Worthy Communing: A False Distinction?

By Bryce P Wandrey

I have been interested in the question involving who should receive the Sacrament of the Altar for some time now. And I have been most interested in Lutheranism’s understanding of this question for at least two reasons: 1) Because I was born, raised and educated in the Lutheran tradition (namely that of the Missouri Synod within the Lutheran tradition), and 2) Because I found myself internally (and then externally) struggling with both the correct theology and practice proposed by the Lutheran (most specifically that of  the Missouri Synod) tradition.

Part of this interest has led me to write and publish an article (with Lutheran Forum which will appear in the Spring issue of this year) on Luther’s understanding of who worthily receives the sacrament entitled “For the worthy reception, faith is necessary…” I find in Luther the same three principles of worthy (and unworthy) reception which are witnessed in two “Theological Fragments” of Martin Chemnitz on this site (here and here).

I write all of this to preface a question that I have about an article written by Joel D Biermann in Concordia Theological Quarterly 72 (2008) entitled “Step Up to the Altar: Thinking About the Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper” (pgs 151-62). Biermann begins by quoting from Luther’s Small Catechism (on pgs 151-52). Directly after that quotation he writes:

That is it. Everything we need is right there. Luther gives us what we need to know about the Sacrament. Satis est. It is enough. Or is it? Well, that depends. Did Luther provide the sufficient and complete answer for the Christian contemplating her right reception of Holy Communion? Absolutely. It is an issue of faith; simple trust in the promise of Christ and thirst for forgiveness makes one a worthy recipient. Period. Luther accomplished his purpose: he provided instruction for the simple believer. But, do Luther’s beautifully wrought words provide the sufficient and complete answer for the congregation or the pastor seeking understanding about who should commune at the altar entrusted to them? Certainly not. That is another question altogether. In the first instance the question being addressed is, “Am I worthy to be at the altar receiving the Sacrament?” The second situation, however, asks a different question entirely: “Who should be communing at our altar?” Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism provides part – but not all- of the answer to that question.

Without going into the rest of the article (which can happen on this thread) I would like to inquire into the distinction here made. Is it a valid or false one? Is it a valid distinction for a pastor or congregation to refuse communion to a Christian who is worthy to receive under the guidelines of Biermann’s (or Luther’s and Chemnitz’s for that matter) first question? If someone is indeed worthy according to the first “situation” but the second “situation” excludes them from communing (according to Biermann’s rationale), isn’t the distinction rendered false for this very reason? How can I be worthy to receive the Sacrament but not receive the Sacrament at your altar?

21 thoughts on “Worthy Communing: A False Distinction?

  1. Bryce, I would like to give this question the time and thought it requires. However, circumstances don’t seem to allow that—very frustrating. So what follows is not as considered an opinion as it ought to be. A couple of thoughts nonetheless. Who knows, others might be tempted to join the discussion with something more worthwhile.

    First, I think it is important to make a distinction, because there are (at least) two different perspectives on this question: the private and the public. As is the case generally in all sorts of matters.

    Take the qualifications for presbyters/bishops/deacons in the pastoral epistles. Who are they addressed to? To Timothy and Titus respectively, i.e. to two archbishops. For what purpose? So they know what sort of chap they should be looking for when making the relevant appointment. And, perhaps, by extension to individual churches as well, as a guideline for their call meetings. [I know I’m mixing my polity metaphors here.]

    Should individual men considering entering the holy ministry scrutinise themselves in the light of these same criteria? Certainly.

    But the process is not the same. The first (primary) process looks at the external. It may or may not find a person blameless—in his conduct, that is—and judge accordingly. The second (and secondary) process looks within. It’s unlikely to find the same person blameless, regardless of conduct. So which way do we go? Accept him for ordination on account of his conduct, or not, according to the state of his heart? You know the answer.

    And sometimes you end up with godless unbelievers passing scrutiny on account of the brilliance of their hypocrisy. And only they, and God, know. Which is precisely the point—because as far as the rest of the church is concerned, they are indeed blameless, etc. and therefore qualified.

