Leaving your gift at the altar

I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.

2 thoughts on “Leaving your gift at the altar”

  1. excellent post, but then I say that from the perspective of one who has come to the exact same conclusions – so it might be a form of self-love.
    at any rate, I think in the last two years or so I read someone say the practice of applying Matthew 5 to the Supper goes all the way back to the Didache. I’ll do some reading in the next few days and let you know what I find.

    1. Jim,

      The passage in Didache reads,

      On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with a companion (πᾶς δὲ ἔχων τὴν ἀμφιβολίαν μετὰ τοῦ ἑταίρου αὐτου) join you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice concerning which the Lord said, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is marvelous among the nations. (Did. 14)

      What’s clearly in view here is the sacrifice of the worshipper—which, according to the NT, is praise and thanksgiving (eucharistia), not the Body and Blood of the Lord! Moreover, it’s not a bar from receiving the Sacrament but from attending the Divine Service altogether!

      Having a quarrel (note the present participle ἔχων) is qualitatively different from having had a quarrel and coming to confess that sin and then receive the Sacrament of reconciliation. As I wrote in the post, the real target is impenitence: asking for forgiveness of God while refusing to ask for forgiveness from, or to forgive, a neighbour.

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