April 9, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Holy Thursday and on this day we give thanks to God for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. On this day we remember our Lord keeping and then transforming the Jewish feast of the Passover – his Last Supper – on the day before his crucifixion.
Discerning Christ’s Body
In Mark 14:16 we learn that the disciples prepared for the Lord’s Passover. And they did this by getting a room ready and preparing the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the rest of the food for that Jewish meal. Just so, we must also get ready to receive the Lord’s Supper today. But our preparation won’t be the same as theirs.
In 1 Corinthians 11:29
Now we can head off that disaster by attending to the words of Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his Large Catechism (1529) regarding the Lord’s Supper – which we also know as the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion, and the Sacrament of the Altar.
By so doing we’ll add to the first and foremost point, that in discerning the body of our Lord we acknowledge that the consecrated bread of this sacrament is the actual flesh of Jesus Christ – raised from the dead and living. This is what the words of institution do to the bread and wine when they consecrate them – they “cause the bread to be his Body and the wine his Blood” [Luther’s House Postils, 3 vols, ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:455]. So as Luther put it in his Large Catechism, “in and under” the bread and the wine of this sacrament we have the actual, living body and blood of Jesus Christ himself – truly present to us [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 447; LHP 1:458]. So be sure to believe that, and so receive the sacrament properly. For it is precisely this miraculous feature of the sacrament that makes it “the food of our soul” which nourishes and strengthens us (BC, p. 449).
But beyond that basic point we also hear, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). Luther says these “are words of... command.... addressed to the disciples of Christ [to help them] obey and please the Lord Christ” (BC, pp. 451-452). So getting ready for this sacrament will include more than receiving the gift of his presence in the consecrated bread and wine. It will also have to do with “a true understanding” (LHP 1:463) of this command to remember Christ. So while we indeed receive the great gift of our Lord’s presence in this sacrament, we’ll also need to feel the pressure of his command on us in this sacrament. And Luther helps us understand this. He writes:
A promise is attached to this commandment,... which should most powerfully draw and impel us.... ‘This is my blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin’.... Ponder... and include yourself personally in the ‘you’ so that he may not speak to you in vain.... Those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help, should... use the sacrament as a precious antidote against the poison in their systems. For here in the sacrament you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils (BC, p. 454).
So we need not force ourselves to remember Christ – for his promise to help us in this sacrament draws us to him. He comes to be with each one of us individually – that our weakness may be overcome. That poisonous sin within that frightens us he lifts from us – through the forgiveness of sins. Because of this protection and power we’re drawn to him – and thereby remember him.
All of this is based on our need for God in Christ Jesus. It’s because of the poison that’s inside us that we need him so. Recognizing and nurturing this need for God is a major part of our preparation for the Lord’s Supper. For indeed, true and worthy communicants or recipients of this most venerable sacrament (BC, p. 577)
are those timid, perturbed Christians, weak in faith, who are heartily terrified because of their many and great sins, who consider themselves unworthy of this noble treasure and the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, and who perceive their weakness in faith, deplore it, and heartily wish that they might serve God with a stronger and more cheerful faith and a purer obedience (BC, p. 582).
So purity and strength aren’t prerequisites for receiving the Lord’s Supper. No, all we need instead is to deplore our predicament and fiercely long for a purer and fuller obedience and joy.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that profound admirer of Luther, helps us further understand this need we are to have for God – a need he calls our perfection (Kierkegaard’s Writings 17:64):
The Christian knows that to need God is a human being’s perfection. Thus the Christian is once and for all aware of God and is saved from the presumptuousness that could be called ungodly unawareness. [But] the Christian is not aware of God... on the occasion of great events,... no, in his daily perseverance he is aware that he at no time can do without God.... The Christian is on the watch, and without ceasing he is on the watch for God’s will. He craves only to be satisfied with God’s grace, he does not insist on helping himself but prays for God’s grace. He does not insist that God help him in any other way than God wills.... The Christian has no self-will whatever; he surrenders himself unconditionally.
