Who Receives this Sacrament Worthily?
We are probably more concerned about medicine taking than taking the medicine of immortality. It's true; a mistake in prescription medicine can make you weak, sick, or even kill you, but Paul says that unworthy communion can do that and bring God's judgment down on you.
Let's be clear; when we talk about worthy communing we're not talking about closed Communion. That's about who should commune together, not about who should commune at all. Just because we don't commune a person at this altar doesn't mean we think they are unworthy communicants and would receive the Lord's Body and Blood to condemnation. You should explain this to your friends, relatives that we don't commune. You should also tell yourself that just because you can commune at this altar doesn't mean you're necessarily a worthy communicant. You could be communing out of habit, duty, command, or custom. You should never commune for these reasons (Luther's Works 36, 257).
So how do you know if you're a worthy communicant? An unworthy communicant doesn't feel his sins but defends them. Communion is a meal of forgiveness. Christ gave His Body and shed His Blood on the cross to pay for the sins of the world. Christ Body and Blood are here to forgive your sins. If you come to this altar defending or excusing your sins you're saying you don't want to be forgiven. You can't be forgiven for a sin you defend or excuse because who wants to be forgiven for what he or she doesn't admit to be sin? Like on the cross, the thief who admitted his guilt was promised paradise, but the thief who demanded Jesus save him but never admitted his guilt, found no help or forgiveness from the Body and Blood of Christ in time and was condemned by them in eternity.
An unworthy communicant is a sinner but holds back some or all of his or her sins. Or an unworthy communicant is one who treats Holy Communion as ordinary Bread and Wine not the Body and Blood of God the Son. You probably never say Communion is a symbol or represents the Body and Blood of Jesus, but do you ever find yourself thinking, "I'm to treat the Bread and Wine as if' it is the Body and Blood of Christ." If so, don't commune here. From the first edition of John Calvin's works to the last, this "as if" is the mark of his doctrine. There is a world of defense between the Lutheran confession that Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ and treating it as if' it is (Elert, Lord's Supper Today, 35).
Now someone who treats Communion as if' it is the Body and Blood of Christ at a Reformed altar is right. That is not the Body and Blood of Christ, so he doesn't sin in treating it as if' it were. It's another matter at the altar where the Body and Blood of Jesus is. You commune at this altar with an as if' attitude and you profane the Holy Body and Blood of Jesus. The essence of profanity is not rude or crude speech, thoughts, or actions, but treating something holy as ordinary. The Book of Hebrews says when Esau treated his holy birthright as worth less than a bowl of lentils he profaned it.
It is profanity not to see the holy Body and Blood of Jesus on this altar, in my hands, in your mouth and body. Such blindness is guilty of doing exactly what Peter did. Peter wouldn't acknowledge Jesus as His friend or master let alone his Lord and God. When you think you receive just bread and wine, you're guilty of denying your Lord and God who is present. In fact bowing and kneeling before just bread and wine would be idolatry
But it gets worse, not only are you Peter, you're an out and out enemy of Christ. See how they abused the holy Body and Blood of Jesus by slapping, spitting, whipping, beating, and crucifying? Whatever is done to the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is done to the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever reverence is shown to the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is done to the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, whatever irreverence is shown, whatever disregard is shown; whatever distain, mockery, or levity is shown to the Bread and Wine of Communion is really done to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hear what we confess as Lutherans, "No one except an Arian heretic [who denies that Jesus is true God] can or will deny that Christ Himself, true God and Man, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper, should be adored in sprit and truth in the true use of the Sacrament" (FC, SD, VII, 126). By the singing of the "Lamb of God" in the Communion liturgy, by bowing and kneeling if able, we are acknowledging and adoring our Lord God who is present once again on earth in Holy Communion. The old man Luther kneeling to lick up the Blood of Christ he accidentally spilled, the ancient liturgical practices of pouring the Blood of Christ into a drain going straight to ground and burning the Body of Christ that couldn't be eaten, all testify that Communion is the holy Body and Blood of our God and Savior.
