Luke 15:2: “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
These words of the scribes and Pharisees are really all that is needed to be said before celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper it should be clear to all that those who are being received at the Lord’s table are sinners.
First, we should talk about the word “receives.” How did Jesus receive people? He did not have a home base where people could come and be welcomed. He traveled around staying in other peoples’ houses. Did he welcome them to walk along with him as he went? Or, did he convince the people with whom he was staying to agree to receive sinners?
We know in the case of both Zacchaeus and Matthew, who were notorious sinners, Jesus ate in their homes. When Matthew and Zacchaeus received Jesus into their homes they also welcomed their friends, their fellow sinners. And people grumbled about that too. (Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 19:1-10)
In this text the sinners are identified as tax collectors and sinners. One scholar calls them “public, notorious sinners.”
But when we come to eat with Jesus in the Lord’s Supper we come as sinners. Hopefully we are not public, notorious sinners but we are sinners nonetheless.
We know Martin Luther agrees with this. In the questions and answers section of the Small Catechism that he drew up specifically for those who wish to go to the Sacrament, the first question is:
Do you believe that you are a sinner? And the answer? Yes, I believe, I am a sinner.
The first and most important qualification to eat with Jesus in the Lord’s Supper is to know and believe that you are a sinner.
The hymn “Jesus Sinners Doth Receive” based on this verse, says it this way: “Jesus sinners doth receive; oh, may all this saying ponder, who in sin’s delusions live, and from God and heaven wander! Here is hope for all who grieve: Jesus sinners doth receive.” (Lutheran Service Book 609, v. 1)
Jesus’ enemies, of course, meant this statement as an insult. Jesus was trying to claim he was some kind of prophet sent from God, even the Messiah, and here he was welcoming and eating with sinners. In their way of thinking if he was a true prophet, a true Messiah, he would have nothing to do with sinners.
But the very opposite is true. As Paul says in I Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
I’m not saying the parts of the liturgy that we use to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord’s Supper are to be replaced. They are solidly based on Scripture and have been in use by believers for centuries.
The Agnus Dei makes it clear that Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world. Most of the rest of the Communion liturgy focuses on thankfulness. We wouldn’t be thankful if Jesus had not come to forgive our sins.
And as we come and receive the Lord’s Supper, Jesus forgives our sins. Again Luther says in the Small Catechism: “These words, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins show us that in the sacrament, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation.
The phrase “This man receives sinners and eats with them should also be the identifying mark of every church: this church receives sinners and eats with them. What are our enemies saying about us? Do they think they are insulting us when they say, “That church welcomes sinners and eats with them.”? Well, let them insult us. It puts us in good company.
We poor sinners will also be feasting with Jesus in heaven. Eating with the Lord is a prominent feature throughout Scripture and will also be a promienent feature of our lives in heaven.
This qualification that people must be sinners to eat with Jesus is also why we must sometimes turn people away. If a person is bragging about how great they are and does not believe that they have sinned then we have to say. “Well I guess this meal is not for you. Jesus welcomes sinners.” In I Corinthians 11 Paul goes so far as to say that those who partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner will bring judgment on themselves.
Later on in the questions that Luther prepared for those who are preparing to partake of the Lord’s Supper, after we have acknowledged that we are sinners, he asks:
Do you also hope to be saved? Answer: Yes, that is my hope.
Question: In whom, then, do you trust? Answer: My dear Lord, Jesus Christ.
Question: What has Christ done for you that you trust in him? Answer: He died for me and shed his blood for me on the cross for the forgiveness of my sins.”
I’m not advocating any change in our Communion liturgy but if we really wanted to simplify things and remain firmly grounded on God’s Word, all we would have to say is, “In the sacrament Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.”