Into the Holy of Holies
What the Holy of holies was to the Old Testament Church, the Sacrament of the Altar is to the New Testament Church. All the power, mystery, awe and reverence that surrounded the holy of holies where the Ark of the Covenant was, now surrounds the Holy Communion. As angelic figures were depicted on the Ark in the holy of holies in the OT Church, so the NT Church confesses that her Communion is joined by "angels and archangels." The holiest space in the OT Church was where God dwelled in a cloudy presence, the holy of holies; the holiest space in the NT Church is where God dwells in flesh and blood, that is Holy Communion.
Think I'm making too big a deal about Holy Communion, don't you? You may even think I'm going overboard on the Sacraments in general. It's true that in the Church I grew up in we had Communion first once a month and then twice a month; I was never pointed to my Baptism and certainly never, ever encouraged to go to Confession. So what gives? Is the Lutheran way to ignore the Sacraments or exalt them? Was a district official right when he said to me, "The Lord's Supper can't be all that important since it's only mentioned in I Corinthians?" Is the Sacrament of the Altar the holy of holies or just an add on?
A 2003 book on the Lord's Supper written by a confessional Lutheran admits that some Lutherans give the impression that Luther replaced a sacramental religion with a religion of the Word. But the truth of the matter is "the recovery of the Gospel in Luther's Reformation breakthrough led...to a renewed understanding and practice of Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion" (Stephenson, 69). And far from the Lord's Supper only being seen here or there in Holy Scripture historic Lutheranism saw it all over the place.
They saw the Sacrament in the Garden of Eden because food was put before them to eat for life or for death. Luther said that Psalm 111 must apply to the Lord's Supper or "it will hold a useless and purposeless position in the Psalter." Gerhard, a 17th century Lutheran, quotes the church fathers to show how many OT texts point to the Holy Supper. The 23rd Psalm, Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9 inviting the simple to her banquet of bread and wine, the Lord in Isaiah 26 promising a lavish banquet of aged wine and choice pieces, the manna in the wilderness, the Passover lamb, Melchizedek bringing bread and wine to Abraham, the Bread of the Presence in the tabernacle, the angel feeding Elijah cake and water, and the burning coal with which the angel purified Isaiah's lips all pointed the church fathers and our Lutheran fathers to the Sacrament of the Altar.
Holy Communion is our holy of holies. Notice that our Small Catechism gives it pride of place by giving it the title, "The Sacrament of the Altar." Look at the architecture of this church. The altar is the focal point. That's where all the light is directed; that's where all the lines meet. The altar and the pulpit, because the Word explains the Sacrament, are the highest points. Historically, Churches have been built in such grand and glorious ways not because it is the most efficient. Indeed there are cheaper ways to build churches than with high vaulted ceilings. The early and Medieval Christians built such exalted edifices because here God comes bodily in Bread and Wine. Here is where God deigns to dwell on earth just like the holy of holies was His dwelling place in the Old Testament Church.
In the Old Testament Church people went to the place where the Ark of the Covenant dwelled which was suppose to be the holy of holies. There they sought God and His blessings. Here at this altar in this Sacrament is where the Christian seeks fellowship with his/her God. We don't seek to meet our God by ascending by faith to heaven. We don't picture Him sitting on a throne high and exalted far, far away from us. No, we meet our God, the Lord Jesus Christ, in, with and under the consecrated Bread and Wine. We make the trip from home to Church, but the Lord Jesus makes the trip from heaven to earth. Indeed, not only does Jesus make the trip from heaven to earth He brings all of Heaven with Him, but more about this later.
We meet our God at this altar. That's why we reverence it the way we do. That's why we bow before kneeling, kneel, when able, to receive Communion, and bow when we leave. If it is right and proper to bow when entering or leaving the presence of even an earthly king how much more so the presence of the King of kings? We come into His presence seeking mainly the forgiveness of sins for that is our deepest need. O we may need healing; we may need helping; we may need hoping, but above all else we need forgiving.
In our text we saw where and how our forgiveness was won. It should me you and me hanging naked on that cross. We should be mocked and ridiculed. We should be humiliated and shamed. We should bear the weight of our sinful thoughts, words and deeds. Just think what that weight is of your sins of today alone. God should ashamed and angry enough at us to turn away from us too. The Sun should be embarrassed to shine on us so ugly, so dirty, so filthy are we. But none of that happens to us, and all of that, and more, happened to precious, holy, sinless Jesus. As Jesus suffers more and more the wrath of God and the torments of hell, less and less these things threaten us till Jesus cries in victory, "It is finished."
