Derek Johnson Muses

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Considerations while Receiving Communion

Remember This at All?

Remember This at All?

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14)

“Dear Savior, we come to your table at your gracious invitation to eat and drink your holy body and blood. Let us find favor in your eyes to receive this holy sacrament in faith for the salvation of our souls and to the glory of your holy name.” (Lutheran Worship, Prayer before Reception of Holy Communion.)

I think about this scripture and pray this prayer when I go take communion often. I’m not sure why (a version of the prayer is in the front of LSB), except that I might have something to with the fact that I’m always rushed because I have to go back up to the choir loft and tape another hymn, or I’m the last usher in line and have to tell pastor who to go give to communion in the pew to. Point is, I go to communion with a busy mind and a guilty heart sometimes. I still get Christ’s body and blood, which is fear-inducing.

It’s probably a good thing that communion is for sinners.

The Dilemma of Closed Communion: Admitting that the Church is Small

Two weeks ago at the ACELC conference, I reached a startlingly epiphany during one of the lectures on closed communions. The presenter was drawing mostly from Walther, and came to this assessment towards the end: with all these standards regarding communion of whom can partake of it, one almost wish there was no Lutheran church. Then it hit me: Communion in an orthodox Lutheran church is kind of frightening.

Close communion is a struggle, mainly because we want to be liked and because it hurts our perception in the minds of our Christian churches. But one thing I’ve learned from the Scriptures and the Confession, being a Christian isn’t about being liked. Being a Christian is about walking in the light, saying what we believe, and when you live in the light, you have acknowledge where you are different from others.

The temptation here is to say that the supper is a burden to our unity with other Christians and come up with a new doctrine of the supper. This was the temptation the ecumenical movement gave into, in an effort to build the visible church on earth, or the second tower of Babel, where everyone believes something different about what they are putting into their mouths. (And in my opinion, this open table is part of why they ended up throwing the scriptures out the window, because ignoring such differences in the interpretation of Scriptures will necessarily causes us to hold it in low regard.)

But such a large communion doesn’t deal with the real problem of close communion: if you believe in it, you have to acknowledge that the church is very small, on some level. As we keep our altars tight, we feel a burden of small unity, but the truth is, that is what we should feel. We need to encourage the others to maintain their own unity while we maintain ours.

Jesus discussed this with his disciples in Luke 13:23-24 “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’” This passage shows us how we should concern ourselves: while it is good to maintain friendships with Christians in other denominations and to discuss our beliefs together, we need to acknowledge each others differences and respect each others altars. Not that we shouldn’t be encouraged if they are constantly in the scriptures, and we should go there with them. But we have to hold to the Bible’s full doctrine, as Christ has given it to us.

The Lord’s Supper is a declaration of the unity of faith, a unity that only God can give. While we can participate in the Supper, we can’t just bring in a bunch of non-dems, Catholics, Methodists, and every other denomination to our communion table and say, see? We believe the same thing, and this supper unites us. It is a paradox with the supper: it can give us unity, but we can celebrate it in such way that we make a mockery of Christ’s body. If we don’t fully agree with our Christian friends, it is better to acknowledge our disagreement and leave it at that.

Close communion is really just an admission that we are human, and that we disagree. Yes, it sounds harsh, but remember, there are lot of laws that God gives us to limit our own egos and pleasures, most notably about sexual purity. We must trust him in this matter.

More ACELC Wrapup: Close Communion, and How to Teach the Truth in Love

The one subject at the ACELC conference that sparked the biggest response from my brain was Professor John Pless’ assignment that he gave to his students at the seminary of amending a bad communion statement. It read like this “All baptized Christians who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, examine themselves and repent of their sins, and believe that Christ is really present in Holy Communion are invited to receive the Lord’s Supper with us.” The first thing I recognized about this statement was that it put all the onus on the individual who was reading it to make sure that he or she was prepared to receive Communion, and allowed the pastor and congregation to run and hide. Many partially-educated Christians could read it and obliviously take the sacrament; good thing the church washed its hands of the matter.

