Monday, March 07, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 26:28, for Transfiguration Sunday, "The Lord's Supper" 3

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today we pick up where we left off two weeks ago, in our series on the Lord’s Supper. This month begins our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, with the exception of March 27th, which will be a Children’s Sunday. The last sermon discussed the Biblical teaching of the “real presence”—that Jesus is truly present in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, for us to eat and to drink. That teaching is foundational to the topic for today: the spiritual blessings and benefit of the Lord’s Supper.

The first and foremost blessing of the Lord’s Supper is described in Christ’s own words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The biggest blessing of the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins. But don’t we get that elsewhere, you ask? Don’t we have the forgiveness of sins in our Baptism, or by hearing and believing in the Word of Christ’s forgiveness that the pastor speaks when we confess our sins, or when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses (sins), as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us”? It is true, of course, that Jesus gives His forgiveness in more than one way. We sometimes talk about these different ways that God’s forgiveness is delivered to us as “the means of Grace.” The Word of God, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace” in that they are the channels through which God pours out His benefits and blessings on us. The benefits and blessings He won for us on the cross.

Think about it this way, for example: how do I get the forgiveness that Jesus won for me on the cross? He died 2,000 years ago, in a foreign land—so how do I know that what He did there applies to me? Jesus’ death on the cross purchased the gift of our salvation, and His blood shed on the cross was the price of that gift. But how does the gift get to you? That’s where Christ’s Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper come in. Each are given and commanded by Christ for His church, to bring them His forgiveness. If Jesus’ death on the cross purchased the gift, then the Word of Christ, and Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are like the gift wrapped up in a box and delivered to you. What I mean, is that the Lord’s Supper, or Baptism, for example, contain the gift of Christ given for you. They aren’t something separate or apart from Christ’s cross—they aren’t an alternative gift from what Jesus gave on the cross—they are the delivery system for that gift.

Paul explains this about baptism in Romans 6:3-4, for example, when he says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”. Paul says it about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10:16, when he says “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” So these “means of grace” bring Christ’s gifts forward to us through history, so that we become participants in the events of Jesus’ salvation, His life and death. And they do so by Christ’s own instruction and command, so we can be assured that these things are true.

But we should be careful to avoid the mistake of belittling the gift of forgiveness that is offered in the blood of Jesus, in the Lord’s Supper. Dr. Wieting, who I’ve quoted before, said that we should avoid the trap of making the forgiveness of sins the grand “of course” of the Christian life. That we just take it for granted and want to move on to “more important things.” Thinking, “I’ve heard it once, and believed it, so that’s enough.” We don’t consider its daily importance to our lives. Unfortunately, some Christians hold the mistaken belief that Christ’s forgiveness was only given to them in their conversion, and that their life afterwards is examined just by their good works. So Jesus gets you a clean slate to start with, and that should get you on the way to heaven, but it’s up to you to keep the slate clean after that. This sad misunderstanding, and the lack of regularly teaching the forgiveness of sins to people, has led some Christians to think that forgiveness is not for them too. But the wonderful good news is that forgiveness really is for Christians too! We daily need forgiveness, because we sin daily, whether it’s in our thoughts, words, or deeds. This is not at all to say that we should be complacent about sin, or knowing continue in them—rather we should daily repent and strive against our sins.

And so all the more do we need the constant return to repentance and forgiveness that the Lord’s Supper provides. God offers forgiveness in rich and varied ways, which combats our many and deep-rooted sins. And Christ is concerned not only with the external actions, as important as those are, but especially with the attitudes and motivations of the heart. To those Pharisees who so proudly held up their clean external record, Jesus exposed their unclean thoughts and the intentions of their hearts. He showed them that their outward obedience was not matched with the pure inner motivations that are necessary to keep God’s commandments. Sinful humans do not have those pure desires that the spirit of the law requires. But the Lord’s Supper, by bringing us forgiveness through Jesus’ own body and blood, begins to work that change within us. That forgiveness begins to transform our sinful heart to a heart that loves and seeks after God.

So forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper also brings other benefits, because with forgiveness there is also life and salvation. Forgiveness of our sins is what makes eternal life possible. And without Jesus’ death on the cross, without Him giving up His body and blood into death, there would be no forgiveness of sins. Together with the forgiveness of sins, there is the spiritual blessing of being united with Christ. God brings us into that closest communion and fellowship with Him. 2 Peter 1:4 is perhaps an often overlooked Bible passage. It says that God “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” In God’s very great promises, He has made us “partakers of the divine nature.” It’s the same root word as koinonia which we saw in 1 Corinthians 10:16. It means that we are communicants or participants in the divine nature. We are in the closest fellowship with God!

But does everyone receive the forgiveness of sins, and spiritual blessing from the Supper, even if they don’t believe, or are not prepared to receive it rightly? The Scriptures clearly tell us that those who receive it wrongly do still receive Jesus body and blood, but that it is not for their blessing, but rather to their harm. Because this is a holy gift and there is a danger in wrongly using it, we do have to guard against its misuse. I will address more fully in next week’s sermon the question of who should receive the Supper, and who should not. But let it be enough to say for now, that just the outward action of taking the Lord’s Supper, without faith in your heart, does a person no good. Only a person who is repentant of their sins and has faith in these words: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” receives the spiritual blessings and benefits of the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper is Christ coming among us while we are still in the sinful world. For this reason, one Christian prayer stated: “Thy Supper be my heaven on earth, until I enter heaven” (Wieting, 190). We call the Supper a “foretaste of the feast to come” because this Holy Communion with Christ is a foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet that awaits Christ’s church. The Bible calls it the marriage supper of the Lamb. Jesus said to His disciples that He would not drink that cup with them again until He drank it anew with them in His Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:29). So the Lord’s Supper is not an ordinary earthly meal, but Christ present among us makes it a foretaste of heaven as we are joined to Him. This fact calls for the church’s praise and celebration as we receive that gift. As one Lutheran wrote, “This coming of the Lord in the Real Presence makes the Lord’s Day a day of unspeakable joy, a day of praise and thanksgiving. It makes the Eucharist not only an anticipation of the blessed future, but also a participation in the eternal worship in heaven, which St. John saw in the great vision he had at Patmos” (Rev. 1:10; 4:1ff). He’s talking about the vision that John had that became the book of Revelation, and that it took place on the Lord’s Day—Sunday. He saw that the other side of earthly worship of the Triune God is the heavenly worship of saints and angels in heaven.

