I am not aware that any of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod churches have substituted rice cakes or Fanta for the bread and wine of the Supper, but there are reports of congregations offering grape juice in place of grape wine. The substitution is usually defended as necessary for those who are allergic to wine, and for those who are battling alcohol addiction. That motivation is laudable, but it leap-frogs the underlying issue. By what authority do we change the elements employed by Christ when he instituted his supper? Do Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me,”not include the nature of the elements used in the Supper?
Many non-Lutheran, Protestant churches have used grape juice in place of wine for many years, motivated by the pietistic idea that consumption of any amount of alcohol is sinful. “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine.” In fact, Thomas Welch, the inventor of the pasteurization process for grape juice (1869), was a devout Methodist and a staunch prohibitionist. He worked ardently for the prohibition of sales of alcoholic beverages in New Jersey and surrounding regions. His pasteurized grape juice was developed first and foremost as a substitute for the ordinary alcoholic grape wine universally used in Christian Communion services.
The rationale for substituting fresh grape juice for alcoholic wine is usually based on the term “fruit of the vine” used by Jesus in connection with his Supper. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper, (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22) following the words of institution, Jesus says, “I shall not drink of this fruit of the vine again until I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” Fruit of the vine, the wine opponents say, is a wider term than wine and thus can refer to unfermented fruit juice. But if fruit of the vine permits us to use any fruit juice produced by a vine, then why not watermelon, or cantaloupe, or cucumber, or tomato juice? Credible scholars from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations agree that fruit of the vine as used in Scripture cannot be understood as anything but wine produced from grape vines.
And there are other practical and historical considerations that discredit the proposition that Christ used fresh juice in his Supper. It is universally agreed that the Last Supper took place within the context of the Jewish Passover meal. Every scriptural and historical reference to the Passover indicates that the cup in the supper was ordinary alcoholic wine, mixed with water.
Practically speaking, the Passover was celebrated in the Spring, before the vines had produced fruit. There were no fresh grapes available for fresh juice. The available fruit of the vine was that which was bottled from last year’s vintage, which means it had gone through fermentation and was alcoholic wine. Some insist on the existence of fantastic procedures for preserving fresh juice in the ancient world, but if such a process existed, why did Dr. Welch devote himself to his pasteurizing process? The truth is that before Welch’s process there was only one certain way to preserve grape juice for future consumption: Let it go through the fermentation process and turn into alcoholic wine.
Our church body has consistently taught that other beverages should not be substituted for common alcoholic wine in the Lord’s Supper. However, because the wine used by Jesus was very likely mixed with water, we do not speak dogmatically about the percentage of alcohol required in the cup. Those with legitimate medical concerns with alcohol can be offered a cup containing only several drops of wine in water. Those who object to even that minute amount of alcoholic wine might be reminded that even products labeled “non alcoholic wine” in the USA may contain up to 0.5 percent alcohol (Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, PART 7—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF MALT BEVERAGES, Subpart H §7.71 Alcoholic content).
When we use wine in the Supper we are certain that we are using what Jesus used in his cup. When we substitute other beverages, we introduce doubt among the communicants. Is this really the Supper Jesus instituted? Can I be sure Christ’s blood is present in a substance other than that which he used? Are we scrupulously carrying out Christ’s will, “Do this in remembrance of me” when we substitute other substances? Participation in the Lord’s Supper does come down to faith or doubt. In the Small Catechism Luther wrote, “…but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’ But he who does not believe these words, or doubts them, is unworthy and unprepared; for the words ‘for you’ require truly believing hearts.” Where faith in Christ’s words is so important, why would we do anything to introduce doubt?
-Pastor K.J. Anderson