How Can Bodily Eating and Drinking Do Such Great Things?
Eat caviar and drink champagne tonight and you could still die tomorrow. Eat and drink this Meal and you can be forgiven, enlivened, and live forever. Now that's some great things for eating and drinking to do. How can this be? The correct answer to this question avoids 2 errors that plague people at the Lord's Table.
The first error is that faith puts forgiveness, life, and salvation in Holy Communion, i.e. faith makes it what it is. You probably don't do this in any other area of your life, but you may well do it here. People who don't think their faith makes them healthy; their believing makes them wealthy, or their trusting makes something true think that very thing here. Their faith makes Communion do great things. This is because they believe their faith makes Communion what it is. The 39 Articles, an official confession of faith for many Protestant churches says, "The means whereby the body and blood of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith." Calvin, a main Reformed theologian said, "The body and blood are present in efficacy through the working of the Holy Spirit in the believing elect."
Jesus contradicts them. He says tonight that when we "do this," use Bread and Wine, as He did, we have the same Body He gave for us and the same Blood He poured out for us. Our believing didn't make Him give His Body or pour out His Blood the first time; no one's did. If anyone's believing was required, it wouldn't have happened because no one believed Him as He gave His Body over to death and poured out His Blood on the ground.
Faith doesn't empower the Lord's Supper to do great things. The Body and Blood of Christ are powerful whether you I or anyone else believes it. The error of thinking faith puts power in Communion leads to 2 more. The first is Lutherans communing at Protestant altars where Christ's Body and Blood aren't. People reason this way: I know what Communion is. I believe what Jesus says; it is His true Body and Blood. Bully for you. I believe that my truck is really a Hummer, but that doesn't make it so.
The Reformed, the Protestants, want absolutely nothing to do with the real Body and Blood of Jesus being on their altars let alone in their mouths. The closest you will get, and Lutherans are sometimes fooled by this, is John Calvin saying that the Holy Spirit communicates the Body of Christ, but Jesus and St. Paul say the Bread is the Body of Christ.
Don't be fooled; commune in a Reformed church a 1,000 times and you will get nothing more than bread and wine (more likely grape juice) every time. There's no more life in that bread and wine then there is in Olive Garden's, and there is certainly no forgiveness or salvation there. Why not? Because the Body and Blood of Christ that was given and poured on the cross are not there. Who am I to say that? I'm only saying what they do. Calvin's confession of 1549 says the belief that Christ is present in bread and wine is "a perverse and impious superstition." His Geneva Catechism says, "We must lift up our hearts on high to heaven where Jesus Christ isand not seek Him in these corruptible elements."
Thinking your faith makes Christ present in Communion or makes it powerful leads to Lutherans thinking they can commune in a Reformed church where His body and blood aren't. Ironically, it also leads them to not communing in their church because they don't have enough faith. In the Reformed/Protestant understanding faith is needed to rise to heaven and commune with Christ's Body and Blood found only in heaven. When you're weighed down by your sins, when all you really believe for sure is that you're the biggest sinner ever. Your faith doesn't take you anywhere.
Now faith is a part of this Sacrament, and I'll show you where shortly, but faith is not the main thing or even a main thing. No, these words of Jesus, "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" along with the bodily eating and drinking are the main thing in the Sacrament. Note well, though 2 things are mentioned Jesus' words and you're eating and drinking, they are 1 main thing. Both have to be there to have a Sacrament. In the Roman Catholic private mass where no one eats and drinks and therefore Jesus words take eat and drink are ignored, there is no Sacrament. In the Reformed service where Jesus' words of promise to be present are gutted of their meaning, pledge and essence, there is no Sacrament either.
Jesus words make, cause, this Bread to be His Body and this Wine to be His Blood. Your mouth, even the mouth of the most wretched unbeliever or the most impenitent sinner, receives what Jesus says is here. Your feeble faith, your doubting thoughts, your many sins don't cause Jesus to run from His Meal. Friend, if unbelief, doubts, or sin could do that, they would've caused Jesus not to give His Body and shed His Blood the first time. From the upper room, to Gethsemane, to the high priest's court yard, to the bloody Cross, Jesus was surrounded, engulfed awash in sin, doubt, and unbelief.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things as forgive, enliven, and save? It's not eating and drinking only; it's what Jesus words say you eat and drink: the very same Body He gave on the cross and the very same Blood He poured out there. The Body of God the Son is able to raise the dead and give eternal life. The Blood of God the Son is thick enough and rich enough to cover, to atone for, to forgive any, all, and every sin.
