be handled in a special way. For example, some priests only offered the bread to the laity and withheld the cup of wine so that none of the blood would be spilt. Based upon the scripture narrative Luther argued for the laity to receive both bread and cup. Moreover, the church teaching that stipulated benefits could apply to those in purgatory led to the practice where people paid to have masses said for their own spiritual condition or for those who had already died. These private masses only had the officiating priest in attendance. This practice multiplied as people sought salvation and the church realized monetary gain. How much money would it take to perform a worship service in a room empty of people? The endowment of masses became a major source of revenue.
Luther removed the offertory prayers and any part of the canon of the mass that supported the concept of the mass as a sacrifice. He left the words of institution that we find in our lectionary scripture for today. The living word of Christ and the written word of Scripture became the foundation of faith and practice. For Luther, the key to understanding these words lay in their basic meaning as a testament, the last testament or promise of someone dying. At the last supper Christ promised that his death and resurrection would result in the forgiveness of our sins.
Contrary to viewing the Eucharist as the priest making a sacrifice of Christ to the Father, the sacrament received by the laity became the sign of Christ’s spoken promise of the forgiveness of sins. By faith the laity received the grace Christ had promised through his death and resurrection. Luther admonished that one must be in attendance to receive the grace because personal faith was the one condition for the gift. He wrote that one must stand on his or her own feet. Again, in his words of institution Christ promised that his death made possible the forgiveness of sins. We have faith in the words of his promise that his death was for our sins. Instead of the priest offering Christ as a sacrifice to the Father, the pastor and laity offer themselves as a sacrifice to the Father and each other. Luther also retained the “elevation of the host.” Seeing the lifted host reminded the laity of God’s promise of forgiveness and provoked the believer to faith.
Different understandings of the words of institution have brought divisions to Christianity instead of unity. Catholics viewed the elements as becoming the actual body and blood of Christ. Luther understood the presence of Christ would be under the elements. Reformers like Huldreich Zwingli contended that the Lord’s Supper should primarily be viewed as a communion memorial noting that Christ was in heaven and not on earth in the bread. Luther and Zwingli sharply disagreed on this issue. Zwingli also limited the times of celebration to four times a year on special holidays.
Reaction to a formal ritual of Eucharist and the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice has led some Protestants to deemphasize the practice even more than Zwingli. One church I attended rarely celebrated communion on Sunday. They normally reserved it for holidays. One year when we traveled during several holidays we may have actually celebrated only one time. Some of the laity expressed their belief that too frequent communion would ruin the special nature of the service. Recently the Church of the Nazarene has standardized its practice to at least once a month.
Luther identified community as an important outcome from celebrating Eucharist. Partaking in the sacrament became a sign of fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all the saints. One became united with Christ and his saints in both the good and bad of community life. This leads to us being cared for by the community and for us caring for those weak and hurting in the community. The teaching on community goes against the strong individualism in our culture that promotes the notion that we do not need to belong to a local church since we have a personal relationship with Jesus. As the body of Christ we are called into relationship with each other. Even some practices of communion reflect individualism more than community. One of my students shared an experience that did just that. She commented: “I was visiting a church one time, and after service I saw a table with bread and wine, with a sign that read, ‘Please feel free to take communion as you feel led.’ No announcement had been made during service, and no verbal invitation afterwards. The members of that church just took communion on their own, apart from each other. In a similar way, I have been to congregations split into a contemporary and traditional service because no one would make allowance for the other. While these things may seem to provide an instantaneous solution to disagreements, I'm afraid they are insidious and will destroy the health of these congregations in the long run.”
Hopefully during this Easter season we can see ourselves as more than a lone pilgrim serving God. Participating in the Eucharist, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper should remind us that as part of the body of Christ we are both in relationship with Christ and one another. In partaking of the elements we express faith in Christ’s promise of the forgiveness of sins. As a community we should be ministering to each other. We should be reminded as well that we are a community bonded together through the death and resurrection of Christ. Hopefully this leads to sacrificing our lives both for Christ and the community of believers. We love and support those in need as well as uphold the innocent. Five hundred years ago Luther wrestled with these issues as he sought to guide his parishioners in the true meaning of Christian faith. Hopefully celebrating the Eucharist during this Easter season reminds us of the call to experience grace and community as part of the body of Christ in a local church. In so doing, we clearly proclaim the death and resurrection of our living Lord until he comes.
About the Contributor
Professor of Theology, Olivet Nazarene University
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