Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Holy Communion (Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, Part 5)

Here's the video of tonight's midweek Lenten worship and the full prepared text of the message.

Matthew 26:26-29

Tonight, we come to the final installment of our Lenten series, Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism

With it, we consider The Small Catechism’s discussion of the second of the two Sacraments, Holy Communion. 

A Sacrament is usually defined by Lutherans according to three criteria: 
  • (1) It was instituted by Christ; 
  • (2) It involves a physical element;
  • (3) It brings the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to those who receive it. 
Holy Baptism and Holy Communion meet these criteria. 

But what exactly is Holy Communion? 

What promises does Jesus make to those who receive it? 

How does Holy Communion work? 

And who is worthy of this Sacrament? 

Martin Luther set out to answer these four basic questions simply in The Small Catechism.

Holy Communion is not the invention of the Church. Jesus Himself presided over the Sacrament for the first time at what we call the Last Supper. 

Three gospel writers as well as the apostle Paul in one of his New Testament letters, tell us how Jesus, on the night of His betrayal and arrest, shared Holy Communion with the twelve. 

Matthew says: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)

Notice, Jesus did not say, “This represents My body.” 

Nor did He say, “This represents or symbolizes my blood of the covenant.” 

Had Jesus wanted to say those things, He could have done so. 

But He said, “This bread IS My body...This wine IS My blood of the covenant.” 

As I’ve said before, Jesus knows what the meaning of IS is. 

And this has tremendous significance

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John 6:35. 

He also says, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56) 

A chemical analysis of the elements used by Jesus in Holy Communion will show that they are bread and wine. But Jesus says that they are also His life-giving body and blood. 

This is why, in The Small Catechism, Luther says that “Communion is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and the wine, given to us Christians to eat and drink, as it was instituted by Christ Himself.”

Luther then asks what benefit eating and drinking the Sacrament can bring. To answer, he points back to Jesus’ words. The Sacrament brings us “the forgiveness of sins.” 

You see, Jesus, like the spotless lambs once offered on the annual Jewish “Day of Atonement,” Yom Kippur, has offered Himself as the perfect, sinless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins. Unlike Yom Kippur, which only brought Jews forgiveness of the previous year’s sins, Jesus has offered Himself as the definitive sacrifice for all our sin. 

“Look,” John the Baptist told others when he saw Jesus approaching him at the Jordan River, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) 

When we receive Christ’s body and blood, He is physically filling us and covering us once more with the benefits of what He has accomplished for us on the cross

This is why the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” 

We need to regularly participate in this Sacrament--Luther assumed the Church would offer it to believers daily--because, as long as we remain in this world, our old selves remain, and we are prone to sin, in need of forgiveness

Holy Baptism, of course, is the means by which God gives us rebirth. Holy Communion though is bread for our journey, sustaining us in the grace of God given in Jesus, along life’s way, a holy hedge against the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.

But how, unbelievers and even Christians who don’t take Jesus’ Sacrament seriously ask, “can bodily eating and drinking bring such great benefits?” 

We ask questions like these because we think that forgiveness of sin depends on us, on our right attitudes or thoughts. 

Thoughts like these spring from our human ego. Which is why Luther points us back to Who it is that acts when we receive Holy Communion. “It is not the eating and drinking alone,” Luther writes, “but also the words that accompany it, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, together with the eating and drinking, are the chief thing in the Sacrament, and those who believe them have what they say and declare, namely, the forgiveness of sin.”

If a friend works all day long to prepare a four-course dinner, invites you to their house, then spreads it on the table and serves you, unless you’re stupid or an ingrate, you won’t later say, “I got some dinner tonight.” Your host is the one who did everything necessary for you to have that dinner. All you had to do was, like a pig at the trough, show up where your host directed you to go. 

Just so, with Holy Communion, everything depends on Jesus. It’s He Who died and rose, He Who offers up His body and blood, He Who gives you the forgiveness of sin as you eat and drink, He Who invites you to the table. 

And how does He do this? Through the power of His Word, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

All that’s left to you is to receive it with helplessness, gratitude, and faith. “I can’t see how this works, Lord, but You say that this IS Your body and this IS Your blood and I trust Your words.” 

It is Christ’s Word that makes Holy Communion Holy Communion. 

It is Christ’s Word that imparts Christ’s forgiveness of your sin physically to you in this sacrament.

Well, who, Luther asks in the fourth section of The Small Catechism’s explanation of Holy Communion, is worthy of such a great gift? Luther says that some may fast or do other outward things to prepare for receiving the Sacrament, but “people are truly worthy and well prepared who believe these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” “But,” Luther writes, “those who do not believe these words or who doubt them are unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require truly believing hearts.”

We may wonder sometimes when we receive Christ’s body and blood whether we really do believe those words, whether Christ really forgives us. 

Doubts like these are normal and assail even the greatest saints who love Jesus. Until we see Jesus face to face, we will always have doubts. 

When doubts about Christ and His Word come to me, I’m inspired by the example of the man who approached Jesus for healing for his son. Jesus told the man to believe in Him, to trust in Him, that He would heal the boy. “I do believe,” the man replied, “help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) 

Jesus honored that man’s small faith, a faith that, despite its smallness, knew enough to turn to Jesus

Baptized believers in Jesus, if you know enough to respond to Jesus’ call to, “Come, drink my blood and eat my body for the forgiveness of your sins,” it’s enough. 

He will supply not only the forgiveness; He will also help you to believe that you share both His death to sin and resurrection to life with you again as you receive the bread and the wine and hear the words, “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” 

For you. 

God bless you, friends. 


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