Tuesday, February 17, 2009

First Communion/Confirmation

(Here's the lead item in the March Mt. Zion newsletter:)

Dear members of Mt. Zion,

Throughout my years of instructing the young people of this congregation in the Christian faith, I have been pulled by two important desires. The first is that our children should not be made to wait an unnecessarily long time to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. God’s Word gives us no age requirements regarding when someone may receive Holy Communion, only that a person recognize and receive the body and blood of Christ with penitent faith in Him. It is for that reason that we have started Confirmation instruction at a younger age, so that children don’t have to wait until they’re graduating from 8th grade to receive this precious gift of Christ.

On the other hand, we want the children to be thoroughly instructed in the Scriptural faith as it is rightly confessed in the Small Catechism. We want them to be well grounded in the truths of God’s Word and have a deep understanding of the Bible that will stick with them the rest of their lives. That would seem to argue for having Confirmation take place when the children are a little bit older and can grasp things intellectually at a little deeper level. (Of course, our growth in the knowledge of Christ and His Word never ends but is to continue throughout our lives.)

While our current practice of having Confirmation instruction take place during the middle grade levels has worked well, with first communion following Confirmation, I think we would do even better by separating First Communion from the completion of Confirmation instruction. Here are my reasons:

Young children most certainly can receive Holy Communion properly and to their benefit. Martin Luther once said against the followers of the Pope who claimed that they alone were the true church, "God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’" (Smalcald Articles, Kolb/Wengert, p. 324) Luther knew that even a seven year old could grasp the things of the church. His practice demonstrated this. The Lutheran churches in Reformation times received to the Lord’s table children as young as around seven years old. These children were brought by their parents and examined by the pastor as to their faith. Acknowledging their sin, confessing faith in Jesus as their Savior who died for their sin, believing that the body and blood of Christ are truly present under the bread and wine for their forgiveness, they were given the Sacrament.

Some may question whether young children can understand such things as the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. But then which of us adults can understand this great mystery? It is something only faith can grasp.

In the materials that accompany our hymnal Lutheran Service Book, there is an order called "First Communion prior to Confirmation," which acknowledges the importance of this as an option for congregations to practice. These materials from our Synod state,

"This rite is intended to be used to admit to the Lord’s Supper baptized children who have not yet been confirmed. Candidates for admission to the Lord’s Supper have learned the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. They have received careful instruction in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Confessing their sin and trusting in their Savior, they desire to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their faith in Christ and their love toward others.

"Concerning the worthy reception of the Lord’s Supper, the Small Catechism teaches: ‘That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words "for you" require all hearts to believe.’" (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, p. 25)

A period of instruction for several weeks would take place prior to these children being received to the Lord’s table (in addition to the months and years of Sunday School these children have already attended). Parents would be a part of the teaching process. In this way the children will be properly prepared to reverently receive the gifts Christ has for them in the Sacrament.

Allowing First Communion before Confirmation would have two additional benefits. It would do away with any notion that we are accepted to the Lord’s table because we’ve earned the right by "passing" Confirmation. Holy Communion is not a reward for something we do, but a free gift of God’s grace. Also, allowing an earlier First Communion would enable the in-depth Confirmation instruction to start at a little bit later stage where a deeper look at the Christian faith and life would be more of a possibility.

Parents who bring their children for First Communion would be required to commit themselves to bringing their children to Confirmation instruction later on. We don’t want to diminish the importance of that ongoing catechesis that takes place in Confirmation class. While Confirmation itself is nowhere commanded in the Bible, our ongoing growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is of the utmost importance, and this change has the goal of enhancing and improving that in our congregation.

Doing this would definitely be a change from what most of us are familiar with. It’s certainly different from my own experience growing up. But if we truly believe that the Holy Sacrament is the true body and blood of Christ given for us to eat and drink for our forgiveness, then our practice should reflect that belief and not withhold the benefits of this eating and drinking from our younger members who are properly prepared to receive it.

This topic will be brought up for discussion at our next Voters Meeting on March 15th. I encourage you prayerfully to think this through so that we can have a healthy discussion about this matter and hopefully come to a consensus about how to handle the practice of First Communion and Confirmation in our congregation.

-Pastor Koch-

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