Do We Have Enough Seats?
Heidelberg Catechism • Sermon • Submitted
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But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Heidelberg Catechism: Lord’s Days 30, Questions and Answers 81-82
Sermon Title: Do We Have Enough Seats?
A couple of weeks ago we took a look at the Lord’s Supper, and tried to identify what are we participating in, and what is our mindset when we do partake in this sacrament of bread and wine. Tonight we turn our focus to a major part of what goes into our celebration and that of Christians from other traditions as well—the preparation that enables believers to sit at the table.
The command that we typically hear in our formularies is from 1 Corinthians 11, which we will read in a moment, and we express a desire for the Spirit to aid in examining our faith, hope, and love. As our faith is a gift from God in which we know his grace, we are reminded in the formulary that grace is sufficient to forgive us of any and all of our sins, struggles, and temptations that we genuinely have given to him and repented of. As we consider persona preparation, we are going to look at what our practice reveals about what we believe.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, a lot of preparation goes into celebrating the Lord’s Supper. As with any big family meal, there are preparations that take place in the kitchen and the dining room. There are people who take up the role of chef—buying the food, cutting the bread up, filling the cups with juice, and making sure they get displayed properly for distribution. Others have been designated with table set-up; they are involved in making sure the table is in the right place and has the appropriate things on it. Our tradition holds that someone with the proper authority has to say the blessing, and preside over the passing out of the food. Then, of course, we have food passers who make sure that everyone who is to be fed is able to receive them.
But in these preparations, there is at least one more vital part that has not been mentioned. We need people to assess the number of seats that are needed. Each of our sanctuaries has pews so you might say we have as many seats as can fit in, but try to keep the idea of a family gathering around a meal as we think about this. To assess the number of seats, there are two ways to really look at things. One way is to see if too many seats are being set out. If there are too many seats, we might prepare too much bread and wine, and fear that it will be wasted—we did not have to go through so much trouble. But a second way is to check and see whether or not we have enough seats? We are going to get to that perspective later, but what it really asks is “Will there be enough room for all who have been invited to come to this table?”
On the surface, the Catechism would seem like it should be the first; we need someone to make sure we do not have too many seats. When question 81 asks, “Who are to come?” There is an assumption that we have to define who may rightfully come and who should not. Who is welcomed, “Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins.” A requirement to come to the table is that you must recognize that you are a sinner; there are things you should be doing and are not, or are and should not be doing. You cannot just recognize, but we are to be displeased—there is a guilt, a burden on us and our relationship that we feel needs to be dealt with.
But the invitation comes not just in acknowledging the pain of sin, but also who “trust that [our] sins are pardoned and that [our] continued weakness is covered by [what Christ experienced].” For true believers, we know that we need a Divine Helper. We accept that the change that our sin requires is going to take more than what we can do for ourselves. Jesus Christ’s suffering and death provide the only way the sins of our past as well as our future can be dealt with. Last time we confessed that to eat and drink is to “accept with a believing heart” and by believing “receive forgiveness.” Now we are affirming that this is accomplished in faith, and has to be part of the mindset of table participants when they gather at the table.
But now right in line with those sin, salvation, service themes of the Catechism, those who come to the table should also, “desire more and more to strengthen our faith and to lead a better life.” Those coming to the table do so not looking for a quick fix to their troubles without any commitment of their own. We are not to look at communion as if I do this thing, nothing matters after that. The proper and faithful response to God’s covenant claim on our lives, having received the grace of Jesus, is a life of thankful obedience. In preparing for the table, we are called to grow in trusting God and his plan for us and his world.
If we operate under the first question I put forth, do we have too many seats—we need seats for at least this many people. But now who might show up that we really have to think whether or not they get to sit at the table? The Catechism helps us there too: “hypocrites and the unrepentant,” “the unbelieving and the ungodly.” These are people who are not willing to recognize their sin and how big of an impact it has on themselves or those around them. They do not see how much it damages lives, nor a possible relationship with their maker. This maker is the one who gives the invitation. If there is nothing godly or righteous in your life, then you ought not to participate; this is not a meal, at least at this point, that you have an invitation to.
It also tells those who put on a show to hold off. If you are the type of person who attends church, can talk like a Christian, but at this time you are not convicted and changed by God’s grace in your life; if you think all that matters for salvation is showing up on Sunday and how you live the other six days is irrelevant—then you should not come to the table. If you live your life in such a way that does not desire to honor and glorify him, then please do not participate. I mentioned last time the Lord’s Supper is not simply a snack during worship; we believe it is much more important, and by faith with the Spirit nourishes our souls. If it seems like a snack or empty ritual, then this is not food you should be eating and drinking.
All of this is what the authors of the Catechism deemed to be involved in the process of self-examination. Each of us should look into our hearts, minds, and lives to see how Christ’s sacrifice has made and continues to make a difference to us. God has called his people one by one, and so we each examine ourselves because we are each growing in maturity and devotion to faith differently. Hopefully you have heard a little part that I keep saying, “at this time,” and we need to remember that—while the Supper might not mean anything to someone one right, God could change their heart for the future. He is who offers the opportunity to receive salvation.
