ACELC — The Fellowship We Keep: Why We Practice Open Communion

From the ACELC blog by Pastor Rick Sawyer of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Brandon, MS:


Yesterday, a brother called me and I repented. He’s called me before and he’s a nice guy, so I didn’t mind talking with him. However, he was asking for my congregation’s statistical report, which I haven’t filled out. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve filled one out in about 18 years, maybe more. But I’ve decided to repent and fill it out this year, not because I think it helps our Synod. Actually, I think it may hurt by catering to our fixation on numbers. But my brother is clearly concerned over such things, and he’s likely getting pressure from higher up, so I made a conscious decision to alleviate his suffering. Call it love, compassion, mercy, a kindness . . . or a calculated effort on my part to end my District’s requests for things I really don’t want to take time to worry about! How’s that for honesty?

Don’t get me wrong. The brother is likeable and has been nothing but polite and kind in his importunity, which makes it easier for me to comply, I guess. And that gets me to the topic of this blog. In all the times I’ve been contacted by my District’s desire for numbers, I can’t remember once being contacted by them asking if I’m using the liturgy and hymnal or if I’m practicing closed communion or preaching the Gospel purely. Surely, those are more the essence of our agreed upon walk together as a Synod than filling out statistical reports!

All this got me on the road to thinking about the fellowship we keep in the Missouri Synod, and why it is that we concern ourselves so much over numbers but shun the practice of closed communion. I do think the two are related, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. What I’m asking is: Why do we practice open communion in Missouri? Be honest, now. I’ll go first.

I’ll start by admitting that if people didn’t mind it, that is, if they respected our desire to fully bring them in to all that Christ has given us to give, we’d all shun open communion and start practicing as the Lord has taught. The reason we practice open communion is that it saves us embarrassment, ridicule and pain. If we didn’t pay through the teeth for practicing closed communion, we’d do it.

As proof, I put before you my personal observation that even the most open communion pastor and congregation among us likely practices closer to what is correct when it comes to children. We instruct them for a period of years, usually ten or more, though I tend to lean toward the sufficiency of 8 to 10, as long as the children are of faithful parents who have brought them regularly up in the Liturgy of the Church, not despising preaching and His Word but gladly hearing and learning it, taking our Lord’s “often” as “often” instead of “occasionally.” If parents are catechizing their children and are willing to sit with their kids through my instruction, I tend to think 8 years of waiting is probably uber-sufficient for our children. Actually, I get them to the Table in First Grade when possible, and did just that with one this year!

As they wait, they give us SUCH good examples of humility and faith, don’t they? They actually make being faithful easy on us pastors! They don’t get mad when we bless them instead of communing them! They don’t storm out and refuse to come back when they put out their little hands but aren’t communed just because of that! They express their desire to have what others are having, and what the Lord intends for them as well, but they wait to be admitted. They don’t insist on being the ones who admit themselves. Who can’t be faithful then?!

I truly believe even the most open communion pastor and congregation in our Synod probably has such pious examples of godly living in their congregational children and likely won’t do anything to change that any time soon! The kids just plain make it easy for us to remember that Our Lord warned against taking the seat of honor and urged instead that we wait to be invited up. We are not to presume or posture at the Lord’s Table! Our kids demonstrate that and don’t seem to mind, either! Oh, they stretch out their little hands and ask to be served, but they aren’t put off that Our Lord bids them wait a little while, as He did the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged Him with such importunity and was willing to grab Him by His harder Words, saying, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s Table!”

The Lord called that great faith! Is it any wonder that the Lord put a child before a crowd of adults, saying, “Unless you receive the kingdom as a little child, you shall never enter in”? So, even pastors and congregations that regularly admit non-Lutheran adults to Communion, despite having only a smattering of Lutheran doctrine, out of concern that they might storm off in a huff and raise a ruckus if they weren’t communed – have in their midst the wonderful example of our youngest saints, who are willing to wait in humility and faith!

So, why is it that we practice closed communion with respect to our life-long Lutheran children, but convert to open communion when it comes to serving adults? Why aren’t we comfortable serving adults the kingdom of God in a way that teaches them to receive it like little children; patiently waiting, not making a fuss?

Oh, but children DO make a fuss, don’t they? We see it all the time in Wal-Mart; not usually in the pharmacy department over the medicine the doctor prescribed, nor in the produce department over broccoli and spinach. Usually it’s in the toy department or the candy aisle, or when checking out and those brightly packaged items start working on our kids’ impulses and our own desire to quickly stem the tantrum and the glaring glances of irritated shoppers.

If Jesus had given Beyblades for our salvation, our kids WOULD make a ruckus at the altar! But that He gave His non-battery operated Body and Blood, which He poorly and unspectacularly packages in simple bread and wine, well, the children don’t seem to mind waiting. Adults, on the other hand, seem to be a different animal all together!

