Sidebar: Communion, the Bible, Mary, the Saints
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What's different about communion?

One of the biggest observable differences between Christians is in what they believe happens at the celebration of the Last Supper, often called “communion,” where believers eat bread and drink wine or grape juice. The differences here are dramatic: It started with Roman Catholicism, which interpreted a gospel passage:

[Mark 14:22-24] And as they ate, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and broke it. He gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this and eat it. This is my body.” And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.”

Catholics believe that as soon as the priest blesses the bread and wine, it becomes the body and blood of Christ. Lutherans in the Missouri Synod believe that the bread becomes the body and the wine or grape juice the blood of Christ as soon as believers eat it. Other Protestants do not believe the actual bread that people eat at communion, whether or not we are believers, ever “becomes” the body of Christ. For these Protestants, the bread “represents” the body of Christ, and people eat a symbol, showing a sign of their faith by receiving Christ's symbol into their bodies.

It goes back to authority, which is the argument Luther started. If priests have no authority to act “in place of Christ,” then they can bless the bread all they want. It doesn't actually become the body of Christ until a true believer eats it. The exact order of events is really the only difference between the Catholic viewpoint of transsubstantiation and the Missouri Synod Lutheran viewpoint of consubstantiation. Other Protestants follow a doctrine that is radically different and depends on a stricter, more literal interpretation of scripture. Many believe Jesus was talking only about the piece of bread he had in his hand at the time (his use of the present tense supports this), and that he did not intend for bread to be an actual presence for all time.

However, we should not argue over this. The point is that all Christians believe in celebrating the Last Supper. Catholics do it at every mass, and most Protestant churches do it about once a month in the United States. Furthermore, Catholics worship and genuflect before the exposed bread after it has been blessed by a priest. We believe it still remains the body of Christ, for all time after the priest blesses it. Therefore, if it is left on display in the church, Catholics pray before it, just as if we were having a private audience with Jesus himself.

[John 6:35] And Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. [6:50] This is the bread that comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it, and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever. And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. [6:53] ... Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life within you.”

The above passage, also from John's gospel, maintains that believers must eat the actual flesh, which supports more the Catholic teaching than the Protestant teaching here. However, Protestants maintain that Christ never gave this authority to priests but rather to all believers. Thus, the Lutheran viewpoint is probably most supportable by scripture itself.

Differences in preaching and service structure

Protestant sermons tend to be more relevant to our lives today, while Catholic priests, in their homilies, tend to focus on the message that the Bible says the same thing it always said. In their seminaries, Catholic priests do not study sermon preparation as thoroughly as Protestant ministers do. Although some priests do a better job and there might be a Protestant minister who doesn’t do a good job out there somewhere, differences stem from the training ministers or priests receive in their seminaries.

Protestant sermons also tend to be longer and take up a much larger portion of the service than the homily does at a mass. In some cases, such as at an Assemblies of God service, the sermon and a few songs are just about all they do, making the length of the sermon take up nearly 100 percent of the time for the service. Often, the entire motivation of a Protestant person in going to church stems from the quality of the sermon being presented or the reputation of the preacher. In a Catholic mass, a homily might be five minutes (people complain when it’s much longer), in a one-hour mass, or less than about 10 percent. A Catholic person would tend to go to mass regardless of the quality of the homily or reputation of the preacher, since the message is usually a retelling of past messages and not as central to our participation in the worshiping of God.

When you think about it, neither approach is “incorrect.” The Bible hasn’t changed, so Catholics are not wrong to rely on the teaching of holy people from ages past. And, the message of Christ is timeless, applying just as much to us today as it ever did. Catholic priests believe they have less “authority” to interpret scripture, so that explains their reliance on the teaching of past popes and bishops. Protestants believe we all have the authority (and indeed, the responsibility) to interpret scripture, so ministers should bring their knowledge and training to bear to help us interpret it. Both are valid arguments, given the set of beliefs associated with the training of ministers or priests, but sermons are rather different in character from homilies. That’s why.

