Early Communion

FirstCommunionBIGHolyComI assume that is is because that most of our parishes have recently celebrated the rite of Confirmation that the BJS editors asked for piece dealing with Holy Communion, in particular early communion. For with Confirmation comes a whole new group of our brothers and sisters in Christ who receive with us the blessed gift of our Lord, the Lord’s Supper – a joyous occasion, indeed!. On Confirmation Day most of our newly confirmed members received for the first time the Lord’s body and blood given and shed for them for the forgiveness of sin.

My question is, why’d they wait so long?

It is no question that our synod has had the general idea that Confirmation Day is also First Communion Day, though until recently the words “First Communion” weren’t used and probably labeled as “too Catholic”. But this is, in fact, what Confirmation Day was. It was the first time many, many of our brothers and sisters received the Lord’s body and blood. For several generations now, Confirmation Day has been First Communion Day.

But there has come recently a movement – if you will – within our synod that has questioned whether or not Confirmation Day should also be First Communion Day, or whether First Communion should come before Confirmation. This movement has gained quite a lot of steam, as is evident by our current agenda – a book detailing and governing many rites, rituals, and ceremonies for our church – which has a rite entitled, “First Communion Prior to Confirmation,” thereby making the possibility official in our synod. Still, there is much debate and resistance in terms of actually giving communion to those who are not yet confirmed.

Let’s cut to the chase. While the debate has many tangents and side-tracks, the chief topic of debate is whether or not and when a person can examine him or herself and so eat and drink of the Lord’s body and blood faithfully, avoiding doing so to their judgment. It is thought by many that Confirmation is a safe-guard against eating and drinking unfaithfully or to one’s judgment. That while we cannot force a person to believe, we can do our best to give them the tools so that should they choose to listen they will participate to their benefit and not to their judgment. This is a good thought.

What’s troubling, though, is that Confirmation is given this role. We all know that Confirmation is not a sacrament (cf. Ap XIII, 6). It does not give grace to the confirmed. In fact, Confirmation is all law. It demands a great deal of the confirmed, including promising to remain true to our altar and confession even upon pain of death! (A demand we make of our 8th graders who can’t even drive themselves to church.) There is no mercy and grace, no forgiveness or promise of life in Confirmation. So why is the law the gateway to that which does have life, mercy, grace, and forgiveness? Do we honestly believe that in order to receive what our Lord wants to give us we must first jump through hoops made by man, found nowhere in the Bible? Or is this what our Lord condemns saying, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7)

But I’m not here arguing for or against Confirmation. I actually believe it has its place. But that place is not as a watchdog for who can and cannot receive that which the Lord desires to give His people, no matter their age. The reason people should receive that which the Lord desires to give them is because the Lord desires to give it to them and they want to receive it.

But what about St. Paul and his “let a person a examine himself”? Shouldn’t a person be able to examine himself and so eat of the body and drink of the blood? Yes, he should. But what does he examine himself with? Is it not with the words of Jesus that this bread and cup are given to us for the forgiveness of sins? We are sinful and unclean, must we become pure and holy before we eat and drink of that which promises purity and holiness? And if so, doesn’t our baptism qualify as that which makes us pure and holy, clothing us with Christ?

The context of 1 Corinthians 11:27 (et. al.) does not speak to when a person can be given the Lord’s Supper. First of all, the apostle says that a person examines himself. Not that a person is examined by others. Secondly, the context is the abuse of the Sacrament, not the joyful reception of it. To use 1 Corinthians 11:27 (et. al.) as a watchdog for the Sacrament turns that which is meant to bring peace and comfort into that which brings fear and trepidation. How many do we know who have not received the very body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and all the comfort it would bring because they thought they weren’t ready for it? Meaning their heart wasn’t in the right place. To be sure! If we think that we prepare ourselves then our heart is very much in the wrong place. For fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but they do not make for faithful reception. St. Paul is not laying down a restriction to those who come for what the Lord gives to His people, but is warning would-be dissenters that their dissension and hatred of their brothers and sisters will cause them to come under judgment.

