"Whoso eateth my Flesh, and drinketh my Blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day."--ST. JOHN, VI. 53.
"And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life."--v. 40.
IT is a grief to those who have at heart the interests of the Church of GOD, that the proportion of communicants among her baptized members is 'so small. Of the multitudes made hers by the washing of water and the Spirit, comparatively few come to seek at her altars the bread of everlasting life. The causes which keep men away from the table of the Lord, are, no doubt, manifold and diverse. I shall neither attempt to penetrate the motives of individuals, nor venture to decide how far they are excusable in maintaining their unhappy position. But if, among the causes operating on them, one may be found which amounts to a mere misunderstanding; if, among those stumbling-blocks there be one capable of removal by simple explanation, we are constrained to attempt to clear up the difficulty, not only by the consideration of our duty, but by the hope of immediate good results. Every pastor knows that such a cause does exist, and that many conscientious, moral, and even religious persons are kept thereby, year after year, at a distance from the table of the Lord. There are those who would come at once, if persuaded that they were worthy; but who so regard the Lord's Supper as to think that they must have made a considerable advance in spirituality before they have a right to be admitted there. To this one point your attention is now called. Ought any one to keep back from the table of the Lord because he does not think himself good enough to come? Ought he to wait until he is good enough? To consider these questions, and to decide them on the general principles of our holy faith, are the objects of the following remarks. I propose for your reflections these two inquiries:
I. What is the Holy Communion, practically considered? II. What qualifications are required in those who come to it?
I. What, then, is the Holy Communion, practically considered? I say, practically considered; not theologically. It is not intended to enter into any of the deep and mysterious questions which present themselves to the thought of the advanced Christian, as he contemplates this august and dread Sacrament. But, as a first question--as a general inquiry, What is the Holy Communion? What is it--not to the saint in his retirement, not to the devout recluse in his nearer walk with GOD, not to the priest who tremblingly handles the sacred things, not to the angels who gaze into these mysteries with the wish to sound their depths: but to the world at large, to the great family of man, to the busy, hard-working classes? What is the Holy Communion to the sinful and the suffering? What is it to us all?
Before answering, let me first refer to a widely prevailing error. Many think, or act as if they thought, that this Holy Sacrament is a kind of badge of distinction--a symbol which indicates that they who receive it are more spiritual than others. It is thought to be the privilege of a class. They who remain when the bulk of the congregation is gone, and kneel at the altar, are supposed to be better than the rest, more advanced in piety, more spiritual: and, in the reception of the Communion, to manifest that superiority before a sinful world. And it is thought that, until the rest, who go, have become as good as those who stay, they ought to absent themselves, and would be playing the part of the hypocrite if they were to remain and communicate.
I would state this as plainly as possible, that you may see how numbers of persons think of the Sacrament, and of the position and qualifications of communicants. I state the view in order to denounce it. To this wretched idea that the Communion is a badge of distinction, and a sign of superiority in holiness, we owe it in great part that our altars are so thinly attended--I had almost said, deserted. And, if there be any language suited to express abhorrence of such an idea, that language I should desire to appropriate and apply. Let us banish that notion forever from our thoughts. Let us drive it forth into that outer darkness, fit for all that wars against souls, and thwarts the progress of Christ's kingdom.
What, then, is the Holy Communion? We reply, in the language of our Prayer Book, that it is a Sacrament generally necessary to salvation. "NECESSARY TO SALVATION." These are not the words of the preacher, but the words of your Prayer Book. The Church has authority for saying that, without the two Sacraments, men cannot (ordinarily) be saved. Our Lord declared, with reference to baptism: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of GOD." And of the Holy Communion He said: "Except ye eat the Flesh of the Son of Man, and Drink His Blood, ye have no life in you." To many, no doubt, these are unwelcome truths; they are truths which no man could venture, on his own responsibility, to declare; but still they are truths, because uttered by Him who knoweth all things, and who styled Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
But why is the reception of the Holy Communion necessary to salvation? For this simple and sufficient reason: that it is the appointed way of coming to Christ. He who will not come to the Communion does not come to Christ in the way of Christ's own appointment. And unless one come to Christ for salvation, how can he be saved at all?
These statements require explanation.
The great mystery of the Gospel is thus expressed in Holy Scripture: that the WORD was made FLESH. The great wonder was this: that the Son of GOD became man, took our nature upon Him, was grafted into our stock, and entered into the great human family. The blessing of the Gospel dispensation was, that GOD and man were thus brought together, that the gulf betwixt the infinite and the finite was spanned, that a COMMUNION was established between heaven and earth. Why was this done? For an obvious reason. GOD became man, that man might come to Him without fear, and see Him, and touch Him, know His glory and His mercy, and be and abide in His society.
The holy Evangelists and Apostles are most earnest in declaring this mystery. None is more so than St. John, who says: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of life .... that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you." This it was which called forth his glowing eloquence, his ardent thankfulness, and his rapturous praise; that his Creator should have condescended to become a man like himself; that He had submitted Himself not only to the knowledge and observation of mortals, but to the vision and contact of their material organs; that they had seen Him, and touched Him, and handled Him. In this lay the wonder of the Gospel. It was the establishing a HOLY COMMUNION between men and GOD. And to that end, GOD took a Body and Blood, and Flesh and Bones, such as we have, and in them He came and dwelt among His people. This mystery we confess as that of the Incarnation.
