Can't I Have Just One Meal in Peace?
"Can't I have just one meal in peace?" Surely you've heard a parent say that, or you might have said it yourself. Isn't it true that it's often at meal time, especially special meal times, that problems surface? At the Last Supper we know an argument broke out over who was the greatest, and the betrayal of Jesus surfaced as well as the denial of Peter. In Corinth we see that at the Lord's Supper lovelessness between members was revealed, division between groups exposed, and a misunderstanding of what the Lord's Supper is surfaced. Problems emerge at our Lord's Supper too.
Here are the problems I see. A few years ago I returned the "Amen" at the Communion dismissal back to you where it was always meant to be. At first "Amen" echoed from the communicants glad to affirm with their voice what they had received with their bodies: the Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Now the Amen is often all but inaudible. I vicared for a pastor who would stop the congregation while singing if they weren't singing with enough gusto. I thought that smacked of what the Army does with recruits upbraiding them with, "I can't hear you!" So I've never done that; besides isn't a squeaked Amen still "This is most certainly true?" But then again how would you like it if I peeped out my words to you in preaching?
Your milk toasted Amen's at receiving the Body and Blood of your God bother me, but that could be more my problem than yours. This next one is yours. Confirmation equals graduation. Once you've been confirmed by me or anyone else there is no need to go to Bible study or attend midweek services where I have taught Luther's Large Catechism for the last 12 years. As once you graduate from high school you're done with studying high school books, so most of you are done with Bible study. You're content as Paul says to subsist as Christians on the milk of Christianity when you need the meat if you're going to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ as Peter commands.
I hear your lack of knowledge and you're misunderstandings of doctrine sometimes in our conversations and emails, but they usually don't pertain to what we're talking about, so I say nothing. But you compound the problem if you think you can get your continuing education in Lutheranism from the internet. I've told the World War II generation: if Norman Vincent Peale, Guideposts, and Billy Graham are your teachers, then you've discharged me from my responsibility for your soul. If www dot whatever is your teacher, they're your pastor too. Go ahead and try getting Communion from them, but no you wish to be taught by them and communed by me.
Do you know why all this surfaces at the Lord's Table, and has for me every single Sunday of my ministry? Because we say in our Confessions about going to Communion: "None are admitted except they be first examined" (AC, XIV, 5-7). In the Large Catechism we confess that we don't give the Lord's Supper to anyone unless they know what it is and why they come (V, 2). Do you realize my doctor examines me more closely to give me mortal medicine than I examine you to give you the Medicine of Immortality? And what about your family, your friends, guests in general? Shouldn't you want me to examine them even more closely than you?
I could go on, but you don't need more problems; you need solutions. I can only give more problems; only God gives solutions. First of all His solution is no Barmecidal Feast. This is a feast where there is nothing really there. It's from A 1001 Arabian Nights. A poor, starving man comes looking for help from a Barmecide who were famous for their liberality. Only this Barmecide set before the beggar empty plates, empty cups, empty bowls pretending all the while that it was sumptuous food and drink (The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, 209-12). There is no solution for what ails us if there is nothing on this altar other than bread and wine. There is no solution for our problems if the only ones here are you and me.
This cannot be a Barmecidal Feast. It has to be a feast like Astyages prepared, but I warn you the word "like" is important here and the story may not be suitable for children. Astyages was ruler of Media. An oracle told him that his grandson would end up taking the throne from him. He called his most trusted servant Harpagos to take the newborn to the most remote spot and expose him. He couldn't do it, so Harpagos gave the boy to a shepherd to do it, but he couldn't do it either. So the shepherd exchanged the dead child his wife just had with the boy and raised him as his own.
Years later Astyages found out his grandson lived. Harpagos told him how he couldn't kill the child himself but had commanded another. Astyages appeared to be mollified and invited Harpagos to bring the grandson and his own son to a feast to thank the gods for preserving his grandson. After Harpagos had eaten his fill. Astyages asked him if he had enjoyed the meal. Harpagos had loved it. He then brought before him a covered platter. On it were the hands, feet, and head of his son. Harpagos feast had been prepared from the body of his only son (Herodotus, I, 100-119).
