God ordered His creation with days, weeks, months, and seasons in Genesis. God has made us more than creatures of habit; we are creatures of ritual. From the time we wake up, drink our coffee, eat breakfast, dress the kids, and head off to school, to the time we come home, eat dinner, spend time on work or activities, and go to bed, our daily life is made up of little rituals.
Life in the Lord’s house, His church, is no different. Everything we think, say, and do in our life together at St. John goes in two directions. It all begins when God leads, draws, and gathers us around Jesus’ gifts of life and salvation in Word and Sacraments in Divine Service. And, having received God’s gifts, He calls, sends, and directs us to go out into our daily vocations in life to love and serve others. Every congregation has rituals. A good question to ask ourselves is, “Does the ritual serve the Gospel, proclaim Jesus Crucified, and point us to his saving work, or does it point us to ourselves and our work?”
It is God’s work to draw, gather, and give us forgiveness in the His Church. Let us examine the content and meaning of the Rite of First Communion and determine if it delivers the Gospel. After careful instruction in the Gospel and Sacraments, the candidates for First Communion participate in the Rite of First Communion during the Divine Service. The placement of the Rite of First Communion before the Prayer of the Church recalls Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4, “Everything is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”
The pastor begins the Rite of First Communion with the following address to the congregation.
Beloved in the Lord, in Holy Baptism, these young people were born again as God’s children and received into His Church. As a further gift of His love for us, our Lord Jesus Christ has given His Church the Sacrament of the Altar and invites his children to receive this Sacrament in faith for the forgiveness of their sins. The apostle Paul reminds us, “Let a person examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink the cup,” and “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” These candidates have received instruction and have been examined by the pastor regarding their sin and their understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar.
The pastor then addresses the candidates for First Communion.
You are about to be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Holy Scripture describes the life of the Church and every baptized Christian with these words: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” You are invited by our Lord to come regularly to hear his Word and receive His Sacrament. You will continue to be instructed and nurtured in the Christian faith and life. You are invited to confess your sins and receive the comfort of Holy Absolution. All this will help you live as the child of God you have been made through Holy Baptism.
Several important things are happening already at the beginning of the rite. First, the connection between Holy Baptism and Holy Communion is highlighted, reminding us that the Lord’s Supper is for the baptized. As one liturgical text says, when Holy Communion is about to be distributed, “The gifts of God for the people of God.”
Second, the congregation and candidates are directed to God’s Word as the source of present and ongoing instruction in the Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar. Compare First Communion to the care of a young, newly planted sapling. It needs constant care, occasional pruning, and above all, food, sunlight, and water. It is the same way for young Christian candidates for First Communion. In Holy Baptism, they are planted and rooted in Christ. In Holy Absolution and instruction, they are pruned. And in Holy Communion, they are fed. A young tree fed well will grow, live, and be fruitful. Through instruction, the pastor and candidates are fulfilling Paul’s words to “examine oneself” in preparation for Holy Communion. The requirement for worthy communion is not a certain age or a perfect understanding of the Lord’s Supper, but faith in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”
Finally, the rite confesses what the candidates have learned in their instruction, namely, that the Gospel is the forgiveness of sins and the Lord’s Supper brings God’s forgiveness to us in a tangible way.
Following the opening address, the pastor then asks the candidates for First Communion the following questions.
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit?
Do you believe that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is your Lord?
Do you believe that you are a sinner?
Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for you and shed His blood for you on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins?
Do you believe that in the Lord’s Supper, He gives you His true body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and to strengthen your faith in Him and your love toward others?
Do you intend to continue to hear and receive the instruction of your Lord, confess your sins, and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully throughout your life?
Each question receives a confident yet straightforward confession and answer. “Yes, I believe.” These questions serve to remind us of the purpose of the Rite of First Communion. Here God is giving His gifts to His children. Here the baptized children of God confess who Jesus is, what He has done for their salvation, and how He gives His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Lord’s Supper. Here we see the power of God’s Word at work in delivering the candidates the faith to believe and confess Jesus’ saving name and work.
The Rite of First Communion then concludes with the following instruction, prayer, and blessing.
Parents and members of the congregation, the whole Church shares with you the responsibility and concern for these young people’s ongoing instruction and spiritual care. I now ask you, will you intercede for them in prayer and, as much as you are able, give them your counsel and aid, that in communion with the Church, they may grow up to lead a godly life to the praise and honor of Jesus Christ? Then answer: We will with the help of God.
Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ loved the young and called them to Himself, we ask You to bless these young people. Strengthen them in the faith through the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood so that they may grow spiritually and bring forth the fruits of faith in a life of love toward others to the praise and honor of Your holy name; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
We rejoice with thankful hearts in your confession of faith. As you continue to hear the Lord’s Word and receive His Holy Supper, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Peace be with you. Amen.