What is this Meal? A Maundy Thursday Sermon about the Lord's Supper
|On the night before He died, Jesus ate with His disciples what has become known as the Last Supper, which as we know was the Passover meal, the Seder. But in the midst of this Seder meal, Jesus served and instituted another meal, a new meal, a meal that was to be repeated. Here is what He said and did when He instituted it:
Since then this meal has gone by several names, some Biblical and some not. It has been called the Lord's Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Mass, Sacrament of the Altar, Lord's Table, and the Breaking of Bread. But my question to you this night is, "What is this meal?"
Is it an important staple to your spiritual diet or a once a year holiday feast? Is it sacred gift of God or sacred ordinance? Meaningful means of grace or meaningless ritual? The height of Spirituality or the depths of institutional earthiness? A banquet of grace or scraps of empty symbolism? Awesome communion with the crucified and risen Christ or uninspiring human fellowship? Something you are doing for God or something He is giving to you? What is this meal?
We who have long been Lutherans may think we know the answer to that question. But even we who are so familiar with this meal, or perhaps because we are so familiar with this meal, can become forgetful or fuzzy as to what it really is. We need to be reminded constantly. That is my aim here tonight.
To answer this question I will examine what Scripture has to say about this, of course. But also I will be quoting a lot from the writings of Martin Luther. Not because I put Luther's writings on the same level as Scripture and follow everything he says in a slavish fashion. We believe that Christian truth can be established by Scripture alone. But when he was dealing with the essential teachings of the Faith, Martin Luther was granted great insight and understanding by God, precisely because he was such a good student of the Word. And especially is this true of his writings on the Lord's Supper. Because of his own study of the Word and the many eucharistic controversies that he was involved in, Luther broke through captured the meaning of the Lord's Supper like no other. So for this reason, we will also want to listen to what he has to say. Let us now turn to the question at hand.
I. It is a meal, but a Meal for the Soul
What is this meal? The first thing I want to say is that it is a meal. There are several reasons why Lutherans need to be reminded of this.
First, for whatever reason, Missouri Lutherans long ago chose "holy Communion" as our favorite name for this meal. I don't why this is. I've never researched it. I do know that this was not Martin Luther's favorite name. Though he did refer to it as Communion (and also Mass), his favorite designations for it were the Sacrament of the Altar and the Lord's Supper (or simply "the Supper."). Now there is nothing wrong with using "communion," which is a Biblical name for this meal (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). But communion is not meal language and it makes it possible for us to forget that what we are doing here is eating a meal.
The second reason we need to be reminded is the way we eat this meal. Which of us ever eats a meal the way we eat this one, lined up in a horizontal line, kneeling on kneelers in front of the altar. Though some may think that this way of eating the Supper is ordained by God, we need to be reminded that it is not. The way we partake of the Supper can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Christ and His apostles would have eaten it reclining around a table in the typical First Century Jewish fashion. Again, don't misunderstand me, I am not advocating that we change this custom! I am simply pointing out that because of the way we eat this meal, it is very easy to forget that it is a meal, since we eat no other meal like we do this one.
The third reason for a reminder is the portion that we receive. In what other meal do we receive so little, a paper thin wafer and a sip of wine? This meager portion also can be a reason that we forget that what we are doing here is eating a meal.
The point of all this is that the Lord's Supper is a meal, but it is obviously not intended to be a meal that satisfies the hunger of the body, as all the other meals we eat do. It is a meal for the soul, one intended to satisfy our spiritual appetite. As Luther puts it, "Therefore, it is appropriately called the food of the soul since it nourishes and strengthens the new man."1
II. It is a Memorial Meal that Remembers His Death on Behalf of Us All
What is this meal? Second, it is a memorial meal that remembers Christ's death on behalf of us all. Some of our families can relate to this, since they also have special meals on the anniversary of a loved one's death. This memorial emphasis of the meal is heard especially in Paul's rendition in 1 Corinthians 11:
Two times, after distributing both the bread and the wine, our Lord explicitly says that the meal is to be done [eaten] "in remembrance of me." Since the bread eaten is Christ's body "for us" and the wine drank "is the new covenant in my blood" then clearly what this meal is a memorial of is Christ's atoning death. To my knowledge all Christians agree that the Lord's Supper is meal that remembers Christ's death. Unfortunately, from the time of the Reformation2 to this day there have been those who view this meal only as a memorial, who say it is a memorial and nothing else. Biblical Christians, on the other hand, see it as a memorial meal, but see it also as much more than this.
