Thursday, January 7, 2016
The pitiful state of examination. . .
If there is such an examination, it is usually about which church you belong to and whether or not that parish is, in fact, a part of or in fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. So what happens is somebody says "Pastor, I would like to commune. I am Missouri Synod, a member of St. Jehoshaphat by the Convenience Store, in Straight Arrow, Illinois." To which the pastor responds, "Well, sure, we would love to have you commune with us." And everyone goes back to their places. Yes, I have done this and I know of no real way around such perfunctory conversations rushed along as the organist begins the first hymn but I also know that this is not what kind of examination of faith is intended for those who desire to commune other than at their home altar.
If more is involved, it may lead to a series of questions, generally with rather short answers. Are you baptized? Have you been confirmed? Where are you a member? Do you confess the creed? Do you believe that Christ's flesh and blood are really present in and with the bread and wine? Do you repent of your sins and believe in Christ's atoning sacrifice and pray for the aid of the Spirit to amend your sinful life?" And the answer is generally, "Yup." Yes, I have done this and no of no real way around such a conversation which does not really answer anything and does not help us get to the crux of the matter nor is it the kind of examination of faith intended for those who desire to commune other than at their home altar.
In reality, communing is much more than simply what you believe and whether or not this faith is common to the altar where you desire to receive (or the other way around). Examination ordinarily has meant confession, private confession. In other words, it is not simply about whether or not you and your church are kosher but whether or not you have been examined, whether or not you confess your sins, and whether or not you are able to receive the Sacrament without impediment and for your benefit. But this is not how we think or what we do or even how we speak anymore.
Entrance to the Lord's Table should not simply be satisfied by a membership card nor should it be satisfied by the right answers to the right questions. It ought to be about more than this. But since private confession has waxed and waned and hardly anybody within our parishes practice it, we have conveniently forgotten that this really what the examination is all about.
For everyone to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, without distinction or selection, is a sign of contempt that the Lord cannot endure. The Lord himself distributed the supper to his disciples only. Therefore anyone not instructed in the doctrine of the gospel ought not to approach what the Lord has instituted. No one should be distressed when his Christianity is examined even down to the finest point when he is to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. It should be established as part of the total state and system of discipline that ought to flourish in the church that those who are judged unworthy should not be admitted. (John Calvin, “Letter on Various Subjects” in the book Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice)
Yes, I know it is strange that I am quoting Calvin, who was surely no Lutheran, but he gets it right here and I appreciate that the source is from a prime spiritual father of most of Protestantism (to one degree or another). The key here is the second in bold. It is not an offense to examine the faith of those who desire to commune... but it has surely become one. And this is the prime problem for close(d) communion. I should not have to prove my faith or answer any questions or do a darn thing for me to commune wherever I desire to commune. That is the attitude that has pervaded the church (not just Lutheran). My faith is personal and private and I don't have to answer to nobody but the Lord. Yes, there are those who say close(d) communion is not being hospitable and those who complain that it is messy and many folks are offended if you do not admit anyone and everyone but the point is that we are accountable and we ought to be offended when our faith is not examined -- both the folks who are faithfully members of the parish and the visitors who show up once. We ought to be prepared to give answer when questioned and we should not consider this an intrusion or offensive but that is the rub. We don't think it is anyone's business -- not even the pastor's -- and we presume that if we think we are fit and good to go, no one, not even God Himself, should intervene to prevent us from munching at the Lord's altar.
Yes, I know I am a hypocrite. I do not require folks to answer to me the way I am speaking of here in this post but I certainly do talk about this from pulpit and in classroom. It is a long and hard process of restoring what we have lost and it will not be quickly or easily repaired but that should not stop us from trying. Flashing a membership card may get you into Sam's Club but it is not what entrance to the Lord's Table is about. It is about repentance and faith, creed and confession, obedience and discipline -- all for our good and not to harm us. It will be a long time before the ordinary members of a Lutheran congregation begin to think this way and it will be even longer before a visitor will understand that this is for their own good. God help us keep on trying to teach it well and get it right.