Monday, February 14, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 26:26-29, for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, "The Lord's Supper, 1"

This Sunday I would like to announce to the congregation an important change that will be coming to our worship services, and over the next few Sunday’s I’m going to do a teaching series of sermons to explain and prepare us for that change. The change is that beginning in March, when we start the season of Lent, we’re going to move to having the Lord’s Supper available every week. The exceptions will be when we have Preschool or Children’s Sunday services, or combined outdoor services, etc. Presently, the elder’s will be responsible for the additional communion setup, though we welcome new volunteers from our church members to be trained to help in communion setup. I’m very excited to bring this change to the congregation, and believe that it will be a source of blessing for us as we gather each week to receive God’s two holy treasures for us: the Word and the Sacrament.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In today’s sermon I want to talk about what the Lord’s Supper is and what it means, and answer some questions about why we should receive it often. Over the next few weeks I want to teach through some of the main points about the Lord’s Supper, so today we’ll start from the basics. First off, we have to ask the most basic question: who gave us the Lord’s Supper and set it as a pattern to follow? For this we turn to our sermon text for today, Matthew 26:26-29,

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Here in these words, we see that it is Jesus who gave us the Lord’s Supper. Now perhaps that seems so obvious as to not need mentioning. But it is the most important truth to begin our understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

Because it is Jesus’ Supper, it isn’t a man-made tradition or idea, it isn’t an add-on or occasional extra—but it has the command of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Where is it commanded? In those words you just heard me read. We call them the “Words of Institution.” They’re found in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as in the letter of 1 Corinthians. So these words are the foundation and the source of our Christian doctrine or teaching about the Lord’s Supper. Any theology that tries to understand the Lord’s Supper must begin with these words.

When we say that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, we mean that He established it, and gave the words and the instructions for how we are to practice it. The pastor repeats Jesus’ own words whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. While the wording of Jesus’ “words of institution” is not word for word identical in each of the four places it’s found, they all include these essential words: that He took bread, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body,’ and took the cup and said ‘This is my blood of the covenant.’” These words define for us what the Lord’s Supper is. With four voices speaking in harmony, they all convey what is happening each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. What is at first ordinary bread, after the blessing with the Lord’s Words, is Jesus’ holy body. What is at first an ordinary cup of wine, after the blessing with the Lord’s Words, is Jesus’ holy blood of the covenant. In a coming sermon we will look more closely at this, what is called the real or bodily presence of Christ, and some opposing views.

But what kind of reverence, what kind of holy awe and amazement ought to fill us when we consider those words?! That the body and blood of God’s own Son are given to us to eat and to drink? In a mystery that surpasses our ability to comprehend, the bread that we take in hand and mouth is not merely bread, but it is truly the body of Christ, sacrificed on the cross for us. In the same way also, the cup of wine that we drink, is not merely wine, but it is the true blood of Jesus, shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Not a picture or a symbol, not a mere reenactment, but as true as Jesus’ own words, we eat His body and blood at His invitation for the forgiveness of our sins. This is a mystery that should move us to holy fear and reverence of God, to humble repentance of our sins, and to songs of thanksgiving and praise for what He has done. This mystery of the Lord’s Supper draws us higher and deeper into worship of our God.

Because it is the Lord’s Supper and not the “Supper of the Christians”, we are reminded also that it is God who is at work here among us. It’s not primarily about our activity. One Lutheran pastor wrote that if it weren’t for the fact that worship was where God is at work among us, he’d find jogging or cycling or a variety of other personal interests to be far more tempting on Sunday morning than going to church. But he goes on to say, “There is only one place to find God at work in our lives the way He is in the liturgy of the Divine Service—offering healing at the core of life” (Richard Eyer, quoted in The Blessings of Weekly Communion, by Kenneth Wieting, p. 18). How true and yet also so different from the way we’re used to thinking about worship? In worship, we’re not the main doers or actors. God is the One who is doing, and He’s the One who’s working His forgiveness in our lives through the Word of the Gospel that’s preached, and through the blood of the covenant which is poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. That’s a true reason to be in worship—because there God is working in your life to heal and restore your sin-sick soul.

Several years ago, Lutheran lay person asked his pastor this question: “Pastor, if the Lord’s Supper is everything that the Bible and the catechism say it is, then why don’t we have the opportunity to receive it when we come for worship each week?” Initially, that pastor, Kenneth Wieting, set out to establish the reasons for why they offered it every other week. But instead, through a great deal of study of the Bible, of early Christian practice, and of the practice of the Lutheran Reformers 500 years ago, he was led to share the same view as his church member, and has written a book about it, called The Blessings of Weekly Communion. In a similar way, I’d like to help us grow a great appreciation for what the Lord’s Supper is, and see the value of restoring its place together with the Word of God as the twin treasures of the worship service, where God is at work among us.

Now the Bible does not prescribe a minimum or maximum number of times that we must receive the Lord’s Supper in a year, which would turn this gift of God into a legalism or law. And so my intention is not to require or pressure anyone into receiving communion every week, but rather to offer it as often as possible, so that you do not miss out on receiving this treasure. It’s the difference between “I must” and “I get to.” If some of you wish to continue communing only twice a month, for your own reasons, that’s fine. But if you have desired to commune every week, now you will be able to.

