A Sermon on Closed Communion

This is a sermon from the Rev. Michael Kearney. Pastor Kearney is the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Alden, Iowa and St. Paul Lutheran Church Buckeye, Iowa.

The Scripture for our consideration was caused to be recorded by the Holy Spirit in St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, the 11th chapter.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Lord’s Supper is the last will and testament of Christ before He went knowingly and willingly to His own death.  And His final thoughts were for His disciples and for His Church. He wanted to make sure that this Supper was clearly taught in His Church.  In fact, the Holy Spirit records what happened at the Lord’s Last Supper in four different places. Therefore, we have no excuse if we ignore His Word and miss out on the benefits of His Supper.

Those benefits are clearly outlined in the record given by St. Paul.  We eat His body for the forgiveness of sins, and we drink the blood of the new covenant that Christ has earned for us by His sacrifice on the cross.  Thus, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we receive the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross. We also proclaim His death until He comes again.

The benefits are clear.  We receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through the Sacrament.  And we are joined to Christ in the reception of His Supper. Being joined to Christ in the Sacrament joins us to the living vine.  It joins us to the body of Christ. And that body of Christ is always found gathered where His Word is rightly taught and His Sacraments are correctly administered.

We need this Sacrament regularly because we regularly sin.  Sin threatens to remove us from Christ. So we regularly join together to hear His Word, to receive the absolution, and to receive Him through the bread and wine of the Sacrament so that sin doesn’t get the upper hand and finally remove us from fellowship with Him.  Every time you receive the Lord’s Body and Blood rightly, you receive the assurance of salvation, forgiveness of sins, and life that will not fail you even if you die.

This leads us to a common question.  With so many benefits offered in the Supper, why do we follow the Biblical and ancient practice of closed communion?  Why wouldn’t we offer the Lord’s Supper to anyone who walked in the doors of the Church?

First of all, this is not a church “policy” of closed communion.  The practice of closed communion follows the Word of God. It is, after all, the Lord’s Supper, not St. Paul’s Lutheran Church’s supper.  We don’t get to decide what happens at the Lord’s Table any more than we would go to a neighbor’s house and tell them how they are to serve us supper.  We follow God’s instructions regarding His meal. It’s not a matter for discussion because God has clearly spoken.

I recognize that this is a sensitive topic.  But if we are to be instructed by the full counsel of God, we must also examine those points of doctrine that make us uncomfortable.  In fact, those are the areas we should focus on the most so that we learn to trust in God’s Word over against our own desires. Thus we follow the example of our Lord who conformed His will to the Father’s when He willingly went to His own passion and death.  Likewise, we also submit ourselves to God’s Word, not ignoring those things that we, because of our sinful flesh, do not like about His Word.

So, following the instruction of God’s Word, we will examine the practice of closed communion.

First, we should define closed communion by what it is, and by what it is not.  Closed communion is the practice of giving the Sacrament only to those baptized members of the body of Christ who (1) publicly profess the true faith, (2) recognize the true presence of Christ in His Supper, and (3) do not live contrary to the teachings of Christ through impenitence and sinful lifestyle.

Closed communion is not a judgment of the heart, it does not condemn anyone to hell, and it is not done out of superiority or hate. In fact, love demands the practice of closed communion. It’s because we love our neighbors that we practice closed communion. Just as a mother feeds her children what’s good for them and doesn’t give them poison, the Church also takes care to make sure that the Supper will be received as life-giving food, not poison.

We believe what the clear words of Scripture teach regarding the Lord’s Supper.  We believe that Jesus is physically and truly present in His Supper. When He says, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” we take Him at His Word.  It’s not our faith in Him that makes Him present, but His own Words.  This is important because the true body and blood of Christ are offered to all who receive it whether they believe His Word or not.  And St. Paul warns us against receiving the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy way.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats or drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Now, one might object, “Yes, Pastor, St. Paul says to ‘let a man examine himself’.  We shouldn’t judge anyone’s heart.” To which I would wholeheartedly agree. You are admonished to examine yourself before you receive the Sacrament.  Every time you come to the Lord’s table, you are to consider whether you believe that Jesus is truly there according to His Word, whether you are a sinner in need of forgiveness, and whether you believe you receive the forgiveness of sins by the Sacrament.  Those are all questions you are to ask yourselves.

I also could never judge a man’s heart.  It would be the height of arrogance for me to think that I know the inner workings of a man’s heart.  I can only judge according to a man’s public confession.

