This sermon is titled "Table Prayers." It's not about the prayers you said over your bread on tables today, but about the prayers you say at this Table which has Bread for tomorrow on it. The Lord's Table is a favorite place of prayer for many of you, and well it should be. But I think a few changes are in order before such prayers can truly be called Table Prayers.
Let me begin by pointing out that when Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, His every thought was of you. Although just hours later He would feel the full weight of the sins of the world, the full wrath of God, and the full wickedness of men, He wasn't thinking of these things but of you. And no He wasn't thinking of what you could do for Him. He wasn't thinking how His might make you appreciate Him, how He might make you believe in Him, or how He might get you to do things for Him. No, His every thought was for your salvation. His every thought was about how to rescue you from the death and the devil that held you captive because of your sins.
Seems hard to believe, doesn't it? I wouldn't believe it either if Scripture didn't say it. John opens his account of this night with these touching words. "Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." This same night Jesus prays to His Father saying, "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom You have given Me."
Still hard to believe, isn't it? You can't imagine how Jesus could not be preoccupied with self at a moment like this as sin, hell, and God's wrath stalked Him. You know how you are the night before a major medical procedure; you know how you are the night before you must do something you dread. But don't argue from you to Jesus because He is God and you're not. He thinks of self, of pain, of failure, but more of you. Let's look at some concrete examples.
Remember how an argument broke out among the disciples about which of them was greatest? What did Jesus do? Lecture? Condemn? Shame? No, He washed their feet. And remember when Jesus warns them about falling away? Peter says he'll die first. Jesus says, "No you won't; you will deny Me 3 times." After Jesus has told Peter how weak and unfaithful he is going to be, what are the very next words out of Jesus mouth? Judgment? Law? Anger? Nope: "Let not your heart be troubled." He tells Peter don't be troubled that tonight you're going to forsake me. Jesus doesn't think how Peter will miserably fail Him but of Peter being troubled!
You see that again in the garden when the soldiers come. This is after Jesus has been in bloody sweat over the cross, after He has been crying to His Father for another way to save us, after He's found the disciples He asked to watch and pray, asleep. When the soldiers come, what does Jesus say? "If you seek Me, let these go." All He can think about is not having His beloved disciples suffer. Include yourself in that number. His every thought was about you too tonight.
Jesus' last will and testament proves that too. He doesn't leave something that serves His honor and glory. He doesn't leave something so people can admire how rich and magnanimous He is. No, He leaves His body and His blood for sinners. He leaves something that will only benefit the poorest and most miserable of people. He leaves no opulent shrine or cavernous cathedral just His body and blood for us Christians to eat and to drink.
In instituting this Meal and in all the events before and after, Jesus only thought was of you. So how come in your Table Prayers here, your every thought is not about Him? You're right; I can't look into your heart. I don't know what you're thinking. I can only say that when I pray at this Table my every thought is not about Him. Maybe that's true of you.
When I bring my prayers before this altar, I'm usually consumed with self. Whatever my burden, whatever my problem, whatever the situation I'm praying about, I think it's the end of my world. All I can see, all I can feel, all I can think of is me. I pray like I fish. I cast my cares upon the Lord as Scripture tells us to, but then I reel them right back to me.
It's no different when I pray for others. My petitions for them are cast from my heart only to be reeled back in, to be recast the next time I pray. The other person's situation is hopeless; I can't see any way for things to work out. I'm not focused on me per say; I am looking at the other person, but I'm doing so only with my small thoughts, my inabilities, my misunderstanding of things. My every thought certainly isn't of Jesus.
My constant thought, whether praying for self or others, is guilt. Usually it's not a particular guilt. It's a general one, but I know it's guilt because I find myself wanting to make all sorts of promises and bargains with God. I wouldn't be doing that unless at the bottom of my heart I thought I had to deserve the privilege of coming to Him with my problems and pains and getting a positive answer in return.
My thoughts are not of Jesus when I say Table Prayers here, but they can be. What's here on this Table can free me from myself. Here I find the body and blood Jesus gave and shed for Me. I can pray based on that reality. Jesus really did give His body and blood to pay for my sins, to cover my sins, to wash away my sins; use whatever figure you wish to highlight the truth that Jesus' body and blood gives sinners access to God's throne of grace. It's true; sinners dare not enter into God's presence or ask anything of Him. But in Jesus' body and in blood it's not you that asks but Jesus.
The Large Catechism uses the example of a person who believes their sins must keep them in doubt about asking God for anything. Luther responds, "That means that they have their eye not on God's promise but on their own works and worthiness..." Focus your eyes not on your problems, not on that other person's problems, and most certainly not on your guilt, but focus on the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you.
Jesus tells you that you are getting the same body and blood He gave on the cross. What happened the moment Jesus completed His sacrifice? The veil in the Temple that kept people from entering God's presence was torn in two. Get the message? The giving and shedding of Jesus' body and blood tears down whatever you think is preventing your prayers from reaching God's ears.
Say your Table Prayers based on what's on this Table. Think not a second about your guilt, your sins, your merits. No matter what comes up in your conscience say, "It doesn't matter." The body and blood of Jesus here present forbid me to consider anything or anyone but Him. And they call me to be certain that my Father in heaven hears my prayer.
Did I convince you that Jesus' every thought on the last day of His life was about you? Good. If that is how it was between you and Jesus on the last day of His life when He was bearing the full load of your sins, how do you think it is between you and Him now that Calvary is passed? Do you think He thinks less of you now having paid off the debt of your sins? Do you think He wants you to be troubled, guilty, and burdened now? Do you think He who wouldn't turn away from boastful Peter, confused Thomas, or unseeing Philip is going to turn away from you? Having claimed you when you were a filthy mess of sin, He's not going to deny you now standing in His holy, precious body and blood!
When you say your prayers at this Table, remember the Real Presence. You know we Lutherans always talk about the Real Presence, but in practice we make it somewhat of an abstract doctrine. It's not; it's very concrete. Based on His Word we can say, "There on that altar is my Lord and Savior. There is the Ruler of heaven and earth come down to where I am." Do you see? On this altar, on this Table, in my hands and in your mouth, there is One beyond our problems, there is One above the answers that our feeble brains come up with, there is One who surpasses our limited understanding. Lutherans have in the concrete what the Reformed Christians only have in the abstract.
Listen to their hymns: "In the Garden" speaks of meeting Jesus, of walking and talking with Him. Yet, the Reform know of no actual presence of Jesus in Communion. He never comes in flesh and blood where they are. "Softly and Tenderly" is a beautiful hymn calling weary sinners to come home. But all the Reform can offer sinners is some sort of homecoming in the heart or head. They can offer them nothing bodily, nothing tangibly, nothing really. They can't, as we can, point sinners to an altar and say, "There's your Jesus." Even that great Reformed hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" only knows of us being raised to meet Jesus. It knows nothing of Jesus coming down to where we are, into our space and time, into our house of worship; into our very bodies! Here in Communion at this Table, God is as near as He can be.
As we sing in our hymn, "An Awful Mystery is here." Someone more mighty and full of awe than any problem, any sin, any grief is here on this altar. Here created bread and wine is the vehicle for the Creator. Here finite bread and wine is the infinite body and blood of Christ. Heaven and earth do the impossible here: they touch.
In light of the amazing mystery of Holy Communion all our prayers can be laid to rest. He who is willing to go this far, to these lengths for my sake is certainly willing to hear my prayer. He who is able to do this is certainly able to do anything I ask. He who is ready to do the miracle that happens on this Table is certainly ready to do any miracle needed to answer any Table Prayer that serves my eternal salvation and His glory. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (20150402)