Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Requirements for Receiving Holy Eucharist

This is a slightly revised sermon I preached on the first Sunday of Lent a few years back. It's the only time I've even mentioned in a sermon what must surely these days be one of the most neglected parts of the Prayer Book: the Exhortation at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist, Rite I. While I may not have put all of this as elegantly as others could, I hope I've at least landed in the ballpark of faithfulness.

From the beginning of the Anglican tradition, the Prayer Book has included an Exhortation to worthy preparation for Holy Communion. We don’t use it much anymore, but it remains an important part of our tradition. So this morning, I’m going to read it and use parts of it as the basis for the sermon.

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory in the Church evermore. Through him let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise, which is our bounden duty and service, and, with faith in him, come boldly before the throne of grace (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 316-317).

Wow! That’s pretty heavy stuff. We just don’t hear that kind of language much in church anymore. It’s more than a little scary to think that Communion is a dangerous sacrament, that we could “receive it improperly,” drinking from a cup of damnation rather than a cup of salvation (BCP, p. 316). But that’s what the Exhortation, following the apostle Paul, teaches.

Perhaps that serves as a counter-cultural reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not politically correct. There are limits to its inclusiveness. And some of those limits surface in our Church’s understanding of the requirements necessary for receiving Holy Eucharist.

There are three requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal Church. These include sacramental, moral, and theological requirements.

First, there’s the sacramental requirement. Our Church teaches that only persons who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit may receive Communion. Many of us may remember a time when you had to also be confirmed before you could receive. The change came with the 1979 Prayer Book. The change is partly an attempt to conform our practice to that of the to early Church, back when there was no such thing as confirmation. But the 1979 revision is also an attempt to submit to the authority of Holy Scripture by conforming our practices to the New Testament understanding that baptism alone is the sacramental gateway to full membership in the Church.

Baptism is a once-for-all event. You don’t have to do or receive anything else to be fully initiated into Christ’s Body the Church. And as a full member, every baptized person, including infants, has a “right” to receive Holy Eucharist. A possible exception to this rule are non-Episcopal Christians whose churches teach that they cannot receive Communion from another church. So, as a bare minimum requirement, you have to be baptized to receive Holy Eucharist.

There are also moral requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist. These include self-examination, repentance, and reparation. Remember what the Prayer Book’s Exhortation says:

“Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone” (BCP, 317).

Notice that the Exhortation does not say if you have offended. It presumes the same truth we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans: that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That’s also why the Ash Wednesday liturgy speaks of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP, p. 265; emphasis added). All of us are guilty of taking God’s grace in vain, and all of us are in need of repentance. And there are few better ways to discern where we’re taking God’s grace in vain than by examining our lives against the 10 Commandments and the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.

The point of comparing ourselves to God’s expectations is not to beat ourselves up. On the contrary, it’s an encouragement to return to a loving and gracious Lord, choosing the way of life rather than the way of death. True repentance is not about mouthing a general confession for sin. True repentance means being sincerely sorry for our sins and shortcomings, owning up to what we’ve done or left undone, and genuinely desiring to amend our lives. We have to be ready to do what it takes to set things right.

Of course, that can be much harder than it sounds. Sometimes we get stuck in the mud of resentment, guilt, or shame and we can’t get ourselves out. If that happens, the Church stands ready to help. That’s why the Prayer Book’s Exhortation reminds us of the sacrament of reconciliation or private confession with a priest. It’s a way to help us lay hold of God’s forgiveness so that God’s grace can pull us out of the mud. As your priest and pastor, I am always available to provide this sacrament of private confession, not only during Lent, but at any time of the year.

Baptism, self-examination, repentance, and reparation: those are the sacramental and moral requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist in our Church. If all of this seems like a lot of fuss, that’s because of the theological requirement: that we recognize the Lord’s Body – the Real Presence of the risen Christ – in the consecrated bread and wine.

Anglicanism maintains that by the end of the Eucharistic prayer, after we say the great “AMEN” printed in all capital letters, the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a way we cannot fully understand, the bread and wine have been transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Few Anglicans hold the Roman Catholic theory of transubstantiation, largely because we believe that what happens in the celebration of Holy Eucharist is a wonderful and sacred mystery that defies rational explanation. You don’t have to have a theory to believe in and respect the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist any more than you have to have a theory of love before you can get married, give your spouse a hug, or believe that your mother really loves you. Even without a theory of how it happens, we do believe that it happens. When Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” and when he took wine and said, “This is my blood,” he wasn’t being cute or dramatic. He really meant it, both then and today. That’s the inspiration for the wonderful line in our hymnal attributed to Anglican priest and poet John Donne:

He was the Word that spake it,
he took bread and brake it,
and what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it (
The Hymnal 1982 #322).

That’s why we don’t throw leftover, consecrated bread in the garbage bin or pour leftover, consecrated wine into the sewer. Such careless actions invite judgment by desecrating the Lord’s Body and Blood. Likewise, the Exhortation calls upon us to do the work of self-examination prior to partaking of the Real Presence of our Lord lest, by our careless reception, we show disrespect for the one who died that we may live.

Our Church’s requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist are not meant to scare us off. On the contrary, they are meant to instill within us a holy reverence and respect for the incredible gift we receive every time we celebrate the Eucharist. For we receive nothing less than Christ himself. We receive his risen life into our souls and bodies. And made one with Christ and one with each other we receive the assurance of God’s gracious and loving intention towards us.

What a precious gift the Holy Eucharist is for us, and what a privilege to receive it. May we never take it for granted.


BillyD said...

Well done.

I think that every priest who has the cure of souls ought to read the Exhortation publicly at least once a year, if not in a sermon then in place of one.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, BillyD. I fully agree with you about reading the Exhortation at least once during the year. We used to do that every first Sunday in Lent when I was rector of a small parish, but since coming to the Cathedral, it's never happened. I wouldn't be surprised if it hasn't been read at our Cathedral during my entire lifetime.