III. It is a Holy Meal, Since It is Consecrated by God's Word
What is this meal? Third, it is a holy meal, since it is consecrated by God's Word. What is it that transforms ordinary bread and wine into a holy meal in which Christ's body and blood are present? It is God's Word, the words of consecration that Christ spoke at the Last Supper and which the Pastor repeats each time this meal is served. We Lutherans differ with the Roman Catholic view which says that the priest by virtue of his ordination has the power to transform the bread and wine. It is the words of Christ spoken over the bread and wine that make this a holy meal. For as Luther rightly says in the Large Catechism: "The Word of God is the true holy thing [heiligtum - relic] above all holy things. Indeed it is the only one we Christians acknowledge and have . . . God's Word is the treasure that sanctifies all things"3.
IV. It is a Meal of Forgiveness
What is this meal? It is a meal in which God gives and serves forgiveness for all sins. Christ Himself established this in the words of our text when He said, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." This, by far, is the most important answer to the question, "What is this meal?" It is a meal of forgiveness.
Just as the preached Gospel announces and gives forgiveness through the cross of Christ to all who believe, so does this meal. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 11:26, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." The only difference is that whereas in the preaching the Gospel of forgiveness is heard, here in the Supper it is seen and tasted. This is why the Lord's Supper has been called "the visible Gospel." The forgiveness that is given in this meal is the complete forgiveness that Christ won on the cross. In the Lord's Supper that once-for- all forgiveness is applied to each person who believes so that they are assured that all their sins, including the ones they are feeling are guilty about, are forgiven.
Because of this it is right to say that the Lord's Supper is especially for sinners, for those sorrowing and struggling over their sinfulness. It is meal not for those who feel worthy, but for those who feel unworthy. Luther puts it beautifully:
But it is a meal for believing sinners only. Only those who believe the promise of forgiveness in this meal should eat of it - all others should stay away. Here belong the well known words of Luther in the Small Catechism:
This point, that the Lord's Supper is for those who believe in the promise of forgiveness is intended to (1) encourage those who are feeling unworthy and are staying away - that they might gladly come; and (2) warn those who eat this meal without any thought of receiving forgiveness (who eat it to look pious in front of others, who eat it purely by rote without any thought at all, etc.). But Luther emphasizes again and again that this meal is especially for those who know they are sinful but who believe that they will receive forgiveness there.
V. It is a Meal that is God's Work for Us, Not Our Work for Him
What is this meal? It is a meal that is God's work for us, not our work for him. Now it is true that our Savior has commanded us to "Do this in remembrance of Me." Yet the emphasis in the Words of Institution is clearly on invitation, not command. In this holy meal, Jesus invites us to eat and drink. Jesus, not us, is the one who prepares, serves and gives. He serves us His body "which is given for you" (Luke 22:19). He serves us His blood "which is poured out for you" (Luke 22:20). All the emphasis is on what He gives for us. Our "job" is to receive. Therefore, Luther is on target when he writes,
To turn the Lord's Supper into a good work that we do is to turn this meal on its head and defile it. It is God's good work by which He lavishes upon us His forgiveness.
VI. It is a Meal in Which We Eat and Drink Christ's Body and Blood
What is this meal? It is a meal in which we eat and drink Christ's body and blood. Most Christian traditions affirm that Christ is present somehow in the Lord's Supper. But it is not enough to merely say that Jesus is present in this meal. Like John Calvin in the 16th Century, many Christians in our day believe that Christ is present in the Supper but not in the bread and wine. They can speak of a "spiritual" or "real" presence of Christ, that He is nearby while we eat this meal. Or they can say, like Calvin, that when we eat this meal, we spiritually ascend to Christ who is at the right hand of God.8 But they refuse to believe that Christ's body and blood are present in the bread and wine and are truly consumed with the mouth. Why? Because, they say, Christ according to his human nature sat down at the right hand of God. That is where He is. Therefore it is impossible for His body and blood to be present also in the bread and wine.
