Why Not ONE CUP in Holy Communion?

“And He took the cup, and when He had given thanks,
He gave it to them; and they all drank of it.”  —Mark 14:23

 On the evening of what is known on our Christian church calendar as Maundy [MAWN-dee] Thursday, “the same night in which He was betrayed” (I Corinthians 11:23), after He and His disciples had finished their celebration of the Jewish Passover, our Savior instituted His Holy Supper of the New Testament.  The Scriptures in four separate locations are completely clear as to what transpired that evening and as to what Christ gave to His disciples and why.  As one of the visible elements in this supper, Matthew says, “Jesus took breadfrom the Passover table, “and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples.”  Then, as the second visible element, “He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them.”  The commemoration of the Passover had been purely symbolic; but, as the disciples partook of the earthly elements of bread and of wine (the contents of the cup), they received not merely representations or symbols of Christ’s death by which they were both to remember (Luke 22:19b; I Corinthians 11:24-25) and proclaim it (v. 26), but they received in a real but supernatural manner the same body and blood of the Lord Jesus that on the very next day He was to give into death for the remission of their sins. We therefore confess with Luther in his Small Catechism that this Holy Sacrament “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.”  On basis of the same inerrant, authoritative, and clear Scriptures, we also know, confess, and believe the benefits of Holy Communion, its power, and its salutary use as set forth in our Catechism.  It is of unquestioned importance that we often review, keep in memory, and continually be assured of these most necessary things, so that, when we approach the Lord’s Table as truly penitent and believing communicants, we not only receive in, with, and under the bread and wine the true body and blood of our dear Savor (which ALL communicants receive, even the unworthy), but, by faith in His words, also the remission of sins which the Sacrament of the Altar seals to every believer.

There are of course questions regarding the Lord’s Supper that occasionally come to the Christian’s mind, the answers to which are not set forth directly in our Catechism nor answered specifically in Holy Scripture.  Of these questions, there may be those of a purely practical and theologically neutral kind [adiaphora], questions that do not involve either the essence, administration, benefit, power or salutary use of the Sacrament and that therefore should not trouble us in our conscience.  Concerning such questions, a Christian might well consult his pastor, whose experience has perhaps encountered them somewhere along the way and whose advice might well suffice to allay a member’s concern.  Where the Word of God does not speak, the pastor’s counsel in such matters does not have the authority of Holy Scripture; nevertheless, we ought not despise it as worthless, for we are to “esteem [our pastors] very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13).  But such questions we may be able to answer for ourselves, provided we have sufficient information.

Such a question is sometimes asked regarding the use of the common cup, or chalice, in the Lord’s Supper.  Lutherans correctly regard the manner in which the visible elements of the Holy Supper, the bread and wine, are distributed as a matter of Christian liberty (Galatians 5:1), as adiaphoristic or indifferent.  (Cf. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, III, p. 355, including the footnote; also John H. C. Fritz, Pastoral  Theology, 1932 Ed., p. 149.)  Thus the use of wafers instead of physically broken bread and the kind of utensil or utensils used in the distribution are, in themselves, not a matter of doctrine.

How did the Lord Jesus come to use a single or common cup when He instituted His Holy Supper?  It was apparently the third cup of wine on the traditional Passover table, the Kiddush Cup or “cup of blessing” (I Corinthians 10:16) out of which all the participants drank in joint thanksgiving to God for His mighty deliverance of the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. (Cf. Luke 22:17).  The use of the common cup, while not essential to the Lord’s Supper, does serve a good and proper purpose.  It is a symbol of the unity we profess when we commune together, of our communion as many members in one body, of our oneness in faith and confession.  For we do not indiscriminately share the Lord’s cup with professed unbelievers, with those who are known to be ungodly and impenitent, with those who have given offense and have not removed it, or with those not of our fellowship (I Corinthians 10:17 and 21; Romans 16:17; etc.).  That symbolism has been valued for almost two thousand years as a precious tradition and as a visible reminder of the unity required of all true Christians (I Corinthians 1:10; etc.).

