This Sunday we celebrate communion. How can we prepare for it?
Some of you will say, “It’s obvious! The way to prepare for communion is, get some bread and juice.”
Well, yes, we do use bread and grape juice. The communion stewards (commonly in our case, members of the worship committee) will acquire the elements, prepare them, and set them on the altar.
But how do we prepare to celebrate communion? What steps can we take to be be kind of people who respond well to Jesus’ invitation to feast with him?
The Invitation is really simple:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
The first thing to note is that Christ himself extends the invitation. The pastor presiding at the table utters these words, but the pastor is only passing on what we take to be the words of Christ. The table – the bread and cup – don’t belong to the pastor. They don’t belong to the local congregation. They don’t belong to the general church. It is Christ’s body and blood we encounter in the elements, and Christ invites us to partake.
To whom is this invitation addressed? It is quite clear. It is addressed to:
- All who love him;
- All who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.
(If there had been a comma after “sin,” I would have counted three lines rather than two. The punctuation forces me to reckon the “repenting” and the “seeking to live in peace” as two parts of the same thing.)
The first quality of those invited is that they love Jesus. Notice that there is no further qualification on this love. It’s not only for those who love Jesus “with all their heart” or “with full understanding.” If you’re like me you’d like both of those to be true of you, but know yourself well enough to know not only that you’re not there yet, but also that your capacity for self-assessment is open to question. So we see the simple question, “Do you love Jesus?” Answer “yes” as a little child would, and that’s good enough for this purpose.
We get more qualification on the second aspect of those invited. Here we see first that the invitees “earnestly repent of their sin.” We repent not merely superficially, or with a dollop of guilt from having gotten caught out, or with a half-hearted (yet desperate. “well, if I HAVE to).” Again, as with love, I wouldn’t say that our repentance has to be “perfect” – if there even is such a thing. But it includes not just the act of repentance, but our attitude toward repenting.
Bridging to part two of this qualification we see that our sin is not just an offense against God, or against the Law (or propriety, etiquette, or some other system of rules). Our sin hurts other people and our relationship with them. My sin is against God, but not only against God. It is also against my neighbor.
When we respond in the affirmative and come for communion we are declaring not only that we are repenting of our sin, but that we seek to live in peace with one another. This can be really hard. We can easily imagine repentance as something that happens on the inside, something we do privately in our own head, where only God can see. “Seeking to live in peace with one another,” however, has a public dimension. People can look at us and be at a loss as to whether we are “earnestly repenting.” Maybe they’ll take our word for it. But if we’re “seeking to live at peace with one another,” people will see that. Or, they’ll be able to see how it matches up with reality as they see and experience it. If they see us separating ourselves off from others, from those who have offended or hurt us – or those we have hurt or offended – they will have reason to doubt our words.
This qualification may scare some of you off. You may think, “If I have to seek to live in peace with those people I think I’ll just sit in my seat (or find a church with a more user-friendly, more esteem producing invitation).” This is quite realistic, since unless your church is very small – like just yourself, or if it’s a large church you and one or two others, you’re going to be in the presence of people who have offended you or whom you have offended. Feeling discomfort about this is normal – and good. Letting it scare you away from receiving communion isn’t good, however. When we stay in our sin or despair of reconciliation with our fellow sinners and forsake communion, we cut ourselves off from the exact grace we need for forgiveness and healing. Remember that little word here: “Seek.” Are you seeking reconciliation? Or maybe it’s a prior step: Are you willing to seek reconciliation (though not yet acting on it)? Take your baby steps and come to communion.
So Christ has invited us sinners to his table. He has specified that we love him and repent of our sin and seek to live in peace with each other. Now we start actually doing that: the Invitation enjoins us to actually confess our sins. Once again, a merely silent confession isn’t the starting point (though our liturgy has a place for that). No, we “confess our sins before God and one another.” We do this confession together. Why?
First, we do it together because we are in these enterprises called “church” and “salvation” together. We pursue Jesus together. We together seek to live together as parts (members) of his Body.