Close communion can be an iron door in the face of a visitor, a relative or a friend who walks into your standard LCMS church. Non-member walks in and hears he can’t take communion? Visitors always take communion at my church. Professor Pless pointed that, it’s even harder for an ELCA member to understand why he or she can’t take communion in an LCMS church, since both bear the name Lutheran. But this situation doesn’t have to be a negative-in the grander scheme of things, close communion gives a great opportunity for a congregation to one, greet its visitors, and two, explain to them what they believe and, most importantly, listen to them about what kind of background they come from.

Many times, I have visited LCMS churches that use contemporary worship and haven’t been acknowledged; they have that vague closed communion statement in their bulletin. When I go to churches that a point of asking visitors what they believe about the sacrament, there’s always an additional conversation about where I go to church and my beliefs, and I have never left not feeling welcome. Of course, I have always been admitted to communion in those churches, so I don’t know how they would handle the member of another church body.

The responsibility of close communion is one that lies, not just with the pastor, but with the elders and congregations. At this conference, a number of pastors talked about how tough it is to have a conversation with a visitor, three minutes before a service starts, or even at the communion rail.  This is a place where the greeters and elders can be at a door and talk to guests and say, welcome to our church, and ask them about their church background, and direct them to the pastor if they wish to take communion. Granted, the words need to be said with care, and the congregation needs to have members and elders who are mature enough to speak them.

But back to the language of the closed communion statement. First, I would recognize the universal truth: that Holy Communion is God’s gift to the church, and His Church should administer it rightly, as it is a privilege. Because believers are making a statement that they are united in belief at Christ’s altar, only believers of the same confession should come to the same altar, and for that reason, visitors should speak with the pastor about communing.

And LCMS members, let’s consider the conscious of our fellow pastors and congregations, and be proactive when we visit them. Sending an e-mail or other communication to a pastor to let him know that we will be at his church ahead of time lets pastors eliminates surprises for pastors five minutes before a service starts.

I have had the closed communion conversation with a friend before we attended an LCMS church; this friend is an evangelical, and he understood. I simply said that our church respected other church bodies, but that kept our rails closed because we didn’t want to judge others. Thankfully, we have built an understanding over the years, and that made it easier.

But still, that leaves the ELCA question, and there really isn’t a good answer for it, in spite of the fact that now days, the ELCA has more in common with the Presbyterians and Methodists. Over the course of a relationship, this can be an opportunity to show how the ELCA and LCMS have gone their separate ways (espescially on women’s ordination and gay marriage), but ultimately, this leads to the reality that closed communion simply is a hard teaching. But maybe it’s supposed to be hard. Maybe God gave us this gift of closed communion so that we would know how precious His forgiveness is, and treasure it in our hearts. Thanks be to God.

ACELC Conference-Day 3

Thursday was the last day of the ACELC conference, and unfortunately, there were samples that I had to plant (the burdens of being the sole proprietor of your office). But the time I put in there was well worth it, and having received the edification from the conference, I feel much more apt to converse on some of these issues with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today’s address was from Pastor Clint Poppe, the chairman of the ACELC, where he discussed the state of the organization and where he hopes it will head over the next year. The ACELC was formed out of discussions that Pastor Poppe had with other pastors concerning the differences in theology and practice, while in the meantime, backroom decision plagued the political workings in the LCMS. So Pastor Poppe and his colleagues sought to form an organization that sought to study the Scriptures and use them to address the theological problems of Synod.

When I hear these things, I am encouraged. Our Synod has been divided in both doctrine and practice, although the divide in doctrine is not as widely acknowledge. When some congregations are embracing the church growth tactics and mainstream evangelicalism while others rigorously study Walther, we need to talk about our differences. Even in my own congregation, there was someone in Bible study who suggested something that I’m quite opposed to. No one likes to do this, because it inevitably involves a certain amount of conflict. But if we ignore our differences and let our resentments fester, its only going to make those fights worse.

So as I read through some of the ACELC’s documents that they handed out, I was very optimistic about the proposed changes. It means a lot to me that other pastors and lay people care about what we believe and will work to educate each other on what God has done for us. Thanks be to God!

Now, I’m going to bed, but tomorrow I’m going to get up and review some of the documents, and hopefully work up some more stuff on Pless’ closed communion statement.

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