In fact, Jesus Himself, who alone knows hearts and minds only judged according to outward confession.  He only admitted those disciples who He instructed for years regarding His saving teachings. He didn’t admit the Pharisees or any others who publicly denied the truth of His Word.

Now, you might point out that Judas received the Lord’s Supper from Christ’s own hand.  This is true. Jesus knew His heart, yet He still offered the Lord’s Supper to Judas. But this further proves the point of practicing closed communion.  Judas had committed sin privately and did not believe in Jesus in his heart. But his outward confession was still that Jesus is the Christ. His sin had not yet been made public.  Therefore, Jesus, who knew the betrayal that was in Judas’ heart, nevertheless judged him according to his outward public confession.

Such is the same with the Christian practice of closed communion.  I cannot know a man’s heart. And even if I could, I would have no right to judge him according to a different set of standards than Jesus did when administering the first Lord’s Supper.  I must take a man at his word. If he confesses that he believes Jesus’ word, I take him at his public confession.

Our words and our actions confess what we believe.  The clearest expression is membership in a certain church.  When someone belongs to a church, he confesses that he believes what is taught at that church.  So, if a person belongs, for instance, to the ELCA which publicly teaches that God’s Word is wrong and that certain sins are not sins, I must take him at his public confession that he believes God’s Word lies.  I’m not judging him. He’s making that his public confession by belonging to a church that teaches that God’s Word is wrong.

Likewise, if a person belongs to a church, like the Lutheran Church – Canada, which publicly teaches that every bit of God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, I must take him at his word that he believes every Word of Scripture is God’s Word.  I take a man at his word.

Now, it’s possible that someone belongs to a church without realizing that his church teaches falsely.  It’s a sad fact that many churches which teach falsely hide their denial of God’s Word. We should pray for those Christians who belong to such churches.  And we commend them to God who works through His Word that they would drink the pure living water of His Word and not become poisoned by the false teaching.

But we must assume that his public confession matches the public confession of his church. We can assume the best that if only he knew the false teaching that he was hearing, he would quickly flee to a church that teaches the pure Word of God.  But until then, we must assume that his public confession is the same as his church’s. We cannot judge hearts and minds. We can only determine someone’s faith by his public confession.

In addition to one’s membership in a church is the outward living of a man.  If a man lives contrary to God’s Word, not through weakness but through a refusal to amend his life according to God’s Word, we must assume that he doesn’t believe God’s word of forgiveness and newness of life.  Such a man shows by his refusal to repent that he does not desire the very forgiveness of sins that is offered in the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, we must conclude that he would receive the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.  To allow such a man to sin against the body and blood of Christ is far from loving. It is a hateful thing to knowingly give someone poison. Such would be the case if we were to give the Lord’s Supper to one who through his public confession denies God’s Word.

So what is a worthy reception of the Lord’s Supper?  Can anyone take it for good without fear of harm? The answer is absolutely, yes!  He who believes in the Word of God that Christ offers Himself bodily through the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins receives exactly what Christ desires for him.  He receives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

As Christians, it’s a good thing that we desire all to have these gifts.  Our fervent prayer is that everyone receives the forgiveness of sins given by Christ Himself so that all may come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved eternally.  And the only way this can be done is through the pure preaching and teaching of God’s Word and the correct administration of His Sacraments. So we pay careful attention to God’s Word, even those areas we sinfully dislike, so that God might conform our wills to do His will.

Christ desires the forgiveness of all sinners.  He verified this with His own blood. And He has given us the sign of the Lord’s Supper to seal and confirm our faith so that we only receive the benefits of Good Friday.  In eating His supper worthily, we receive the very things that Jesus poured out His blood to earn for us. This requires godly discipline. For if we are disciplined by God, which happens only through the instruction of His Word, we are disciplined unto eternal life.  But if we judged ourselves truly we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Christ came to save us, not condemn us.  So we follow the Word of God and are thus reconciled by the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday.  He disciplines us according to His Word so that we might receive the salvation of our souls. Therefore, closed communion is a godly practice whereby we encourage the right reception of the Lord’s Supper.  This is done out of love for God and fervent love for our neighbor. When we struggle with these teachings, we add our prayers to Christ who prayed, “Thy will, not mine, be done.”  And God’s will is that none take the Sacrament to their harm.  Therefore we administer the Sacrament according to God’s Word so that all who eat of it would receive the benefits of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Amen.

Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

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