That Jesus words make His Body and Blood present and your mouth receives them avoids the Reformed/ Protestant error of thinking your faith makes Communion powerful or makes it what it is. But there is another error: that unbelief can receive the great things that are present in Holy Communion. This error leads to pastors giving the Lord's Supper without examining the communicants as to what they believe is here and why they come. This is contrary to our Large Catechism where we say, "It is not our intention to let people come to the Sacrament and administer it to them who do not know what they seek or why they come."
If the Body and Blood of Jesus are present only to faith and unbelief only gets bread and wine, there really is no big deal. This is same as me telling you I have a medicine to make you healthier, happier, and holier, but it's really just a sugar pill. Who cares if you take it by the handfuls not believing? What harm can a sugar pill do? But if I have a real blood pressure pill even if you don't believe it's real, it could very well kill you. That's what Paul says about the Body and Blood of Christ: Misusing it doesn't lead to cavities but to weakness, sickness, and death.
For this reason, our 16th century Lutheran confessions say that we do not commune anyone without first examining them and absolving them. In our day this has boiled down to people saying, if they're here on time and want to, a general confession in the service. Would a doctor give you physical medicine under such circumstances? No, he would lose his medical license if he did. Yet pastors today are expected to give the Body and Blood of Christ to every single member of the LCMS who presents himself at the altar though they might have been absent for years and the pastor has no idea what they believe. You should require better of me.
As it is, a pastors only help is this passage from Paul. "A man ought to examine himself before he eats and drinks." First, Paul is not talking to people who aren't members of his church. Paul is not speaking of Catholics or Presbyterians visiting Lutheran churches. He is writing to the members of his own flock. His members he directs to examine themselves, and so I direct you. Faith doesn't cause the Body and Blood to do such great things, but faith and only faith receives those great things. Unbelief doesn't receive forgiveness but guilt, not life but death, not salvation but condemnation. Unbelief receives the Body and Blood of Christ all right, but it receives no benefits. Great things certainly do happen to the unbelieving communicant, but not a one of them is meet, right, or salutary.
Examine yourself: Do you believe the words of Jesus, that this Body and Blood you eat and drink were given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins? Then you have exactly what they say, namely forgiveness of sins. Note it is the Devil who wants to put in qualifying words. "Whoever believes these words enough, a lot has exactly what they say. What's enough? What's a lot? When pressed about the degree of our faith not one of us can ever say anything more than what the ruler seeking help for his son said to Jesus, "I believe; help thou my unbelief."
The Lord Jesus direct us to commune in simple faith by saying, "Do this in remembrance of Me." First, bold the word Me; that's how it is in Greek. You don't commune in remembrance of you, your sins, your faith, your failings, but in remembrance of Jesus: His forgiveness, His grace, His mercy. These are what are to loom large and foremost in your minds at this altar. Albert Durer has a wood cut inspired by Luther's writings about the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. It shows Christ not as stern judge on the altar, but Him beckoning, welcoming, beseeching the Communicants with nail pierced hands spread wide. Remember that Christ.
When Jesus bids us "do this in remembrance of Me," He's telling us to regard the once and for all giving of His Body and shedding His blood on the cross as a present reality in this Meal. Paul says the same thing when he says, "Whenever you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." This meal is like a time warp that takes us back to the Calvary we'll stand together at tomorrow. At this meal we should see ourselves as medieval painters did when they painted the crucifixion. They painted their own face on a bystander, and pictured the Blood of Christ streaming from His Body and hitting them in the face.
That's how real His presence is at this Table. From this reality, flows the faith you are to remember here. This faith says "I eat and drink with my mouth the Body and Blood Jesus says He gave and shed for me on the cross in order to forgive me. Therefore, I have exactly what He says I do: forgiveness of all my sins." Faith that flows from what Jesus says He did and gives receives all that He promises. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (20070405); Lord's Supper III