Is it that they just can’t wait for that wonderful bite of Christ’s Flesh, given into death for us, and that gracious draught of His Blood poured out for our salvation, and the life, forgiveness and salvation which are freely given in these? In some cases, the answer is, YES! People do come in desperation, like that Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was demon-possessed. They need the Lord’s forgiveness in the Sacrament, and they may be sorely disappointed not to receive it.

Of course, no pastor worth his weight in salt is going to want to deny that to anyone. I know I don’t, and by that I mean the children as well as adults. In fact, I am far more conflicted over telling a faithful child of my flock, who regularly hears his Shepherd’s preaching through the pastor, to wait a little longer. Yet, in faithfulness and love, I do that all the time, even as our Lord made that woman wait a little while. As she waited, she continued to cling to Christ, no matter how He seemed to treat her. When He spoke, even His harsh words were filled with eternal life!

I don’t think I’ve ever treated anyone at the rail – child or adult – as Jesus treated that woman. I’m not Jesus, after all, and even He didn’t treat everyone that way. That woman had a pair of spiritual brass ones that put the Twelve to shame. She makes make me feel like a regular eunuch! The Lord treated a woman of great faith in such a public fashion so that we all can see what great faith looks like. For the rest of us weaklings, He doesn’t behave quite the same way and certainly doesn’t teach pastors to behave as He did when people approach the altar! For that reason, I have never given anyone the cold shoulder at the Communion rail, as Jesus gave that woman. I acknowledge every one personally and kindly. I bless the children, placing my hand on their heads. If they smile at me, I smile back. I’m not Jesus. I don’t know who could take it if I didn’t smile, so I smile. If they are a visitor and haven’t spoken with me, I take the occasion to speak with them then. Yes, that’s risky. Children can take it, but adults often cannot, even though I’m way nicer than Jesus. I don’t lean over to the people kneeling next to the visitor and say, “I wasn’t sent to any but the members of this household.” Honestly, I don’t WANT to be as rude as Jesus seemed that day when He spoke like that in a poor non-Israelite woman’s hearing. It’s much easier for me – and ON me – if I’m nicer than Jesus, and Jesus hasn’t told any of us to behave exactly as He did that day. So I try NOT to do what Jesus would if someone not of the flock shows up begging for His mercy. I’m gentle and kind and I smile when I speak. I ask where the person attends and who his pastor is and when was the last time he communed. It’s the least I can do, really, and far from what I should!

Keep in mind that pastors serve as physicians of men’s souls. We aren’t the Doctor, but His male nurses. We administer the Medicine of Immortality, but we aren’t the ones issuing the Prescription. He has done that and has put pastors in place to administer it according to His Divine Command and example, and the Lord’s example in the Scriptures is always to gather, not scatter; so when strangers and aliens wanted to partake of the Lord’s Passover in the Old Testament, the Lord prescribed that they first be cut off from the world of darkness and be grafted into the people of light. Children went through that without prior instruction, but I guarantee that no priest administered the Old Testament sign of circumcision to an adult male without first answering the catechetical question: “What does this mean?” Catechesis came later for the infants and preceded circumcision and admission to the Passover Table for the adults. Clearly, the Lord wanted all together in the Faith, and none were then to depart that Faith to join in fellowship with what was contrary to it. The Lord wanted all together.

So, the Lord wants all together at His New Testament Table. He instructed His own for three years before communing them, though we are not bound by that time frame. Even on the night of their first communion, they needed instruction. Catechesis is life-long. We don’t graduate from being His disciples, His students! Peter nearly didn’t get confirmed that night because he didn’t want Jesus to absolve his toes, which continued to step in “it” over and over. When Jesus threatened excommunication, Peter relinquished his dirty feet to the Savior!

When children approach our rails, they don’t mind if the pastor makes them wait, or makes them memorize, or corrects them when they aren’t behaving. Children receive the kingdom of God in humility, and so Jesus gives them to us all as an example. We adults can sometimes get a bit embarrassed, impatient, put off when things don’t go our way. This is sin, for which Jesus died, and which He is constantly trying to drown in us, so that the New Man comes forth! That’s what Jesus was doing with Peter, and Jesus must have smiled a bit when Peter went overboard (yet again!), saying, “Not just my feet but wash me head to toe!”

Wouldn’t that be a great thing for a pastor to hear from someone? Instead of being angry that the pastor wants to wash us, to cleanse us, to instruct us, to actually BE our pastor – the way our doctor actually wants to do more than just write us a prescription and send us on our way – wouldn’t it be great for him to hear, “Then teach me everything you’ve got, Pastor! I know you’re not trying to spoil my day! I may have felt a bit embarrassed at first, but you have what I need! If I have to drive an hour for it, I will! If it takes me a little while to be instructed in it, I’m willing! In fact, can we get started this afternoon!? I want to receive the kingdom like a child – not like the spoiled ones we see throwing tantrums in Wal-Mart, but like the child of God He says I am! Please, Pastor, help me to be that!”