Look at what the text says the suffering and particularly the death of God the Son worked. "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. The earth shook and rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs." At the most horrendous moment in all of history, the moment when as one of our old hymns sings, "O sorrow, dread our God is dead," look at the stupendous, tremendous good that happened.
The curtain that hung in the temple between the holy of holies and the court of the priests was torn in two from top to bottom. God reached down with unseen hands and "rip." The dividing wall between sinful men and the holy God was torn down. No more was God unapproachable. Now that Jesus with the blood of the eternal covenant had entered into the holy of holies, the path was made clear for sinners like us. I wouldn't dare go in on my own. I wouldn't dare think I could stand before God, but by the blood of Jesus, by the blood that is in my Communion cup I dare go inside.
By eating and drinking Communion, I eat and drink in God's presence even as Moses and the leaders of the Old Testament Church did on Mt. Sinai. Though there was lightening and thunder and smoke, it was safe for them because right before that they had been sprinkled with the blood of the covenant. Likewise, it's safe for us to be in God's presence because we've been sprinkled with His blood in our Baptisms, but in His presence we eat not ordinary food as Moses and the leaders did on Sinai; we eat and drink our God Himself. O wonderful mystery.
Journey back to Jerusalem a dozen times, see a Passion play a thousand times so that it feels "so real" to you and you still won't get the forgiveness of even one sin. Here in this Sacrament, God the Son imparts His holiness to you by forgiving you all your sins. Here the forgiveness is not better than what you receive in Baptism or Absolution, but here it comes to all 5 senses. As sure as you smell, taste, and see the Bread and Wine so sure do you have the Body and Blood of Christ in your nose, mouth and eyes forgiving your sins. As sure as you hear and feel the Bread and Wine so sure is the Body and Blood of Christ in your ears and hands!
But more than forgiveness was won for me by the death of Jesus, and more than forgiveness is in Holy Communion for me to partake of. Life was won and life is given. See that life was won by Christ in the fact that saints long dead (maybe David, maybe Nathan, maybe Elisha) were raised to life again. The death of Jesus gave life to saints long dead and moldering in the ground. This same life is imparted to us in the Body and Blood of Christ we partake of at this altar.
Yes, more than forgiveness of sins is here. There is also life and salvation because wherever sins are forgiven there also must be life and salvation. Now don't equate life with salvation. The life referred to isn't eternal life which would be the same as salvation; it's earthly life. Communion does affect our earthly lives. Luther says in the Large Catechism, "We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body (V,68). Luther calls it "the very gift He has provided for me against my sins, death, and all evils" (V, 22). The early church referred to Communion as "the medicine of immortality." It was the medicine the Lord gave us to begin to renew these physical bodies for everlasting life.
If you have any age on you at all, you feel death at work in you even as I do. I can't stop it no matter how much I exercise, how well I eat, or how young I dress. All my efforts amount to little more than what the undertaker does to a dead body. We know no matter how "good" people say the dead look; no matter how "alive" people think the dead seem, they're really dead. Against this death at work in me because of my sinfulness, there is no medicine to take but the one available here at this Altar. Here in this holy of holies the living God meets me to impart the life that is Him. Here though doctors say I'm going to die, though my own flesh says I'm dying, though the world assures me of a limited life expectancy, God in flesh and blood says, "Take eat; take drink and live!"
Christ's death won for us sinners not just forgiveness and life but also salvation. At the moment Christ died the tombs broke open and many holy people who had died were raised to life, and they were not raised only to die again. No, after Easter "they went into the holy city and appeared to many people." This is salvation not just physical life but never ending holy life. Communion is not a fountain of youth that rejuvenates us to live in a damned world. Communion doesn't give the immortal life of a vampire in a damned state. Communion brings us into eternal fellowship and friendship with God delivering us once and for all from the fallen, sinful, decaying world. The Large Catechism says Communion is not just food for bodies but "food for souls, which nourishes and strengthens the new man."
In the Old Testament Church only the high priest could enter the holy of holies and then only once a year with blood. In the New Testament Church the holy of holies is for the priesthood of all baptized believers to enter. And here is not the body and blood of a goat, but the Body and Blood of our God and Savior tasting not like Body but bread and not like Blood but wine. The Body and Blood is not here to make atonement as it was in the Old Testament holy of holies, but it is here to distribute the full atonement that Christ has already made on the cross. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek VI (4-9-03), Lord's Supper II