One of the areas where, as a pastor, I consistently notice misunderstandings is with regard to the sacraments. Really, there is misunderstanding left and right in that area. A particular part that is misunderstood, however, is what it means when church members are encouraged to "examine themselves" and/or "prepare their hearts" for the Lord's Supper.
One common(mis)perception that to prepare one's heart or examine oneself is simply to think, "hmm... now, what sins have I failed to confess to God, that I need to be sure to confess and ask forgiveness for before I can rightly take Communion?"
This is a wrong view, for several reasons. First, it implies that the barrier (or fence, if you will) between someone and communion with God is a matter of a work of their own-- in the form of a particular confession! In other words, the thing we must do to receive God's grace through Sacrament is the act of confessing. In fact, however, no work of our own, however religious, spiritual, or even biblical can or will gain us entrance to the table of God's Communion. This is a sacrament of grace, not of works; in order to obtain God's grace, we must be given it freely and mercifully.
Second, it implies a belief that our sins are not forgiven-- and therefore, we are not reconciled to God-- unless we have particularly confessed them. In fact, those who are in Christ truly have their sins forgiven before they even commit them. Our sins are known to God without our confession, their punishment has been paid by Christ on the cross, and they are wiped clean from our record, having been accorded to Christ. Receiving Communion is not contingent on our confession; it is contingent on Christ's finished work on our behalf.
Third, it implies that we are actually aware of all of our sins and able to confess them. Yet how often have I, by the maturing work of the Holy Spirit, come to realize an act-- or even a pattern-- of sin years after its commitment? You do, too. In fact, God knows the depths of our sin far more than we, and His forgiveness extends fare beyond our awareness. This is why Jack Miller so aptly stated something to the effect of, "You are more sinful than you ever dared to admit! But Christ is more gracious than you ever dared to dream!" As we mature in our faith, the cross becomes bigger and bigger-- though never big enough, in my eyes or yours, to truly account for just how gracious Christ is and has been with us.
Does this mean we shouldn't confess our sins? No-- we should confess our sins: to God, to those we've sinned against, even to one another. What it does mean is that there is not some measure of adequate confession that admits or forbids us to the Table.
Another common (mis)perceptionis that we must have sought reconciliation in every broken relationship before properly partaking in the Lord's Supper.
This is a wrong view, though it is frequently perpetuated by pastors. The appeal is made to Matthew 5:23-24:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
At the risk of stepping on the toes of fellow pastors, let me point out a few things about this as it applies (or doesn't) to Communion...
- Notice that the verse begins with "therefore"-- which implies that we're missing at least a few verses if we want to gain understanding of this text. The immediate context is the two verses preceding these, which say, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." In the larger context, Jesus (in the beginning portion of the Sermon on the Mount) is teaching about how he came to fulfill the law, and challenging the religiosity and formalism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law. In brief, these verses are not rebuking someone who is otherwise properly worshiping, but demonstrating how the so-called worship offered under these pretexts is false.
- The Communion Table is not an altar. No sacrifice is being made there; we are not re-crucifying Christ every time we celebrate Communion. That analogy is both poor theology and pastorally deficient. The death of Christ as recognized in "remembrance" in Communion (Luke 22:19) and which is "proclaimed" in Communion (1 Corinthians 11:26) is a finished work, not one that we must re-create each Lord's Day (or once a month/quarter/whatever).
- The Sacrament meal is not something that WE are offering! Rather, it is something offered TO us. By its very institution, Christ offered the Sacrament to His disciples; this was, as at least part of the meaning of the Supper, a replacement of the Passover feast (which was ALSO a gift of mercy and grace offered by God to His people). By this point, we should be starting to seriously question the usefulness of this text as it is sometimes applied to Communion.
Is there no use or application of this passage with regard to the Lord's Supper? Yes and no. The setting Christ describes is worship-- so really, we ought to apply this text to our whole sense of corporate worship. Insofar as the Lord's Supper is a part of that (which, of course, it is inseparable), we should apply it appropriately. Yet, orthodox theology of corporate life together as the Body also teaches us that reconciliation is only possible through Christ, which is the very nature of the covenant renewal that takes place week by week. So the application to the ordinary life of the church-- and her individual members-- is limited in its scope. (See the above contextual comments.)
As I have said, these are common-- but they are certainly MISperceptions about the Lord's Supper. In a future post, I'll address what it DOES mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper.