Monday, May 7, 2012
I wonder if someone like Augustine showed up at an LCMS altar if he would be communed? Because the vocabulary and framework of the Real Presence was different from the one we use today, it might be easy to see why he would be denied. At the same time, if an Arius showed up there are many Lutheran altars that would welcome him with open arms and without a second thought. In both cases it is error and, perhaps, the same error -- seeing an easy and neat and clean answer to the question of what is enough.
In the past I have written that we ask this question not from the perspective of who may be denied but rather from the perspective of making sure that as many as may be included and receive without impediment the gifts and grace of the table of the Lord. For the congregation we often treat this as a once for all decision. As long as you are a member, you receive the privileges of membership -- and that includes the Lord's Table. Barring extreme public sin, it is likely that most pass on their way to the altar rail with but a second thought. While I am not at all suggesting that we should be suspicious, the personal examination of life and conscience is seldom advocated with the kind of seriousness it was once. In the same way, the decline of private confession has left us distinctly hindered in this area of our stewardship of the Mystery, namely, that of making sure within all human frailty that those who commune receive without hindrance or impediment all the blessings of that communion which our Lord intends.
Most of what we do as Pastors is neither neat nor tidy. It involves dealing with folks at their worst, with circumstances of error or abandonment of the Table of the Lord (if not down right despising of this Sacrament). It involves some who could without much knowledge except that the Usher came to the pew and nodded and so they followed the line of those who went before. Both circumstances can easily turn a Pastor cynical and callous toward those who commune. It is enough... that is what our Confessions speak of. The content of that "enough" is not without dispute both in the past and in the current state of Lutheranism. One thing is to be sure. The Confessions did not intend for this to become a locked door only reluctantly opened. Yet that is exactly how some practice this, well, discretionless duty. Again -- the solution does not lie in no door at all. It lies in pastoral care that seeks and works toward the inclusion of as many as possible and not to justify the exclusion of all but the most familiar and faithful.
Speaking personally, I hate to say "no" even though "no" is exactly what must be said. In the end, I plead for those who take seriously this stewardship of the Mystery. Even when "no" is the answer that must be given, make sure that those who ask know that it is only with the greatest regret and the greatest concern for them and their lives in Christ that the answer must be "no." And, one more thing, to make sure that the answer is not poured in concrete. At the same time we must say "no" we must also give the prospective communicant the path through which they may fully participate in the body and blood (catechesis being the ordinary answer).
Once a relative not Lutheran sought out Lutheranism only to find that the path to communion and life within the Lutheran congregation would be 6 months or more of weekly instruction, several hours each week. While this may be a desirable goal, it is not realistic to believe that any and every possible doctrine and issue must be covered prior to membership and full participation in the Table of the Lord. When I meet with people, I prefer to speak of the introduction that takes place in formal catechism classes and of the need for on-going and life-long instruction in the Word of the Lord. The completion of the first does not satisfy the latter.
Strangely, I encountered one congregation in which a lapsed Lutheran and a Lutheran from another fellowship was required to go through the entire catechism class that was required of someone with no previous instruction or history in the faith. As if to show the compassion of this Pastor, he agreed to allow the Lutherans to commune privately once catechism began (but not on Sunday morning with the rest of the congregation). In this regard the issue of communion was treated personally and privately in a manner which betrays the very nature of the Sacrament. No admission for private reception should be different from what is required for full, public reception. Again, the question we face is satis est.... it is enough.
I do not write to answer the question of what is enough as much as to encourage us not to take the easy path of all ":no" or all "yes" but to struggle as God desires with the conversation that, we hope and pray, will result in the celebration of our unity at the Table and lives with the painful regret and sorrow when such conversation will not allow that full goal to be realized...