    Isn’t it the same with admission to the Lord’s Supper? The public stewardship of the sacraments presents one set of questions individual responsibility within that public framework another.

    In practice, very few communions would allow for a completely open policy (even Moltmann, who would open the sacrament to non-Christians, would apparently do so in view of non-Christian ‘believers’). The real question is, who regulates the policy. Is it done externally or internally? By the potential communicant or the communion?

    Which, I suppose, is ultimately another way of asking whose responsibility it is. The traditional Lutheran (incl. LC—MS) answer is: both sides have a responsibility. But they are responsible for different parts of the equation.

    P.S. I know that you are not invoking Luther here, but I suspect that he would have been with Biermann on this judging by, say, the Marburg Colloquy.

  2. Wouldn’t it be correct to say that the “institution” has already given the individual the “criteria/guidelines/etc.” in order for them to evaluate his or her worthiness? If so, an individual’s worthiness is determined (in part) by the institutional criteria of worthiness (along with the individual’s “use/utilization” of those criteria). How much further, how much more prescriptive, should the institution be in its stewardship of the sacraments?

    One does not become worthy to receive the Sacrament by any other means than faith (and in “faith” I would include the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism). I would argue that the correct understanding of faith in this context is that of Luther’s: fiducia.

    What harm is done to the understanding of faith alone–the Reformer (and Chemnitz) insists that a worthy communicant is that one which receives the Sacrament by faith alone–when we associate this worthiness with something which is more than faith?

  3. Thomas Renz

    No pastor or congregation should refuse communion to a Christian who is worthy to receive it. But, not having read the article from which you cite, I did not read the quotation as claiming differently. In the piece cited Biermann only argues that we need to distinguish between how “the simple believer” determines their worthiness and how the pastor/priest determines whether someone is worthy to receive.

    It seems to me that to make this distinction does not necessarily imply different criteria of worthiness in any ultimate sense. It implies the need for different criteria for *establishing* worthiness. This makes sense to me. If the criterion is “a truly believing heart”, the process of ascertaining the presence of such “a truly believing heart” must be different, depending on who is seeking to ascertain the matter.

    Only God truly knows our hearts. Individual believers usually have access to their own hearts in ways their pastor/priest does not. Hence those responsible for admitting or not admitting someone to communion, even if they seek to apply the same criterion, cannot follow the same procedure. A good tree does not bear bad fruit, however, and it is possible to deduce from expressions of attitudes and behaviour to the state of someone’s heart. (It is also possible to get it wrong but then again it is possible for individuals to be deceived about their own hearts, cf. Jer 17:9, which argues for the need of both communicants and their pastors to be alert, not only for the sake of worthy reception of the sacrament but for the sake of a healthy faith.)

  4. Bryce, Thomas Renz has just articulated clearly what I was trying to say, but failed to articulate clearly.

    And my point earlier about everyone practising closed communion of some sort means that the Renz/Biermann distinction of how to establish worthiness is not unique to (certain sorts of) Lutherans. What differs is the method and the specific criteria.

    The other question I have is this: when you write, that one becomes worthy to receive the Sacrament only by faith and define that faith as fiducia, it’s hard to argue against that. However, fiducia cannot be separated from the object of fiducia. Is it really the case that “all who trust in Jesus are welcome to receive” (not an uncommon formula for invitation in certain circles)? Or is it the case that “all who trust in what is being offered here are welcome to receive”? [I know I’m simplifying things more than somewhat, but you know what I’m driving at?]

    After all, what if there is someone who “trusts in Jesus” but is only after a memorial meal of bread and wine at the Eucharist? There is fiducia there. But fiducia isn’t a Platonic idea – it takes an object, and concrete one at that. Which is what the Reformation controversies boiled down to, and what the closed-close-open debates of today ought to boil down to, too.