Who receives the Sacrament worthily? The person that has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, it is the words of Jesus that create faith and the hunger for what He gives, His body and blood. Just as if I were to say to my child, “Here, this is our dinner, it will satisfy your hunger.” The child does not hesitate and say to himself, “Yes, but am I coming because I am hungry?” Of course! He is hungry and so he wants the food. So the sinner is hungry for righteousness and forgiveness and here our Lord says, “Here, here is food for the soul, giving forgiveness and righteousness in my name because it is my body and blood that you eat and drink.” If we come for any other reason than the reason our Lord gives then we have made a law of grace.

But there’s another thing that people consider. What then is the proper age that a person can receive the Sacrament? I submit to you that it is not an age, but a confession and desire. We do not give the Sacrament to those who do not desire it, no matter their age. But neither do we ask them if they are being honest with us when they tell us they want it, lest we be found judging the hearts of others. Let the words of Jesus create the hunger in our children, and let the faith His words create be the reason we joyfully eat and drink with them, not despising the Church of God but rather proclaiming with them the death and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. If they are young, so be it, rejoice all the more that He has chosen to reveal such things to little children. For as Luther says, “Since the children are baptized and received into the Christian Church, they should also enjoy the communion of the Sacrament, in order that they may serve us and be useful to us. they must all certainly help us to believe, love, pray, and fight against the devil.” (Large Catechism, V, 87)

I want to end there, but I am sure there is yet another thought going around. Does this mean infant communion? And also, what does a person need to know? I think these questions, just like making Confirmation a Communion watchdog, miss the point and cause undo stress. Luther did not condemn as heresy giving infants the Sacrament. But neither did he suggest it. The Lord’s Supper is given to the people of God for their benefit, life, salvation, to participate in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16), and to be united to His body (1 Corinthians 10:17). If this is our starting point then we are not likely to go wrong. Those who commune infants should do so because those infants are baptized into Christ and are brought to Him by their parents and guardians, and not in fear. On the other hand, unlike Baptism, which gives the Holy Spirit and His gifts because of the promise and command of Christ, Holy Communion is given to those who have faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The sacraments are not the same, and are not given for the same purpose (though generally so, yes, they give the grace and favor of God).

In closing, then, who receives the Sacrament of the Altar ought to be open to those who confess the faith born of the words (which, by the way, is what our confessions say in the Large Catechism and other places). And those who confess this faith ought show a desire to live in the kingdom of righteousness, not as having been made perfect or attaining perfection, but as those confessing their sins and desiring to be better than they are (something our Lord does in us by His word, not something we do of ourselves by our efforts).

Okay, I feel like this post is far from done and has opened new questions, but perhaps it will spark godly conversation among the people of God. In short, Confirmation is nowhere said to be the gateway to the Sacrament, and treating it as such defiles both the Sacrament and the faith of the communicants. Age should not be as much a factor – or a factor at all – as much as the desire of the person born of the words of our Lord.

I will happily entertain questions and comments, perhaps with a follow up post on infant communion or on what Confirmation really is (or should be), and maybe closed communion since some of what I’ve said may be taken as tacit approval of that abominable practice called “open communion”, which it is not. So…until then:

Peace be with you all.

1 thought on “Early Communion

  1. I have always thought of first communion at the end of a course of confirmation as a way of incentivizing our youth to devote 2 -3 years to studying our Lutheran doctrine. I think back to my confirmation classes, always looking forward to my day of confirmation when I would be allowed to participate in the sacrament of communion, which I was able to do with my widowed mother. Neither my mother nor the parents of my fellow confirmands to my knowledge looked at confirmation as a man-made obstacle to communion. We viewed it as a rite of passage which we felt had educated us profoundly.
    I am concerned that allowing early confirmation eliminates that incentive to be educated.

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