Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wine or Grape Juice

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of wine in the Lord's Supper:

Q:  Why do some churches use wine for Communion and others use grape juice?  What did Jesus use in the first Lord’s Supper and what are the potential consequences if we use something else?  What alternatives does a person have who has been advised not to consume alcohol because of alcoholism or for medical reasons?

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night He was betrayed, He was eating the Passover meal with His disciples.  This fact, along with the words Jesus used, does a great deal to reveal to us what was in the cup that Jesus was using on that evening. 

First, the wine was made from grapes, because Jesus refers to it as “fruit of the vine,” which would exclude wine made from any other fruits.  We also know that grape wine was used in the Passover meal and that the wine was fermented wine. 

In addition to the traditions of the Passover meal, the Greek word used in the Bible for the drink used in the Lord’s Supper specifically means fermented wine.  If it were anything else, the authors would have used a different word or modified the word for “wine” with an additional word to describe the difference. 

Further evidence can be found in that the Passover is celebrated in the Spring.  Because Pasteurization and Refrigeration had not yet been invented, it would only be possible for a person to drink unfermented grape juice immediately during the grape harvest, because within a matter of days, the juice would begin to ferment as a result of the heat and the natural yeasts found on the skin of the grapes.

Throughout history, churches have typically attempted to use the same elements as the original institution to the closest degree possible.  This is because God’s command includes specific elements and His promises are tied to those elements.  While we cannot say whether the wine was red or white, or what grape it was made from, or the particular alcohol content, we do know that it was fermented grape wine. 

For Christians who believe that Jesus body and blood really become present in the Lord’s Supper and that the Lord’s Supper does forgive sins, the consequence of changing the elements is that it has the potential to introduce doubt concerning whether the Sacrament is valid and capable of delivering the blessing God has promised. 

Typically, when grape juice is used exclusively in congregations, it is in congregations with one or both of two teachings as a part of their theology.  The first of these is a belief that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper represent or symbolize Jesus’ body and blood rather than being His body and blood.  As a result of this belief, using grape juice does not present concerns about the Sacrament’s validity for them. 

The second of these is that they have some level of discomfort with the use of alcohol by Christians, sometimes even to the point of considering all alcohol consumption sinful.  Since they cannot reconcile the use of fermented wine with this belief, they resolve the tension by using unfermented grape juice. 

Occasionally, even Sacramental denominations will offer unfermented grape juice as an alternative for those who struggle with alcoholism or have been medically advised not to consume alcohol.  However, in light of other alternatives many pastors are now finding even this concession unnecessary. 

For example, there are a variety of wines available on today’s market which have been fermented in the usual manner, but distilled to 0.5% alcohol content, resulting in a true wine that is virtually without alcohol.  Another option is to use the normal communion wine offered in the congregation, but dilute it with water to the point where the alcohol content is insignificant. 

Many have also found a return to using the chalice (common cup) as an excellent alternative, because the communicant can merely allow the wine to touch their lips rather than consuming the entire contents of an individual cup.  Many alcoholics also report that receiving wine during communion by the pastor’s hand from a common cup is such a different experience from receiving an alcoholic drink by their own hand that it eliminates the temptation to return to their alcoholic behaviors. 

In addition to these practical reasons, since we know that Jesus instituted Lord’s Supper for our benefit, we can have a faithful confidence that God would certainly not allow a Christian to suffer spiritual harm in a Sacrament intended to bless them. 

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