It's a Miracle that There are Truly Worthy Communicants
No soldier I know ever thought he was worthy of the Medal of Honor. Not many think they are worthy of Dad of the Year award and the same with Mother of the Year. But who among us even considers whether we're worthy of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of God? It's a miracle that anybody could be.
Why? Because it is so easy to be unworthy. It doesn't take hurling insults at Jesus; it doesn't take taunting Jesus; it doesn't take tempting Jesus like in our text. No, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that all it takes to be unworthy is not discerning that this Bread is Jesus' Body and this Wine is Jesus' Blood. That is if you outright deny it as Baptists and Church of Christ do, or even if you say with the Calvinists it's "as if" the bread is Jesus' Body, "as if" the wine is Jesus' blood, you're not a worthy communicant at this altar.
According to our Large Catechism, all it takes to be unworthy is not knowing what Communion is or why you come (LC, V, 2). Ever been swept along in a crowd not knowing where it went or why? Come to Communion that way and you're unworthy. Those who come to the Lord's Table not knowing or caring they are coming into the bodily presence of Jesus, are unworthy. Also those not seeking the forgiveness of their sins, and that's what you're doing if you come here defending, excusing, or accepting your sin, are unworthy.
Our Confessions warn against those openly or secretly defending their sins communing. The Large Catechism says those who "live in an unchristian manner receive it to their hurt and damnation" (IV, 69). The Formula of Concord is even more explicit. "It is essential to explain with great diligence who the unworthy guests at this Supper are, namely, those who go to this Sacrament without true contrition and sorrow for their sins, without true faith and without a good intention to improve their life and who by their unworthy oral eating of the body of Christ burden themselves with judgment (that is temporal and eternal punishment) and profane the body and blood of Christ" (SD, VII, 68).
When you think of open sinners, you might think of lesbian country music singer Chely Wright who says matter of factly and without hesitation, "I'm gay and I'm a Christian." You might think of the Methodist, Episcopal, and the Lutheran churches who say being gay is no sin to be repented of and so knowingly and willing commune them. But you know whom I think of? The person who despises God's Word for weeks or months at a time by not attending divine services and presents himself at my altar for Communion.
Both the openly gay and the openly absent from Divine Services are public sinners. But you only expect and allow me to stop the openly gay person. With the person who breaks the 3rd Commandment, I'm expected to assume that since they are at the Lord's table they must be repentant. However that's no truer for those breaking the 3rd Commandment than it is for those who break the 6th. Wanting to take the Sacrament is no proof of being worthy to take it
But let's talk about you. You're not openly sinful; you're faithful; you even come to midweek services! But our small catechism doesn't deal with secret sinners let alone brazen ones. It deals with unbelievers and doubters. "Anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared." Is this you, perhaps? You had better know. Because while it's a miracle that there are worthy communicants, it's still a wonder that any one dare commune because such terrible judgment is on the unworthy.
1Cor. 11 says the unworthy communicant is guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of Jesus. He or she is guilty of no less of a real mistreating of Jesus than the soldiers, the church leaders, and the people of the Passion reading were. Think of it. Would you dare ridicule Jesus? How about spit in His face? How about slap Him? How about nail Him to a cross and then laugh at Him? That's what an unworthy communicant is guilty of.
If such guilt doesn't weigh on you, the consequences of it should. Paul says because the Corinthians were eating and drinking in an unworthy manner many of them were weak, sick, and a number of them had died! Just as a worthy use of Communion has physical effects, so does an unworthy. Yet many of us give more thought and more care to eating the right food and taking the right medicine than we ever do to rightly taking Communion.
Did you catch that? I didn't say regularly taking Communion but rightly taking. Offering communion every Sunday, it's easy to line up like cattle and follow one after the other to where the hay is put out thinking no more about it than a cow does. If that's how it is for you, beware! The Body and Blood of Jesus are not for your soul or body its highest good. Instead it's like the Stephen King book Thinner where a portly man is cursed by a gypsy with one word "thinner." The man who loves to eat, eats and eats only to find he is wasting away. Just like the Corinthians found who misused Communion: first weakness set in, then sickness, and finally death.
