October 11, 2017 – The Command and the Promise- 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Leviticus 17:11

holy-communion_image

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NRSV)

Therefore such people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. For we are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we go to confession because we are pure and without sin, but the contrary because we are poor miserable men and just because we are unworthy; unless it be someone who desires no grace and absolution nor intends to reform.

But whoever would gladly obtain grace and consolation should impel himself, and allow no one to frighten him away, but say: I, indeed, would like to be worthy, but I come, not upon any worthiness, but upon Thy Word, because Thou hast commanded it, as one who would gladly be Thy disciple, no matter what becomes of my worthiness. But this is difficult; for we always have this obstacle and hindrance to encounter, that we look more upon ourselves than upon the Word and lips of Christ. For nature desires so to act that it can stand and rest firmly on itself, otherwise it refuses to make the approach. Let this suffice concerning the first point.

In the second place, there is besides this command also a promise, as we heard above, which ought most strongly to incite and encourage us. For here stand the kind and precious words: This is My body, given for you. This is My blood, shed for you, for the remission of sins. These words, I have said, are not preached to wood and stone, but to me and you; else He might just as well be silent and not institute a Sacrament. Therefore consider, and put yourself into this YOU, that He may not speak to you in vain. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

The Sacrament of the Altar holds both a commandDo this in remembrance of Me – and a promiseThis cup is the new covenant in My Blood.

The concept of blood sacrifice seems rather raw and primal in the modern age. We have distanced ourselves as much as we humanly can from the processes of life that are raw, dirty or “icky.”  We keep death itself behind closed hospital doors, and the mourning of the dead to a carefully orchestrated display in a funeral home that often involves the deceased, heavily reconstructed and made over, laid out in an open coffin so that he or she looks to be sleeping.  In American culture, even in death the subliminal message is to deny the reality and finality of death. (For an interesting aside on American funerary practices, The American Way of Death, written by Jessica Mitford is quite an eye opener.)

The slaughter of animals for our food is kept to industrial warehouses behind closed doors where none but the workers who work the line see the death or the gore or the blood. Even in the somewhat recent past, farming families butchered their own cattle, hogs and chickens, so there was some knowledge that our meat- which is sustenance for our own lives- comes from another living creature who had to die.  Today a child would be hard pressed to make the correlation between that tasty plate of chicken nuggets and a live chicken.

So we encounter Jesus’ command and His promise in the Last Supper, especially that creepy sounding business about blood, and we really don’t understand how to process it.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Leviticus 17:11 (NRSV)

The key to understanding the importance of  blood sacrifice for atonement of sins is in the old sacrificial system of the Jews. The blood is the life.  So when the Jews made sacrifices of animals to atone for their sins, they were foreshadowing the One Sacrifice that would cover our sin once and for all.

We are commanded to come to the table, to take the Body of Christ into our bodies, and to drink the Blood of Christ that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We are commanded not because we are worthy, or because we understand how it works, but precisely because we aren’t worthy and can’t make ourselves worthy.  We are able to come to the table to take and eat, and take and drink because Jesus IS worthy, and He IS telling us to.

October 10, 2017- The Passover Lamb, Given for Us, Exodus 12:1-13

passover lamb

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Exodus 12:1-13 (NRSV)

 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”  He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. Matthew 26:17-19 (NRSV)

 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

 The Last Supper takes place as Jesus and His disciples are celebrating the Passover. There are many parallels between the Passover and Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar, so it was fitting that Jesus instituted this Sacrament as part of the fulfillment of the covenant between God and man.

A lamb without blemish is to be sacrificed. Not a defective lamb that would have been culled anyway, but a perfect lamb is to be offered.  Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice for God, because He was sinless and without blemish.

When Jesus speaks of His Blood being poured out as the new covenant, it is His Blood poured out for us that takes away our sin- we are no longer subject to the penalty for our sin. We are passed over, just as the Israelites were passed over by the Angel of Death when they put the lamb’s blood on the door frames of their homes.

For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. Exodus 12:23 (NRSV)

The beauty of the Sacrament (as it is the fulfillment of the Passover celebration) is that Jesus invites us to the table often. Not just once a year, but as the needs of the people dictate.  In some churches Communion is celebrated monthly, or even at every service. He knows that we need His healing and sustenance on a regular basis, even as we pray, “Give us our daily bread.”

