Are You Worthy?
It's fitting today to consider the question, "Who receives this Sacrament worthily?" Many of us have answered this wrongly. It's good to set things right on Good Friday, the day of Christ's death because Communion is a proclamation of the death of Christ. Worthiness at the altar and at the cross of Christ are interrelated.
So are you worthy? Many have concluded over the years that they were indeed worthy to come to the Sacrament of the Altar. They've looked inside and found not that many sins and the ones they did find they were repentant of. Moreover, they found a pretty strong faith and a willingness to amend their sinful ways, and so they concluded that the Sacrament was for them. The question of worthiness was a slam dunk for them. Easy to answer. Answered almost as quickly as it was asked.
If this is you, then you are self-righteous. You've found your worthiness before God in you when St. Paul says that not one good thing, let alone worthy thing, resides in fallen people. You've weighed yourself in the balance of your own judgment, and found you pass the test. Woe on to you! St. Paul, in speaking of the Lord's Supper, says that people either condemn themselves in this present life or will be condemned by the Lord in the final judgment. Luther in the Large Catechism says that we are not to come to the Lord's Table on account of our own worthiness (LC V, 62). The Formula of Concord is blunter still, "The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established, are Christians... who... .think they are not worthy of this precious treasure" (SD, VII, 69).
Let's switch gears a moment. Let's go from talking about Communion to talking about Calvary. Can you stand before the cross today, stand before the bloody, beaten, bruised, and mangled face of Christ and say you're worthy of this? Here I'm not referring to the fact that you deserve what happened to Jesus but that you deserve Jesus doing this for you. Can you say that you are worthy to have God the Son take on flesh and blood, take on your sins, and take on the punishment for your sins?
I sometimes wonder at the hardness of our hearts. I don't mean the hearts of those in the world. It's not surprising that their hearts are hard, but to find such hardness in the Church is troublesome. Maybe it's understandable. I mean you all know the Good Friday story. You all know that Jesus is abused, tortured, and painfully executed for your sins. You've heard it countless times before. Is it any wonder that you are moved so little, that you can easily believe you're worthy of it?
That's why Christian authors seek to make new the truth of this Friday Christians call Good. One pictures Christ being put to death. The names of every single person that has lived, did live, or would live are read out and their sins listed. Hear your name read today. Hear your sins listed. Those secret lusts, that puffy pride, that continual doubt, that gossip, that greed, that failure to hold the Word of God sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Christ takes upon Himself each and every sin of yours. We who are not even worthy to have Jesus carry our shoes, our groceries, or our chores are surely not worthy to have Him carrying our sins, are we?
Another author shows you a bird's eye view of your life. There you are kneeling at the altar for your confirmation and even here you have impure thoughts. There you are ashamed to speak the name of your Savior before your rowdy friends. There you are proudly placing your intellect above God's Word. There you are thinking how hard life is on you, how you don't get what you deserve, how God is letting you down. You see all your life as God sees it. There is nothing but sin, sin, and more sin. It is disgusting and shameful. If you are disgusted and shamed by your own sins, if you want nothing to do with them, how in the world could you ever think it fitting, right and proper that Jesus should claim them as His own? How could you be worthy of anything other than judgment, condemnation, and hell?
No sinner can ever stand before Christ crucified and say, "I'm worthy of this." And no sinner can stand at the Lord's Table and say, "I'm worthy of this." If we're not worthy of Christ giving His Body on the Cross, we sure can't be worthy to eat it at the Communion Table. If we're not worthy of Christ shedding His Blood on Calvary, we sure can't be worthy of drinking His Blood at His altar. We must conclude we're worthy of neither Christ on Calvary nor Christ on our altar. Therefore, are we to find no comfort at either place? Are we to live our whole lives mourning and lamenting our sins and sinfulness? Are we to say, "Look what my sins did to Jesus? Who am I to eat, drink, and be refreshed by His Body and Blood? I can never be worthy of these!"
There are Christians who live this way. Their sense of sinfulness is so keen that they can only look at Christ crucified and feel bitter shame. Their sense of sin is so intense they can only approach Christ on the altar trembling if at all. The words of the Catechism haunt them: "But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: 'Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.' But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared."