But we Lutherans firmly believe that this is a meal in which we eat Christ's body and blood along with the bread and wine. We base this on the words of institution, in which Christ offers bread and says of that bread, "This is my body." and offers the wine and says of that wine, "This is my blood."9 Do we attempt to explain how this can be? No! We simply accept the plain sense of the words that the bread, somehow, is also Christ's body, and the wine, somehow, is also Christ's blood.10
Moreover, we find the argument childish, which says that Christ's body and blood cannot be in the bread and wine because Christ is in heaven, at God's right hand. This reasoning betrays a faulty theology and Christology. From Luther on, we have responded to the faulty theology by asking a series of questions: "Where is God?" Answer: Everywhere. "Where is God's right hand?" Answer: Everywhere. "Therefore, when it is said in Scripture that Jesus is at the right hand of God, where is He?" Answer: Everywhere. Furthermore, the expression, "right hand of God," is a figure of speech that often refers to God's almighty power.11 This position also betrays a faulty Christology because it refuses to admit that our Lord's human nature, because it is united with His divine nature, can share in the abilities of the divine nature. The bottom line is that it is not impossible for Christ's body and blood to be consumed in this meal for the Words of Institution declare it and Biblical theology and Christology support it.
Does this mean that we are actually eating Christ's skin and tissue, or that if we broke the wafer we could actually see Christ's skin and tissue inside? Is this what Lutherans believe? Though we have often been accused of this, no, Lutherans are not cannibals! We believe Christ's body and blood are truly present and truly eaten, but in a supernatural or sacramental way.
VII. It is a Family Meal that Gives and Celebrates Unity Among Those who Eat It
What is this meal? It is a family meal that gives and celebrates unity among those who eat it. The Lord's Supper has often been called the Sacrament of unity. Why? In part, because of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:17: "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread."
These words infer two things. First, they infer that the one bread broken and distributed signifies the oneness of the body of Christ, the Church. This is difficult to understand for us who receive individual bite-size wafers. But those who saw a large loaf of unleavened bread broken and distributed could better understand this concept of unity. Second, the words of Paul infer that those who partake of the one bread become one body; i.e., that the eating of this meal creates as well as celebrates unity. The context of chapter 10 bears this out. From 10:14 on, Paul is warning the Corinthians against eating sacred meals devoted to idols. Why is this wrong? Because those who eat such meals enter into communion (Greek - koinonia) with the demons behind the meal and those who are eating it. Paul's point is that it is wrong to enter into communion with those with which you have no true unity - and that it is wrong to be in fellowship with two opposing groups at the same time.
But for us, it is good and God-pleasing to eat this meal together. For we are truly family, truly one in Christ, one in faith, and one in doctrine. When we eat this meal together, we enter into unity with one another. We celebrate our oneness of faith, oneness of doctrine, and oneness of purpose together.12
VIII. It is a Meal that is a Foretaste of the Feast to Come
What is this meal? Lastly, it is a meal that is "a foretaste of the Feast to come." This phrase, taken from a Communion liturgy of Lutheran Worship, beautifully expresses another aspect of the Lord's Supper. It is meal that is a foretaste of that eternal, heavenly meal that we will enjoy with our God. For this meal points not only backwards but also forward in time. It looks to the past and remembers, looks to the present and receives, and looks to the future and anticipates!
This future aspect of the Lord's Supper is supported by our Lord's words, "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." It is also supported by Paul's words in 1 Co. 11:26: For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." The words "till He comes" gives this meal an end-times, eschatological, dimension. It keeps us looking forward with eager anticipation. It fills us with great strength and joy as we remember that no matter how difficult our current circumstances, through our crucified and risen Savior, we shall overcome, and feast with Him in glory forevermore!
Pastor Richard P. Bucher
8. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966) 4.17. Specifically see 4.17.30-31: "Therefore while our whole Mediator is everywhere, he is always present with his people, and in the Supper exhibits his presence in a special manner; yet so, that while he is wholly present, not everything which is in him is present, because, as has been said, in his flesh he will remain in heaven till he come to judgment. 31. They are greatly mistaken in imagining that there is no presence of the flesh of Christ in the Supper, unless it be placed in the bread. They thus leave nothing for the secret operation of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us."
10. Transubstantiation, formally adopted at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, is the attempt of the scholastics to explain the how of Christ's presence in the bread and wine. It attempts to explain the "how" by using Aristotelian categories. The Lutheran position has sometimes been referred to as consubstantiation, but this is incorrect. Lutherans, when faithful to the Scriptures and the Confessions, have never attempted to explain the "how" of Christ's presence. All our argumentation is always focused on rejecting the arguments of those who say that it is impossible for Christ's body and blood to be consumed with the bread and the wine.
12. For a much more in-depth examination of this unity aspect of the Lord's Supper, see my "Conflict Over a Meal - What is the Problem that Paul Addresses in 1 Co. 11:17-34?" The web address is: http://www.ultranet.com/~tlclcms/1co11pap.htm.