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The Rev. Samuel Edwards: “Taking Communion and Receiving Communion”

August 29, 2006

For a somewhat different sermon from the Rev. Samuel Edwards of the Anglican Church of the Holy Comforter in Alabama, here is a topical sermon on “Taking Communion and Receiving Communion”:

Taking Communion and Receiving Communion

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

This will be what is known as a “topical sermon.” The topic with which it deals is receiving Communion and taking Communion. These are not the same thing. If, as you listen to the part which has to do with the qualifications for taking Communion, you find yourself in doubt (especially if you are a person of sensitive conscience), I would encourage you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt: I think God does.

There is a profound difference between a Eucharistic church and one that merely celebrates the Communion rite every Sunday. It is the same difference that exists between taking Holy Communion and receiving it. It is the difference between abundant life and sickness unto death. The difference lies in large part with the presence or absence of a continuing, lively awareness on the part of the congregation that when we “do this,” we are entering into the Presence of God “with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” and are not simply participating in some sort of feel-good tribal happy meal.

The fact that a person takes Communion, then, does not mean that he receives it to his benefit. The practice, common to every Anglican church of which I have knowledge, of giving the Sacrament to anyone who presents himself at the rail to take it (unless he is “an open and notorious evil liver” [cf. Prayer Book, pages 84-85) is based on the assumption that he is there in good faith with a penitent, charitable, and thankful heart. However, that assumption does not make it so nor substitute for the truth. Generally, only God and the communicant know the truth of the matter. It is, ultimately, the communicant’s responsibility to know what is required and, as the Exhortation says, judge himself lest he be not judged of the Lord. This sermon is directed at giving the essentials of that knowledge.

Everyone knows the proverb that says, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” It recognizes the tendency we all have, if we do not stop periodically and think about actions that we engage in on a regular schedule: We tend to forget why we’re doing them, to begin to take them for granted, even to begin to hold them in contempt. If we aren’t careful, we can become human parrots, babbling phrases we do not comprehend, doing things whose significance entirely escapes us.

Not that rote learning and recitation are bad things in themselves: Indeed, that is where we all begin learning. However, the plan is that, as we grow in experience, we should begin to comprehend more fully what we are saying and doing. We may begin by seeing in a glass darkly, but, putting away childish things, we are to end by seeing face to face.

A person who is growing in favor with God and man will tend to do many things routinely – after all, we are made as creatures of habit – but as his soul enlarges he will increasingly appreciate the real significance of these routine things, whether they be a pledge of allegiance, or kissing his wife, or embracing his children, or making the sign of the Cross and commending himself to God when he retires for the night. But most of the time, human nature being what it isn’t, he will have to struggle against the spiritual inertia of his fallen condition, which tends to make the routine the merely routine.

Our religious acts, including those God has commanded us to do for our souls’ health, are not immune from this risk. In fact, due both to the stakes involved and to the fact that we have real spiritual enemies who want us not just dead but damned, the risk is more intense. So it is intensely important that we consider what we are doing and saying and affirming when we perform these acts, say these words, make these commitments.

We need to consider together what we are doing when we meet here week by week to celebrate the Eucharist and to take the Holy Communion. The use of the Exhortation [BCP, page 85] today instead of the usual Invitation to Confession [page 75] is one incentive toward that, but we also need reminding of some very basic things about what it is we are about when we are doing all this.

The fact is that what we are doing when we take Holy Communion is having a close encounter of the sacramental kind with God himself. No one – no one – ever comes away unchanged from an encounter with God. Either we go away better than when we came, or we go away worse. We leave the table with our hearts more tuned to God’s heart, or we leave with them further hardened and the requiring more in the way of breaking if ever they are to be joined to his and healed. We depart either more of an agent of health for the whole body of which we are members, or more of a threat to its accomplishment of the mission to which God has called it in the place where he has put it. We go away either deeper in heaven or deeper in hell.

The sacraments themselves are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace,” [Articles of Religion, XXV (BCP, page 607)] which, more simply put, means that the life of God is communicated through them without fail. When you take Communion, you encounter the grace of God in the Body and Blood of Christ, and this will have an effect on you for better or for worse. Which it will be depends on whether your will is seeking God’s way or your own. If the former, you will be strengthened and drawn closer to him; if the latter, you will be damaged and will find it that much more difficult to change course. To take Communion in a state of grace strengthens one’s spirit; to receive in a state of sin has destructive consequences that are the spiritual equivalent of what happens when matter and anti-matter collide.

This teaching is not something made up out of whole cloth by ancient clerics conniving for control over peoples’ consciences. It is quite clear in Scripture. The most notable example is in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. One of the issues he has with this gifted but wayward group of Christians is that they are treating the Eucharist – and therefore both God and one another – with contempt. [cf. especially chapter 11:17-34] There are divisions among them, and they come from what he calls a failure to “discern the Lord’s body.” To discern the Lord’s body means not only to affirm his real presence in the consecrated Bread and Wine – though it does include that – but to recognize his presence in the whole body of the Church gathered for worship, in one’s neighbor, and in one’s self. Paul does not hesitate to point out that a failure to approach the sacrament with faith, with repentance, with intention of living a new life, and with charity toward all can have consequences which are not hidden and private and confined to the afterlife: After stating that, “he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body,” he goes on to state that, because many of them have done so, “many are weak and sickly among you, and some have died.” He knows that if their fundamental disorientation remains unchecked, it will cause the Corinthians’ church itself to be weak and sickly and perhaps even to die. Given that Paul’s letter is not merely an interesting historical artifact but canonical Scripture, it speaks to the Church in all ages and places just as pointedly as it did to the Church in Corinth.