  5. Thomas and Tapani,
    I think the issue is, as I proposed in my comments in the original post, that some would refuse communion to those who are worthy to receive it (as judged by, say, the Small Catechism). Biermann continually speaks about “unity of confession” in the rest of the article. As far as I can read, he never actually defines which confession he is speaking about and yet, if the confession goes beyond those elements of doctrine laid out in the Small Catechism, that confession of the Sacrament, then it seems to far to me. I completely agree with the distinction that you both draw out; I think Biermann is talking about something different when he creates the distinction between “Am I worthy?” and “Am I worthy to commune at your altar?”

    The answer to your questions are, in part, exactly what I write about in my essay which is being published by Lutheran Forum in the coming couple of months. I will try to formulate a synopsis and put in the comments here…

  6. Tapani,
    Correct me if I am wrong but you essentially raise the distinction: trust in Jesus isn’t necessarily trust that Jesus is “sacramentally/bodily” present in the sacrament.

    In response to that I would say that according to Luther trust in Jesus includes trusting Jesus’ words “This is my body…This is my blood.” To distrust Jesus’ words is to distrust Jesus (no fiducia here means no fiducia overall). Hence, trusting that Jesus is “present” in the sacrament is part and parcel to trusting (having faith) in Jesus.

    For instance (but not the only instance): “This faith he himself demands in the Word when he says, ‘given FOR YOU’ and ‘shed FOR YOU,’ as if he said, ‘This is why I give it and bid you eat and drink, that you may take it as your own and enjoy it.’ All those who let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true have what the words declare.” (LC V.34)

    Hopefully that makes sense.

  7. Bryce,

    That makes perfect sense. But how does one apply that in practice, say here in the UK? What do I do if I walk into a ‘broadly evangelical’ CofE church, where they invite “anyone who loves the Lord Jesus” to the table? Or if someone from such a church comes into my church? Within the Lutheran world, Luther’s teaching as you summarise it is an extremely helpful pastoral tool. How does it apply in the messy realities of a confessionally mixed society?

  8. Tapani,
    Don’t you think that the teaching that I laid out in the previous comment would/should work “widely” throughout Christendom (beyond, across and transcending Lutheran borders)? Should anything more be required? Should I “require” anything more from a person who comes to commune (assuming baptism (and possibly confirmation)) at a non-Lutheran altar?

    I don’t know if this works best through verbal announcements, communion statements, etc. There does seem to be a sense in England–a kind of an inherent knowledge–that if you aren’t baptised (and confirmed) you don’t go to communion (at least I have witnessed it in the Church of England); and so I am not sure how much I deal with communicants who obviously shouldn’t be there (which isn’t to say they don’t exist).

    Now, analysing their worthiness on a weekly basis is a tough one. I truly think that that “preparation” lies almost entirely in their hands. I can surely be there to answer questions they have, to offer counsel, to hear confession and absolve. But ultimately, they are the ones who know how they stand in relation to those 3 criteria. Paul does say let a man examine himself. Isn’t it part of my vocation to give him the tools to do just that?

    And so the practical way of working this out in the parish, for me, would be two ways: 1) preaching it when it is most appropriate and 2) catechizing those desiring baptism and confirmation.

  9. Bryce,

    I’m sorry not to have replied sooner. Busy times.

    It seems to me that you are now saying that baptism is the one external criterion for admission to the altar.

    Now, how does that fit with your earlier statement:

    according to Luther trust in Jesus includes trusting Jesus’ words “This is my body…This is my blood.” To distrust Jesus’ words is to distrust Jesus (no fiducia here means no fiducia overall). Hence, trusting that Jesus is “present” in the sacrament is part and parcel to trusting (having faith) in Jesus.

    I am assuming that you are not ignoring the fact that for Luther (and for some of us Lutherans even today), to say that Jesus is “present”, as you put it, does not necessarily mean trust in the words of Jesus. For Luther, and for those who follow him on this, it’s trust in the specific promises, “This is my body, this is my blood”, i.e. that He is present in His body in the bread and in His blood in the winecontra the ‘sacramentarians’, the 39 Articles, and a whole host of others.

    Now, if one accepts that distinction, then you begin to run into difficulties with the current Anglican practice — ‘baptised and in good standing…’ — because you could be, and indeed are likely to be, in good standing with a church body that specifically and explicitly denies the words of Jesus in the sense understood and demanded by Luther. And this applies to CA X just as much as it does to FC III.