I can’t imagine any pastor – in the ACELC or outside of it – not cracking a smile to hear such a thing! It would be like finding a rare first edition of some priceless book! We’ve heard such a thing exists – such great faith that is not put off simply for being told to wait a little while, be instructed, discipled, and then the Lord will give us everlasting Joy, trusting that He is giving it already, even as He bids us wait! We’ve heard of such faith. It’s just so rare to see!

I imagine I’d bet tempted to confirm and commune such a genuine and humble child of God right then and there, the way Luther said a person who could rightly divide Law and Gospel should be immediately made a doctor of Holy Writ. But I don’t think I’d want to taint such a grand confession. I’d treat it like the rarest of finds and say, “I am humbled at the Spirit’s work in you, and I cannot imagine it will be long at all before you are at this rail! Let’s meet this afternoon, as you suggest. And as often after that as you like. I will teach you to hold all that Christ commanded, and that will take a bit, but it has already begun. God’s people need to see and rejoice in this wonderful thing that God is doing, and they will rejoice all the more to hear you make the good confession and join in the Communion Christ intends for all!”

Too often, we are confronted by the tantrums; the person who can’t see that the pastor is trying to be faithful and that there are things the visitor doesn’t yet understand. The pastor would teach them if he can. He’d be willing to bring that teaching to the individual’s home, even if it’s an hour a way! He hasn’t risen on a Sunday thinking, “How can I spoil someone’s day?” Really. He hasn’t! And he knows you didn’t rise with that thought, either.

Actually, he knows that it may be that you are part of the Fellowship called the Missouri-Synod where pastors don’t teach what I’ve outlined above. They struggle with closed communion, because it seems unloving to them. They tell the children of their congregation to wait many years, but somehow they can’t see that it’s no more unloving to say that to adults than it is to say it to our children. Both need instruction, and adults need it a lot more than kids! This isn’t about mastering the Lord’s teaching, but being mastered BY it! It’s not about our understanding, but about the Lord giving us repentance and faith, drowning the Old Man that the New Man may come forth, living before God in faith and before our neighbor in love – especially if that neighbor is a pastor trying to be faithful, or a congregation which wants to hold to the Truth. It’s not even about each one believing in his own heart and then communing where the Faith of Christ is denied. When our LCMS pastors admit people on the basis of their heart-felt faith instead of on the Confession they make, they teach our own that it doesn’t matter where you commune, as long as you know what you believe personally. That causes great harm at the rail!

So many of our sheep have never been taught properly! It’s no wonder they get blind-sided at the rail. I truly feel for them. I work hard to be kinder and gentler than Jesus was to that woman long ago. I smile. I ask if it’s OK to bless people and then talk about their joining our Communion after the Service. I offer to sacrifice time with my family and flock to accommodate them. I apologize, knowing that I am not thereby acquitted just because I think I did everything right; I can mess up without knowing it. I wish I were omniscient and could anticipate every event that might embarrass someone. I also wish people would understand that if the pastor could have done better, so could they. We’ve got these wonderful devices called smart phones, but they only work if we’re smart enough to use them: “Pastor, maybe we need to talk before I come to the rail Sunday. Some things have changed and people know about it, but you don’t. Can we speak?”

If I didn’t answer immediately, it would be because I’d be in awe, having encountered once again that rarest of finds! A faith which trusts God’s Word, wants what Jesus has to give, and demonstrates that in a little thing called love! Wow! You just can’t touch that, folks!

So, why DO we practice open communion in the LCMS, and don’t even say we don’t. We do. We do, in my opinion, because we just want the loud and uncomfortable, unpleasant and painful stuff to go away. “Send her away Lord, for she’s bothering us!” “OK, here are my statistics; now, don’t call me again!” We want to spare ourselves the agony of being genuine fathers in the Faith, and so, like Dad at Wal-Mart, we give in so the tantrum ceases, or is avoided all together.

Of course, we DO care for people and would spare them hurt. It’s not all crass and calculated on our part. A child crying DOES melt a father’s heart; sometimes to the point of giving what should be withheld. What father hasn’t spoiled a child in such manner at some point? But if a doctor gives out meds because he wants a happy patient, he may end up sending off an addict with one more fix satisfied but still far from a cure. It’s hard to say no, but it’s often the only loving thing to say. We can say it better. We can say it better than Jesus, if we want! It won’t keep us from coming off as big meanies at some point, though that’s not our desire. And when the sheep who feel a bit sheered of their pride at the rail have a chance to cool off, by God’s grace, they will rejoice to receive the shepherding they need; if the Spirit has done His work. They will say, “Dear Pastor, I know you aren’t perfect, but neither am I. I’m sorry I put you in the spot I did. I’d like to do better. You offered at the rail to instruct me further and bring me into this Communion. I really want that! So, when can we start?”

And that, dear people, is how the Lord grows His Church! You just can’t script these things! Or manipulate them or predict them or plan for or project them! I honestly don’t even want to reduce them to statistics, if you want to know the truth! You just have step back in awe of them, because they are the bona fide miracles of Christ giving us His Kingdom!

Pastor Rick Sawyer
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Brandon, MS

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