We surrender, or bow down before God so resolutely, because only he can maintain our lives on a daily basis. No one else can. For it is God who maintains our nephesh or נפש in the Hebrew – which is our spirit or breath of life. Without that breath we know we would simply dry up and die away (Psalm 104:29). And so we give up on our own will and follow God’s will – regardless of what he commands. And that’s because we depend on him and need him more than anyone else – for he is all-powerful and won’t abandon us, even if, for example, our parents do (Psalm 27:10)!
So turning the Lord’s Supper into a frivolous event to make it
more relevant and meaningful is a travesty. In the 1970s I saw this
happen at St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in
But we long for more than this, even though we often forget it all and go our own way – swept away by “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25)! Oh, how wretched we are (Romans 7:24)!
What then can we do? If we can’t rely on ourselves to even trust in God, depend on him and nurture our deep need for him – what’s left for us? Have we dug a hole so deep for ourselves that we cannot get out of it? Not quite. And that’s because the Lord has freed us from our bonds (Psalm 116:14). Glory be to God! But wait a minute. By what “means” are we lifted up (BC, p. 414)? How are we freed from our bonds? Are these just pious, sentimental words with no existential impact on our daily routines?
Not according to Colossians 2:13-14! There we read that
God made us alive, forgiving us all our sins, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
These bonds that bind us up are the legal demands from the law of the Lord. Trust in God rather than in others – the law thunders down at us from on high (Exodus 20:3-6; Jeremiah 17:5-7). Do not rejoice when your wealth increases – thinking that prosperity will make you better (Deuteronomy 8:17). Think better of others than you do of yourselves– humiliating though that be (Philippians 2:3; contra Judges 15:11 and Jeremiah 50:15). Keep your marriage vows – even though adultery looks like loads of fun (Malachi 2:16; Hebrews 13:4). All these demands from the law of the Lord weigh down heavily upon us –especially when we break them. And indeed we do – for we’ve all gone astray (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23). So what then? Are we done for – set to be punished as we deserve (Leviticus 26:14-33; Luke 13:4-5; BC, pp. 347, 372)?
No! for those demands have been cancelled on the cross of Christ. But that isn’t apparent – for all we see on the cross is a good guy being done in by a bunch of thugs (Luke 24:7). How then does that cancellation take place on the cross – and on a cross of all places? Is there more happening there than first meets the eye? Well, yes indeed there is! For when Jesus dies on the cross he offers up his life as a sacrifice for sin to his Father in heaven (Luke 23:46; Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 9:14). And note this point well:
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, dies on the cross and bears my sin, the Law, death, the devil, and hell in His body. These enemies and unconquerable tyrants press in upon me and... create trouble for me; therefore I am anxious to be delivered from them, justified and saved. Here I find neither Law nor work nor any love that can deliver me from them. Only Christ takes away the Law, kills my sin, destroys my death in His body, and in this way empties hell, judges the devil, crucifies him, and throws him down into hell. In other words, everything that once used to torment and oppress me, Christ has set aside; He has disarmed it (LW 26:160).
But just because this most moving and liberating sacrifice was missed by most who witnessed his terrible, horrifying death – that brutal fact alone doesn’t make it any less true. For only in Christ’s punishment on the cross (2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2) are we saved from the punishments for our sins – if we only believe in him and entrust our lives to his care (Romans 3:25; LW 32:76). So indeed his bruises do heal us (Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24).
Ending the Discord
And at the heart of this salvation is the spell-binding reconciliation that occurs between God and the sinner – which is largely ignored these days in the American church, forgotten and even defied. This disregard, however, is deeply dangerous and must not go unchallenged. For an antidote to this evil, let us heed Luther’s words:
We are the offenders; God... is the offended. And the offense is such that God cannot forgive it and we cannot remove it. Therefore there is grave discord between God... and us. Nor can God revoke His Law.... And we who have transgressed the Law of God cannot flee from the sight of God. Therefore Christ has stepped into the breach as the Mediator between two utterly different parties separated by an infinite and eternal division, and has reconciled them.... And so He is not the Mediator of one; He is the mediator of two who were in the utmost disagreement (LW 26:325).