But in our “modern” age of health and sanitation consciousness, particularly when people are consumed with the fear of contracting a virulent and deadly bacterial or viral infection such as AIDS, the question that here and there arises in the mind of individual Christians is: “Why have one common cup?  Would it not be more sanitary to use individual cups?”  The question thus is separated from what Jesus used, from what the early Christians used, from what the Christian Church has used for twenty centuries, and from what precious symbolism the common cup evokes; and it becomes a question of sanitation.  But then, let’s face it:  Even the use of individual cups cannot be absolutely free of contamination, even if their washing, handling, preparation and filling were carefully supervised by a trained food safety specialist!  Moreover, communion wafers are not individually wrapped and factory sealed, and the Pastor handles each wafer with an ungloved hand!  Where indeed will the questions finally end?  Would anyone really expect his pastor to wear vinyl gloves when administering the Sacrament, when baptizing a baby, when shaking hands with hundreds of unwashed hands after service?  Should he wear a surgical mask when visiting the sick and comforting the dying in a hospital??

A trained nurse, who herself had become overwhelmed with doubts concerning the “safety” of the Lord’s Supper after having taken a graduate course in epidemiology, once made the blasphemous charge that “in giving His disciples a common cup to share (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23), Jesus was in effect handing them a source of potential infection and contagion!”   Lest anyone be caught up in such an evil surmising about the dear Savior, consider the following:

1) As the omniscient [all-knowing] Son of God, Jesus knows and has always known “all things” (John 21:17), including everything that can be known about bacteriology, immunology, and epidemiology far beyond the knowledge of medical science (John 1:3; I Corinthians 3:18-19).  Would the nurse accuse the Lord Jesus Christ of being an ignoramus in such matters??  When Jesus said to His disciples, “Drink ye all of it,” was He asking them to take their chances in catching or spreading some horrible disease??

2) As the holy Son of God, Jesus never committed a single sin, neither of commission nor of omission (I Peter 2:22; John 8:46; Luke 23:41; etc.).  Consequently, we know, believe and trust that Jesus never did anything to harm His disciples, nor was He careless or remiss in any matter.  Therefore, in giving His disciples the common cup, Jesus was NOT guilty of unhygienic, reckless, wanton or even medically contraindicated practice of even potential danger to His disciples.  That we know of His cup.

What do we know of our cup?  For over sixty years (since individual cups became popular, particularly among the Reformed) medical authorities have time and again, with complete consistency, assured the religious community of the safety of the common cup. Articles to that effect have appeared in Newsweek, in Chicago Today, in the Journal of the American Medical Association and in countless abstracts, studies and pamphlets published by the American Red Cross, by the Centers for Disease Control, and by the Public Health Service in Bethesda, Maryland.  Moreover in the author’s research on this topic, he spoke personally with staffers, doctors, and epidemiologists at the C.D.C. in Atlanta and at P.H.S. in Bethesda, received additional materials in print (including the “Surgeon General’s Report on A.I.D.S.”), and talked at length with experts on the national AIDS Hotline.  ALL of these sources confirm unanimously that the chance of contracting AIDS and other potentially deadly diseases from the common cup or Chalice in Holy Communion is statistically insignificant.  Our readers are, of course, free to contact those and other agencies themselves to verify their findings.  We believe that, after considering, in all objectivity, the authoritative information available, our readers will see that the question of sanitation is resolved and that there is no sound reason to reject the common cup or chalice in the Lord’s Supper either out of fear of contagion OR out of an attitude of superior knowledge to that of the Lord Jesus.

What do we Christians KNOW, after all, from the Word of God concerning the Lord’s protection of His children?  We know, accept, and trust that God defends us against all danger and guards and protects us from all evil when we are walking in His ways (Psalm 91:11-12), and that this includes protection from even the gravest diseases (v. 10).  When He permits us to become ill and even infirmed, this is His loving chastisement which we are not to despise (Hebrews 12:5-11).  Moreover, He is able to relieve us in His own way and time (Genesis 18:14; Romans 8:32; Hebrews 7:25; etc.).  These assurances are comforting to ALL Christians in general, but particularly to health care professionals and to Christian pastors who are directly exposed to dangers when ministering to the sick.  The real test, of course, is whether we really trust the Lord’s promises.

We, of course, by the grace of God, put much higher and surer confidence in our Lord Jesus and His precious Word than in the wisdom and knowledge of medical experts!  To do the opposite would be the sin of idolatry!  And yet, in the matter of safety in the use of the chalice, they not surprisingly agree.  Would not our Lord Jesus Christ have violated His own omniscience and also His love for His disciples, yea, would He not have sinned against His own Fifth Commandment, when He took one cup, “the cup of blessing” (I Corinthians 10:16), the third cup on the Passover table, and gave it to them to share, IF there had truly been any danger connected with the use of the common Chalice?  The question isn’t really, “WHY one common cup in communion?” but rather Why NOT one common cup”??

D. T. M.