(Preached during the week of Laetare 2014)
Building on the feeding of the five thousand which we heard about on Sunday, Jesus speaks those beautiful words that we heard this evening in the Gospel: All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.
Jesus speaks of Himself—His very flesh—as bread and life. In the next verses He would insist that anyone who wants to live must eat His flesh and drink His blood. What is He talking about there—eating His flesh and drinking His blood? Maybe your first thought is tonight’s theme from the Augsburg Confession, Article X: The Lord’s Supper.
Actually, that’s not directly what Jesus is talking about. What He’s talking about directly in John 6 is simply faith! He’s talking about a spiritual eating of His flesh and blood, about the “eating” that happens when we hear His Word and believe in Him—His Word in which Christ, true God and man, is presented to us, together with all benefits that He has purchased for us by His flesh given into death for us, and by His blood shed for us, namely, God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life. To eat His flesh and to drink His blood is to firmly rely and abide in this consolation: we have a gracious God and eternal salvation because of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Formula of Concord:SD:VII). That’s spiritual eating. All who hear and believe the Gospel of Christ eat His flesh and drink His blood in this way.
But there is most certainly also another type of eating of which Jesus speaks, an oral eating or a sacramental eating. And that is the theme of AC:X: Concerning the Lord’s Supper it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present in the Supper, under the form of bread and wine, and are there administered and received. The opposite doctrine is therefore rejected. Let’s take a few moments to consider this short but important article of our faith as Lutherans, that is, as Christians.
Concerning the Lord’s Supper…
Those words alone should make us stop and think. We have other names for the Lord’s Supper. We call it Holy Communion. We call it the Eucharist. We call it the Sacrament of the Altar. All valid names. But here we call it “the Lord’s Supper,” as St. Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11. It belongs to Christ the Lord. It was instituted by Him. It is regulated by Him. This Supper of Holy Communion isn’t for us to do with whatever we want. It’s to use according to Christ’s command and institution. It’s His Supper. He is the Host, and even more, He is the Meal.
It’s called a Supper, because it was instituted, not at breakfast time or lunch time, but at supper time during the Passover supper of Maundy Thursday as a replacement and as an amplification of the Passover meal. The Passover meal commemorated the blood of the Lamb that once rescued Israel from the destroying angel. The Lord’s Supper not only commemorates the blood of Christ once shed on the cross, but also applies His blood to those who receive it. No matter when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—morning or evening, it’s always a Supper, because it’s always connected to that first institution, on the night in which Christ our Lord was betrayed into the hands of sinners, during that 24-hour period in which the Son of God was beaten, scourged, mocked, crucified and died. “This do in remembrance of Me,” Jesus said. Each and every time we celebrate this Supper, we remember that night in which Jesus faced the hatred of men and the wrath of God, all for us.
Now, our Small Catechism goes into the blessings and the benefits received in the Lord’s Supper, and where the power in this Sacrament comes from. The AC, on the other hand, focuses on only one thing: the essence of the Supper. Very simply, what is there? What is present in the Supper? What is handed out by the minister? What is received?
It is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present in the Supper under the form of bread and wine and are there administered and received…
There it is. Short and sweet. You have to love this about the Lutheran Church. We do not waste our time trying to figure out things that are not revealed in Scripture. Jesus took bread and said, “Take; eat. This is my body.” He took a cup of wine and said, “Drink of it, all of you; this is my blood.” What is there in the Lord’s Supper? The body and blood of Christ, under the form of bread and wine.
We say that Christ’s true body and blood are “truly” present, meaning that they are not symbolically present, as if only bread and wine were truly present as symbols of the absent body and blood of Christ. No, just as truly as the bread and wine are present, so the true body and blood of Christ are truly present, right there in the room, right there on the altar after the Consecration, and administered with the minister’s hand, and received in the communicant’s mouth. We eat the true body and blood of Christ with our mouth, not in a cannibalistic way, but in a true, sacramental way that we don’t pretend to understand.
