This morning, we continue to consider what it means to be a Lutheran Christian. Our topic today is what we Lutherans believe about Holy Communion. To understand what Lutherans confess about Communion, it helps to consider how we have historically read the Bible.
The entire Lutheran movement is rooted in taking the Bible’s witness about God, including both the Old and New Testaments, seriously. Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic priest and scholar whose work with the Bible led him to discover anew the truth that human beings are saved from inevitable sin and death by God's grace through their faith in Jesus Christ alone and to the Reformation and the Lutheran movement wrote:
No violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel; but [the Scriptures] are to be retained in their simplest meaning wherever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids it.More than one Lutheran pastor and theologian through the centuries has said that Lutheran Christians take the Bible as it comes, seeking to avoid imposing the preferences, prejudices, and prevailing philosophies of their own times on God’s eternal word.
So, for example, when a Lutheran views passages that say, “The mountains skipped like rams,” or “Let the hills sing for joy,” Lutherans don’t believe that mountains skipped or hills sang. Clearly, the Biblical writers in these instances were speaking metaphorically.
And the Bible “comes at us” with many forms of literary expression: history, poetry, song, wise adages, prophecy, and strange apocalyptic literature, to name a few.
There are passages of Scripture that are clear works of fiction, as in Jesus’ parables, stories Jesus made up to make important points. That’s why a Lutheran traveling in the Holy Land would never fall for the advertising of a hotel between Jerusalem and Jericho claiming to the be the inn at which the good Samaritan deposited the wounded man from Jesus’ parable about what it means to love one’s neighbor.
But Lutheran Christians have also historically believed that when the Bible witnesses to events with seriousness and consistency in places that don’t purport to be metaphor or parable, the plain sense of a passage is always to be preferred. This is why Lutheran Christians have historically never shied away from confessing that Jesus was born, miraculously, of a virgin’s womb; that He performed miracles as signs of His being God, with dominion over life and death; that He died on a cross for our sins; that He actually physically rose from the dead; and that faith in this Lord of heaven and earth is, as Jesus insisted repeatedly during His earthly ministry, the only way to forgiveness of sin and eternal life with God.
The documents we Lutherans have always said express our understanding of what it means to be Christians--from the Apostles’ Creed to The Augsburg Confession, from the Small Catechism to the Smalcald Articles--have always insisted that those facts about God and salvation that Scripture insists to be absolutely true are facts and truths we absolutely believe. While today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has never repudiated this Lutheran understanding of Biblical truth, you will find that many of our pastors, theologians, bishops, and others do repudiate things like things like the virgin birth, the physical resurrection from the dead, and the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, expressed in conferences, assemblies, official papers, and publications by our own publishing house and no one in the hierarchy of our denomination steps in to say, “No, actually, this is what Lutheran Christians confess.”
All of which leads us to Holy Communion and a simple verb, is.
Please pull out a Bible and turn to Mark 14:22. Three of the gospel writers and Paul write about Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion. And while John doesn't mention the institution of either Baptism or Communion, the two sacraments of the Church, He starts His account of Jesus’ ministry with the miracle of turning water into wine, symbolic of Baptism and and Communion, and describes how, within moments of Jesus’ death, a sword was driven through His side and out came water and blood. So, we can conclude that both sacraments are important. Look at what we’re told by Mark about the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.” Then, look at verse 24, where Jesus says, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shared for many.”
Our Roman Catholic friends read this passage and, employing the Aristotelian philosophy favored by Saint Thomas Aquinas who was influenced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, say that in Communion, bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood and remain so beyond a congregation’s time of worship. This is why the bread is stored in a box called a tabernacle next to the altars of Roman Catholic sanctuaries.
Our Protestant friends say that the bread and the wine represent Christ’s body and blood and that Communion is a time, not to be re-membered to Christ and His Church of every time and place, as we believe, but only to recall what Jesus has done for us, a ceremonial memorial.
Lutherans have historically said, in effect, “It all depends on what your definition of is is.”
We believe that the bread is Christ’s body because Jesus says it is His body.
