A question of communion

by Ed Kettner
Recently, Canadian newspapers have reported on an interesting question which has important theological implications, both for the church and for society’s perception of the church. At the funeral of former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, a Roman Catholic, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Protestant, received the Sacrament of the Altar from Archbishop Andre Richard. Most of the controversy concerns the question of whether the Prime Minister actually consumed the host (that is, the consecrated wafer), or if he put it in his pocket. Those closest to the scene say he consumed it; pictures of the event are not quite so clear. But the question also asked is: Should he have received the host, or declined it?

Part of the confusion lies in the fact that the Prime Minister, technically, did not come forward to receive the Sacrament, but that the Archbishop came down to commune those in the front row. This created an awkward situation. The official Roman Catholic position is that only Catholics in good standing should receive the Sacrament. While one Roman Catholic layman (Speaker of the Senate Noel Kinsella) commended the Prime Minister for showing “solidarity,” we need to ask whether such an emotional response is the proper attitude or reason for receiving the Sacrament in a church of which one is not a member.

The awkwardness of the situation serves to demonstrate why the church has always taught that not everyone present at a service should come forward to receive the Sacrament, but only those who have been properly taught and understand what they are receiving. This is what the church has taught from apostolic times to the present.

These days feelings seem the paramount reason for doing anything. We are reluctant to “offend” people by perhaps suggesting they should not come forward to receive the Sacrament. Yet, the first and foremost question that needs asking is: What does the Word of God, the Bible, say about receiving the Lord’s Supper?”

St. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In chapter 10 he reminds his readers that the bread is a communion of the body of Christ and the cup is a communion of the blood of Christ. This means that the body and blood of Christ are united with the elements of bread and wine, and in our reception of them we, too, are ‘in communion’ with those elements and with each other (1 Cor. 10:14-17).

Paul also talks about the possibility of unworthy reception. He notes that the communicant is to “examine himself,” (1 Cor. 11:28), and warns that one who eats and drinks unworthily is guilty of profaning the body and blood of Christ (11:27).

Throughout history, the Church has recognized a twofold obligation: the communicant is to examine him/herself, and the one who consecrates and distributes, who is a “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), that is, one who is entrusted by God to properly administer that which belongs to God, is to remind the communicants of their obligations, encouraging them to refrain from the sacrament if it is spiritually dangerous for them to partake, and if necessary to bar them from the sacrament for the same reason.

Since St. Paul speaks as an apostle chosen by the Lord, his words are to be taken as the Lord’s words. We then need to ask, “What makes us worthy?” In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther makes it clear: “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” This entails recognizing our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness, and trusting that Christ means what He says: that He is giving us to eat and drink the very body and blood that was given and shed on the cross. The very elements that won our salvation are now given to us to receive with our mouths.

The problem is that different confessions (“denominations” does not fully do justice to the differences) teach different things, and going forward to receive the sacrament when you believe differently from what that church teaches is disrespectful both to the teaching of your own church as well as that of the church you may be visiting.

Through the ages, the Christian church always practiced what is known as closed (sometimes called “close”) communion. The Sacrament is for believers alone, and is an expression of the unity we have in Christ–unity in the faith. Since it is possible to receive the sacrament unworthily and thus come under judgement for doing so, we recognize a twofold obligation:
1. the communicant is under obligation to perform self-examination, asking if he/she believes what Christ and His Church say about what is being given (the actual body and blood of Christ) and the reason it is given (forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation);
2. the obligation of the pastor to make sure that the flock he is serving understands this, which he does by catechizing them in the truth and assisting them in that self-examination.

The questions found in Luther’s Small Catechism demonstrate the seriousness of the process. The Lord’s Supper is not to be taken lightly. At the same time, when we realize what a wonderful gift God is giving us here, we see its reception as a joyful privilege.

May Pastor and people both take their duties seriously, that in our celebrations of the Supper we faithful confess the truth, and in do so testify that the differences in views that divide Christendom in fact do matter.

Rev. Dr. Edward Kettner is Academic Dean at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton

Posted By: Matthew Block
Posted On: July 22, 2009
Posted In: Insight,

More CanadianLutheran.ca Resources