No wonder then that we are to “proclaim the Lord’s death” whenever we eat and drink of this sacrament (1 Corinthians 11:26)! So use these words from Luther to fight against those who would belittle the cross. Use them to confirm the following graphic sermon – that has been trashed as divine child abuse – but which is still a sterling illustration of how Christ steps into the breach for us [S. C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (1968; Revised, 1994) p. 250 ]:
The preacher held up a dirty glass. “See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.” He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the... instrument of God’s wrath against sinners...” The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall. But a miracle happened. At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other. “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you.”
Take these words to heart. Believe that in Christ Jesus, our mediator, we have the bread of life that will not perish, nor be taken away, nor leave us – but “endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
And there’s more still. Knowing that faith without works is dead (James 2:26), and that we do good deeds to help keep ourselves from being stained by the world (James 1:27), let us also this day prepare for the Lord’s Supper – at the heavenly banquet too. For Jesus told us at the Last Supper that we wouldn’t share this meal with him again until we are with him in heaven (Luke 22:18; Revelation 19:9). And so let us eagerly await his return (Hebrews 9:28). In order to do that we’ll need to fight against all that holds us back from doing so. And Luther helps us with this struggle:
If someone could believe with a certain and constant faith... that he is the... heir of God, he could regard all the power and wealth of... the world as filth... in comparison with his heavenly inheritance. Whatever the world has that is sublime and glorious would make him sick. And the greater the pomp and glory of the world is, the more detestable it would be to him. In other words, whatever the world admires and exalts most, that is foul and worthless in his eyes [Luke 16:15].... Nothing more delightful could happen to him than a premature death [for] through it he comes into his inheritance [Philippians 1:23]. In fact, a man who believed this completely would not go on living very long but would soon be consumed by his overwhelming joy (LW 26:392-493).
Now the fact that we haven’t yet been whisked away in such a rapturous joy means that our faith is weak. But even so we must still fight against the world’s pomp, rejoice in our coming heavenly inheritance and long – against our nature – for a premature death!
But before we do that and receive our heavenly reward, we’ll have to go through Judgment Day. And in fact, that’s exactly what the Lord’s Supper is to help us with. Luther again explains:
We have two principal sacraments in the church, baptism and [the Lord’s Supper]. Baptism leads us into new life on earth; the bread guides us through death into eternal life (LW 35:67).
Having the Lord’s Supper just before we die and go to judgment (Hebrews 9:27), has been called the viaticum, or the food for our journey up into heaven. This Luther graphically calls a stretcher:
Thus the sacrament is for us a ford, a bridge, a door, a ship, and a stretcher, by which and in which we pass from this world into eternal life (LW 35:66).
In preparing, then, for this heavenly banquet, let our good work be to get ready for that awesome and great day of judgment. But how shall we go about that when we don’t even know when it’s coming (Matthew 24:36)? Well, once again, Luther provides instruction:
We ought... to prepare ourselves for [Christ’s return] to judge the
living and the dead.... Before [he] returns... [he] will be despised and
the preachers of the Gospel will be regarded as fools. The wicked
masses, on the other hand, will live riotously and in boisterous gaiety,
as though nothing else mattered.... Everybody will build, marry,...
become secure, and in so doing burden their hearts.... [Then] Judgment
Day will suddenly [come] when they are at their securest, when things
rock with drumbeat.... and dancing, they will suddenly be laid low and
burned with a fire that will never [end].... While they [live] high and
carefree, fire and brimstone will fall upon them.... just as [it did] to
No, follow Luther’s words instead. Beware of the godless crowds and maintain doctrinal fidelity. Fear the fire that burns forever – and give up on all silliness. Endure rejection – knowing that Christ also was despised. Keep yourself from being stained by the world. And ask God to help you with all of this (John 15:5) – knowing that you’ll then also be ready to receive the Lord’s Supper. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)