This is the quagmire Christian people get themselves caught up in. The Gospel strikes them as so amazing, so profound that it seems too good to be true, so they wonder if they are doubting that Christ gave and shed His blood for them on Calvary. Secondly, because they are such sensitive sinners they doubt their repentance, they doubt their faith, they doubt even their doubt. They can never be at peace with the thought of communing, let alone of going joyfully to the Lord's Altar, because they feel all these doubts tumbling through their head and heart.
Friends, this is the direct opposite of what Luther wished to teach by this question. Remember, Lutherans always confess the truth against 2 errors: The Catholics on one side and the Reformed on the other. Luther refers to fasting and bodily preparation over against the Catholic church which required both. Luther admits, even as Scripture does, that there is fine outward training in such external exercises. But he goes on to say that works don't make one worthy or prepared to receive communion. Like salvation, all of the gifts of Communion are given to plain, old ordinary faith. Luther, does not bring up believing so you can focus or wonder about how hard you believe. He mentions faith as the opposite of works. Faith, weak or strong, receives what works can never achieve.
Over against the Reformed who don't believe that the same Body and Blood Christ gave and shed on the cross are bodily present on the altar of Communion for them to eat and drink, Luther mentions not believing and doubting. At the time Luther wrote the Small Catechism, those who believed the Reformed teaching that Christ wasn't present in Communion or was present only to faith were still around Lutheran Churches. Luther didn't want anyone to think Reformed Christians should come to a Lutheran altar.
Luther didn't mean for this question to set off endless internal questioning. He did not mean it to be a litmus test which upon passing people would boldly and self-righteously conclude, "I'm worthy." Luther meant for this question to point us back to the wonderful words, "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Every single question in this article of the Catechism deals with those words. These words show us why Christ's Body and Blood are given us in the Sacrament. These words show us the benefit of eating and drinking the Body and Blood. These words are the main thing in the Sacrament, and finally these words, particularly the words "for you," show us how sincerely, earnestly, and completely the Lord wants us to find refuge from our sins in this Sacrament.
The Blood that dripped from Christ crucified 2000 years ago lands right here today in this Sacrament, "for you." The Body that was given over to death on the cross long ago is given here today "for you." This is the place that Christ wants you to find refuge. He doesn't want you to find refuge in your outward preparation, in your promise to stop sinning,, in your certainty of believing, in your sense of worthiness. He wants you, He begs you, He requires you to find your refuge and worthiness only in Him in His Body given for you, in His Blood shed for you.
Friends, to show you that what I'm saying is what Luther meant listen to the Large Catechism. "I go to the Sacrament not on the strength of my own faith, but on the strength of Christ's word. I may be strong or weak; I leave that for God to decide. This I know, however - that He has commanded me to go, eat, and drink.." (IV, 56). Later on Luther says, "Those who are impudent and unruly ought to be told to stay away, for they are not ready to receive the forgiveness of sins because they do not desire it and do not want to be righteous. The others, however, who are not so callous and dissolute but would like to be good, should not absent themselves, even though in other respects they are weak and frail...People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest art to realize that this sacrament does not depend on our worthiness...[W]e come as poor, miserable people precisely because we are unworthy" (V, 61).
Who then is the Supper for? The Large Catechism says it's for "those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help" (V,70). The Formula of Concord says, "The true and worthy guests...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 of this precious treasure...who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all their heart to serve God with a stronger, more resolute faith and purer obedience... [T]his worthiness consists not in a greater or lesser weakness or strength of faith, but rather in the merit of Christ which the troubled father with his weak faith possessed just as did Abraham, Paul and others who have a resolute, strong faith" (VII,69-71).
We must always confess ourselves as unworthy of the Body and Blood of Christ whether at Calvary or in our mouths. Nevertheless we're invited by Christ to find refuge under the cross and forgiveness, life and salvation in His Body and Blood at the altar. Therefore as Luther said we "go freely and happily to the Sacrament and die to ourselves in it." We die to everything that is us: our sins, our works, even our idea of worthiness. We approach the altar even as we approach the cross not in our worthiness but Christ's. We commune in the spirit of the ancient Greek liturgies. The pastor invited communicants saying, The holy things for the holy ones." The congregation didn't respond with, "We are holy; here we come," but, "One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ." He is the worthy One and He is One who invites us to call this day Good and this altar ours. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (4-18-03), Lord's Supper IV