And we have, in the first place, the clear text in the very words of Christ: Do this in remembrance of Me. These are bidding and commanding words by which all who would be Christians are enjoined to partake of this Sacrament. Therefore, whoever would be a disciple of Christ, with whom He here speaks, must also consider and observe this, not from compulsion, as being forced by men, but in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to please Him. However, if you say: But the words are added, As oft as ye do it; there He compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice, answer: That is true, yet it is not written that we should never do so. Yea, just because He speaks the words, As oft as ye do it, it is nevertheless implied that we should do it often; and it is added for the reason that He wishes to have the Sacrament free, not limited to special times, like the Passover of the Jews, which they were obliged to eat only once a year, and that just upon the fourteenth day of the first full moon in the evening, and which they must not vary a day. As if He would say by these words: I institute a Passover or Supper for you which you shall enjoy not only once a year, just upon this evening, but often, when and where you will, according to every one’s opportunity and necessity, bound to no place or appointed time… from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

 

 

 

 

October 9, 2017- This IS…My Body, This IS…My Blood, Matthew 26:26-28

bread and wine

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

One of the smallest words in the English language can be one of the most expansive: the word “is.”

When we as English speakers read the Bible we need to take care that the message in Scripture doesn’t get lost in our translations. Many thoughts expressed in the Hebrew or Greek languages are difficult to pin down in English.  The English word “love” for example, has many shades of meaning depending on the context- “love” as in, “I love this fish sandwich,” or “I love art,” or “I love the human race,” or “I love you and want to marry you,” use different meanings of the same word.  Hopefully nobody wants to marry a fish sandwich- but here is the difficulty of translation.

We must be careful when we read and interpret Scripture, and be mindful of the translations we use, especially if we do not speak or understand the original languages. We need to be sure we understand what the writers meant and that the translations are saying what God was saying through those writers.   The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to guide us if we ask Him for help in rightly interpreting and applying God’s Word.

There isn’t any confusion on the meaning of the word “is” as Jesus used it when He said, “Take and eat, this IS My Body,” and “Take and drink, this IS My Blood.”  The word “is” means exactly what Jesus said.

The Sacrament of the Altar – or Communion- in the Lutheran understanding, takes Jesus at His word. He IS present in, with and through the bread and wine.  When we partake of the Sacrament (the Word combined with the physical elements of bread and wine) we are taking in and taking part in His Body and Blood.

In some traditions Communion is merely taken as symbolism- something you do because Jesus did it at the Last Supper, but for Lutheran Christians the Sacrament of the Altar is much more than just sharing a piece of bread and a shot of wine or grape juice.

Martin Luther wrote extensively on the value of coming to the Communion table, and the importance of remembering that the ability to share in the Body and Blood of Christ is a gift of grace to us. While it is good for us to come to the table understanding why and what benefit it is for us, we can’t really completely “be worthy” or “get it.”  We have to trust that God is at work in and through the elements, and that we are worthy because Jesus said so, because He is the one extending the invitation to “take and eat.”

Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar!

Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink. And as we have said of Baptism that it is not simple water, so here also we say the Sacrament is bread and wine, but not mere bread and wine, such as are ordinarily served at the table, but bread and wine comprehended in, and connected with, the Word of God.

It is the Word (I say) which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ. For it is said: Accedat verbum ad elementum, et At sacramentum. If the Word be joined to the element it becomes a Sacrament. This saying of St. Augustine is so properly and so well put that he has scarcely said anything better. The Word must make a Sacrament of the element, else it remains a mere element. Now, it is not the word or ordinance of a prince or emperor, but of the sublime Majesty, at whose feet all creatures should fall, and affirm it is as He says, and accept it with all reverence fear, and humility.

With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and say: If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? etc., I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger. Now here stands the Word of Christ: Take, eat; this is My body; Drink ye all of it; this is the new testament in My blood, etc. Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word or regard it without the words, you have nothing but mere bread and wine. But if the words remain with them as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ. For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism

The simple answer to why we take Communion is because Jesus IS present. He is one with the elements that we consume, and He becomes part of us.  In the Sacrament of the Altar, we literally take Him in.