I also want to respond to two common objections sometimes heard among Lutherans to weekly communion. First that it’s “too Catholic,” and second that it will make it “less special.” So to the first objection: is weekly communion “too Catholic” a practice? Working backwards historically, we should first point out that communion every week is an entirely Lutheran practice—even if it hasn’t been so for the last 200 years or so. Going a little further back to the Reformation in the 1500’s, the Lutherans specifically made a point in our confession of faith, the Augsburg Confession, article 24, that they were falsely being accused of doing away with the Lord’s Supper. Rather, they said they continued to practice it with greater reverence, and offered it on every holy day and also on other days when the people desired it. So it is a completely Lutheran practice back to Luther and the Reformers themselves.

But of course we need to go much further back than that. To the church of the apostles themselves. In the first days of the newly born Christian church, in the book of Acts, we read in chapter 2:42 about their early pattern of worship: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The “breaking of bread” and “fellowship” are references to the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus broke bread and gave it to His disciples. Their worship was centered around the Word—the teaching of the apostles, the Christian fellowship of breaking bread together—the Lord’s Supper, and the prayers. This is the outline of Christian worship as it has spread across the world through more than 20 centuries! Later in Acts 20:7, we read about Paul worshipping with the Christians in Troas: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” So weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not a “Catholic” or “Lutheran” practice, it is a Christian one!

Also Paul, when recording the words of institution as the Lord had given them to Him in 1 Corinthians 11, wrote: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Here we see that Jesus instructs us to “do this,” namely celebrate the Supper to remember Him, but also to do so often. Paul goes on to explain that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” By celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we continue to give witness to the world about the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who gave His body and blood for our salvation. Through it we also proclaim His coming return to save us.

The second objection was that having communion every week would make it less special. It would be a harmful mistake to compare the Lord’s Supper to something like going to get ice cream once a month with your grandma—something that might seem less special if you did it every week. Instead of comparing the Lord’s Supper to something that is an occasional extra or appendage to the worship service (see 1995 LCMS resolution 2-08A), as Wieting says, we should compare it to the other supernatural gift of God—His Word. Would the Word of God be made any less special if we preached on it every week, instead of every other week? Would we make the same argument that reading God’s Word would be less special if we did it more often? Or with prayer? Clearly these things are the lifeblood and the daily bread of the Christian—they are the things that sustain our Christian walk. They are not superfluous, and neither is the Lord’s Supper. So we should rather see how the frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper is for our spiritual strength through forgiveness. It is not ice cream, it is part of the meat and vegetables of our healthy diet in worship.

Again, my intention is not to suggest that churches who don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper each week are any less Christian, or that you are any less Christian if you don’t wish to receive it every week. The question shouldn’t be, “how often must I commune?”, but rather I would ask, “why wouldn’t you want to commune as often as you can?” It’s again the difference between law and gift. No law compels you to receive it often, but the inviting hand of our Lord and the assurance that He is here in worship, bodily present in the Lord’s Supper working for you and for your salvation should bring us joyfully to His table. For He says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me!” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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Questions and Answers about the Sacrament of the Altar
I. The Nature of the Sacrament of the Altar
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 Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Where is this written?
The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.’
In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”

285. What are some other names for the Sacrament of the Altar?
This sacrament is also called the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Table, Holy Communion, the Breaking of Bread, and the Eucharist. 1 Cor. 11:20; 1 Cor. 10:21; 1 Cor. 10:16; Acts 2:42; Matt. 26:26. Note: Eucharist comes from the Greek word for “giving thanks.”

286. Who instituted the Sacrament of the Altar?
Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, instituted this sacrament. 1 Cor. 11:23-24.

295. Why are we to receive the Sacrament often?
We are to receive the Sacrament often because
A. Christ commands or urgently invites, us, saying, “This do in remembrance of Me”;
B. His words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” promise and offer us great blessings; Matt. 11:28
C. We need the forgiveness of our sins and the strength for a new and holy life. John 15:5

Note: In the New Testament, the Sacrament was a regular and major feature of congregational worship, not an occasional extra (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33). In Reformation times, our churches celebrated the Sacrament “every Sunday and on other festivals” (Apology XXIV 1).

From Luther’s Small Catechism © 1986, 1991 Concordia Publishing House. Used with permission.

In the 1995 National Convention of the LCMS, they passed the following Resolution 2-08A, “To Encourage Every Sunday Communion”

WHEREAS, Our Synod’s 1983 CTCR document on the Lord’s Supper (p. 28) and our Synod’s 1986 translation of Luther’s Catechism both remind us that the Scriptures place the Lord’s Supper at the center of worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33), and not as an appendage or an occasional extra; therefore be it

Resolved, That the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in convention encourage its pastors and congregations to study the scriptural, confessional, and historical witness to every Sunday communion with a view to recovering the opportunity for receiving the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day.”

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