August 12, 2007
( Luke 12. 32-40)
This year marks the 100 anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scout movement, whose motto is “Be prepared”.
“Be prepared’ is the message of both this Sunday’s and last Sunday’s Gospel readings. Last Sunday’s reading was rather fierce, talking about the judgement which faces us after death, especially to those who misuse their worldly wealth. Today’s reading is much gentler. It tells us not to be afraid, but to trust in God our Father, who will give us the Kingdom.
There is one strand in the Bible that talks about human beings facing judgement when they meet God or Christ after death. But there is another strand which implies that we face judgement when we meet God or Christ in the encounters of our daily life, and in worship.
For churches of our tradition, one of the most important places where we meet Christ is in the Eucharist. This is a meeting place which is foreshadowed in our reading, which speaks of the encounter with our Master as a wedding banquet.
This is a favourite theme of the writer of Luke and Acts – that Christ is known in the breaking of bread.
So how prepared are we, week by week, as we come to take communion? For the Apostle Paul warns us that we face judgement if we eat and drink unworthily.
Of course there are a lot of people who make preparations for our services week by week. There is the Vicar, who chooses the hymns and the readings, and prepares the service sheets, and his secretarial assistant who finds readers and intercessors and people to administer the elements, and often prints the service sheets. There are the choir, and the organist, who prepare anthems and rehearse the music. The preacher and the person leading the prayers prepare what they want to say, and the readers read over what they have been asked to read. The sacristan makes sure that we have wafers and wine, and clean linen and candles, and sets up the altar before the service. Many people contribute to making the church look beautiful, from people who clean to those who arrange flowers. People help others to be ready by bringing them to the service and by acting as sidespeople.
But all these are externals. The really important preparations we have to make are internal and spiritual. How well do we do that?
The writers of the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th and 17th centuries thought it so important for people to prepare themselves spiritually, that they wrote exhortations to be read by the priest when he gave notice of the service. This required that you “Search and examine your own consciences, and that not lightly and after the manner of dissemblers with God”. It then goes into detail: you are to examine your lives and conversation against the standards of God’s commandments, and if you have offended by will, word or deed, you are to confess it to God and resolve to amend your future behaviour; if you have offended not only God but a neighbour by your words or actions, you are to be reconciled to them, and to make restitution and satisfaction in full for any injury you have caused; you are to forgive others who have offended you. This is to be done individually and in private, unless a person is deeply troubled, in which case they are to seek out a minister of the church and take counsel. A second exhortation warns people against letting earthly matters – like business or entertainment – come before receiving communion, quoting the parable about the guests who made excuses for not attending a wedding feast.
In some traditions, confession to a priest has to be undertaken before you can receive communion. And when I was confirmed, it was something we had to do before we took communion for the first time.
There also used to be a tradition that you fasted before taking communion, so that the bread and wine was the first food that you tasted on a Sunday. This was fine when the communion service you attended was at 8 or 9 am – not so practical when it is mid-morning.
All these disciplines are reflected in the book – Every Girl’s Confirmation Book – that I was given at my confirmation in 1960. These days fasting and individual confession are out of fashion in our church tradition, but although they are less detailed and prescriptive, books for people taking their first communion still stress the importance of proper preparation of some sort.
We confess our sins at the beginning of the communion service – but unless we have given some thought to what we are confessing, the confession can easily become something we do on autopilot. So all of us need a time of prayer or reflection some time before we come to communion to make sure that we are ‘right with God’ when we come to his table and he serves us. If you are a list maker, it might help to list the things you are going to be thinking about in the confession – and, perhaps, what needs to be done in a practical way to put things right.
The beginning of the service provides another time for reflection and preparation in the few moments of silence we have – but a time of quiet prayer before that silence would again help to ensure that we are properly ready for communion.
It doesn’t matter whether you think it is right to receive communion every day, every week or only on a limited number of occasions each year. What is important is that we reflect on our lives, and do our best to come to The Lord’s Supper in a fit state of mind – that we heed our Lord’s warning to “Be Prepared!”