Stop already! I'll never dare approach that altar again. See, I told you it is a miracle that there are truly worthy Communicants. It is so easy to be unworthy and such frightful a judgment falls upon those who aren't, so who dares eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus? Only the unworthy.
That's what we confess in the Large Catechism. "For we are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we go to confession because we are pure and without sin, but on the contrary, because we are poor miserable men, and just because we are unworthy" (V, 61). Our Formula of Concord further explains: "The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious sacrament above all else 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). Remove the intervening words and what we confess is that the worthy Communicant is the one who thinks he's unworthy.
Isn't that consistent with what Jesus says? It's not the thief who thinks he deserves to be saved who is with Jesus in Paradise but the thief who knows he doesn't. It's not the person who thinks he sees that can see Jesus but the person who knows he's blind. It's not the person who thinks he's a saint that Jesus forgives but the person who knows he's a sinner. It's not the well but the ill, not the living but the dead, not the worthy but the unworthy Jesus saves. The reason Jesus did not come down off that cross and save Himself tonight is for the sake of those who know they could never save themselves.
Jesus didn't live a perfect life to show us how it was done. He lived a perfect life because we could not. Jesus didn't suffer, bleed, sigh and die under the wrath of God and the pains of hell to make you feel bad, to grab you by the scruff of the neck and say, "See what you made Me do." Jesus does not want you walking away from the cross or this Table beating your breast saying, "O what have I done; O how guilty I am." No, He wants you streaming toward the cross with open eyes and to this table with an open mouth saying, "Thank you, feed me, forgive me, fill me till I want no more."
But how? How dare I approach this table except maybe on tippy toes with fear and trepidation? Our Large Catechism tells us how. Don't come pleading your own worthiness but the Word and command of Jesus. Come depending more on the lips of Jesus than on anything coming out of your heart or mouth (V, 62). Elsewhere Luther said we "go freely and happily to the Sacrament and die [to ourselves] in it" (Kittelson, 168). Die not only to your sins but to your opinion of your worthiness, and not only die but live in this Sacrament. St. Augustine said that "gathered together into His Body and made His member we may be what we receive" (Sermons, VII, 282). We go to the Sacrament with our unworthiness but come out covered by His worthiness.
It's only in the perfect worthiness of Jesus that you should ever and could ever approach this table. Don't play the waiting game. That's Luther's advice too. He said, "Don't say: I am not fit today; I will wait awhile. This is a 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). The Devil can positively tie you in knots with how you're feeling or not feeling, how fit or unfit you are. So Luther advised to go particularly when you're feeling either extreme: "the more restless a person's conscience, the more should he go to the sacrament or hear [the Communion service] mass" (LW, 35, 110). He says the opposite in the Large Catechism. "The less you feel your sins and infirmities the more reason you have to go to the Sacrament to seek help and a remedy" (V, 78).
All the churches that confess Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus have marveled at the worthiness factor. They've all thought it a miracle that there were worthy Communicants. The ancient Greek Liturgies had the priest say, "The holy things for the holy people." The congregation responded not with we are holy here we come' but, "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father" (This is My Body, Sasse, 320). The Roman Rite has communicants saying not I'm worthy' but, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." The 16th century Anglicans before they denied the real presence had not the prayer of arrogant access' but the Prayer of Humble Access which says, "We do not presume to come to this Thy table trusting in our own righteousnessWe be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table"
What about us Lutherans? Right before we commune we've been chanting for 120 years what the Church has for 1,300 years before us. We chant for mercy and peace from the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world thereby confessing we are not worthy apart from Him. And that Lamb, worthy of power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, blessing, and glory, gives us not only His mercy and peace but His worthiness. And that's how the miracle takes place that there are truly worthy communicants. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers VI (20110413); Sacrament of the Altar IV