Holy Thursday (Series: The Art of Living By Faith)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
April 13, 2017
We read from Luther’s Small Catechism: The Lord’s Supper, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main things in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” Pastor Luther states in no uncertain terms that it is not our actions (our eating and drinking) but “the words [of Christ] that are the main thing in the sacrament.” The words of Christ are the main thing in the Sacrament. The words of Christ deliver the forgiveness of sins. As a result, someone might think, “What’s the big deal about whether we actually receive Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament or not? After all, the words are the main thing! The words of Christ deliver the gifts of Christ!”
This issue was the rock upon which the unity of the Protestant churches broke apart. Whether Christ’s body and blood were given and received in the Sacrament was the issue that separated Lutherans from most other Protestant churches. And it has pretty much remained so down to our present day. Again, the question was, “Why? What’s the big deal? Why can’t we come together in unity? After all, as long as they have the words of Jesus, aren’t these the main thing in the Sacrament? Don’t they deliver the forgiveness of sins?”
What is at stake in this debate or the discussion? Nothing other than the Gospel itself! You see, upon closer inspection of the catechism, Luther says that the words are the main thing in the Sacrament. Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar? For that, we go back to the catechism and read that the Sacrament of the Altar “is the body and blood of Christ”! Put another way, the words of Christ are embedded in the body and blood of Christ. And this is in two ways. First, the words embrace the bread and wine so that it is the body and blood of Christ. Second, it is the body and blood of Christ that delivers the forgiveness of sins. In other words, the body and blood of Christ imparts the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to us. To put it even more bluntly, no body and blood, no forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of the Altar! This is why it became so important for Luther. To take away the body and blood of Christ, to deny that the Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ, is to take away the Gospel—the very gospel that you and I need and upon which our life depends, the Gospel that strengthens our faith and assures us of God’s love.
Once again, this brings us back to creation—or at least the elements of creation—as the realm within which God works and through which God is present and active within our lives. From the beginning, God deals with us, communicates with us, and is present with us, only in and through his creation. And from the beginning, we are able to deal with God only through our bodies (eyes, ears, mouth, brain, and so on) and elements of the physical creation. And this, frankly, goes to the heart of the Lord’s Supper (and for that matter, Baptism). And just as importantly, it goes to the heart of how God interacts with us and vice versa.
The rejection of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ rests upon some very basic assumptions—in both philosophy and various religions. Those assumptions go something like this:
First, because God is spirit, God is immaterial. Therefore, God does not have a physical body. And nothing in creation—much less a physical body—can contain God. Thus the only way that we can deal with God is not through the material world but through a spiritual or immaterial world.
Fortunately, as humans, we are made of a body and a soul, a spirit. This implies that we exist on two planes. Our bodies draw us downwards toward the earth and connect us to the earth. Our “spirits” draw us upward and connect us to God. Thus in order to relate to God, our spirits (often wrongly defined as a disembodied consciousness or awareness) must transcend or leave our bodies, and ascend above this world in order to meet God where he lives. How does this take place? Often it is said to take place through pure meditation or contemplative prayer by which the mind almost becomes detached from the body. Then how do we know when we have achieved such a state of enlightenment?
The second assumption that thus lies behind this is that the physical world, and with it, our bodies, is an impediment to a truly spiritual life. (Whereas the problem is not the material world, but our misuse of it.) The Bible reveals that our bodies and this physical creation are not an impediment to life with God. They are in fact the very vehicles for God’s presence and activity. The universe cannot contain God, and yet, God is present in the petals of the smallest flower.
What these two assumptions picture is far, far, from the picture that the Scriptures paint of our God, much less the picture we get of Christ. Instead, Scripture portrays our God as very much a down-to-earth God, a God who gets his hands dirty in the work of everyday life. Think about this. What is the direction of the movement between God and us all through the Bible? Who takes the initiative? Who comes to whom? It is fair to say that the direction of the movement all through the Bible is one where God comes down from the heavens to us, to meet us where we are, so to speak. And where are we? Here on earth! He meets us here on earth where we can apprehend him in our bodies. For what are we? We are enlivened bodies, or more specifically, spirit-enlivened bodies, bodies given life by the breath of God. And so God meets us in his creation and through his creation.
