Who Receives This Sacrament Worthily?
With the extreme subjectivity of Pietism came an emphasis on being prepared for Communion. Who could be prepared every week? So, despite what our Lutheran Confessions say that we have Communion "every Sunday and on other festivals", quarterly Communion became standard. 50 years ago, the practice was monthly. Since 1990 I've had churches that celebrated it weekly. However, from "who can be prepared weekly" the pendulum has swung to "who could not be prepared". Little attention is paid to the 4th question in our Catechism: Who receives this Sacrament worthily?
First, consider what's in view in the question of worthy communing. Contrary to what you might think the degree or strength of your faith is not in view. Our Formula of Concord specifically denies this: "And worthiness does not depend upon great or small, weakness or strength of faith" (FC, TD, VII, 71). You're not to measure, quantify, or weigh your faith before you come to the Lord's Table. Don't be asking, "Do I believe enough?"
As often as people's faith hinders them from communing, so do their sins. They think some sins are so great that they dare not be brought before the altar. They think they should only go when their conscience is clear. Luther disagrees in the Large Catechism. "If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure you are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience, you will never go" (V, 57). Even if you're "feeble and full of infirmities," you should not stay away from the Lord's table, we say. Then we quote St. Hilary, "'Unless a man has committed such a sin the he has forfeited the name of Christian and has to be expelled from the congregation, he should not exclude himself from this Sacrament'" (v. 58).
But sometimes it's not my little faith or big sins that make be wonder if I should go; sometimes it's just an overall sense of unworthiness. I can't name this sin or that doubt. I just don't feel like I should go. Hear your Large Catechism, "People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy or holy, nor do we come to [private] confession pure and without sin; on the contrary, we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy" (v, 61). Again, "If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort, and strength" (v, 72).
Can you see that what you think, feel, or believe is not in view. Only the Words of Christ, "Given and Shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" are. According to our Large Catechism, the real difficultly and obstacle to us communing worthily is us. "[W]e always have this obstacle and hindrance to contend with, that we concentrate more upon ourselves than upon the words that proceed from Christ's lips. Nature would like to act in such a way that it may rest and rely firmly upon itself; otherwise it refuses to take a step" (V, 63). We rest our communing on us. We don't rest it upon Christ's promise and invitation, "Take it, Take drink this is My Body, this is My Blood give and shed for you." That's what we need to repent of. Our Large Catechism not only says the more you feel like you shouldn't come, the more you should, it also says, "[T]he less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason you have to go to the sacrament and seek a remedy" (V, 78). Both self-judgements - one that we're too sinful the other that we're good enough - are wrong.
So, not your opinions, feelings, or even faith open or close this Table to you, but the words "Given and shed for you for forgiveness" do. The Large Catechism says, "[W]e do not intend to admit to the Sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come" (V, 1). That means if someone denies Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus, we don't give it to them because, as Paul says in I Cor. 11, those who don't discern the Body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. And we don't commune those who don't know why they come. We don't commune those who don't come for forgiveness. But who in the world would do that? Those coming with sins they don't recognize or sins they wish to continue in do this. People who don't admit their sins against the 2nd Table such as murder, fornication, or stealing, or their sins against the 1st Table like worrying, false teaching, or neglecting the Word, don't come seeking forgiveness for them. No one seeks to be forgiven for what they don't consider a sin.
The Formula of Concord says that unworthy guests are those who go without "true contrition and sorrow for their sins" and "without a good intention to improve their life" (SD, VII, 68). The Large Catechism says the one "who desires no grace and absolution and has no intention to amend his life" (V, 61) should stay away. A person who doesn't believe they're sinning has no desire for grace or absolution for their sin, nor a desire to amend. You see how this works against 2nd Table sins. Can you easily see it in the case of 1st Table ones? Let me show you. I've never spoken with a Baptist who wished to commune with us who desired to be forgiven for not baptizing his babies. I've never spoken to a Roman Catholic who intended to give up praying to Mary. All those of other churches be they Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, or Catholics wanted to stay in their sins of doctrine while they communed here. I couldn't allow that. As a steward of Christ's Body and Blood, I can no more give them to those who won't put away 1st Table sins than I can give it to those who won't put away 2nd Table sins.
But what about you? Among Lutherans even confessional ones, we assume you stay in this doctrine unless you commune elsewhere or say otherwise. So, you commune here when you want. This is un-Lutheran, and we say so in the Augsburg Confession: "For none are admitted except they be first examined" (XXIV, 7). And in the Apology we say, "The sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved" (XXIV, 1). From the Reformation into mid-20th century the practice among confessional Lutherans was personally announcing to the pastor before you commune. This was done so he could examine you. Now no church does this, and most laypeople want it that way. They don't want a pastor deciding whether or not they should commune. Americans are so afraid of a pastor ruling over them, but they ought to be more afraid of their conscience doing so. A hardened or mistaken conscience does far more damage to you than a hardened or mistaken pastor can.
If we had announcing prior to Communion, I would point you to the Words, "For you." This is what Luther does in the Large Catechism, "These words [for you]...are not preached to wood or stone but to you and me...Ponder, then, and include yourself personally in the 'you' so that He may not speak to you in vain" (V, 65). These words, indeed, all of the Words of Institution are to free you from the clutches of self-analysis, the tyranny of your own conscience.
That's what Luther is actually saying when he concludes the answer to this last question with, "For the words "for you" require all hearts to believe." Don't be bothered by that word "require." That word is really a freeing, liberating one. "Require" translates the Latin postulat. The idea of that word is demand, call, claim. The words "for you" demand, claim, call forth faith from us, not in the sense of obligating us but in the sense of expecting that we would believe them. In other words, the words "for you" eliminate all exceptions. They don't say this Body and Blood is given and shed for you if you're feeling fit today. They don't say, "Take eat, take drink, if you're feeling worthy." No, the Words "for you" expect you to eat and drink no matter how you're feeling. Luther said, "Don't say: I am not fit today, I will wait awhile. This is the trick of the devil; what will you do if you are not fit when death comes? Who will make you fit then" (LW, 51, 192)? Jesus said "for you" 'period.' The words exclude no one. The words means you are fit.
The words "for you" steamroll right over your sins and even your timid faith. Jesus didn't say His Body and Blood were for you if your sins weren't too serious. He didn't say they were for you if your faith was strong. He said that His Body and His Blood were for you if you have sins that need forgiving. And far from being for the strong, for the holy, or for the brave, Luther says in a sermon that those who receive worthily are "namely, those in whom there is the fear of death, who have timid and despairing consciences and live in fear of hell" (LW, 51, 95). I think this 1522 sermon is where our Formula of Concord 55 years later got its understanding of who is worthy: "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 that they are not worthy.." (SD, VII, 69).
Really the answer to the question of who receives this Sacrament worthily is, Jesus. The ancient Greek Liturgies taught this by having the pastor after the Words of Institution turn to the congregation with the Body and the Blood and say, "The holy things for the holy ones." The congregation responded, "One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father." The Latin church expressed the same thought by saying 3 times in the liturgy what the Roman centurion did, "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come in under my roof."
It's true; Luther criticized but did not condemn this in favor of clinging to Jesus and His Words of Institution. Why? Because we come to the Lord's table not based on some private judgment we've made of our sins, faith, or worthiness, but based on Jesus' invitation and promise. He said His Body and Blood are here for me. He didn't' ask me to look at my sins or my faith. He bid Me to listen to His words. And I hear that the Body and Blood He gave once on the cross for my sins are here now "for you". The One who said those words said them to chase away any question in my mind about whether these gifts were really meant for me or for you for that matter. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (20220414); Sacrament of the Altar IV