Our service for Maundy Thursday went very well overall. I received many positive comments on it, even weeks afterward. When you contemplate the true nature of the Sacrament and what Jesus promises you that it is and does, that has an effect.
This particular sermon went well also. I conceived of it as more of a catechetical sermon — a sermon to instill & review the simple, durable truths of the faith, rather than show off rhetorical flourishes or deep insights (which might not be all that deep, or all that insightful.) I think that’s part of why people responded so well: it was something they could grasp and see how its teaching applied to their own lives. People aren’t dumb; they just want something that makes sense and that helps them in their own faith life. Too many sermons shoot over peoples’ heads, or don’t hit anything at all.
When I preached this, I had my Greek Bible open on the pulpit in front of me. Not because I was referring to it or reading out of it as I preached, but as a reminder to me of what Jesus actually said. Is means is. No exceptions. Either He’s telling you the truth, or He’s lying to you. Simple faith in the plain words are the first and highest requirement to be fit for the Lord’s Supper, for both pastor and people.
The Lord’s Supper has always been the lifeblood of the Christian church. For a long time it used to be celebrated every Sunday — from Jesus’ day up til the Reformation, and beyond, in fact. (Read the Confessions and you’ll see that real Lutherans value the Lord’s Supper highly and demonstrate that by offering it often.) There have been various reasons why this frequent celebration is no longer the case. Rationalism and Pietism in the 18th century are big reasons. Those two movements kind of cut the heart out of faith in the Sacrament (among lots of other things). People no longer believed what Jesus told us about Holy Communion and what the apostles passed down, so why should they celebrate Communion frequently? The fact is, there are no Scriptural reasons for not having Holy Communion. At all. The only possible reason someone might not partake of the Sacrament is that they’re not able to examine themselves, and in that case they shouldn’t have it anyway.
We do not force anyone to partake of Holy Communion. Nothing should be freer. But we will not allow anyone to hold back what should be made freely available to all who are worthy to receive it. This heavenly food is too precious not to partake of it often. We each need it desperately, for the sakes of our own individual souls — whether we realize it or not. God grant us all a hunger and a thirst for the gifts He offers at His table.
7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
9“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.
10He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”
13They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:7-20 niv)
It seems like more and more people are paying attention to what they eat nowadays. You hear a lot about additives and preservatives and chemicals in foods. People want to make sure they know what’s in their food. There are always some people who don’t particularly care and eat whatever’s in front of them. But a lot of people pay attention to what they eat. Organic foods are becoming more popular. Some people are allergic to certain foods, so they have to pay attention or they’ll get sick. On Maundy Thursday, it’s fitting to pay attention to what we will eat. This is the night Jesus instituted his Supper for us. But what’s exactly in it? What do we eat and drink? These are worthwhile things to consider. We need to be reminded of what it is we actually receive in the Lord’s Supper. As we consider our gospel from Luke this evening, we’ll ask: What do we have here? We can answer that question in three different ways. First we’ll consider what it is ordinarily. Then we’ll consider what it is sacramentally. Lastly we’ll consider what the benefits are for us.
The first thing we notice that’s in the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine. That’s what Jesus had before him the night he was betrayed. He and his disciples were celebrating the Passover, the special meal of the Jews that remembered their deliverance by God from Egypt. We heard in our first lesson about what was all in the Passover. It was an elaborate meal which consisted roasted lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened and other things. Jesus and his disciples had, as part of that Passover meal, plain, ordinary bread and wine. That’s what Jesus used when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. He attached new words to the same bread that had been used in the Passover. He does the same thing with the cup of wine. New words with the same wine that had always been used. Those words are important. We’ll consider them further in a moment. For now, what’s important is what Jesus used: regular wine and regular bread.
That’s what it remains when we use bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper. It still is bread and wine. It doesn’t change totally into Jesus’ body and blood, as some teach. It keeps all the properties of normal bread and wine. To the naked eye the bread and wine used in the Sacrament are basically indistinguishable from what we might normally eat or drink. At the same time, it’s not just bread and wine. His body and blood are truly present. It is and remains real bread and real wine, but it is also his real body and his real blood. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is present in a way that he’s present at no other time. Jesus gives his very self to us, to eat and to drink.
A lot of churches don’t believe that nowadays. They say that Jesus meant the bread and wine only as symbols. They say the bread and wine remind us of Jesus. He told us to eat and to drink, so we should do that, but he didn’t mean it when he said, “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” They think that the Lord’s Supper is the same thing as getting together for a meal with family or friends and remembering someone who’s absent while you do it. But Jesus isn’t really there. His body and blood are only represented by the bread and wine, not conveyed to us. Jesus didn’t mean what he said when he said, “This is my body and my blood.” By the way, if you think that, then it’s no big thing to invite everybody up for Communion. If it’s only bread and wine anyway, then there’s no real reason to only celebrate Communion with those who have the same faith. If Jesus isn’t really there, if it’s only a memorial meal, then what does it matter who takes it? In this way what you believe influences what you do in church, and vice versa. A while ago I was having a conversation about the Lord’s Supper with a coworker named James who happened to be Baptist. He repeated the words of institution to me, only he didn’t say “is”; he said “represents.” This represents my body, this represents my blood. I said, “James, Jesus said is. This is my body, this is my blood.” Luke records it very specifically for us. There’s a number of ways in Greek to phrase a statement like “this is a house” or “this is a church” or “this is a book.” The Spirit led Luke to choose the one that spells it out. This is my body. It’s very specific. You can’t possibly miss it or misconstrue it.
