Sermon for Holy Thursday
What is this meal that we celebrate here at Emmanuel so often and that awaits us again on this Holy Thursday? What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ for us Christians to eat and to drink.
You take and eat bread. But at the same time, whether you believe it or not, you are really and truly also taking and eating the very body of Jesus: the same body once broken on the cross, the same body that was laid in a tomb, the same body that rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. That’s the body that also graces our altar and enters our mouths.
You take and drink wine. But at the same time, whether you believe it or not, you are really and truly also taking and drinking the very blood of Jesus: the blood of the new testament Passover Lamb, the same blood once shed by floggings and by beatings, by a crown of thorns, by nails and by spear. The bread is not a symbol of a body that is located elsewhere, nor is the wine a symbol of the blood that poured out of Jesus’ side long ago. The bread is his body; the wine is his blood.
Why is he present here with the bread and wine? What blessing do we receive through this eating and drinking?
That is shown us by these words, “Given” and “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Through these words we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in this sacrament. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
It’s all about the forgiveness of sins. If you have no sins that need forgiving, then by all means, stay away from the Supper. If you have no fear, no doubt, no weaknesses common to man, then by all means, stay away from the Supper. If you have a faith that can never be moved or shaken or disturbed, if your “love for one another” is already perfect, if you are “fed up” with Jesus, as it were, and feel no need for this communion with him, then by all means stay away from the Supper. It isn’t for you. It’s only for sinners who yearn to be close to Christ, who long to be touched again by his sacrifice, who desire to receive from his hand the forgiveness of sins.
But, weren’t we already offered and given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? Do we somehow lose that forgiveness and die again so that we need to be re-forgiven at every Communion, re-saved, resurrected to life again every week? Or do we somehow rack up a whole host of sins during the week that make God angry with us again and that need to be erased again by the body and blood of Christ? No, no, we shouldn’t think of forgiveness that way.
The forgiveness of sins – a right standing before God, an open door to heaven is what Jesus won for you by his death on the cross as the Substitute of all men. Where Christ is found, there is complete forgiveness – there and only there. What joins you to Christ is faith in him for the forgiveness of sins, faith that comes from hearing his promise. You were brought into him by baptism, through faith in his blood, and in him, your sins were counted – are counted – as forgiven – not once, not piecemeal, but always and completely.
But your faith-connection to Christ is like a slender thread, and you are literally surrounded by enemies who have targeted that thread, who seek to cut it and sever your connection to Jesus, to pull you away from him, and so to pull you away from God’s forgiveness and life. You know who those enemies are, I think. The devil, the world and your sinful nature. As long as you live on earth, you live in enemy territory and your faith-connection to Jesus is vulnerable, which is why Jesus wasn’t content to give you only a once-in-a-lifetime baptism, wasn’t satisfied to give you only a spoken word of absolution. Those things tie you to Jesus, too, and to the forgiveness that is yours in him. No, Jesus knew that the slender thread of your faith would need to be nourished by something tangible, would need to be fed and fortified by a powerful food in the face of so many and so ruthless enemies.
And so God has given a remedy against them, a medicine to save you from them, to protect and to strengthen the precious faith that clings to Christ. That remedy, that medicine, that divine food for the soul is the Sacrament of the Altar.
How can a meal shared together in church be such a powerful medicine for the soul? How can eating and drinking do such great things?
It is certainly not the eating and drinking that does such things, but the words “Given” and “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words are the main thing in the sacrament, along with the eating and drinking. And whoever believes these words has what they plainly say, the forgiveness of sins.
As always, the Word of God accomplishes everything; the promise of God is what turns simple bread and wine into something much greater. And here it’s important to keep in mind this distinction: forgiveness earned and forgiveness distributed. Forgiveness of sins was purchased for the world at the cross of Christ. His crucified body, his poured-out blood were the purchase price. But you and I weren’t there. You and I cannot receive that forgiveness from Christ unless he crosses time and space to bring it to us, and that’s precisely what he does in the Holy Supper. His Word, joined to bread and wine, bringsCalvary’s sacrifice to you and to me. He comes to this altar and gives you himself, and with himself, the promise of forgiveness being applied to each one who eats and who drinks.
Who is worthy to participate in such a meal? Who is properly prepared to receive this sacrament?
Fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose, but he is properly prepared who believes these words, “Given” and “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is not prepared, because the words “for you” require nothing but hearts that believe.
If you understand all that’s been said so far about the Sacrament of the Altar, then there are only two reasons I can think of why a communicant member of a Lutheran church wouldn’t go to Communion often, if at all possible. Either you don’t think you need it, or you don’t think you deserve it.
If you don’t think you need it, well, that’s a sure sign that you do need it. Here’s Luther’s advice: If someone asks, “What, then, shall I do if I cannot feel such distress or experience hunger and thirst for the Sacrament?” Answer, “For those who are of such a mind that they do not realize their condition I know no better counsel than that they put their hand into their shirt to check whether they have flesh and blood. And if you find that you do, then go, for your good, to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Hear what sort of a fruit your flesh is:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”
Therefore, if you cannot discern this, at least believe the Scriptures. They will not lie to you, and they know your flesh better than you yourself. Yes, St. Paul further concludes in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” If St. Paul may speak this way about his flesh, we cannot assume to be better or more holy than him. But the fact that we do not feel our weakness just makes things worse. It is a sign that there is a leprous flesh in us that can’t feel anything. And yet, the leprosy rages and keeps spreading. As we have said, if you are quite dead to all sensibility, still believe the Scriptures, which pronounce sentence upon you. In short, the less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason you have to go to the Sacrament to seek help and a remedy. (Large Catechism)
My friends, don’t think for a single moment that you are the great exception, that you are the sinless or the strong one who, unlike the rest of us poor sinners, could never fall away from Christ, and so who can take or leave the Sacrament of the Altar according to your whim on any given day. When you begin to think like that, you have already begun to fall away.
But if you do know your need for Christ, your need to receive him and, with him, all his forgiveness and all his strength in the Sacrament, but you don’t think somehow that you deserve this Communion with Christ and so would consider not approaching the altar, then stop and remember – Christ wants no communion with the deserving. He wants to be associated with sinners only. Now if you doubt that word and think that Jesus is a liar who really only wants the good, strong people of this world at his table and turns sinners away, then, by all means, stay away from the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who calls Jesus a liar is not prepared for it.
But if you know your need and you trust in your Savior’s invitation, then come, take and eat – now, and whenever you feel your sin pressing hard and the world pulling you away and the devil shooting his flaming arrows at the slender thread of your faith. Come and receive the God-given medicine against sin, death and condemnation. The Sacrament of the Altar is most definitely “for you.” Amen.