Over the past week, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about whether churches should live stream the Lord’s Supper.
In most cases, the conversations have not been about whether live streaming the Lord’s Supper is valid under normal circumstances (for an argument that it should be considered so, see here). Most of the conversations I’ve participated in have been among Reformed and Presbyterian ministers with a shared understanding of the church, pastoral ministry, and the sacraments. The question in these conversations has been whether the extraordinary circumstances of life under a quarantine allow for extraordinary ways of administering the Lord’s Supper.
The Gospel Coalition has published two baptistic perspectives on the question of whether churches should live stream the Lord’s Supper, one negative, the other affirmative. In addition, Christianity Today has posted an article, written from a Protestant sacramental viewpoint, which argues that the Lord’s Supper may indeed fulfill its function as a means of grace, even when celebrated online.
I do not believe churches should live stream the Lord’s Supper for fairly standard Reformed reasons. The most fundamental reason has to do with the nature of the sacrament itself.
A sacrament, at the most basic level, is a symbolic action ordained by Jesus Christ to which he has attached the promise of his presence and blessing (Exod 20:24; Matt 28:18-20; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 10:1-4, 16; 11:24-25). The “sign,” on this understanding, is not simply the “elements” of water, bread, and wine. The sign is the entirety of the symbolic action which, in the case of the Lord’s Supper, is a shared meal (1 Cor 10:17). Moreover, when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, the symbolic action of a shared meal has a specific, divinely ordained context: “when you come together” (1 Cor 11:33). The “sign” of the Lord’s Supper is a shared meal, partaken in the covenant assembly of God’s people, i.e., the gathered church. To this symbolic action, Christ has attached the promise of his presence and blessing: “there I will give you my love” (Song 7:12).
When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, then, no shared meal, no covenant assembly, means no sacrament. (NB: The situation is different when it comes to baptism, whose symbolic action involves one person washing another person with water.) Though the action of a shared meal and the context of the covenant assembly are not sufficient conditions for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they are necessary conditions. Without them, one does not, indeed cannot, celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Those who have pushed back the hardest on this line of argument have done so because they deeply value the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. What a great loss it is, they argue, to go without this divinely appointed means of giving and receiving the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, of strengthening our faith and hope, of receiving and responding to the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Against this sentiment I have no argument. It is indeed a great loss, perhaps the greatest loss among many other losses that follow from our inability to assemble in God’s presence as God’s covenant people on the Lord’s Day.
But the proper response to this great loss is not to attempt to live stream the Lord’s Supper. For now, the path to participating in the Lord’s Supper is closed to all of us. For now, we are not called to feast but to fast.
Which leads to what I believe is the appropriate pastoral response in our present crisis. In situations of loss such as this one, we must learn how to lament, and we must learn how to teach God’s people to lament, something quite difficult for those (like me) who are accustomed to instant gratification.
The Lord’s Supper is one of the greatest blessings that Jesus Christ has given his church. Our inability to celebrate the Lord’s Supper for a season can only be, should only be, cause for sorrow and tears. For now, we are not able to celebrate this remembrance of the Lord by “tasting” and “seeing” his goodness (Ps 34:8).
But this does not mean we are consigned to a state of utter forgetfulness. No. There is a kind of remembrance that accompanies exile from the city of God (Ps 137:5-6), the remembrance that leads to faithful tears (Ps 137:1-2) and that cultivates hopeful longing for restoration (Pss 63:1; 143:6), the remembrance of those who have once tasted and who, by God’s grace, know they will once again taste and see the Lord’s goodness, whether it is at his table in the covenant assembly or at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). This is the kind of remembrance that we are called to cultivate in ourselves and in our flocks in this season.
Our present fast from the Lord’s Supper is necessary but lamentable. Our present fast is also an opportunity to cultivate a single-minded longing for the Lord and for his people that will make our feasting at the Lord’s table all the more joyous when the time of our fast comes to an end. We will feast in the house of Zion!