As far as the services go, Catholic masses or services are highly structured, where everything is said in a specific order. Occasionally parts are omitted, and most of the parts may be sung or at least intoned by the priest, but certain elements are required at every mass. Protestant denominations have more or less structured services and include some of the same elements as the mass, but the order and things that get included are left up to the pastor in most cases. Because of the wide range of differences in the sequence in Protestant churches, a service in a Methodist or Episcopal church may seem highly structured to a Baptist, while it appears downright disorderly to a Catholic.

Why are Mary and the saints so important?

Protestants admire Mary, the virgin mother of God, and the saints and have a very healthy respect for all of them. So do Catholics, but we come close to worshiping her as the fourth person of the Trinity. In some cases, Catholics use the word “worship” loosely in their daily speech. To say Catholics worship Mary is wrong, but I have heard from many good Catholics that we worship her. That's just a vocabulary problem: the church has no doubt that Mary is admirable as the woman who gave Jesus his DNA. She said yes to God and sets an example for us all.

The same is true for other people the Catholic church has canonized as saints. Of course, everybody in heaven is a saint, but some dead people have been declared to be in heaven by the church, working, it believes, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Catholics used to believe you have to be Catholic to get into heaven, and a few Protestant religions used to teach the same thing. To us today, that is just absurd, since I doubt Gandhi and Moses are suffering in hell at this time.

What the church does by declaring someone in heaven is to say, “Here is a person who can be a good example for how to live a holy life pleasing to God.” That's all, really. They may be right or may be wrong. We'll find out soon enough, so it's really a waste of our precious time on earth to argue about it. But the fact that Catholics are very loose in their use of the word “worship” makes many people believe we treat Mary as being divine. Catholics do occasionally pray to the saints and Mary, just as we would ask for help from a living person. Since death does not end eternal life, it is logical to assume we can pray to saints, since they are in heaven with Jesus. Of course, it is best to pray directly to Jesus, but all the help you can get is sometimes more comforting.

Are we supposed to read the Bible?

Yes. Even if you're Catholic, the church declared in 1943 that biblical criticism and reading should be encouraged. There is an ongoing effort in many dioceses in the United States to encourage people to read and study the inspired text, which is tough because many people from before 1943 are still alive and influence the training of new teachers. Protestants have encouraged individuals to read God's Word since 1517.

Also, if you go to a church that supports the Revised Common Lectionary of the Christian churches (about 16 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church support it), you have at least heard the Bible if you've gone to church for three years or more. Not every single verse is read, but quite frankly, a lot of the Bible reads like a military log book, saying, he sent these troops over here and they did this. When it comes to the passages in the Bible that are important for your salvation, you've heard or read them all.

As a minor side-note: Catholics were once told not to read the Bible. This is no longer the case, but remnants of this training still exist throughout the world. It is shameful that it took the official church (known as the Magisterium) until 1943 to admit it, but people are fully capable of reading the Bible for themselves. People in the 16th century were mostly illiterate, and maybe how illiterate we are depends on which school report card you believe, but in general, the Bible has been translated into our vernacular, and most people who are reading this Web site are literate enough to read God's Word directly.

Do you have a Protestant Bible? If so, realize that certain parts will be missing, such as the Book of Tobit and 2nd Maccabbees, but there is nothing “wrong” with the Bible's translation. It is simply based on the books that Luther thought should be part of the Bible, which he based on Jewish scripture.

Look, God didn't just drop a gold-bound book out of the sky and call it the Bible. People decided in about 400 AD which books should be included and which shouldn't. Decisions were made about things like including the gospels of John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke because there was a story of the resurrection, and not including the gospels of Philip or Thomas, because they don't have the story of the resurrection. You make decisions you make based on information you have at the time you're making the decisions. Luther simply decided again, and it is pointless to argue over whether his decisions are right for us today. They were right for him at the time, but that is why there are a couple different sets of books in the Bible.