Understood this way, it is not so hard to understand why from the beginning the Church – which is the steward and trustee both of the sacraments and of those who receive them – has been at pains to instruct its members concerning the requirements for receiving the Holy Communion in such a way that it will do them good. Those requirements are not obscure.

The basic requirement, as is true of all the sacraments, is that one be baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. This has to be said these days, although it really is what they call a “no-brainer.” The reason for this is that of late in some denominations that are in the process of losing their collective minds as they abandon the faith, serious proposals have been made that everyone in attendance at the service be invited and allowed to take Communion without regard to whether they are Christians. (As Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up.)

The fundamental reason for this requirement is that the act of taking Communion is not a private and individual act, but a public and personal reaffirmation of the faith he entered into when he was baptized. When a person receives Communion, he is publicly and personally reaffirming that he believes all the Church teaches as essential to genuine Christian faith and behavior, and that he does not actively deny any of it. (This does not rule out doubt – which, if genuine, is faith in search of understanding – but it does rule out unbelief, which is the positive denial of the faith.) If someone does take Communion when positively denying the Church’s teaching (whether by word or action), there is a disconnect between his public act and his private opinion – a division in his self which can only imperil him spiritually – a conscious lack of integrity that ultimately degrades his humanity and, like all lies, damages both himself and the communion of faith of which he is a part. In such a case, he does not discern the Lord’s body and eats and drinks, not his soul’s health but his own damnation.

In our tradition, the definition of the baptismal requirement for Communion includes either having been confirmed or being ready and desirous of being confirmed. (So if you are not confirmed and present yourself for communion anyway, don’t be offended if the priest or someone else assumes that you are desirous of being confirmed and invites you to attend instruction sessions in preparation for confirmation.) There is a history behind this requirement that involves something that didn’t get properly reformed during the English Reformation, and about which I will be glad to talk in another forum, but until it is reformed, there it is.

Being baptized, however, is not the only condition for taking Communion and having it do us good and not harm. Both the usual Invitation to Communion in the Prayer Book and the Exhortations make it clear that repentance, faith in Christ, amendment of life, and being in charity toward all people is just as important. Each of these could easily rate a sermon in itself, and later may, but for now the following vital points are what we need to hear:

First, all of these are necessary and inter-related; the absence of any one means a defect in the rest. For example, it is impossible truly to repent without faith in Christ, or without an intention to change one’s life and do better, or without being charitably disposed toward one’s neighbor.

Second, repentance cannot be selective and genuine at the same time. It necessarily involves the desire to turn away from all one’s sins, not just the ones that make us feel worst, and toward God. With him it’s all or nothin’. If it is selective it is not repentance at all, it’s just a fancy way of saying, “Oopsy! My bad.”

Genuine repentance also includes a sincere intention of amendment of life. In other words, no one should take Communion if he has no intention of changing those things in his life that he knows (knows, not feels) are contrary to the will of God. This does not mean that he should refrain from taking Communion if he fears that he will only go back to his previous habits. That may happen, but with God’s grace active in his life, it is far less likely than before. But if he doesn’t really want to change his ways he should not take Communion.

Third, faith in Christ – personal trust and commitment, not just intellectual assent – is necessary for genuine repentance and amendment, and for genuine charity toward others. Genuine faith in Christ is exclusive: It cannot be shared with anyone or anything else, including faith in oneself, without partaking of the taint of idolatry. We must be able to look in the mirror and say, “In the end, I don’t trust you either. In the end, I trust only in Jesus.”

Fourth, charity is an act of the will, not a warm feeling. It is entirely possible to be charitably disposed toward someone you don’t like and may never like, whose very existence offends you. It is possible, for charitable disposition has nothing directly to do with your likes and dislikes. Rather, it has everything to do with your willingness both to will the good that God wills for that person and to act on that willingness in God’s way when the opportunity presents itself instead of looking for ways to snub, exclude, impede, or otherwise cause him to stumble. If that charitable disposition is absent and you take Communion while in a state not of grace but of hate, you will make it immeasurably more likely that you will become what you hate, which is as good a definition of the hell-bound soul as I can think of, and immeasurably more difficult to repent of it. If you cannot bring yourself to this disposition, it is because you’ve been looking for that kind of love in all the wrong places. You’ve turned away so that you cannot hear him who stands at the door and knocks. Turn – ask him to turn you – and hear, and open, and he will come in both to love you and make you a lover like himself.

Why do we wait, when we know not the time we have left?

This was an interesting sermon, all right, as I had not thought of the distinction between taking and receiving Communion in quite that way. To say the least, there is much food for thought here.

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