It was through personal intercourse with Jesus Christ that His influence was felt. When any one sought relief from Him, the first and necessary step was to go where He was Bodily Present. When this had been done, all blessings followed. The sick were healed, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and sinners received pardon. But before these effects followed, the Bodily Communion must be established. He might, by His Divine Power, have worked His Miracles over all the earth, but He limited them to Judea. He healed those who came to Him, who spoke to Him, who looked into His loving eyes, who laid hold of His garment, who caught His hand. It was the physical union, the material touch, the spoken voice, the outward visible sign and gesture, through which all these marvels came to pass.
I conclude, that the life of the Son of Man on earth, was a HOLY COMMUNION between Himself and mortals; and that the establishment of that Holy Communion was His appointed way of giving them spiritual life, pardon, and salvation.
Let us now apply this to our own circumstances.
Does this Holy Communion at present exist? Has it existed since the Lord's departure from this earth? It has existed: it does. Although He is separated from us in the Flesh, and our eyes no longer behold Him, nor our hands handle Him, yet the communion between Him and His people still remains. As real as ever, it is maintained by the instrumentality of that Sacrament whose name announces the special blessings it conveys.
To prove this, two things are necessary: First, To show that Christ continues to exist in His Human Nature, as truly, really, and completely a man as when He was on the earth. Secondly, To show that we have means and opportunities of access to Him in that Human Nature, as real as they would have been if we had lived in Judea in the days of His Incarnation. We claim that both these truths are taught by our Church.
As to the first, no words of mine could express it so well as do those of the Fourth of our Articles of Religion. "Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again His Body, with Flesh, Bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature; wherewith He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth, until He return to judge all men at the Last Day." Nothing could be plainer than this. The Son of Mary is in heaven in the very same flesh which He took of her substance, and in which He worked out our salvation.
The second point follows logically from the first. But let me quote St. Paul. In 1 Cor. x. 16, he asks these questions: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the Communion of the Blood of Christ? the bread which we break, is it not the Communion of the Body of Christ? We have seen that Christ, in His Body, Flesh, Blood, and all things appertaining to His human nature, is at this moment in heaven. But St. Paul affirms, by implication, in his queries, that in the Lord's Supper we are brought into Communion with Christ as man, and are made partakers of His Body and Blood. Again, our Lord Himself announces, in the words of the text, and generally throughout that chapter from which they are taken, that, " Except we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we have no life in us; that His Flesh is meat indeed, and His Blood drink indeed; that whosoever eateth His Flesh and drinketh His Blood hath eternal life, and shall be raised among the just at the last day." Now, either these words have no relation to us and our times, or else they imply some means whereby Christ, in that Flesh and that Blood, is now accessible to us. What the instrumentality is I claim to have already shown by the words of St. Paul. It is also declared by our Lord: "Take, eat, THIS is my BODY. Drink ye all of this, for THIS is my BLOOD." It is further declared, by the language of our own Communion Office, in which the people are warned beforehand, that "Almighty GOD hath given His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance IN the Holy Sacrament of the Lord's Supper;" in which we pray "so to eat the Flesh of the Son of Man, and to drink His Blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most precious Blood"; and in which we give thanks after receiving, for that we have been "fed with the most precious Body and Blood of GOD's dear Son." The Eucharistic Office implies a deep conviction of the double fact which we have stated: First, That Christ continues to exist in His human nature, as truly, really, and completely a man as when He was on this earth; and, Second, That we have a mode of access to Him in that Sacrament, as real as we should have had if we had been His contemporaries in Judea. I say as real a mode of access. I disclaim the thought that it is in the same way. The access is a spiritual and mystical one. But it is not less real than that of those who walked beside Him, and saw and touched Him, and dwelt beneath the same roof with Him, and sat with Him at the same table.
The conclusion from what has now been said is this: that to come to the Lord's Supper is simply to come to Jesus Christ; to come to Him in the way of his appointment; to come to Him in the way especially instituted for us by Himself, in view of His departure from the earth and ascension to heaven. It is this Holy and Blessed Communion with our Saviour which has been perverted into a badge of distinction among brother Christians, and a sign of superiority.
II. The second part of our subject remains to be considered: What are the qualifications required in him who would approach the table of the Lord? I reply, simply those which were required to approach His Person when He dwelt in Judea; simply those which are required to approach His Person when we must give our account at the Last Day.
