Christ Jesus instituted a blessed gift for His Church so that you may receive the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith – Holy Communion. Martin Luther taught the aspects of this joyous gift through four basic questions: What is this Sacrament? What are the benefits of receiving this Sacrament? How can this be? And who receives this Sacrament worthily? We’ll follow his pattern in our meditation this evening.
So, what is the Sacrament of the Altar? Let’s go to Scripture for what Jesus says. The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’” Luther explains Holy Communion with one sentence based on these words of Jesus. “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
The Sacrament is nothing less than Jesus’ true body and blood under bread and wine. Like me, many of you were taught that the body and blood of Christ are in, with, and under the bread and wine. The bread and wine remain present; and by the power of His Word, Christ gives His body and blood in, with, and under the consecrated bread and wine.
In His explanation, Luther calls the bread and wine the “true” body and blood of Christ. Historically, our Lutheran churches have had to emphasize this reality because some churches and individual Christians deny that the body and blood of Christ are actually being received in the Lord’s Supper. For Jesus directly says of these elements: “Take, eat; this is My body… This cup is the New Testament in my blood.”
As confessional Lutherans, we believe that Jesus means what He says and His words do what they say because He is God in flesh. We should listen to what God says. We take these words at face value, because the night Christ instituted the Supper was a solemn time. He spoke in a matter-of-fact manner before His betrayal. This wasn’t a time for fun and games, as Jesus focused on the task at hand.
In accordance with God’s own Word, everyone who eats and drinks the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper also eats and drinks – by mouth – the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We aren’t pretending to eat and drink His body and blood. We aren’t symbolically eating and drinking His body and blood. We really, truly are eating and drinking the very body and blood of Christ Jesus, because He says that’s what we’re doing! “This is My body… This is My blood.” All who partake of the Supper eat and drink Christ Jesus.
Then, what are the benefits of receiving the Lord’s Supper? We receive the forgiveness of our sins. The Lord Jesus says, “This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Christ ties the forgiveness of sins to the Sacrament. Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ who sacrificed Himself on the cross for our sins, means that the sins of all who receive His body and blood in faith are forgiven.
Along with the forgiveness of sins you receive other good and perfect gifts, namely, life and salvation. Luther writes, “These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given us through these words.” For death entered the world through sin, but Christ has taken away sin. Therefore, where there is no sin, there can be no triumph of death.
We actually have a picture of this from the very first Passover. The angel of death passed over the homes with the blood of a lamb smeared on the doorposts. Likewise, through the blood of Christ – the Lamb of God – the angel of death passes over you. Partaking of His body and blood which was given and shed on the cross, your sins are forgiven and death can’t rule over you. The angel of death passes over you, and you’re brought from death to life eternal and salvation.
How can this possibly be? How can eating bread and drinking wine do such things? It isn’t just eating and drinking. Like Baptism, everything centers on God’s Word and promise. God’s Word and promise makes the water a blessed Baptism, and God’s Word and promise makes the bread and wine a blessed Holy Communion. God’s Word and promise causes such great things to be.
The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that you receive doesn’t come merely through the act of eating and drinking. It’s given in the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood because of the words and promises of Christ. He says, “Given for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Both the Word of Christ and the eating and drinking go together. You, who eat and drink, believing these words, have exactly what is promised – forgiveness of sins.
Who receives this Sacrament worthily? Luther’s explanation includes a comment on fasting and bodily preparation. Sometimes they can be emphasized to the point that people forget why they even come to the Lord’s table. A person can get so wrapped up in these that they may think they need to be so prepared, so worthy, that unless they feel they’re without sin, they don’t go to the same Supper that offers forgiveness. That doesn’t make any sense at all! The Lord’s Supper is precisely for those who need the comfort of Christ’s forgiveness.
The reformers threw out all those silly beliefs. Yet, Luther still refers to fasting and bodily preparation as “fine outward training.” They are good practices that serve a benefit to increase ones focus on Christ and put to death the desires of the flesh, but they don’t impact the Sacrament’s benefits.
The Lord’s Supper doesn’t depend on your worthiness to eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood. Sin makes us all unworthy. Every one of us. And that’s why the Lord gives this gift – among others – so that we may be forgiven and received true comfort from Christ. As God’s children we strive for good works and godly living. However, the worthy reception of this Sacrament doesn’t pertain to our goodness.
Worthy reception of the Sacrament comes down to faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” What are given and shed for you? Christ’s true body and blood. Those who receive Christ’s body and blood as instituted by Him, believing that they are eating and drinking His body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, truly do receive the forgiveness of sins. They partake in a worthy manner. Those who receive Christ’s true body and blood as instituted by Him, but do not believe that they are eating and drinking His body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, do not receive the forgiveness of sins. They partake unworthily.
This is an extremely serious matter often treated far too lightly. God’s enduring Word clearly says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy man will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine Himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on Himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly we would not be judged.”
You see, when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we encounter Christ Jesus the Lord. When that happens, there are only two possible outcomes: blessing or judgment. How we consider the Lord and His body and blood reveals a lot about what we believe in regard to the Sacrament. If one doubts His Word of judgment, can one truly believe His Word of promise?
I certainly don’t say this to scare people away from worthy reception, and yet it’s a warning to take the things of God seriously. We ought to believe the Lord means what He says. For He ultimately desires that we do receive His blessing – that we are forgiven. Holy Communion is a gift, after all, and God wants us to receive what He has promised through faith in His Words connected to the bread and wine that are Christ’s body and blood.
If you’ve never been instructed in the teachings and beliefs of our congregation and would like to do so, please don’t hesitate to speak with me. It is a joy to administer this gift to all who receive the blessings and promises by faith and to teach others that they may share in that joy too. Amen.