So consider how on the sixth day God came down to earth and dwelled in the garden of Eden. There we hear how God would meet Adam and Eve in the garden (and then a marvelous detail) in “the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), perhaps either early in the morning or late in the afternoon or early evening! God came down to them on earth, to spend time with them in the garden. That sets the pattern that we see all through the Bible. God comes down to earth and meets Moses in a burning bush. God comes down to Mt. Sinai. God comes down in a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire. And most decisively, most definitively, God comes down and meets us in the visible flesh-and-blood body of Jesus Christ. God is this man Jesus, and this man Jesus is God himself! And following the Ascension of Jesus, the Spirit comes down upon the disciples and into our hearts. And on the Last Day, Jesus will come down to rule a new heaven and earth forever. So you can see, that the story is never one of ascent, where we have to rise up above our bodies and this physical world to some spiritual and ethereal plane and look around for God there. Instead, we encounter God here on earth, within our physical bodies. And now, with our mouths in the Lord’s Supper.
So we are embodied creatures. God meets us where we are in our bodies. And we encounter God in our bodies and through our bodies. It is worth pointing out here, that in the resurrection, it is our bodies that are raised so that we might see Jesus face to face, hear his voice, and touch his wounds (even as Thomas did). As Job puts it in his great statement, “I know that my redeemer lives . . . and with my eyes I shall see him.”
So we commemorate Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is the night before he dies. It is the night before he goes to his death on the cross. He will be leaving his disciples. But he will not leave them alone. And so he institutes this Supper as something of a last will and testament. It is a last will and testament like no other. For in it, Jesus bequeaths to the disciples the entire history of Israel up to this moment. He bequeaths to them a covenant-promise sealed by the blood of countless sacrifices that pointed to Jesus. But it is a new covenant. Whereas the covenant in the Old Testament was sealed by the blood of sacrificial animals, this one is sealed by the blood of the Son of God. And whereas the covenant was constantly renewed with the repetition of sacrifices, this covenant is sealed once and for all times with the blood of the perfect lamb of God.
And just as the old covenant gathered God’s people into a nation, this covenant unites God’s people in the very body of Jesus. For you see, as the body and blood of Jesus goes into each of us, what is it that we then share in common? The body and blood of Jesus! Thus the Sacrament of the Altar not only unites us to Jesus and all of his blessings, but it binds us together into one body. That’s why we call it Communion (In Greek, koinonia). This is what fellowship means. We share in common the body and blood of Jesus.
And what is the covenant-promise? That the Creator will be our God, our gracious Father. For in this covenant the forgiveness of sins is promised and sealed to us. God comes and makes this promise to us. He puts the promise into our hearts by putting it into our mouths.
How can this be? It is interesting that people have no difficulty thinking that our spirits can disconnect from our bodies and rise above them to meet God in heaven, but have great difficulty in accepting that the Son of God not only comes to us in a human body but also now comes to us in his body and blood. Such views share a lack of confidence in the word of God and the word of God to accomplish what he says it will. So we now come full circle back to, “the words are the main thing in the Sacrament.”
That’s why in the sixteenth-century Formula of Concord, the authors ask, who speaks these words? Jesus Christ, who is the almighty and powerful Creator and Lord! He who speaks these words is the very same one who uttered a word and entire galaxies with hundreds of millions of stars came into existence! Well, that same word that created you and me and everything we perceive in this world now brings the body and blood of Jesus to us, in, with, and under the bread and wine. Remember, God’s word does what it says! And those words that Jesus first spoke in the upper room continue to be effective to this day when Jesus invites us to his feast, “This is my Body This is my Blood.”
In our day, when a person writes their last will and testament they specify which of their goods and treasures they bequeath to those they leave behind. They did so in the sixteenth century as well. But when they did, they not only included their physical possessions, but their spiritual treasures. They may do so by means of a creed or confession of faith, in other words, “This is the faith that I wish to bequeath to my loved ones, my family and friends!” Isn’t that interesting? And what a great idea. But even before the sixteenth century, going back to the first century, look what we have here. Here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus bequeaths all that he has to give us, namely, his body and blood, the very body and blood by which our salvation is accomplished in death and in life (the resurrection). And with it, he guarantees to us in advance, a place at the table of a banquet to end all banquets, the new creation—a feast of fellowship and merriment that God is even now preparing for us. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Charles Arand
Copyright © 2017, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
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Adapted by Rev. Michael Coons