    Have I got the wrong end of the stick?

  10. Tapani,

    A quick response as I think further about this…

    I definitely cannot impose Luther’s understanding of the sacrament on an Anglican parish. I can teach, without stepping outside the Anglican tradition, that Christ is present in the sacrament as Luther would understand it (the same goes with baptismal regeneration, etc.).

    I also take it as a given, as the Christian Church always has without any deviation that I know of, that baptism is the least of all requirements to worthily receive the sacrament (although I hesitate at calling grace a requirement).

    And, according to Luther’s wording of the Large Catechism, I take “trust” in the word’s of institution to necessarily mean trust in the presence of Christ’ body and blood sacramentally in the bread and wine because of the promise of Christ.

    I am not sure that has answered all of your concerns. I will reread it in the coming days…

  11. I don’t know when or how I dropped this conversation—wasn’t an intentional silence. I suppose other aspects of life took over…

    I think you put your finger on the problem you have: how to reconcile the ‘Lutheran’ view of the sacrament with the reality of being an Anglican cleric. Not so much a question of square pegs in round holes as of a hole so big it’ll take any peg and no peg in particular (I know I’m being a bit unfair, but only a bit).

    If I put on a Lutherish hat, as opposed to a Lutheran (Book of Concord) one, it’s hard to see how the Luther of the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528; see Luther’s Works 37:317) or of “An Open Letter to Those in Frankfurt on the Main” being willing to marry Anglican practice with Lutheran doctrine. No doubt you wouldn’t see it that way.

    In the end, it’s not so much a question question of the sacramentology as of ecclesiology. The Anglican church remains, in however loose a fashion, an established church, the default church in England, within a parochial structure. That, combined with its own peculiar (i.e. ‘particular’, not ‘odd’) history starting with the Elizabethan settlement and its emphasis on external compliance, makes it very difficult to take a ‘narrow’ view on worthy communing.

    And to be fair, the exact same problem plagues Lutheran churches in the same sociological setup, e.g. in the Nordic countries.

    On the other hand, I do remember having dinner once with the great C.K. Barrett at our alma mater. During the dinner, he reminisced how he was barred from communion in the Anglican chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, because he was a Methodist. This was in the 1930s.

  12. Andrew Schlecht

    This is a fascinating discussion. Understand that I am Lutheran, but I have a few questions/comments for all of you.

    1) Do you really believe the disciples “got it” at the Last Supper? That they understood everything Jesus was talking about? That when Jesus said “this is my body” and “this is my blood” that they took it literally? Or that Jesus was in, with and under the bread and wine? Or did they sit around the table whispering to one another, “What is he talking about? I don’t understand!” Were they therefore unworthy? Did they fail to meet the criteria that you are discussing? Shouldn’t Jesus have known better? Or do you assume that simply because Jesus shared communion with them that the disciples met your criteria (or Luther’s) as a de facto kind of proof even though Jesus doesn’t set out such criteria?

    2) Is the trust (faith) that we should have when we receive communion in the “thing” or in what the thing gives us–namely the promise of forgiveness of sins? In other words, is the most important thing that we trust that the bread and wine really are Jesus’ flesh and blood? Or is it more important to trust the promise “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin”? While I believe in the real presence of Jesus, it seems to me that the latter promise is the whole point! Does something happen at communion? Yes! Is it an empty symbol or does Jesus meet us at the altar and grant us forgiveness?

    3) Where does the requirement that one be baptized come from other than tradition? I don’t recall reading it in Scripture. If faith is a gift that comes through Word and Sacraments, why would we refuse to give someone Communion and thus the very gift they need? If they hunger and thirst for it…if their burdens of sin are overwhelming…if they trust the promise…why not let them eat and drink? Of course that assumes Luther’s criteria are valid–and it also depends on how you respond to my first comments about the disciples in #1 above.