If you treat it as ordinary, forget whose presence you're really in, or regard it as plain food, you're guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of Jesus. You're standing at the foot of the cross all right, but you're not remembering what He did for you there or proclaiming His death until He comes. You're the Roman soldier cracking jokes; you're the church leaders mocking Him. You've got the real Blood of Jesus on your hands all right but precisely in the way Pilate didn't want it.
Who then ever dare consider himself or herself a worthy communicant? First a worthy communicant is not judged so by your standards. It is not a matter of peering into the depths of your heart, and seeing if there is a green light saying, "Go." If you go by your own standards, either you will not go when you should or you'll go when you shouldn't. Luther says it is the trick of the Devil who says "You're not fit today; wait until tomorrow." He said that when he listened to that he only grew colder and colder towards the sacrament until he found he had no desire to go at all (LW 51, 192).
However, if you have your own litmus test set up, and go based on passing your own standards, you'll go when you shouldn't. Holy Communion is a dying to self. Luther admonished communicants, "Go freely and happily to the Sacrament and die [to yourself] in it" (WA 8, 184). If you go only after passing your tests, you're still very much living to yourself. In the Greek liturgies, the pastor invited communicants to the altar with the words, "The holy things, for the holy ones." The congregation didn't respond, "The holy ones are us; here we come," but, "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father."
Where many have learned to set up a standard in their own heart is from a misunderstanding of this part of our catechism. It says, "Anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy." The Devil uses this to poke you, barb you, torment you saying, "Do you really believe? What then are these doubts?" Our confession of faith that came 50 years after the catechism, the Formula of Concord, saw this problem and corrected it. "Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or the strength of faith. It depends on Christ's merit" (SD, VII, 71). Worthy communing doesn't require a certain amount of faith but believing in the right object. Do you come believing Christ is bodily present to forgive your sins including weak and doubting faith? Then Christ is here for you.
The truth of the matter is that a worthy communicant is someone who knows they are unworthy. The Orthodox Church has this right. Right before communing they individually say what the centurion said to Jesus who was on his way to heal his servant, "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof." A worthy communicant is not someone who thinks they're holy enough to go but someone who knows they're not. St. Ambrose said that since the Blood of Christ is poured out every time for the remission of sins, "I ought to receive it always; because I constantly sin, I constantly need to have the remedy" (in LW 37,329).
But I feel so restless, so troubled, my conscience accuses me everywhere I turn. Should you then wait till your conscience is at ease? Again, if you do that, you'll never come. A troubled conscience is not an indication that you ought not to come to Communion. You're conscience is not God. It's not the voice of God in your heart. You're conscience can be too hard in which case you don't feel guilty when you should, but it can also be too soft in which case you feel guilty when you shouldn't. Or worst of all you can have an evil conscience which feels guilty all of the time for literally everything. If it rains when it shouldn't, it's your fault. If your kids don't like the meal, you're guilty. If everyone is not happy all the time, you feel guilty.
Luther said this about who receives communion worthily, "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). In another place he said this, "It is useful and necessary that the more restless a person's conscience, the more he should go to the sacrament" (LW 35, 110).
Startle you? But isn't this what our Lord did? He told the fearful, fear not; the heavy burdened to come to Him with their burdens; when the Centurion said he was not worthy to have the Lord come to him, the Lord helped him anyway, and when Peter realized he was so sinful the holy Lord should depart from him, did Jesus go? No.
Who is a worthy communicant? Our Lutheran confessions answer this in detail: "The true and worthy guestsare 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 worthywho feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all their hearts to serve God" (FC, SD, VII, 69).
Let's bring this back to this Friday we call Good. It's not those who come away from the cross beating their breasts in bitter sorrow over what their sins have done to Jesus who use the cross rightly. No, it's those who see that He gave His Body and shed His Blood for them. The highest praise, honor, adoration you can give is to eat and drink Holy Communion in joyous relief that your sins are being forgiven for all time and eternity. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20070406); Lord's Supper IV