Non-sacramental communion baffles me. I have sympathy for the spectrum of observances that range from real presence to real flesh. But sitting through a typical memorialist communion is a study in incongruity.
The “elements” are distributed to everyone in their seats. We are served. That may not be the worst symbolism, but coming empty-handed to the altar and kneeling seems much more humbling. Duly armed with our wafer and shot of grape juice, we sit while the pastor says whatever is on his mind about communion.
Then, we hear the words of institution, quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Why is it always from 1 Corinthians? It’s not like three out four Gospels don’t record the events of Maundy Thursday. I had a hunch that maybe the Gospel accounts explicitly mentioned wine, but they do not. The only differences I see in a brief review of Matthew, Mark, and Luke against 1 Corinthians is that all three Gospels mention Jesus blessing the bread and calling the wine his blood shed for the new covenant, while Paul’s paraphrase in 1 Corinthians says “do this in remembrance of me.” Perhaps non-sacramental types use Paul because it lends more weight to a memorialist position.
The lack of blessing the elements—as Jesus did—reveals a confusion of the role of the officiant. I had this same confusion for years. I would look at myself as a pastor and think, “I am not special,” in any sort of sacramental sense. Yet my parishioners all seemed to instinctively realize there was a difference—or ought to be.
The role of priest is important, and it is a terrifying burden for a congregation to bear. The charge to care for eternal souls and shepherd them in the way that is pleasing to God is an awesome burden. I do not defend it out of any sort of clericalism, but out of respect for the office. I am not fit to hold it—none are—but in God’s wisdom, some are appointed to it.
It is the priest’s duty to bless the elements (in persona Christi) and to break the bread. When sitting in a memorialist service recently, after the words concerning the bread were read (from 1 Corinthians), it sounded like the whole congregation clicked their ballpoint pens to take notes as they all broke their own wafers. Why do they feel so free to assume the role of the priest? There is no pragmatic reason to do this since the wafer will fit in your mouth whole.
Yes, we are called a royal priesthood as the body of Christ in 1 Peter 2, but Peter is using figurative language. We are not all priests anymore than we are all rocks. You are either assuming the duty that your pastor has failed to take, or you are mindlessly following the example of those around you. Neither is a good reason to act.
Are you endangering your salvation if you break your own bread? Paul has some very sacramentalist words following his paraphrase of the words of institution.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
1 Corinthians 11:27-30 (ESV)
Judge for yourself. I think the worst reason for the practice is mindlessness. God deserves our attention, our focus, and our thoughtfulness. Let us strive to understand his sacraments and receive them in a manner worthy of the significance they convey.