It's a Miracle that Faith Receives the Sacrament's Benefits
This is one of the most important and most difficult sermons in this series. I can leave you in the ditch of thinking the Lord's Supper is only as strong and as sure as your feeble faith. Or I can leave you in the ditch on the other side thinking that as long as you receive Communion you're fine no matter what you believe.
Let's start with some food for thought. You heard the Passion reading. When Pilate brings Jesus before the crowd and says those famous words, "Behold the man!" Jesus by this time is bloodied badly by the crown of thorns, blows to the face, whips to the back. And when His executioners nail Him to the cross more of His holy, precious Blood spurts from His sacred veins. Now that Blood shed there is no less holy than the Blood given here. So did the soldiers spattered with Jesus' Blood get forgiveness? When the whip transferred some of Jesus' Blood to the face of the soldier lashing Him did he get forgiveness? How about when one soldier slapped Jesus and spattered the other with His Divine Blood? How about when the soldier holding the nail being pounded in gets Jesus' Blood on his lips? Did he get forgiveness?
What about Pilate? He knows that he is sending an innocent man to a horrible death. He calls for water. He washes his hands before the blood thirsty crowd declaring loudly, "I am innocent of this man's blood!" Pilate believes he is innocent. He believes he's not guilty. Was he? He doesn't say, "May I be innocent," or, "I will be innocent." He says, "I am." He believes it, so it must be true, right?
What about at the cross? We haven't got all the way there yet but you know the soldiers gamble for Jesus' clothes. The rulers of the church taunt Jesus, the passersby ridicule Him, and the women mourn Him. Suddenly Jesus speaks after having remained silent for so long, and He says, "Father forgive them!" Was forgiveness really given out at that cross? Was it objectively there for the soldiers doing the gambling, the church leaders doing the taunting, the crowds doing the ridiculing, and the women doing the mourning? Was the same forgiveness there for all of them?
One last food for thought question. What about that notice Pilate had prepared and fastened to the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews?" Because the chief priests believed that Jesus was not king of the Jews but only claimed to be did that mean Jesus really wasn't king?
There you have 4 food for thought questions. Now let's get on to some food for eating. What puts the Body and Blood of Jesus on our altar? How come we know it is here? Jesus says so. The Man who is God in flesh and blood, whose Word created all things out of nothing, whose Word brought life to the dead, healing to the sick, and forgiveness to sinners, He says, "This is My Body; This is My Blood." He passed these Words down to us. He commanded us to take bread and wine and say these words and so we have exactly what they say right here on this altar: His Body and Blood. The same Body He gave on the cross; the same Blood He shed there.
This is not what the Protestants believe or teach. An illustration in the Book of Common Prayer of 1720 shows their faith. It has the congregation kneeling before the communion rail. In the clouds above the altar Christ is shown before an altar in heaven (Oxford History of Worship, 517). See His Body and Blood are not on the altar where the Anglican communicants are kneeling. He is far away from them in heaven. The only way any Protestant gets the Body and Blood of Jesus that is in heaven is by faith. Their faith goes up to heaven and gets the Body and Blood of Jesus spiritually not physically.
Not so for us; Jesus' Words place His Body and Blood right there, but how do they get here, inside of us? Don't say by believing or by the words of distribution. Don't say it's by my saying, "Take eat this is the true Body" and "Take drink this is the true Blood." Those words don't do anything. They're a public statement of what I am distributing at the altar. They aren't commanded by Jesus, so that's why even though some pastors say some pretty schmaltzy words we can't really say much. Bodily eating and drinking is what gets the Body and Blood of Jesus into your bodies.
By the way, this is the only purpose of Jesus' instituting this Meal: for eating and drinking. While we spoke in the first Sacrament sermon how it is proper to adore Jesus wherever He is present, Jesus didn't leave us His Body and Blood here to be carried about in procession or to be adored in 24 hour vigils like Catholics do. He left them for us to eat and drink them for the forgiveness of our sins.
Don't discount this eating and drinking. Did you listen to what we said in our Catechism reading tonight? To my question, "How can bodily eating and drinking do these things?" You answered, "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 thing in the Sacrament."