    4) It seems to me it is delusional to believe in most circumstances that you can know the heart of those taking communion. What do they really believe? Since God is the only one who truly knows our heart, who am I to judge someone as unworthy? God provides the criteria–trust in the promise and come to my table. But we say–well not MY table, because I get to decide if you are really worthy.

    Thanks for reading my ramblings….

  13. Thomas Renz

    Interesting points, Andrew. These are my thoughts in reply:

    1) The disciples in the Upper Room did not have a fully-fledged understanding of the Eucharist, let alone along Lutheran lines. Of this I am quite sure. But, granted that Christ instituted the Eucharist with the Last Supper in the Upper Room, the Eucharist celebrated by the post-Resurrection church is not simply a re-enactment of the Last Supper and the discontinuity may caution us against taking the view that “what was good enough for them is good enough for me”.

    2) With Bryce I affirm that faith in Christ entails faith in his promises. But I agree with you that faith in Christ’s promises can take different forms at this point. Those who agree with the 39 Articles rather than the Book of Concord do so not for lack of faith in Christ’s promises. This is the problem with an overly narrow confessionalism that sees faith only where it sees agreement with its own specific understanding of the Eucharist.

    3) If admission to the table is decided by the individual coming forward and no-one else, it makes no sense to stipulate that communicants have to be baptised, let alone be in “good standing” with their own church. But (internal) faith finds (external) expression. Christian faith and baptism belong closely together in the NT, e.g. Gal 3:26-27, hence “baptism…now saves you” (1 Pet 3.21). God’s grace is orderly. The grace of Baptism (being incorporated into the body of Christ) precedes the grace of Holy Communion (partaking in the body of Christ).
    NB: I do not accept the equation of admission to the table with “grace” and barring from the table with “law” or worse. Being prevented from eating and drinking can be an act of God’s grace leading to repentance and more outpourings of grace.

    4) We are agreed that only God knows our hearts truly – our pastor doesn’t. Nor do I fully know my own heart. If such knowledge were required for deciding whether someone ought to partake in Holy Communion or not, the decision could be left no more to the individual than to the pastor. But it is not. I need not know my heart fully to be able to discern whether I relate to Christ in faith or not. And traditionalists who believe that pastors share a responsibility in determining whether individuals ought to communicate or not do not argue for the need to know anything other than what is public. Our lives are not all private. By way of a rough example, those who say “Let Jesus be cursed!” should be barred from the table, even allowing for the possibility that they say so “merely” because they’re drunk and are really Christians. Those who say “Jesus is Lord!” should be welcomed, even allowing for the possibility that they are hypocrites.

  14. Bryce Wandrey

    Thanks for the response.

    Giving Thomas’ responses a quick read I think I agree with most everything he has said.

    May I recommend the essay that I very recently posted on this site, “For the worthy reception, faith is necessary…” as a response as this time? It should help to answer more fully some of your questions (but not all).

  15. Wow! I am impressed you both responded so quickly. Since the previous comments were some 8 months old I was not sure anyone would actually respond. Thanks for sharing. I have some more comments and questions below. I am new at having a dialogue on a blog like this. Understand I am not trying to be argumentative. At least I don’t think so. And as I mentioned before I am Lutheran. And don’t feel you have to respond either. It is not my intention to create a never ending dialogue where you say, “O no. He is writing again. Is this never going to end?” It could get tedious pretty quickly—for all of us.

    Bryce, I actually had read your essay “For the worthy reception, faith is necessary…” It was very well done! I posted a link on facebook encouraging others to read it. Afterward, I discovered the current thread and thought I would post some comments and questions. In the essay you conclude with the following:

    “Luther lays out three criteria for worthily receiving the sacrament of the altar over the breadth of his theological writings. He is worthy to receive the sacrament who 1) has faith[xxxiv] in Christ alone, 2) hungers for the sacrament as a means of receiving God’s grace, and 3) recognizes Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament under the elements of bread and wine, because that person trusts Christ’s words, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’”