Now, in this article, there was no disagreement with Rome. Rome actually approved Article X of the Augsburg Confession, as Melanchthon summarizes in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. Just like the Roman Church and the ancient Greek Church, Lutherans confess the real presence of Jesus’ real body and blood in the Sacrament, just as the Christian Church has always confessed and believed.
Still, Rome has this nagging love of human reason and philosophy and this nasty tendency to go beyond the Scriptures. So in the 1540’s and 1550’s and 1560’s, during the Council of Trent, they codified for the first time the philosophical language of “transubstantiation.” That’s their philosophical doctrine that the bread and wine stop being true bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper.
That we reject in the Formula of Concord, the papistic transubstantiation, when it is taught in the Papacy that in the Holy Supper the bread and wine lose their substance and natural essence, and are thus annihilated; that they are changed into the body of Christ, and the outward form alone remains.
In fact, we reject any and all attempts to explain how Christ’s body and blood are present, and concern ourselves only with the what. We refuse to speculate on foolish questions that the Scriptures don’t answer, like at what precise moment Christ’s body and blood are present, or for how long they are present. If you ask, what is on the altar before the consecration? We would answer, bread and wine. If you ask, what is on the altar after the consecration? We answer, the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine. What does the pastor hold in his hand as he distributes Communion? What does the communicant receive? The body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine. That’s all we’re concerned about, because it’s all Jesus talks about. That’s all we’re concerned about, because Jesus hasn’t given us anything else to be concerned about.
So, what do we do with any leftovers after everyone has communed? We do the only thing Jesus has given us to do. Eat and drink. Either the pastor or other communicants consume any leftovers, either during the service or immediately after. And we don’t worry about the things that our Lord hasn’t answered.
That is our simple, straightforward confession regarding the what of the Lord’s Supper. And as we say, The opposite doctrine is therefore rejected. The opposite doctrine that was being taught in 1530 by non-Lutherans was that only bread and wine are present in the Sacrament, as mere symbols representing the absent body and blood of Christ. “They said that the body of Christ, because He has ascended to heaven, is not truly and essentially present here on earth in the Sacrament.” We reject that false doctrine as it is still taught today by Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals. It’s a wicked, evil doctrine that denies the word of Christ.
Some years after the Augsburg Confession was drafted, John Calvin came along claiming that the body and blood of Christ are “spiritually present,” which means, not truly present in the bread and wine, but still up in heaven. But, he taught, believers in Christ are raised up to heaven by faith and commune with Christ spiritually, while still only receiving bread and wine with the mouth. As for hypocrites—unbelievers—who might receive the Sacrament, Calvin taught that they don’t receive Christ’s body and blood at all—just bread and wine. We reject that false doctrine as it is still taught today by the Presbyterians and Anglicans and Episcopalians and Reformed churches. Jesus didn’t say, if you believe in Me, then this is My spiritual body and blood. He said, “This is My body and blood.” And St. Paul says that those who eat and drink unworthily receive the body and blood of Christ—to their judgment.
This simple article on the Lord’s Supper was and remains the primary doctrine that separates us Lutherans from the so-called Protestant sects around us. Don’t be ashamed of that. Luther wasn’t. These are the very words of Christ we’re dealing with. This is the very Sacrament we’re talking about in which Christ gives Himself to us. Don’t let anyone rob you of this treasure! And don’t ever pretend that it’s just fine to join one of those churches and to sit at the feet of those who deny Jesus’ words and who mangle His Supper and twist it into something other than what He instituted it to be. Especially now in this season of Lent, let us cling to Christ’s words all the more, just as they stand, without going beyond them, and without reinterpreting them. This is My body, given for you. This is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Let us receive His Sacrament with joy, for our eternal comfort. And let us praise the Lord Christ for the treasure of His Real Presence with us in His Holy Supper. Amen.