When we gather in worship, in God’s name, we are not just our 20, 40, or 60 worshippers gathered here, but rather we are joining all the saints in heaven who worship at the throne of God in heaven. In some Norwegian churches they had a clever way of reminding themselves of that truth. They constructed their altar rails, where they would receive communion, in a half circle in front of the altar. When they knelt to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, they were reminded that the invisible other half of the circle represented the saints who have died and gone to heaven, yet still worship the God of the Living, as they are also with Him. This has brought many Christians great comfort, to know that in worship we are joined together with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven when we give praise to God. Our dearly loved Christian brothers and sisters are worshipping Christ with us from the side of heaven.

Further blessings of the Lord’s Supper include the union that we have with Christ, which strengthens us spiritually for our battle against sin, as I mentioned before. By being united with Christ, we participate in the great exchange of our guilt for His innocence, our weakness for His strength, our rebellion for His obedience. He takes away our sin and gives us His blessedness, so that “Your envy and coveting become His. His charity and compassion becomes yours. Your hate becomes His. His love becomes yours. Your worry becomes His. His perfect trust becomes yours” (Wieting, 194). And so on. Or, as Luther colorfully put what happens when you eat the Lord’s Supper,

To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful, that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men. This we are already, though in a hidden manner in faith and hope; the fact is not yet [visible], but we shall experience it on the Last Day.” (Wieting, 194).

Another great blessing of the Lord’s Supper is the fellowship that it creates with those who are united in faith. Communion is not just a private meal between me and Jesus, where only myself and my own faith is considered. It’s not something that we should practice in isolation, which is why it is given to the gathered congregation. It’s not something that we can practice without consideration or regard for our neighbor, which is why are not to come to the altar with grudges or unforgiveness in our hearts (Matt. 5:23-24). We should give witness to our unity there, which is why we share in the passing of the peace before the Supper—to show that we are reconciled with one another. This recognizes that in the Lord’s Supper there is a vertical dimension, between us and God, but also a horizontal dimension, between us and those with us at the Table.

Another way of reflecting on how we are brought together as one body in the Lord’s Supper is that just as many grains are ground together to make a loaf of bread, and as many grapes are pressed together to make one common cup of wine, so as Christians we are “baked together into one loaf” or joined in one cup. The common cup of wine beautifully illustrates how we share together with one another our common sufferings and are refreshed together in Christ’s blood. As Galatians 6:2 says, Christians have this duty to one another that we bear each other’s burdens in Christ. So the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper should move us to concern and service for our fellow Christians, and to extend the same love to them that we desire. We are far short of describing all the blessings that the forgiveness of Christ brings to us in the Lord’s Supper, but at least from these main points you can see what a gift and treasure we have in Jesus’ body and blood. We will continue next week with talking about how we practice the Lord’s Supper, and how to prepare yourself for properly receiving it. 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

II. The Benefit of the Sacrament of the Altar
What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?
These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

296. What is the benefit offered in the sacrament?
A. The chief blessing of the Sacrament is the forgiveness of sins which Christ’s body and blood have won for us on the cross. (The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace.) Matt. 26:28; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Col. 1:22; 1 John 1:7
B. Together with forgiveness, God gives all other blessings as well, that is, “life and salvation.” “We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefited also” (Large Catechism V 68). “We are talking about the presence of the living Christ, knowing that ‘death no longer has dominion over him’” (Rom. 6:8-9; Apology X 4); Rom. 8:31-32
C. In the Sacrament Christ gives victory over sin and hell and strength for the new life in Him. Rom. 8:10; 1 Pet. 2:24
D. As Christians partake of this sacrament together, they make a solemn public confession of Christ and of unity in the truth of His Gospel. 1 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 11:26; Heb. 12:22-24

III. The Power of the Sacrament of the Altar.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”

297. How can forgiveness, life, and salvation be obtained through bodily eating and drinking?
Not simply the eating and drinking, but the words of Christ together with His body and blood under the bread and wine are the way through which these blessings are given. “We do not claim this of bread and wine—since in itself bread is bread—but of that bread and wine which are Christ’s body and blood and with which the words are coupled. These and no other, we say, are the treasure through which forgiveness is obtained” (Large Catechism V 28). Christ’s words of promise have put these gifts into the Sacrament, and the believer receives them there through faith.

298. Does everyone who eats and drinks the Sacrament also receive forgiveness, life, and salvation?
Forgiveness, life, and salvation are truly offered to all who eat the Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament, but only through faith can we receive the blessings offered there. Luke 1:45; Luke 11:27-28. Note: To “keep” or “obey” God’s Word of promise is to believe or trust it. “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). 1 Cor. 10:3-5. Bible Narrative: There was a blessing in touching Jesus or being touched by Him, and faith received it. Matt. 9:20-22, 27-29.

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

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