    1) Faith: I understand the necessity of faith. Luther described faith as “that which receives the promise.” But sometimes we come to God in doubt, confusion, fear, uncertainty. Faith is a gift from God. And sometimes we receive and experience that faith in the simple act of receiving communion. For example, sometimes we doubt the faith of our parents or spouse or other significant person in our lives. Can they really love me? Am I worthy? Sometimes the place that we find reassurance (faith in their promise) is in their loving arms or the simple words “I love you.” The same is true with communion. I doubt. Make no mistake, sometimes I come to the Lord saying, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” But when I take and eat and hear the words “given for you” I receive faith. I trust the promise. It would be absurd for me to refrain from coming to communion because today I may doubt the promise. Faith is not a prerequisite to receiving communion like a checklist item for a grade in school or qualifying for a driver’s license. It is a prerequisite for enjoying its benefits—forgiveness, life and salvation. If I don’t trust that I am forgiven it is pretty hard to have a relationship with God.

    2) Hunger for grace: Certainly people could come to the Lord’s Table out of compulsion. I am not certain that is a bad thing. We all do many things in life out of a sense of obligation. I would use the analogy of marriage. When I got married I promised “I will” when asked about living in the covenant of marriage. The brutal reality is that sometimes I don’t want to love. Sometimes I fall out of love. But Jesus shows us what it means to love—he shows us a “cross-shaped” love. Love is action. Love is sacrifice. Love is self giving. Love is unconditional. Love isn’t cheap. Love is expensive—Jesus chose to give his life for you. Sometimes choosing to love is a necessity. And we thus learn to love. “Love one another as I have loved you”—we hear both law and gospel. In the same way, if we come to communion out of obligation we may learn that we are truly hungry and thirsty and just didn’t know it. Choosing to take communion out of an act of will/obligation doesn’t make it less important or less valuable.

    3) Recognizes the body and blood: Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “This is as much as to say, ‘No matter whether you are unworthy or worthy, you here have Christ’s body and blood by virtue of these words which are coupled with the bread and wine.’” So our worthiness in this regards doesn’t matter. Recognizing Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament doesn’t make us worthy. What really matters is what benefit we receive when we come to the Lord’s Table. Yes, Jesus promises to meet us at the table. Jesus actually invites the likes of me to sit at his table. How amazing is that? And Jesus makes a promise when I come to the table: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”. It is for me—not to just anybody, but for me! And what does he give me? Forgiveness. That is sufficient. It is enough.

    Again as Luther writes: “In other words, we go to the sacrament because we receive there a great treasure, through and in which we obtain the forgiveness of sins. Why? Because the words are there through which this is imparted! Christ bids me eat and drink in order that the sacrament may be mine and may be a source of blessing to me as a sure pledge and sign—indeed, as the very gift he has provided for me against my sins, death, and all evils.”

    Thus, I don’t believe that recognizing Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament is a condition or prerequisite of receiving the Lord’s Supper. The whole point is trust the promise of forgiveness for me.

    Now I will shift to your comments Thomas.
    1) Regarding the disciples in the upper room, you agree with me that they did not have a full fledged understanding. I agree that what we do is not simply a re-enactment. We do it in remembrance of Jesus–with the full biblical understanding of that word. But you also express caution that we should not take the attitude that “what was good enough for them is good enough for me.” The next question is obvious: Why is it not good enough for us?

    Using the above criteria the disciples received communion in an unworthy manner. What are the implications of that? Why would we not use the same criteria? By that I do not mean we should not try to understand the mystery. I do not mean we should not teach the meaning and importance of the promises Jesus makes. I do not mean we shouldn’t teach people how to receive it in a “worthy manner”. I am just not sure we should be the gatekeeper who says, “If you do not believe this in exactly the way I tell you to believe then you are unworthy to eat and drink and are barred from the table.” Jesus even allowed Judas and Peter to take and eat and drink!

