Notre Dame Fire and Communion on the Moon

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Credit: Earthrise by William Anders

Much has already been written and reported about the tragic fire causing severe damage to Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral earlier this week. My sadness joins that of many in the world.

Historical structures with cornerstones dating back to the early 12th century are priceless. More importantly, notwithstanding differences between Lutherans and Catholics, this cathedral has served as a place of worship for nine centuries. I hope and pray reconstruction will occur.

Today is Maundy Thursday, observed in the Christian Church throughout the world as the anniversary of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It happened as Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Biblical accounts are Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23.

On several occasions I’ve written about the Lord’s Supper, aka Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Eucharist, etc. But I don’t recall writing a Perspectives article that tells the story of Communion on the moon. So here we go.

Apollo 11 landed the first two human beings on the moon in July 1969. Those of us old enough to do so remember it well. It also marked the first occasion on which a Christian took the sacrament of Communion on an astronomical body other than Earth.

This event took place in the interval between the lunar module’s landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface several hours later. During that period of time, astronaut Buzz Aldrin privately observed Holy Communion using elements he had brought with him to the moon.

Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this period in his life. Knowing that he would soon be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt he should mark the occasion somehow, and he asked his pastor to help him. The pastor consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine. And Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and on to the surface of the moon.

On the silent surface of the moon, nearly 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John and quietly took communion. Here is his own account of what happened:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.’”

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Mission Control had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.”

“Then I ate the tiny host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: The very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements. Neil [Armstrong] watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time. I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

Not incidentally, another astronaut has done the same. Col. Jeff Williams, longtime faithful member of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston, communed numerous times during his lengthy stays aboard the International Space Station in 2006, 2009, and 2016, with sacramental elements consecrated at Gloria Dei.

I spoke with Jeff and his former pastor, Rev. John Kieschnick (my second cousin-once removed and very close friend) this week. Both men humbly and thankfully honor this wonderful spiritual and sacramental blessing from our Lord Jesus.

Regardless of where it is received, whether in a centuries old cathedral or on the moon, Holy Communion is a precious gift of God. It’s as close as a human can come to Christ this side of heaven. Receive it with a heart of thanks for God’s love, made real in the human being named Jesus, Savior of the world and Lord of the universe!

Terry and I pray that your observances of Holy Week and Triduum, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, will be blessed. And we pray for you and your family a joyous Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord!

What’s a Different Spirit?

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Last week’s article concluded with a statement of Martin Luther to one of his theological opponents. In German he said: “Ihr habt einen anderen geist als wir!” Translation: “You have another [different] spirit than we.” I promised I’d say more this week about what constitutes a different spirit. So here we go.

In Luther’s case the different spirit he diagnosed and pronounced emanated from a number of theological topics. On this particular occasion the question was whether the body and blood of Christ are really present in the Lord’s Supper. His opponent was Ulrich Zwingli. A significantly different spirit existed between those two men. Check Google for more details.

On a separate but related front was the quite serious, even life threatening confrontation between Luther and Roman Catholic Pope Leo X.  A vastly different spirit existed between those two, essentially resulting from their differing perspectives on forgiveness of sin. The Catholic Church believed that forgiveness could be bought with what were called indulgences. Luther correctly maintained that the price was paid by God’s grace in the person of Christ our Lord.

On a more domestic level in today’s world, a difference in spirit between a husband and a wife can quickly cause problems. If one person has a trusting and optimistic attitude while his or her spouse is distrustful and pessimistic, that difference in spirit often yields tension and friction.

In the political realm Republicans and Democrats continue to espouse policies and positions that differ from one another, often quite radically. While opposing ideas about philosophical, economic, immigration, military issues, and more do not necessarily presuppose differences in spirit, the hostile expression thereof clearly demonstrates such a difference.

Even in churches some strive for control and exclusiveness while others want the church to be evangelical and inclusive. Some approach financial support of their church with an open palm, others with a clenched fist. Those differences in spirit are manifested in a we/they attitude that can become combative rather than cooperative.

Although there’s no simple solution, St. Paul offers in Galatians 5 some good suggestions in his discussion of living by the Spirit [of God] compared to life controlled by the flesh. “The acts of the flesh are obvious … hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, rivalries, divisions, factions, and envy … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control … Since we live by the Spirit, let us walk in step with the Spirit.”

Good idea, Paul. Living that way by the power and grace of God will obviate the necessity of Christians saying to each other: “You have another [different] spirit than we.”

Amen. So be it.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

That’s one of my favorite movies. Based on a true story, a group of allied prisoners-of-war (POWs) are put in an “escape proof” camp. Yet the prisoners outwit their jailers, dig an escape tunnel, and use motorcycles, boats, trains and planes to get out of occupied Europe.

One week ago yesterday was Ash Wednesday. I preached on a different great escape at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas, Terry’s and my church home. The text was Luke 22:1-13. Those few verses describe seemingly unrelated things going on at that time in Jesus’ life.

While the Feast of Unleavened Bread, aka Passover, was approaching, leaders of the church were plotting Jesus’ death with the help of a man named Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus.

Luke simply interjects at that point that Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare the Passover feast. When asked where they should do so, Jesus gave them a few clues. In the city, a man carrying a water jar would show them a house. The master of the house would show them a large furnished upper room. That’s where the Passover was to be prepared.

Luke doesn’t say what preparations the disciples were to make. Yet we know that Passover observances always replicated the original Passover meal, including unleavened bread, roasted lamb and bitter herbs. Although wine was not specifically mentioned in the original Passover instructions, wine was present when Jesus celebrated this Passover with his disciples.

The night of the original Passover, the angel of the Lord passed over the homes of the Israelites who had painted blood on their front doorposts. The blood came from the lambs they had prepared for the final meal they would eat in Egypt before leaving that country in the Exodus.

The angel passed over Israelite homes for the purpose of sparing God’s chosen people from the devastating impact of the last of the ten plagues that God through his servant Moses had inflicted upon the Egyptians. That final plague was the death of the firstborn son of every Egyptian family and also the death of the firstborn of all cattle throughout the land of Egypt.

The annual Passover commemorated the Exodus of the people of Israel from 430 years of Egyptian slavery, a reflection on how God saved his people as they left Egypt. That included crossing the Red Sea and surviving 40 more years of wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai before entering the Promised Land, the Holy Land of Palestine. It was truly a great escape!

Next time you receive Holy Communion, instituted by Jesus during this Passover meal, remember that God has rescued his people through the ages, not from physical incarceration but from the spiritual imprisonment of sin and death. Jesus did not escape the plot of those church leaders, but that was part of God’s plan that leads to eternal freedom! Praise God for that great escape!