So far we have been asking the question, do we have too many seats? When we ask that, then we approach the table wondering if people really have prepared themselves and if they really have lived up to the prerequisites derived from Scripture and contained in the Catechism and preparatory readings. We come wondering if our leaders have done their due diligence in weeding out and warning off all those who do not believe.
But let’s wonder from a different perspective, do we have enough? What if we were to approach the Lord’s Supper asking if we have enough—enough seats, enough bread, enough wine? When it is phrased that way, what is emphasized is the trust we have in the teaching that has come from God through the church’s pastors and elders. We genuinely trust our people are healthy and living out their faith, not only in the week of preparation, but all of the time. We trust that one another is seeking the Spirit’s guidance, and that indeed the Holy Spirit at work in and among us. This type of thinking looks at people as not just looking for an instant return as wanting to grow more and more through the redemptive work of Jesus.
We believe God is alive and spreading the gospel throughout all of the world as well as in our communities. He has seeds still to be spread even where there have been churches for over 100 years. The examination we practice focuses on the justice and wrath of God’s righteousness, but his righteousness also includes mercy. He is able to convict and reveal truth to those he has called, even in a short period of time. He is able to work all things to encourage the faith of both young and old believers. Maybe this seems really naïve, but I think asking “do we have enough” takes the church’s leadership and discipline very seriously while putting a greater emphasis on the desire to see God work to grow his kingdom. It can emphasize our hope that he nurtures those he is redeeming, and believe that he is able to do much more than we can accomplish or comprehend.
I have been putting this in terms of the number of seats, the number of pieces of bread, and cups of wine, but what I am really trying to get at is “what do we believe about God transforming people’s lives?” Does the way we think about and practice the Lord’s Supper truly demonstrate what we believe about the overwhelming and overflowing grace of God? If I can make it black and white—do we approach the table seeking to stop others from coming, or do we hope that God fills the banquet hall with more and more people who confess him as their Lord and Savior? We are not denying the validity of the questions and answers; we are not saying these instructions or preparations are wrong. The same goal can be in place: seeking truth rooted primarily in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross for the church and for those still being brought into the church.
By proposing this way of looking at things, I am not saying that we should get rid of fencing, censuring, or whatever other word may describe taking care as far as who comes. As we read in 1 Corinthians 11:27, unworthy consumption of the elements is sinning; without examining how we participate brings judgment. Answer 82 describes what may happen when people are not kept away who do not meet these expectations. “They will dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s anger upon the entire congregation.” That is pretty strong language, but what it gets at is if sins are not dealt with in the congregation, if there are members or attendees who are not living as God calls us, then we are not building up one another for living out our faith.
As this is a sacrament of the church, the worshipping and believing body of Christ, it fits into our mission. The members of the church are called to disciple and, from Hebrews 11:24, to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. It is dishonoring to God’s covenant for unbelievers to try and participate in something that is not honest or true to them. It was ungodly for the Corinthians to deprive some of their brothers and sisters of having the meal because those who showed up first ate too much. All who come to participate, believing in Christ, are reminded and assured of the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice for believers; all who repent, believe, and who dedicate their lives to the glory of God should be able to come.
Asking ourselves about how we look at this issue causes us to examine whether we try to limit the grace God is giving, or if we are willing to see who he has all welcomed the door too. There is a big difference. Why this is so important is because of phrases like what we find at the end of answer 82, the exclusion is only to be in effect “until they reform their lives.” The reform we are talking about is such that one desires repentance and genuinely commits to living a godly life, prompted and sustained by God. Reform in the lives of unbelievers and believers who have gone astray is not simply them getting their act together and never falling again but trusting and evidencing that God has done some major work. The call to maximize our view of God’s grace, and living out his grace means that we make room for those who have repented and genuinely turned from their waywardness.
My hope for each of our churches and for all churches is that we keep in mind that change is possible. Answer 85 puts forth, “Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.” That type of change and reform involves the leaders of the church as well as each of us as individual members of the congregation to show God’s love and acceptance. We must take care if such a situation arises that we do not get caught up in gossiping about certain individuals or families, that we do not look with disapproval or distrust on others until they have proven themselves to us. If the church’s leaders, led by the Spirit, allow someone to take a seat for the first time or return to their seat at the table from a time away, we trust that God knows their heart, and we should seek with open arms to welcome them back.
I know what I am teaching may not be anything new for many of us. But may it be as we hear these words that we hear them not just for ourselves, but also for others who we may minister to. We learn and need to be reminded so that we have an answer ready, an answer to which we can turn people who are wondering about why we do things the way we do. May we look at our celebration as an opportunity to invite all the more people who repent, believe, and trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to find their seat around table. That they too would acknowledge the vastness of God’s grace, and together honor his holiness. Amen.