    2) I guess we agree on this one. The trust in the promise is what is important. But for me the most important promise is “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

    3) “God’s grace is orderly.” The implication is that God’s order is this: first comes baptism then comes communion. I still don’t know where that comes from other than tradition and our need to control things (control God?). And I suppose historically baptism happened before the Last Supper. However, I am reminded of the anointing by the Holy Spirit and baptism in the Book of Acts. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes before baptism (Acts 10:44-48), sometimes during (Acts 2:38-39) and sometimes after (Acts 8:14-17). Does that make the Holy Spirit disorderly? Is that in fact a bad thing? I think the Holy Spirit will work grace when and how he chooses—and not necessarily in the good order we think he should. Even eunuchs and gentiles can receive the gift!

    I think that sometimes the good order we wish to impose comes more from our anal retentiveness than from God. Not to say that God doesn’t believe in order (creation speaks to good order) or that I am in favor of anarchy. I’m just not sure I buy into the whole need to be baptized before receiving communion thing without some biblically grounded argument. God’s grace is not conditional upon baptism. “Sorry folks, but I can’t give you forgiveness, life or salvation in the bread and wine unless you first run to the front of the church and get baptized.” Baptism is for our benefit, not God’s. It is a gift to us, not a limitation on God. He gives us the gifts of being his sons and daughters, forgiveness, salvation and the Holy Spirit. He sets us free from sin, death and the devil. But I am not convinced that we need to receive baptism as a prerequisite to receiving communion. I agree with your comment about law and grace!

    4) Generally I think we agree on this, too. Perhaps the issue is unrepentant sin and those that reject Jesus as Lord. I remember going to a catholic ordination for a woman priest (that is a breakaway catholic denomination NOT Roman catholic) and being quite surprised when a Sikh woman (who was a former catholic) was welcome at the Lord’s Table. It seemed odd to say the least!

    In the end, I struggle with who should receive the Sacrament of the Altar just like Bryce. I serve a congregation in the ELCA. (In case you wonder, I am considering leaving the ELCA). My sister attends a Missouri Synod church. When I visit her I am barred from communing with her. When she visits me she feels barred from communing with us by her church. That is what piqued my curiosity about your posts in the first place, especially when you mentioned you were a Missouri Synod Pastor.

    So the reason I started this whole dialogue is the question: why does the church try to define “worthy reception”? Are they (we) arguing that pastors should refuse to allow people to receive communion if they don’t meet these three criteria mentioned above? Or that I shouldn’t come forward to receive communion unless I can assure myself that I meet these criteria? Or this is how I should prepare myself before coming to communion? The danger is that I might feel like Luther and start beating myself up. Am I truly worthy? Do I believe enough? Do I trust enough? Do I hunger and thirst enough? Are my sins truly forgivable? Do I truly believe that this is the body and blood of Jesus? Am I filled with too much doubt? Then we risk not coming to the table at all…. Because in the end, none of us are truly worthy, except by the grace of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

  16. Thomas Renz

    Dear Andrew. A few comments on your first three points first of all with which I am largely in agreement.

    1) I want to distinguish between, on the one hand, those who belong to Christ and want to relate to Christ in faith but whose faith is shaky, and those, on the other hand, who bear the name of Christ but have at present no real desire to trust him as their Lord and Saviour. The former are people whose basic orientation towards Christ is one of faith, even if on a given Sunday they come with the sort of doubts and fears which are not ultimately compatible with faith in Christ. Such doubts and fears need not invalidate the basic orientation and communing with Christ in the eating and drinking may be precisely the medicine they need to help them focus on Christ rather than themselves. The latter are those who, in the words of Luther, “openly live in sin or who wilfully harbor evil thoughts, such as of hatred, of uncleanness, and the like.” They live in reasonably conscious and unrepentant rebellion against the rule of Christ in one or more areas of their life and thus do not truly seek to relate to Christ in faith. They should not pretend otherwise by coming to the table. Their false pretence would only harden them in their sin.

    2) As seen from my context, Luther seems to set the bar very high in demanding hunger and thirst. I wonder how many pastors today agree with him, as I have yet to hear a sermon that admonishes people not to come to the table if they aren’t hungry. I am with you. Sometimes we ought to eat because it’s meal time, not because we are particularly hungry. Of course, if we are never hungry, it is probable that we’re spiritually unwell and maybe with the sort of illness that is better cured by fasting.

