A Sermon on First Communion: Blessedly Unfair

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If you were to ask just about anybody how they feel about equality these days, just about everybody would say it’s a good thing. And in many ways, it is! But there’s also sense in which we don’t like equality. In fact, there’s a certain type of equality that we hate.

Remember the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1—16)? This is the one where the master hires people to work in his vineyard all day long, even up to one hour right before quitting time, and yet pays all of the workers the same. This is the sort of equality we despise. Those who were hired first began to grumble,  These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

We hear their complaint and we’re sympathetic.

Why should someone else enjoy a privilege we’ve rightly earned?

We don’t like it when those who haven’t worked as hard or as long as us are made our equals.   

But when it comes to grace, God is anything but fair. And in this, He is blessedly unfair. Because if God gave us what we actually deserved, it would not be very pleasant. How easily we forget what a great debt we’ve been forgiven! How easily we began to feel entitled to God’s grace!

Grace, by definition, is something you do not deserve. You earn wages. You don’t earn grace. You can’t. If you could, it wouldn’t be grace!

How easily we become like the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, who after being forgiven an enormous debt, began to demand that one of his fellow servants repay him a much smaller debt. So the master said to him, Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (v. 32—33).

This is what we see in Jonah, who was only too happy to receive the grace of God for himself, but when it came to the Ninevites, well, that was another story. They didn’t deserve God’s grace, and Jonah knew it. And he was even right. They didn’t deserve grace. Remember what Jonah said when he finally fesses up as to the reason why he did everything he could to avoid preaching in Nineveh like God told him? He said he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because He knew that God would be merciful (Jonah 4:2).

Jonah understood grace well: He knew it couldn’t be earned, but wanted God to withhold it from some anyway. He literally would have rather died than see God be gracious to those wicked people. He even pleads with God: O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:3). All because God was gracious to Nineveh, just like He was gracious to Jonah, who, if he was honest with himself, was just as wicked as they, if not more so.

With St. Paul, we confess that we are chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). When we mess up we’re quick to ask God to forgive us, but we’re not always as quick to forgive those who trespass against us. We want the grace of God for ourselves, but we’re not always as careful to make sure that everyone who needs that same grace is receiving it.

Today we welcome several young people to the Lord’s Table for the first time, prior to their confirmation. Somewhere along the line we’ve picked up this unbiblical notion that confirmation makes someone ready to receive the Lord’s Supper.

But the Lord’s Supper is a gift. If receiving it depended on our ability to understand it, nobody here—myself included—would ever be able to receive it.

What makes one worthy of the Sacrament is that good Lutheran teaching—faith alone. Luther himself says so in the Small Catechism. Who receives this Sacrament worthily? That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” To add anything else to this is to set up a new law, just like the Pharisees.

By God’s grace, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has recognized that faith alone is what makes one worthy to receive the Sacrament, and has provided our congregations with the rite of first communion prior to confirmation. The Bible doesn’t instruct us to set out a “you must be this tall to commune” sign in front of the Lord’s Table, as there’s nothing better for the spiritual development of our young people than the grace of God. 

Even though children and adults may believe and so be worthy of the Sacrament from the time of Baptism, this does not necessarily mean they are ready to commune. In this sense, the Sacrament is sort of like a trust fund. The trust is set up, even from birth, and the owner is worthy of those funds—indeed, he or she is the only one who can cash them in—but not until a certain time. Someone may be worthy, but not ready.

So what makes a worthy child of God ready to receive the Sacrament? They must be taught to confess the faith.[1] This happens both in the home and at church.

They learn the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

They receive instruction in the Gospel and Sacraments.

They confess their sins, trust in Christ, and desire to receive the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening their faith in Christ and love toward others.

Once this takes place, worthy children of God—regardless of age—are ready to commune.

And in this, we find another example of a blessed inequality. I say it’s an inequality, because it’s still common in many of our churches to have to wait until confirmation for communion. But we’re all equally as sinful, and equally as in need of God’s grace.

And we dare not think that somehow our faith is any better than anyone else’s, for faith is a gift, something the Holy Spirit gives equally to all of His children, young and old alike. If anyone has a stronger faith, it’s the simple faith of a child. The more we grow, the less trusting we become and the more we begin to question our faith. This is why our Lord says, Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it (Luke 18:17).

In Christ, we find blessed equality. We are all equally as sinful, and equally as redeemed. Some people have this view that pastors are somehow better Christians than others (usually it’s the people who don’t know pastors very well!). Sometimes people ask me to pray for them, which is a great thing and I’m happy to do it. But occasionally they’ll add some comment “because you’re in with the guy upstairs”, as if somehow the prayers of a pastor ascend first class, while the prayers of everyone else are lucky to avoid getting stuck in God’s spam folder.

But pastors just as sinful as anyone else. That’s why we wear all black—we’re as sinful as anyone—but with just a little white around the throat, which reminds us of the truth and purity of God’s Word which we preach. This is also why pastors cover up with vestments, to draw attention away from the individual and to point to Christ’s Office in which the man serves. It’s not about the pastor, it’s not about Simeon, it’s not about John the Baptist: it’s about Jesus, about getting His grace to His children.

I’ve given years of my life to the study of theology, to learning Hebrew and Greek, to confessing the truth and defending it against error. And yet, I’m just as sinful and just as redeemed as any child of God. I am no more or less worthy of God’s grace than anyone else, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). God is blessedly unfair that way.

And He’s mostly blessedly unfair when you look at your Lord suffering on the cross, dying for those who all too easily ask for forgiveness but have a hard time extending that same grace to others. Jesus, the only One who was equal to God,  made Himself less than equal. He was made like His brothers in every respect, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).

Indeed, He made Himself nothing so that you might be His everything.

He did this so that you might be regarded as God’s own child, pure and holy. One thing that every child of God who’s ever been baptized, absolved, and communed has in common is that they’ve never done anything to deserve it. Simeon didn’t deserve the privilege of Jesus coming to Him in the temple.

But by faith, God has made all of His baptized children His holy temple, which is so much better than what Simeon had. Simeon, you see, was in the temple and got to hold Jesus in His arms. You are His temple, and His body and blood comes enters into the temple of your body to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. The Lord is Holy in His temple, and you, dear Christian, are that temple.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 2:22—32
The Presentation of Our Lord, 2014: “Blessedly Unfair”
Zion on the web: http://zionlutheransummit.org/
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[1] cf. the distinction Gibbs makes between communing as an individual vs. communing as a confessor (CTCR, “Admission to the Lord’s Supper”, 31ff.).

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