Before I make my point, allow me to digress. Notice that what so many of you worry so much about hasn't even been mentioned yet. No word about faith, about believing, about being sure. Faith is not the main thing in the Sacrament, and blessed are you if you remember just that much from this sermon all the rest of your days. Did you notice what the main thing (singular not plural) is? Two things are the main thing. The Words of Jesus and the bodily eating and drinking, though two different things, are treated as the main thing.
If you came from a Protestant background, this much is a great joy. You are delivered from the tyranny of your feeble faith. The main thing in the Sacrament is Jesus' Words which put His Body and Blood on the altar in front of you and your eating and drinking them with your mouth. This saves you from the ditch of thinking that Communion is only what you can believe or as much as you believe. This saves you from constantly looking inward to measure if you have enough faith going on. However, in driving out of the Protestant ditch you can overcorrect and drive into the Catholic one.
We've had food for thought; we've had food for eating; now it's time for food for life. Faith is mentioned in the Catechism reading, isn't it? "Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: forgiveness of sins.'" You don't believe these words and you don't have jack. Oops that's wrong, isn't it? You still have the Body and Blood because we said Jesus' Words, not your faith, are what put them on this altar. So a lack of faith in Jesus' words doesn't make them invalid anymore than Pilate's faith that he was innocent of Jesus' blood made his words valid. So not believing Jesus' Body and Blood are here doesn't mean they're not anymore than the chief priests not believing Jesus was king of the Jews meant He really wasn't.
A word of caution. Jesus' Words are the power of the Sacrament but His Words are not an incantation. An incantation is words that can be used by anyone to make something happen. Witches and wizards have incantations; the Church doesn't. She has the Words given to Her by Her Lord. Churches who deny what those words mean and want no part of what they promise to give don't have the Body and Blood on their altar.
Protestant communion is to be treated like Mormon baptism. No Christian church thinks Baptism has been given to the Mormons. Because they deny the Trinity, no Christian church accepts a Mormon baptism even though they use the Trinitarian words. Likewise we don't recognize that Protestants who deny what the Words of Institution say have the Body and Blood.
Lutherans who commune at Protestant altars where the Body and Blood of Jesus are not are falling into the error of believing that their faith can put the Body and Blood on that altar and somehow receive what isn't there. Faith can't make present what isn't there, but faith is needed to receive the benefits when the Body and Blood are there. The soldiers spattered with the holy precious Blood of Jesus didn't receive the benefits of that Blood. They got the Blood all right but no benefits. Likewise, when Jesus said, "Father forgive them," forgiveness really was there, free and boundless, but unbelief didn't receive it.
This is the opposite ditch, the Catholic one, thinking that getting the Body and Blood at this altar automatically means a person receives forgiveness, life, and salvation too. They're here alright. In His holy Body Jesus lived the holy life you'll never be able to. Every Commandment you have ever broken or will break, Jesus kept. Then Jesus went on to shed His holy Blood to cover all those broken commandments. So there is forgiveness in the given Body and shed Blood of Jesus, but only faith can receive it. Without faith we're no different than a soldier being spattered with Jesus' blood or a chief priest hearing Jesus forgiving sins.
The Words of Jesus spoken for the purpose He gave them to us, to have His Body and Blood on our altar, perform the miracle of putting His Body and Blood in our time at this place. Faith that you are eating Jesus' Body given to keep the Law in your place and drinking Jesus' Blood shed to pay for every one of your sins, receives the benefits of Communion.
Simple faith in what Jesus says and does by the Words of Institution receives every one of the blessings, benefits, and powers of the Lord's Supper. Even if that faith is feeble, frightened, small, and timid, it receives all the benefits of the Body and Blood. Just as a shaking hand can still hold a real diamond as long as a real diamond is being put into it, so as long as the real Body and Blood are being put into your mouth even trembling faith can hold the forgiveness, life, and salvation being given with them.
From a book about growing food, I leave this final food for thought. The book said that the highest joys we can know are union, communion, and atonement (The Unsettling of America, 122). Holy Communion has all of these and faith receives every last one of them. And that's a miracle! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers V (20110406); Lord's Supper III