Second, we do it together so that we don’t hide behind a pretense of our own righteousness. We confess together that we are sinners. It’s not that I’m really pretty good, coming along with the rest of those folks. We’re all sinners in need of grace.
Third, some of our sin is sin we do together, what we call “corporate sin.” Some of our sin consists of things we do as individuals. Other sins are things we do together. We may or may not even be aware of the depth of our sin (of either kind) – more often not. I know that many times I only become aware of my sin well after the fact. We sinners can be just blind to our own sinfulness.
That brings us to a fourth and final reason we confess together. As we confess together, we encounter an opportunity to step out of blindness to our sinfulness. Our liturgy leads us in confession of things we may may never have realized we did – or realized were sin.
A common response might be, “But I didn’t do that! Why should I confess it?” Try thinking of it this way. If our confession has you confessing something you aren’t aware of having done (I know, many will say more: it’s not just that you’re not aware of having done it, you’re absolutely sure you haven’t done it). Take it either as an opportunity to say something like, “If I’ve done this according to your assessment, God, it really bothers me and I need your forgiveness,” or, “We as a community have done this. I may not be the chief of sinners in this particular regard, but take my repentance here, Lord, as indicative of the repentance of the body as a whole.”
So here’s our Prayer of Confession:
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This starts us in exactly the right place: God’s mercy. It’s not the prayer, “O God who gives me exactly what I deserve.” As sinners, we don’t want what we deserve. I know I’d be in serious trouble if I got exactly what I deserved. After all, the Bible says “the wages of sin is death.” I need and depend on the mercy of God.
Notice that the list of sins here is very limited. That’s a feature of its generality. Most – if not all – our sins can be be subsumed under one of these headings.
Also notice that most of these are sins of omission: things we haven’t done. We have
- Not loved God with our whole heart (see comment way back at the beginning);
- Failed to be an obedient church;
- Not done God’s will;
- Not loved our neighbors;
- Not heard the cry of the needy.
On the positive side (positive only in that they are sins of commission), we confess that we have:
- Broken God’s law;
- Rebelled against God’s love.
Ideally, we take some time to pray this slowly, thinking of the particular ways we have sinned and how they fit under each heading.
Note: the focus is not on “those other people,” the people around us whose sins we know very well. We are not saying, “Lord, those people over there really need your forgiveness because they’ve done these things.” It may be perfectly true that they have done these things. But we confess our own sin here, individually and corporately. We point the finger at ourselves, not at others. It’s God’s job to convict them, not ours.
We confess these sins and ask for forgiveness. We say of these sins what God says of them, that they are horrible, offensive, destructive, etc. We are sorry we’ve done them. We turn from them (that’s repentance). We ask God to wipe our account clean.
But we take another step. We don’t just ask for forgiveness, we also ask God to “free us for joyful obedience.” That last phrase always gets me. Ancient culture understood the obedience part, not so much the joyful part. Our culture’s assessment reverses things, counting the joyful part as most important, and the obedience part as practically abhorrent. Obedience is for children and the uneducated. We’re moderns. We’re liberated. It’s surely not for us. And yet we pray, “Free us for joyful obedience.”
In John 8 Jesus utters the famous line, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?” Yet Jesus’ audience was deeply insulted by his words. They insisted that they weren’t slaves and didn’t need to be set free from anything. When we pray “Free us for joyful obedience” we take a very different stance. We recognize that we’re in bondage to sin. We desperately need forgiveness and freedom. We can get neither by ourselves through our own intelligence, systems, or efforts. We need Jesus to do it for us.
As you prepare for communion Sunday, keep these things in mind. It would be a good idea to bring this prayer before God in advance. If you’re brave, ask God to show you your sin and where you need to repent. If you’re a serious sinner like I am, such a revelation can be very painful. But letting Jesus, the divine surgeon, see the depth of my disease and do something about it, that’s the way to life.