Question: What does it mean to examine one's self before communing?

Which of these sounds better?  You get to church on Sunday, and you notice the Communion vessels on the altar.  You think to yourself, “Looks like there’s Communion today.  Should I take it?  May as well.”  Or, it’s Saturday night, and you say to yourself, “There’s Communion tomorrow.  Let me give it some thought and prayer as I prepare.”  Both can be okay, and we’ve probably found ourselves in both situations at times.  Yet, we recognize the second as better.  Forethought and reflection before Communion is a proper thing.  It can be done in a few moments of time, no doubt, but perhaps better done with a little more focus.  As the Lord says, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.”  (I Corinthians 11:28)

But, what does it mean to “examine one’s self”?

Maybe the best starting point for an answer is to consider what the Sacrament of Communion is and what great blessings it brings.  As good a summary as can be found comes from our Lutheran Catechism.  So, some quotes:  “First: What is the Sacrament of Holy Communion? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ for us Christians to eat and to drink. “  Martin Luther then goes on to quote Jesus, who “took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body which is given for you.”  And he took the wine, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 

Again, from the Catechism: “Second: What blessings do we receive through this eating and drinking?  That is shown us in these words, ‘given and poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins’.  Through these words we receive forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.”  Luther then goes on to state in the third part of his explanation that the power in Holy Communion comes from the Word, not from us or from the elements of the bread and wine themselves or from any particular part of the ceremony.  The power is in God’s Word.

And then the final part of our Catechism’s explanation of Communion hits our question for the day.  “Fourth: Who then is properly prepared to receive the Sacrament?  Fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose, but he is properly prepared who believes these words: ‘Given and poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’  But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is not prepared, because the words ‘for you’ require nothing but hearts that believe.”

So, our spiritual examination of ourselves quite simply entails believing what God’s Word says.   And that means to believe what God’s Word says about the seriousness of our sin, about God’s forgiveness in Christ, about the miracle of Christ’s very body and blood being really present for us in the Sacrament for the personal assurance of our forgiveness and also about the fruits of repentance that will naturally show up in our lives as forgiven children of God.

None of these truths are complicated or hard to understand.  Communion is to be clear and a comforting blessing for believers.  At the same time, these truths are proper to review when we think of Communion.  That’s the self-examination to which the Apostle Paul referred in I Corinthians 11, as we quoted before.  Also, to aid in that review, our Catechism contains a set of “Christian Questions”.  The hymnals that we use in our congregation contain a shortened version of these questions (p. 156) as personal preparation for Communion. 

In one of our confirmation curricula for youth and for adults, an even shorter version is listed as follows: “Questions for self-examination:  1) Am I sorry for my sins? 2) Do I trust in Jesus as my Savior?  3) Do I believe that his body and blood are truly present to assure me of forgiveness?  4) Do I intend, with God’s help, to live a more God-pleasing life?”  Again, not complicated!  We should all be able to answer “yes” to these four questions.  If we would find ourselves answering “no” to one of them, then more study, prayer and personal reflection would be needed before coming to the Sacrament. 

Perhaps most important is this: spiritual self-examination before Communion leads us once again to appreciate the tremendous love of Jesus for us!  When we think of ourselves and consider the reason Jesus had to shed his blood, we are amazed that he so graciously reached out to save sinners like us.  And yet every time we partake in Holy Communion, we are being promised personally that he indeed sacrificed himself for us so that we might live forever with him.  He knows us, he loves us, he died for us and we are his.  And we joyfully want our lives to reflect his love for us in our love toward others.  All of that comes to us in the words “given and poured out for you”, words which require nothing but hearts that believe!