Who is Worthy to Receive Communion?
The answer to who is worthy to receive Communion is one of the biggest aids to faith and answers for life, but I want to start with a different point. I will do much for both your faith and life if I can convey the single point that worthy Communion is not about Closed Communion. Worthy Communion is about who should go to Communion at all. Closed Communion is about who should commune together. By refusing to commune someone I'm not saying they are unworthy, but only that we don't belong at the same altar.
Why is it important to receive the Sacrament worthily is the first question our Catechism asks under this Explanation. It answers by quoting 1 Cor. 11:27, 29, "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself."
Worthy communing is a serious matter, but the Catechism stops short of just how serious it is by not continuing with verse 30 which says because the Corinthians weren't communing worthily "many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep." You can get weakness rather than strength, sickness rather than health, and death rather than life from Communion. Yet some never consider their worthiness.
When either John the Baptist or Jesus inferred that not every Jew was worthy of God's kingdom, what did some say? "We're children of Abraham; of course we're in the kingdom." You're saying the same thing if you think you're worthy to receive Communion at this altar because you're a lifelong member of the Missouri Synod. If you think the initials LCMS automatically make you a worthy communicant you're wrong. In fact, if you think you're worthy, you're not, and if you think it's ultimately up to you to determine that you're doubly wrong.
What you've done is what the crowd in the Passion Reading did and what weak Pilate allowed. You've flipped the whole thing around. The man with the decision to send Jesus to the cross knew what should be decided but acted like it wasn't really his decision, and the crowd acted like it was theirs. Pilate couldn't really wash his hands of the decision and the crowd couldn't really bear the innocent blood of a man upon themselves or their children, let alone of the Man who is God. Likewise, I can't wash my hands of my God ordained duty to be a steward of Communion, and you sure can't bear communing with the Body or the Blood of Jesus unworthily. So every Communion service receiving Communion worthily must be considered.
While some never consider their worthiness, some only consider their unworthiness. All they see is their sin and their sinfulness. All they see is their guilt. They know such dry trees are they. "Oh that the mountains would fall us. Oh that the hills would cover us so that we might escape from the wrath of the God we crucified," they lament. How can a sinner such as they ever be worthy to eat the Body and drink the Blood of the Holy God? Besides, even I am sorry right now, I know I will sin again. Even if I am sorry now for losing my temper, for worrying, for lusting, for gossiping, I know I will do these things again. I can't be anything but unworthy.
If you think you're unworthy, you're not. That's what we say in the Formula of Concord. I quote: "The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established, are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins and think they are not worthy" (SD, VII, 69).
You would think then that we like the Catholic prayer before receiving Communion. It's based on the centurion's words to Jesus, "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou should enter under my roof, but say the word, and my soul shall be healed." Luther didn't like this prayer because it was based on the prayer of a man and not the Word of God, and it assumed worthiness could be established in a person (Luther on Worship, 136, fn. 53). Luther didn't condemn the prayer but thought it could be better. I think he would have liked what the Orthodox say. The priest invites the Communicants with, "The holy things for the holy ones." And the congregation responds not with, "We are holy here we come," but "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ."
I can't tell you that Luther ever said he liked this, but he did say that we don't commune in our own worthiness but that of Jesus. We don't commune because we think we're worthy enough, feel worthy enough, or look worthy enough, but we commune based on Jesus' command to take eat and drink and His promise that His Body and Blood are "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Those crucifying Jesus weren't worthy of the forgiveness He asked for them. They were holding Jesus down, pounding nails into His flesh, and making fun of Him, but, nevertheless, every single one of them could have believed the forgiveness Jesus prayed for was for them. And that would have changed everything.
Some never consider their worthiness; some consider only their unworthiness and not Christ's worthiness, and some are tormented by doubts. Our Explanation does say, "But anyone who does not believe these words [given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins] or doubts them is unworthy." If you're in the generation below me, these words bother you especially because where I was taught the concept that there were some doubts that were unreasonable the postmodernism that has been in the air since your first breathe of life has taught you that all doubt is reasonable and intelligent, educated people doubt everything.
