Text: The Sacrament of the Altar
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, tonight we gather again in observance of our Lord’s passion. This past Sunday we celebrated with hymns of victory and praise. We left the sanctuary with palm branches in our hands, symbols of our King’s victory over sin, death, and hell. Tonight, Holy Thursday, marks the night when our Lord was betrayed into the hands of sinful men, an event foretold in Sacred Scripture and necessary for our salvation. Yet, on this night we also celebrate the most holy meal given us to eat. The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.”
In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Tonight we momentarily continue our Lenten devotion as we meditate on the gift of our Lord’s precious body and blood in His Supper. In this meal we receive the true body and blood of Jesus under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. As our Savior went willingly to His death, He left us His last will and testament in this Sacrament, desiring that we receive it together until He returns at the end of time.
The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper are all names for the same meal we confess and celebrate this evening. Already we’ve heard what the Church knows as the Words of Institution. These are the words that Christ spoke as He reclined with His disciples in the Upper Room. It was in the midst of the Passover meal, the meal that Jesus said He earnestly desired to eat before His suffering, that Christ gave us something new. At a certain time He took bread. After He had given thanks, He broke and gave it to the disciples saying, “This is my body which is for you.” In the same way He took cup and, when He had given thanks, gave it to them saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” With these words Christ gives us the Sacrament of the Altar and explains to us what it is, what it gives, and who it is for.
First, what is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is as Jesus says in His own words: His body and His blood. As we learn it from the Small Catechism, “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.” In Holy Communion the very body and blood which were broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins are given to us in the form of bread and wine. Though we see with our eyes only the bread and wine, yet through faith we know that, by the power of His Word, Christ Jesus joins Himself to the elements. As St. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [communion] in the body of Christ?”
We therefore believe that these words of Christ are plain and clear: “This is My body…This is My blood.” The bread is not just bread, but the real body of Christ. The wine is not just wine, but the real blood of Christ. We are not cannibals. We simply believe in what theologians call the sacramental union, a technical term that basically means: “Jesus is God. He knows how to do things I don’t understand. He says the bread is His body and the wine, His blood. Therefore, it is.” We believe that the Words of Institution mean exactly what they say, such that even a child can read and understand them and confess that when Christ says “is,” He means it.
In the Lord’s Supper we receive in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is the same body and blood that was bruised, broken, and shed on the cross, and which rose from the dead to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. Christ gives this meal to us freely; but for what purpose? Jesus said so in the words we heard at the beginning of the sermon, “Given for you…shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” If someone asked you to give them the Christian faith in a nutshell, what would you say? Probably the best answer is that it’s about the reconciliation between God and sinners through Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins. Christianity’s all about the forgiveness of sins. What do we receive in the Lord’s Supper? The forgiveness of sins.
We believe that we receive our Lord’s body and blood in His Supper for the express purpose of receiving forgiveness. This is not a special forgiveness, mind you. You are not receiving a different forgiveness than you received in Baptism or through the preaching of the Gospel or through Holy Absolution. You are, though, receiving it in an especially neat way, though. Christ, through His Word, gives into your mouth His very body and blood to bring to you the forgiveness He won for you on the cross. In the Supper He is intimately joined to you, and you to Him.
There are other benefits that we receive from the Lord’s Supper, though the most important benefit remains the forgiveness of sins. Along with it we receive eternal life and salvation. Where there is forgiveness of sins death no longer reigns, hence eternal life and salvation in Christ. We also receive in the Sacrament the strengthening of our faith in Christ, which leads us to also love God and our neighbor. Lastly, by communing together, there is also a public demonstration of our unity in faith. St. Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Likewise, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
We believe from our Lord’s Words of Institution that what we receive in His Supper is not just bread and wine, but also His true body and blood, broken and shed for us. In the Holy Sacrament Christ gives us these gifts for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. We’ve now heard what the Lord’s Supper is and what it’s for, but now we must ask who is it for? Let us hear the words we’ve learned from the Small Catechism. “Fasting and bodily preparation are, indeed, fine outward training. But a person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given … and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” What does that mean? The Lord’s Supper was instituted for the sake of poor sinners like us. In the Sacrament Christ offers peace and pardon in the forgiveness of sins, and He invites to His table those who believe His Words; namely, that the Supper is His true body and blood, not symbolically but sacramentally, given for the forgiveness of sins.
Our individual beliefs do not make it the Lord’s Supper, but the power of Christ’s Word alone does. Neither do we receive the benefits of the Sacrament just by doing the motions, as if a ritual could merit us salvation. Rather, the power of the Sacrament lies in Christ’s Word and its benefits are received only by those who believe what Christ says about it and desire what Christ gives in it. Those who do not believe Christ’s Words or doubt them should not receive the Lord’s Supper. For, St. Paul writes, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
In the Lord’s Supper we receive a visible, tangible gift of God and the assurance that Christ is with us, always at work forgiving our sins. Jesus gave us many promises in His ministry, “I am with you always; I will never leave you nor forsake you; Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I; This is My Body, This is My blood for the forgiveness of sins.” In His Supper Christ is with us in a real, bodily way. In the feast of His body and blood He unites Himself to us for the forgiveness of our sins. He makes His home in us, strengthening the faith that was created through the preaching of the Gospel and washing of Holy Baptism. His presence leads us to love and serve God and our neighbor. In His Supper Christ gives us exactly what He says: His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. God grant that this meal would be preserved among through all time until we feast with all the saints at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which will have no end.