I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.

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Thus in these latter words concerning the salutary use of the Supper there is a description of the spiritual eating of the body of Christ which takes place by faith. And just as the substance of the Supper and the salutary use of the same are distinguished, so it is one thing when Christ says: “Take and eat; this is my body,” and another thing when He says: “This do in remembrance of Me,” which takes place by spiritual eating through faith. Thus the sacramental and the spiritual eating are dealt with and described separately. For there is a distinct and clear description of how the substance of the Supper, which consists of the bread and the body of Christ, is received,namely, in the mouths of the participants. This is the sacramental eating … And then there is also a distinct and clear description of how those who participate in the Supper receive it and use it in a salutary way, namely, by faith. This is the spiritual eating. (‘The Lord’s Supper’ [CPH, 1979], 112-113, underlining added)

This is an unhelpful distinction. Or rather, the categories are unhelpful.

To refer to the anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’) as “spiritual eating” has the tendency to drive a wedge between physical and spiritual eating, despite Chemnitz’s eloquent and earnest efforts to the contrary.

Presumably the category of ‘spiritual eating’ as distinct from ‘physical eating’ derives from John 6 where, according to traditional Lutheran (and Reformed) exegesis, Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to spiritual eating in the form of receiving Him and His words in faith.

This category of ‘spiritual eating’ has here been transposed onto the Lord’s Supper, even though I’m not aware of New Testament references to the ‘spiritual eating’ of the Supper.

Is it not the case that Jesus’ words instruct the disciples concerning how they are to eat (physically) His body and blood, namely in faith (“in remembrance of me”)? This is not a twofold eating—physical and spiritual—but a single eating with one of two effects.

The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is not that one eats physically and spiritually while the other eats physically only. The believer eats physically with faith, thereby receiving grace through the physical eating. The unbeliever also eats physically but without faith, thereby receiving condemnation through the same eating.

So there is only one category of eating: physical eating. But there are two categories of reception: in faith to salvation, and without faith to condemnation.

By avoiding the misapplied category of ‘spiritual eating’, we can make a clean break from those who deny the physical eating of the Lord’s body and blood, as well as avoid all sorts of ecumenical ambiguities when dealing with those who thrive in the blurring of lines (e.g. mainstream Anglicans).

*****

Am I missing the mark here?

As part of my Isaiah's lips cleansedpreparation for preaching on Isaiah 6:1–13 next Sunday, I was reading Luther’s lectures on Isaiah. I was intrigued that the translation (presumably Vulgate) he was using rendered Isa 6:5 as, “Woe is me! For I was silent”, rather than the usual “I am lost”. Well, some digging around ensued, with the following discovery: the Hebrew word normally rendered `I am lost’ (niphal  of DMH) can mean (1) be brought to/obliged to be silent; (2) be destroyed; (3) be ruined or undone. Well, I never!

No doubt the almost universal translation “I am lost” is the best translation of the Hebrew. However, I’m prepared to wager a pair of cotton socks that the Hebrew is also a pun: “Woe to me, for I am lost—and so I am silenced.” A prophet who is perishing because of his unclean lips—and rendered speechless because of his unclean lips.

But when the seraph touches his lips with a burning coal from the altar, his lips are cleansed. His guilt is taken away, his sins atoned for—and his mouth opened to proclaim God’s word.

Which is precisely what happens to us, especially in the Divine Service. Our lips are touched, not with a burning coal but with the body and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our lips are cleansed, our guilt taken away, our sins atoned for—and our mouths are opened by the Lord to declare His praise to one another and to the whole world.

This is why I think Luther was so spot-on in switching the place of the Sanctus in the Liturgy of the Sacrament, so that it came after the Words of Institution, and not in the Preface (even though this move is almost universally condemned as amateurish, ignorant and cackhanded). The song of the seraphim was a spontaneous reaction to the presence of the Lord of hosts in the Temple. With the Consecration, the Lord of hosts, Jesus Christ, becomes truly and bodily present in the Temple of His Church—so what better way to confess that than to join in the song of the angels, the archangels and all the company of heaven!

Having been cleansed, the Church is saved from sin and rescued from silence, to proclaim the wonderful deeds of Him who saved her.

Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini

­—

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

There are certain topics of discussion / debate that tend never to go away among confessional Lutherans. One of them is the age of first communion. In almost all Lutheran churches, first communion is linked closely or inextricably to confirmation—for what can only be described as pragmatic rather than dogmatic reasons. After all, confirmation is a churchly rite, not a biblical one. Tradition dictates that confirmation is preceded by detailed instruction, often lasting up to two years, in the early years of secondary education. I was confirmed at 15. In my church body, 13-14 is more common. Now, there are all sorts of historical, theological and especially pastoral issues linked to delaying (yes, I mean that) first communion to the teenage years.

Now, as I said, this debate is probably here to stay. Both sides of the argument make a fine showing in this Cyberbrethen blog post. To cut a long story short, I align myself with Pastors McCain and Cwirla in this particular debate.

I was confronted by this question in a very practical way yesterday. About half-an-hour after the last of my young children had gone to bed and grown-up time was about to start, my wife and I heard a familiar pitter-patter of little feet coming down the stairs. Yet again, my eldest daughter couldn’t get to sleep. A common occurrence, usually for no particular reason.

Well, this time it was different. H (age 7) was visibly upset, with tears flooding down her cheeks. What on earth was the matter?

“I have been asking Jesus into my heart, but nothing seems to happen, and it makes me really sad.”

Turns out, she has been reading the books of Patricia St.John, one of her favourite authors. And in almost every book, some child or another gets to the point of asking Jesus into its heart, with wonderful transforming consequences. And now little H was desperate for the same experience, and was desperately disappointed, and a little worried, that nothing was happening, despite her prayers.

As is often the way with God’s children, this misunderstanding led to a wonderful conversation about what makes us Christian. As the opening of Olaus Svebilius’ Explanation of the Small Catechism puts it so simply:

Q1: Are you a Christian?
A: Yes, I am.

Q2: Why are you called a Christian?
A: Because I have been baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in baptism I have put on Christ. I believe and confess Him to be my Saviour and my Redeemer.

There. It’s that simple. Turns out, H has had Jesus “in her heart” for over 7 years already. No need to ask for anything more, except faith to see what she already has.

Except one thing. There will come a day when she will not only have Jesus in her heart but also on her tongue and in her stomach. And she can’t wait! She knows what she needs, she knows that she wants it, and she knows where to get it from—but for the time being, she can’t have it, because she is not yet in secondary school and so can’t go through secondary-school-style instruction. She’s missing out, and she knows it, and you can tell.

Let the little children come—let’s not hinder them.

God has many ways to create, support, and increase faith in us: when we hear the Word, either publicly or privately; when we are baptized; when we are fed with the body of our Lord  . . .  He himself know what is good and profitable for us. (Martin Luther at the Margburg Colloquy, 1529. H. Sasse, This Is My Body, 201.)