We believe that Jesus is truly present in the Lord’s Supper because he tells us so. His Word makes it true. Jesus promises that when you eat the bread in the Lord’s Supper, you are also eating his body. He promises that when you drink the wine, you are also drinking his blood. Nothing besides God’s Word makes that true. Your own faith, or lack thereof, does not. It’s not like believers get both body and blood and bread and wine and hypocrites only get bread and wine. Jesus is really there, whether we believe it or not. That’s why we allow only those who have the same faith as us to commune with us. We don’t want to allow someone who doesn’t follow God’s Word like we do to eat and drink judgment on themselves. Who the minister is or what he’s like does not make Jesus present. They don’t teach us magic words to say at the seminary. They’re not magic words; they’re the promise of Jesus. The promise of Jesus is how his body and blood are present. The pastor’s personal character or faith doesn’t make Jesus present. He can be a hypocrite or a private unbeliever, but if he administers the Lord’s Supper the way Jesus instituted it, then Jesus really is there – because he promised to be. The only way the pastor can prevent Jesus from being really present is by removing God’s Word from the Lord’s Supper. He has to teach people to believe & think something other than what Jesus said, that Jesus is not present in the Supper. Then he’s sinning against the Supper and against the Lord who gave it.
We’re beginning to see the answer to the question, What do we have here? We have bread and wine. We have Christ’s body and blood. But why is that important? Why should I want to take the Lord’s Supper? When you take the Lord’s Supper, you get all the benefits of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah describes the new covenant for us. It consists mainly of the forgiveness of sins. In the new covenant, God promises to forget everything wrong you’ve ever done. All your offenses against God, all your sins of thought, word, and deed – he promises to forget them and to remember them no more. Now, God knows everything and he remembers everything. But he promises that he won’t remember your sins – and if God doesn’t remember them, they don’t exist anymore. That alone should make us want to come to the Sacrament. That alone should be enough to lead us to look forward with anticipation and joy to being able to take the Lord’s Supper. For that reason alone I should have people beating down my door asking if we can have Communion more often. But our flesh doesn’t look for those kinds of blessings or care much about them, so my door remains intact and we receive it sometimes infrequently, or we grumble because “why are we having Communion so much.”
That’s a fair question, why are we having Communion so much. Because I want us to have the benefits it gives – not only the forgiveness of sins, but every other treasure that God can give. You get the direct personal assurance that God loves you and will never leave you. You get the patience to go back to work for another day and face the daily grind of angry people and stupid people and people who don’t like you. You get the love to deal with your kids and your parents. You get the energy to serve others cheerfully and to be Christ’s helping hands in the world. You get lifted up by Christ and kept in his love until the next Lord’s Day. You get the strength to go on living in a sinful world. Before we came to Morgan, I worked in a hotel. I’d finish every week tired out, worn out from dealing with angry customers and calculating coworkers. I was one of the few Christians in my workplace and it was draining to be around that many people who didn’t live God’s way and often had no problem making that clear. I felt like I spent all week getting beaten up and smacked in the face all day every day by the world, and by life. After a while, getting to take the Lord’s Supper in church on Sunday was the only thing that kept me going. I longed for it all week long and looked forward to more than anything else. I’d have taken it every Sunday and a couple times during the week if I could have. Why am I telling you this? Not because I’m such a great Christian. I’m no different than you are that way. I came to value the Lord’s Supper as Christ giving himself to me, to comfort me and strengthen me to live as his child in a hostile and uncaring world. That’s why we are having Communion more frequently. That’s why we have it at all: because Jesus knows how tired we get living in this world, and he knows that we need it.
There is one more reason that I haven’t mentioned yet. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you, poured out for you.” That you is plural. Jesus was speaking to all of his followers who were there. He gave it to all of us, so that we would all have it. He gave it to us to unite us. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about unity ever since I’ve come here. We need to be more united again. We need to be more loving and caring and more like a family again. The path to that unity starts here: at the communion rail. Jesus gives himself to us, over and over, and he pours out his blood for us so that we might be one. It’s awfully hard to argue or backbite or grumble with your fellow Christians when you’re all kneeling before the Lord’s altar, receiving his body and blood to forgive all your rash words and your unloving actions – and your neighbor is getting the same. Jesus gave us this heavenly food to increase our trust in him and our love for one another. When we partake of this holy feast, we are forgiven and we come closer to the great feast in the kingdom of God, where all will joy and no one and nothing will disturb our communion and our closeness. We get a small taste of that feast already. Let’s begin the feast, still looking forward to the day when we will share it with our Savior in the kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God. Amen.