The way we teach you to examine yourself before communing can lead to excruciating doubts. On the basis of our Formula of Concord we teach you to ask yourself: am I sorry for my sins; do I believe what Jesus says about this Sacrament being His Body and Blood given and shed to forgive my sins, and do I promise to amend my life (SD, VII, 68). These are good questions. I use them, but beware of the Devil or your Flesh slipping in the word enough.' "Am I sorry enough; do I believe enough; do I intend enough to amend by sinful ways." If the word "enough" gets in there, you have to answer "no" because no one is sorry, believes, or intends to amend enough, and so you will doubt whether you are worthy to receive Communion.
If this happens, go to the pages of our Catechism labeled: "Christian Questions With Their Answers Prepared by Dr. Martin Luther for those who intend to go to the Sacrament." These questions and answers don't lend themselves to the concept of "enough." They're objective, clear cut statements of your sin, your need for this Sacrament, God's grace in Christ, and His promise that He wants to forgive your sins in this Sacrament.
Even that part of the Formula of Concord that teaches the other questions doesn't urge you to rely on them but quotes Bible passages where Christ invites those heavy laden with their sins and the weak in faith. And it ends with this clear statement. "Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead, it depends on Christ's merit, which the distressed father of little faithenjoyed as well as Abraham, Paul, and others who have a joyful and strong faith" (SD, VII, 71).
Whether your faith is weak or strong, big or little, faith that sees what happens to Jesus in this text happens for you and faith that sees the Communion wafer is this same Body and that wine is the same Blood, is worthy to commune. It's like a Lutheran artists painting of the crucifixion. In the 16th century, commissioned paintings sometimes weren't allowed to be signed, so the painter would put himself in the painting. In this painting, the painter is at the cross with the Blood of Jesus spurting out of Jesus on to the top of his head. That's the reality of Communion. The Blood shed and the Body given on the cross reaches you here in this Sacrament.
The Lord no more wants you to have doubts about this Sacrament or whether it is for you than He wanted the tears of the daughters of Jerusalem. But what if you still have them? What if the Devil or your conscience chases you around with whether you really are worthy to receive Communion? Why not do with the Medicine of Immortality what you are told to do with mortal medicine? Ask your pastor if this Body and Blood are right for you? You know that phrase "ask your doctor if this medicine is right for you" had a profound effect on the relationship between doctor, patient, and drugs.
What happened is the same thing that happened in our Passion Reading. That question turned the tables between doctor and patient. Now the patient could pressure the doctor to prescribe the medicine although medically speaking he had sole responsibility for deciding the question. So why do I think "ask your pastor if Communion is right for you" is a good question? First, I don't have sole responsibility for who communes. Some of the responsibility lies with you. You could be a hypocrite and your sin would all be on you. Second, I do have a responsibility for your soul I can't shirk.
If you're in doubt about going to Communion, ask the pastor you wish to commune you. He won't tell you to come if he knows it's not right for you. A confessional Lutheran pastor won't tell you to commune unless He knows you can commune worthily because he knows if you commune unworthily your sins stays on him. What if the man is unfaithful and I don't know it? What if he tells me to commune with no more care than a doctor prescribing sugar pills? Your sin would still be on him. He's the Lord's steward. He has to answer both for who he communes and for who he doesn't commune.
I teach what Paul taught his members. "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup." My active members don't have to ask me before communing, but if you're in doubt if you can receive Communion worthily, ask me. I won't flip the roles. I will take my God-ordained responsibility seriously, as seriously as you take being a worthy communicant, as serious as Jesus was about giving and shedding His Body and Blood and is about Christians receiving them for forgiveness. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek Vespers (20150318); Communion IV, Passion Reading 5