Who, then, were fitted for His company and His personal, visible communion, when He was on the earth? Regarded in themselves, none. But was their unfitness, or unworthiness, a cause for their keeping away from Him? What idea could be more monstrous? What more effectual to prevent the salvation of souls? It is my firm conviction that this notion has been suggested and fostered by Satan as a way of keeping men from their Saviour. It was not the world that loved Him first; but He that loved the world. He came to a race dead in trespasses and sins. He came announcing that His mission was not to the just, but to sinners. Suppose that any one of those who needed Him most had kept away from Him, through a feeling of unworthiness. What mistake could have been more fatal? the need of His help was the strongest claim on His favor. Everybody understood this. No one who looked at Christ could fail to see it. And what was the consequence? Why, that they all flocked to Him at once; they came just as they were: in their sins, in their sickness, in their unutterable perplexities, discouragements and sorrows; the lame made shift to crawl towards Him; the blind strained their sightless balls in the direction where they knew that there was light to be had for the asking; even the leper perceived that he, the very outcast of men and the refuse of the earth, could go to that One without fear of a repulse. Their infirmities, so far from keeping them away, were the passport to His presence.
Such were the Saviour's actions. His teachings corresponded. The parable of the prodigal son displayed the same principles. The profligate was in a far country, naked, degraded, and miserable; a feeder of swine, a victim of harlots, a beggar and an outcast. In that condition he bethought him of his father's house. What if he had waited until ready to go? How could he have got ready? How would waiting have helped him? He wanted food, and raiment, and shelter. He thought of his father's house, because those things were there. He did wisely to go, just as he was, and cast himself on his father's mercy. And, as you know, he was not disappointed of his hope.
Let us make application of our Saviour's acts and words. If there be any one here present who is in doubt about coming to the Communion, in doubt of his sufficient preparation, in doubt of his possessing the necessary requirements, let him ask himself what he would have done, so far as he knows his own heart, if he had lived in those days when the Saviour was visibly present on the earth. Would he have felt himself free (knowing the character of that Saviour, and having heard the fame of His miracles, sanctity, and benevolence)--would he have felt himself free to go at once to Him and profess the desire to be His faithful follower? Would the consciousness of sin, sorrowed for and detested, but still lingering within him, have appeared an insuperable obstacle to the interview? Would he have concluded, "I am not fit to approach Him, but will go when I shall have become better, holier, and worthier than I am at present?'' Would not this have been to shut himself out from the very place whither he ought to go at once? Who does not see that one must remain away from Christ forever, if he wait for those qualities which Christ alone can give? And who can doubt that in the case of every applicant to Him for mercy, Christ, if He saw the heart right, the repentance sincere, and the faith firm, would never have sent away, and never did send away, a single human being because of his deficiencies? Ye who have never yet come to the Holy Communion, think rightly of that blessed ordinance. It is the COMMUNION with Jesus Christ. To come to it is simply to come to Him. Perfection is not required in the communicant as a condition: it is by that Sacrament that he is to be made perfect. Deep spirituality is not to have been previously attained; it is in that Sacrament that the spiritual life is to be developed. Entire cleanness from sin is not a prerequisite: for it is to the very Saviour of sinners that the receiver draws near. But these three things only are needed of him who would worthily commune: a hearty sorrow that he is a sinner; a firm faith that Christ can forgive his sins and cleanse him from all uncleanness; a sincere wish to receive those blessings and to lead a GODly, righteous and sober life. And these are the conditions on which the Holy Communion becomes indeed a savor of life. Thus saith the Church: "Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of GOD, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways, draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort." This is what the Church requires in communicants, because this is what the Lord required of those who came to Him when He dwelt on the earth; a hearty sorrow, an honest intention, a firm faith. Without these none should become a communicant; without these none can be saved.
The remarks which have now been made were addressed to such as are kept away from the Lord's table through conscientious scruples, resulting from erroneous views. But these persons form a comparatively small class.
There is another and a much larger class: that of those who are restrained by the knowledge of habitual sins which they are unwilling to break off. These persons are no less conscientious in their scruples than the others. Their consciences make known to them the existence of old, deep-seated habits of sin. They love those sins; they cannot bring themselves to forsake them; and therefore they dare not come to the Lord's table. This is their position. They know it; and the Searcher of hearts knows it. Let no such person mock us by professing a reverence for the holy table, and a dread of profaning the precincts of the altar; this is the outward pretence; the true reason for absence is that the will declines to be subject to Christ; that men are lovers of pleasures more than lovers of GOD; that they cannot bring themselves to renounce unlawful indulgences; that they set the treasure of this world before the riches of the kingdom of heaven. If any man have such a heart as this, let him, as he values his own soul, stay away. But let him also remember that this insincere, unsettled, luke-warm state, while it keeps him from the altar, keeps him no less surely from Christ. While he remains in wilful and habitual sin, he is not indeed fit for the Sacrament. But this is not all. He is not fit to die. For him, the making ready for the Sacrament is a work no less needful than the making ready for the judgment-seat of Christ. If he fails to accomplish the former, he will as utterly fail in the latter. And if this should be the end, and life should close upon such procrastination, we can do no more, but pray that the Lord will have mercy on his soul.
Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face,
Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand the Eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the Bread of GOD,
Here drink with Thee the royal wine of Heaven,
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
I have no help but Thine; nor do I need
Another arm save Thine to lean upon;
It is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;
My strength is in Thy might, Thy might alone.