We believe that the wine is Christ’s blood because Jesus says it is His blood.
We believe that Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and the wine of Holy Communion.
We have no way of understanding or explaining it. If we could explain it, we ourselves would be God...and we're not!
We only have Christ’s promise that when His words of promise, what we call the Words of Institution, are said again over the bread and the wine as His people worship, He comes to us again.
Holy Communion is a way that the risen Jesus, now ascended into heaven, can come to us and assure us of the truth of His promise that He is with us always, that He will never leave us nor forsake us.
It’s though Jesus is telling us, “I know that it’s hard to believe in Me or My promises when you can’t see me. But here’s My body. Here’s My blood. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. See my wounds, touch my body. I am with you.”
Someone has said that Holy Communion is like “the hat on the invisible man.” If a man were invisible, you might not know he was around unless he put on a hat. We can’t see Jesus. But when we invoke His words of promise over bread and wine, He really is with us.
But Holy Communion is more than just an assurance of Christ’s presence with us, wonderful though that is. For those who trust in Christ when He says that He is in the bread and is in the wine, there is also assurance that His forgiveness of our sins--sins which would otherwise send us to eternal separation from God in hell--is ours.
Turn, please, to John 1:29. Early in Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist catches sight of Jesus and says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Before Jesus came into the world, God’s people would annually sacrifice unblemished lambs on the altar in Jerusalem. The lambs were stand-ins for themselves. The lambs died to take the punishment for sin that every human being deserves. The ancient Hebrews understood that blood had power. It contained the very power for life. Loss of too much blood brings loss of life. Blood is life.
That’s why, after Cain, a son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel, God said that Abel’s blood was crying out to Him.
Many millenia later, when God’s people were slaves in Egypt, God delivered them from slavery through an action that, to this day, Jews celebrate at Passover. They smeared the blood of lambs on the doorposts of their dwellings and while the angel of death brought the deaths of firstborns all across Egypt, the angel passed over the homes of the Jews.
In a sense, as we receive Christ’s blood in Holy Communion, we are covered by the sacrifice of Himself that Christ made when He willingly went to the cross for us. The blood of Jesus cries out for us to say to God the Father, “This man belongs to Me. This woman is one of My own. This child is My child.”
This is why we should never receive the Sacrament flippantly or with anything other than the joy and reverence it deserves. I’m not saying here that you must affect a particular emotion in order to receive the bread and the wine. Fortunately, the power of Holy Communion doesn’t depend on how we’re feeling on any given day. Whether you’re sad or happy has no bearing on Christ’s promises, “This is my body”; “This is my blood.” But the Sacrament must be received with faith, even if that faith is only the size of a mustard seed. We must be willing to trust Christ when He promises that He is with us and that He brings us forgiveness of sin when He comes to us in the Sacrament.
This is what Paul is talking about when he says in 1 Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
Please open the buff and brown edition of The Augsburg Confession and turn to Article 10, "The Lord’s Supper":
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that the body and blood of Christ are truly present and distributed to those who eat the Lord’s Supper...They reject those who teach otherwise.Holy Communion is one of the greatest gifts a Christian can receive, which is why the people in the early Church received it every single time they worshiped.
It’s why Martin Luther and the early Lutherans received Holy Communion every single Sunday they worshiped. Luther also offered it every single Wednesday of every week and on other occasions as well.
It was only in America, where there was a shortage of pastors, that every Sunday celebration of Holy Communion fell into disuse.
If a church has a regularly called minister of a Word and Sacrament and Holy Communion isn’t being celebrated every single week, that church is a bit like a motorcycle with one wheel, trying to move along with only one of the blessings God intends to give His people every time they gather to worship Him.
But no matter how often the Sacrament is shared, if those who receive Holy Communion don’t believe in Jesus, believe in the Word of God in the Bible, or believe in Christ’s promises regarding Holy Communion, the elements are only bread and wine.
As Luther says in the Small Catechism, we must believe in Christ’s promise, “Given and shed for you.”
When we do, we are blessed beyond all telling!