Hospitality at the Lord’s Table by Rev. John T. Pless
We want others to share in Christ’s body and blood with us. We want them to be included at the altar rail – not as strangers and sojourners but as brothers and sisters, united with us in the true fellowship of Christ’s Church.
Some within our synod and many on the outside, view the practice of closed communion as the very opposite of hospitality. After all, they say, if you had guests in your home, you would be considered rude and inhospitable if you did not invite them to the table at mealtime. If the Lord’s Supper were just an ordinary meal, no doubt this criticism would bear weight. Indeed, churches that do not believe that Christ is bodily present in the Sacrament are often quick to proclaim that their tables are open to all – for why would they waste a moment’s anxiety over mere bread and wine? But Lutherans confess that the Lord’s Supper is no ordinary meal. Far from it. As Luther reminds us, “It is the Lord’s Supper, not the Christian’s Supper.” In this Sacrament, Jesus gives us His true body to eat and His true blood to drink under bread and wine. In light of this great and unique gift, all analogies to human meals fall short. The Lord’s Supper is a meal without parallel.
Jesus is the host at this Supper, and it is administered according to His words. The Lord’s Apostle tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Those who eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood without faith in His promises are eating and drinking judgement on themselves. What host would desire that for his guests?
In practicing closed communion, Lutherans are not selfishly excluding others from the Sacrament. Because we treasure the Lord’s words and the testament of His body and blood so highly, we want very much for others to come to the altar and partake of this Sacrament with us. This is why we invite those who do not yet confess the faith with us to join us for the study of Holy Scripture, that together with one mind, heart and mouth we might bear witness to all that our Lord gives. This is why our catechism teaches that “The practice of closed communion seeks to guard those who eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper from sinning against Christ’s body and blood or receiving it to their harm. At the same time, this practice professes that those who partake of Christ’s body and blood together are united in the same teaching and confession” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, 343-344).
When visitors come to the Divine Service, the faithful practice of closed communion isn’t meant to be an unwelcoming gesture. It is instead an earnest invitation to them to receive God’s Word with us and, having been instructed in the teaching of the apostles (see Acts 2:42), come to rejoice with us at the altar in the oneness that we share in Christ’s body and blood. Open communion, as Hermann Sasse reminded us, might be a fascinating religious rite, but it is not the Sacrament of the New Testament. We want others to share in Christ’s body and blood with us. We want them to be included at the altar rail – not as strangers and sojourners but as brothers and sisters, united with us in the true fellowship of Christ’s Church. The way to such inclusion is not by excluding Christ’s words, but by freely and joyfully teaching them so that others may hear and confess with us the gift our Lord gives in His Sacrament.