How gruesome! How horrible! Don't you wretch just a little as you see the father lifting the lid and seeing his only beloved son? Yet at every Lord's Supper the heavenly Father willing give us His Son to feast on. Now this meal is not painful, is not gruesome to either the Father or the Son, and it's not to us communicants either for Jesus gives us His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine meaning we taste real food and drink. However, in order to give us this Meal the Father had to first give His only Son's Body over to a torturous death on a cross and shed His Blood drop by drop there. It would be as if Harpagos had to watch his son killed and cut up.
I'm trying to point out two things. One the Body and Blood of Jesus are as real, as tangible, as present on our altar as the body of Harpagos' son was on his plate. Harpagos' son was there to punish the father. Jesus is present here because He was punished for our sins and His Father wants to give, to seal, to guarantee our forgiveness by providing us the Body and Blood of Jesus for us to eat and drink. Something more than bread and wine is here; Someone is here other than you and me: Jesus is, God the Son along with His angels, His archangels, and all the company of heaven. We bow; we kneel when able; we say "Amen!" because our God is present in our space and time to forgive, to restore, to renew us.
Real food makes real changes. The Barmecidal feast where nothing was really there did nothing. The starving beggar wasn't fed, strengthened, or preserved from anything. Even if he had really believed there was food and drink before him rather than playing along as he did, all the believing in the world can't make something present that isn't there to begin with.
What about Astyages' feast? There really was something there, and it really did have a profound impact. Harpagos appeared to accept his king's punishment, but in reality he became a hardened enemy biding his time till he could get his revenge. The meal of his only son charged and empowered him with hatred and changed him from the king's most loyal subject to his lifelong enemy.
What about us? We eat Jesus Body and drink His Blood desiring, praying: "May Thy Body and Thy Blood be for my soul the highest good." And what happens? We can, or at least I can, get very close to utter despair here. I don't want to go down the path of Casper von Schwenckfeld who ended up separating from the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper over this. He observed that many people were not being changed at all through receiving Communion. If it really was the Body and Blood of God Almighty, shouldn't the results of taking it be more evident? They weren't, so Schwenckfeld went over to Zwingli and his Barmecidal Feast of nothing. The Body and Blood of Jesus weren't really there (Brecht, Luther, II, 300).
Don't you feel that too? The effects of real alcohol, real medicine, real food are evident. I've been eating and drinking Christ's Body and Blood for over 40 years, so where's the change? Where's your loud Amen? Where's your filling of Bible classes? Where's your eagerness for me to examine those I don't know before communing them? Let us not despair; let us return to Scripture. How faithless the disciples were on the night Jesus was betrayed mere hours after celebrating the Lord's Supper. We have the Stripping of the Altar at the end of this Supper to remind us of that. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10 that though all of Israel partook of the Old Testament Church's sacraments, yet most of them fell in the wilderness.
Without being graphic let me remind you what these fallen bodies turn beautiful food and drink into. What do shiny red apples, thick juicy steaks, white milk, golden beer, and purple wine become when used by these fallen bodies? Something we only want to flush down a toilet. Does this cause the Lord to stop giving them to us? Does He stop putting food on our tables or drink in our mouths? No, He doesn't. Along with this daily bread He gives us the daily forgiveness we also pray for in the Lord's Prayer.
By as early as the 400s, Maundy Thursday was the day public absolution was done. On the night when all deserted Jesus, when He should have all the more reason to desert us, the Church assured the penitents of their absolution because of the Body Jesus gave on the cross and the Blood He shed there. Focusing on what Jesus gives and does in Communion rather than how little you and I change is the way to go. Luther focused on Communion being an entrance to a new reality. He said, "'Thus for us the sacrament is a street, a bridge, a door, a ship, and stretcher, on which and by means of which we journey from this world into eternal life" (in Elert, Structures in Lutheranism).
Catch that last word? Communion is a stretcher. Stretchers aren't for healthy people but sick, not strong but weak, not for people who can stand on their own two feet but people who can't stand at all. Come to the Lord's Table; be carried away into His reality where sins are forgiven and forgotten and sinners can have just one meal in peace and leave stronger because of it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (20120405)