You Can Be Worthy and Well Prepared
In the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan" a dying man who has already lost 5 men saving Private Ryan, says "Earn this. Earn it." Hard to be worthy of the lives of 6 men. Do you think you can be worthy of Jesus' Body and Blood here each week? Think you can be worthy of the giving and shedding of this body and blood on the cross that it took to be offered here? Was there ever grief like His? Think of the worst pain between a mother and son and it's nothing compared to the sword that pierced Mary's soul. Think of the loneliness and hopeless you've known and know it's nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to being left alone with human guilt and sin and hopelessly damned for an eternity. Earn this? Earn it? You can't, however, you can be worthy and well prepared to eat and drink it.
Note well: the title is you can be not you are. Our Larger Catechism states who is. We pledge to admit to the Sacrament only those who, based on the Words of Institution know what they seek and why they come (V, 2-3). This is a worthy communicant. This is not, however, about who should go to Communion together. That is a matter of fellowship not worthiness and preparedness. Saying to the assembled congregation, "We can't invite all of you" to eat and drink with us is not saying, "We know you are not worthy or well prepared," but, "We don't confess the same thing about this Sacrament and/or other doctrines of Scripture."
Worthiness and well-preparedness do come down to what and why. If you don't believe or doubt what Jesus says this is: the same body and blood He gave and shed 2000 years ago on the cross now here in this time and space: don't you dare eat or drink. Because such unbelief or doubt means you draw near to take death not life, sickness not health, weakness not strength. Likewise, if you don't believe or have doubts that you have sins to be forgiven, or more pointedly as we sing in the hymn that you are "all un-righteousness, "and "false and full of sin" (TLH 345:4), you're not worthy or well prepared for this. No, you're singing as that 1740 hymn has been altered. The more modern versions not in our hymnal remove that confession of sin altogether or alters it to confess nothing.
You are worthy and well prepared if you believe what is here, the very body and blood Jesus gave and shed in 30 A.D., and why it's here: for the forgiveness of your sins and the sins of all others. If you believe the sins of another are unforgivable stay back. Don't eat; don't drink for if you do you're adding to your debt of sin. If you come to the Lord's Table with the sins of anyone against you clutched in your hand, don't think you can open it to receive the forgiving body of Christ. No, to add Christ's forgiveness to your unforgiveness is to add soda to vinegar. Likewise, don't think the mouth that says, "I'll never forgive him" can safely open to receive the forgiving blood of Christ. His blood of forgiveness mixed with your unforgiveness acts like a coagulant and will choke you.
But how do you know if you are worthy and well prepared? This is the history of going from the pastor as the steward in charge of who comes to the Table to his fellow slaves being. Here's what we said in 1530 about it: "The sacrament is offered to those who wish it after they have been examined and absolved" (AC, XXIV, 1). Up till about WWII, you didn't commune in our churches without announcing individually to the pastor your intention whereupon he examined you to find out if you knew what the Lord's Supper was and why you were coming. This devolved into a confessional service where all those intending to commune would confess and be absolved en masse. This has further devolved into people, even non-members, thinking as long as they fill out a card or even have the desire to commune, they have a right to Communion and the pastor has the duty to give it to them.
There is some justification for this approach in that Paul says, "Let a man examine himself, and so let him" eat and drink (1 Cor. 11:28). And confessional Lutherans have taught self-examination to their own members but not to guests. However, even with members, there is potentially death in this pot even as there was in Elisha's day. C. S. Lewis observed that "The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy." So, nowhere does the devil "tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar" (Screwtape, 209). And Luther in our Larger Catechism identifies the pinch point: "If you choose to fix your eyes on how good and pure you are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience, you will never go" (V, 57). Forty-seven years after saying this we again address this problem in the Formula of Concord saying that a person who fails "to meet their own self-devised standard or preparation" does not "receive this sacrament for judgment, just like unworthy guests" do (SD, VII, 125).