    3) I understand your concerns and agree with them. I think that Luther had different concerns. One of the things that struck me again upon reading Bryce’s essay was just how different Luther’s context was from mine. I know of very few “of timid conscience, who prepare themselves for the sacrament with much worry and woe and yet have no peace and do not know how they stand with God.” When Luther counsels that “those who go only because of command or out of habit” should stay away, he could be speaking into my context but not when he opposes “desire” and “longing” for communion with “horror or dread”. I doubt that there is much of the latter in England today – maybe there is more in the States. Arguably, the need for properly discerning the body and blood meant something different in Luther’s context than in first century Corinth and may mean something different again in our contexts.

  17. Thomas Renz

    As to your response to my comments:

    1) On all accounts the disciples seem to have had an insufficient understanding of the atoning death of Christ and they were not looking forward to his coming again in glory. Speaking metaphorically, they ate fruit salad as we do but their fruit salad had fewer ingredients and the requirements on their stomachs were therefore different. The issue whether they were worthy or not to eat the Last Supper did not arise for me. I question whether someone who is spiritually “Maundy Thursday” (a faith in Christ which knows little to nothing about the cross and resurrection) should partake in the Supper with which we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.

    2) Fine. I would add that you do not need to understand a promise fully in order to be able to trust in it but you have to understand it somewhat. I suspect that on Maundy Thursday the disciples did not have even a basic understanding of this promise but as you can tell from the above I believe that the Last Supper set up the Lord’s Supper without being identical to it.

    3) I believe there is an internal logic to the order of God’s grace and that this is a matter of biblical theology as much as tradition but exploring this further could be a monograph.

    4) I am not sure why, if you are unconcerned about baptism, you would not welcome a Sikh woman to communion. You do not know what is going on in her heart at that moment, do you?

    The question why the church would even want to define “worthy reception” is the truly fundamental one. Luther believed that “there must be hunger and thirst for this food and drink; otherwise harm is sure to follow.” To me, the idea that eating and drinking can be harmful is the nub of the issue. See 1 Corinthians 11:27-30. Paul’s claim that one “cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21) is also relevant.

    There may be some pastors callous enough to be unconcerned about “dishing out” judgement on people but the majority of pastors who are unconcerned about “worthy reception” probably fall in one of two groups. Either they do not believe that the sacrament can ever bring harm, not in our liturgical contexts anyway, or they know that harm could follow but do not think it is their responsibility to seek to avoid people coming to harm in this way.

    Among pastors who are concerned that we receive worthily, knowing that if we do not receive worthily, we may bring harm upon ourselves, there are those who believe that their sole responsibility consists in preaching about it from the pulpit and others who believe that more specific admonition, including in some cases barring people from the table as a means of urging repentance is required of pastors.

    The situation you describe appears to have little to do with this. If the concern is that people who do not sign up to a very specific understanding of the faith may harm themselves by partaking in Holy Communion (or sully the church?), then, it seems to me, someone has completely lost the plot…

  18. Bryce Wandrey

    As I am still on holiday Thomas has beat me to some good and substantive responses once again. I won’t bog down this conversation by trying to add what are already responses which would not differ that greatly from mine.

    I would add one thing in response to a comment you made towards the end of #18: “The danger is that I might feel like Luther and start beating myself up.” That jumped out at me because from my research and writing of the essay I had the overwhelming feeling that Luther was not encouraging me to beat myself up (either in regards to sin or in regards to my “right belief”). Part of the focus of the essay was the steer us away from a “right belief” understanding of worthiness as it relates to a faith-doctrine dialectic. (As a sidenote, I don’t believe that this opens up communion to any confession which is why baptism, and the baptismal creed, is so important and fundamental to communing). But also, re: sin and beating oneself up, I find Luther’s comments on 1 Cor: “They have interpreted this saying to mean that we should examine our consciences for sin, although it means rather that we should examine ourselves for faith and trust, since no man can discover all his mortal sins.” I think here Luther, instead of binding us and awakening a troubled conscience, frees us to receive Christ, in the sacrament, with confidence and joy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s