Earlier in this same confession we give diagnostic questions as to whether a person is worthy and well prepared. We teach people to this day to ask themselves 3 questions: Are they sorry for their sins? Do they believe the body and blood of Christ are here for them to eat and drink for the forgiveness of their sins? Do they intend to amend their sinful ways? Those who can't answer "yes" or doubt their answer we say, "burden themselves with judgment (that is, temporal and eternal punishment) and profane the body and blood of Christ (SD, VII, 68). That's what we say in our confessions, but if only there were accompanying physical manifestations testifying to what was going on. If only darkness would come over the land when the unworthy dared commune; if only, the communion rail split in two and the earth shook when someone who shouldn't be given the Lord's Supper was given it unknowingly or took it knowingly; then maybe we'd believe that both temporal and eternal punishment follow unworthy and unprepared communing.
But the real death trap for folks like you lies in the other direction. In 3 little words that can poison your conscience, your communing, and your communion with your Savior. They are, "Are you really?" To the questions, are you sorry, do you believe, and do you wish to amend your sinful life? You answer, "Yes!", and Satan sneers, "Are you really?" And in rushes Doubt like an armed man and your Small Catechism sounds in your head like a klaxon, "But anyone who does not believe or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared." In an era when "doubt everything" is the watchword, who can ever commune if he has to be entirely free of them?
We address this in the Larger Catechism. We make this distinction. The shameless and unruly must be told to stay away since they don't desire forgiveness or want to be good. Others who would like to be good, should not absent themselves even though they are weak and frail. As we so often do, we go back to the ancient church and quote St. Hilary, 4th century, "'Unless a man has committed such a sin that he has forfeited the name of Christian and has to be expelled from the congregation, he should not exclude himself from the sacrament.' Less he deprive himself of life." We even reference those with doubts. Saying that "People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness." We aren't baptized or go to confession because we are worthy and without sin or doubts. "On the contrary, we come as poor miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy" (V, 58-61).
This being said, Luther elsewhere could not recommend the common prayer of the Mass "Lord I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof, but say in a word, and my soul shall be healed." He didn't condemn the prayer but advised "'one should cling to something much closer, namely, the words by which Christ instituted'" His Supper: Take eat; take drink (Luther on Worship, 136, fn. 53). He advised that the weak in faith, and that would be me for sure, "cling to the Word and seek neither worthiness nor unworthiness within himself" (Ibid., 137). In Luther's view, "The worst temptation of believing Christians is to delay reception of the sacrament until they feel worthy.' To the contrary, 'People should joyfully make use of the Word and sacrament when they feel lacking in faith'" (Luther in Mid-Career, 223). Several times, when Luther was so troubled by his own worthiness, he would go to Communion anyway to "spite the devil" saying to him, "'be gone with yours and my worthiness" (In the Name of Jesus, 350-1).
I believe the Larger Catechism written the same year as the Smaller one and the Formula of Concord, coming 48 years after the Small Catechism's warning about not only not believing Jesus' words but even so much as doubting them, meant to clarify them. The Larger Catechism says, "But those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help, should regard and use the sacrament as a precious antidote against the poison in their systems" (V, 70). The Formula of Concord says, "True and worthy communicantsare those timid, perturbed Christians, weak in faith, who consider themselves unworthy of this noble treasurewho perceive their weakness in faith, deplore it, and heartily wish that they might serve God with a stronger and more cheerful faith and a purer obedience" (SD, VII, 69). "And unworthiness does not consist in the weakness or certainty of faith, be it greater or smaller, but solely in the merits of Christ, of which the distressed father of weak faith (Mk. 9:24) partook no less than Abraham, Paul, and others who had cheerful and strong faith" (Ibid., 71).
That's gold. That ought to be written in the front of the hymnal if not inscribed on our hearts. We commune based on the Person and Work of Christ. Who He is corresponds what Communion is His Body and Blood. And His Work having lived the holy life we cannot and having died the unholy, damned death we deserve - is why we can partake of the forgiveness, life, and salvation He bought and paid for. And simple faith whether it be as strong as Abe's and Paul's or as weak as the man who believed but disbelieved, or as new as the faith of a dying thief or a Roman Centurion receives all the medicine of immortality, all the antidote for what poisons us. With faith such as this we are worthy and well prepared. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek VI (20190410); Lord's Supper IV, Passion Reading 6