One of the things I discovered very quickly in my earlier years as a parish pastor is the joy that Pastors have, and the special relationship that they develop with homebound members of the congregation. In many cases, these dear older saints are people who because of their advanced age and lack of mobility, will never be able to hear a sermon from me unless someone brings them an audio or video recording, or as their memory fades, when they see me, think that I am the pastor of their youth who baptized and confirmed them, sometimes in a language other than English. Yet, they look forward to my coming to see them because of something that we share at the end of each visit: the sacrament of Holy Communion. Of all the things that these people can look forward to, why is it that this is so special to them?
That is a good question to ask as we take some time to review this last part of Luther’s Small Catechism. Up to this point, we’ve reviewed the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and last week, the Office of the Keys, or Confession and Absolution. In each case, we’ve reviewed in a nutshell the basics of what we as Christians believe, teach, and confess what God’s Word says about who He is, what He expects of us, who Jesus is and what He has come into the world to do, the fact that He has claimed us as His own and promises to give us forgiveness of our sins and eternal life, and that we are assured through His Word time and again of our forgiveness through Jesus Christ. All of this brings us to tonight’s topic. The Lord’s Supper.
I refer to it as such because it is helpful for us to remember who’se supper this is. In our reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul is addressing the congregation at Corinth. And if there was ever a church that was having a whole lot of trouble, it was the Corinthians, and as you read this letter, you quickly see that Paul has a lot of teaching to do in this letter to remind them of who they truly follow, Jesus Christ. And by the time we get to tonight’s text, we learn that they are having some problems with their celebration of Holy Communion. It appears that the Corinthians had completely forgotten that this is the Lord’s Supper, in fact, Paul tells them point blank in the verses that precede our reading: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No I will not.” (v. 20-22)
In these times, churches would have been gathering in people’s homes and celebrations of the Lord’s Supper would have had a meal prior to the service itself. It appears that the wealthy were off in one room, eating the finest food, while the others were forced to eat in another room, likely not enjoying the feast the wealthy were having. Instead of uniting the Corinthian congregation together as one body in Christ, they were separating themselves based on their social class. Thus, they were completely missing the entire point of what the Lord’s Supper was to be about.
Which is in giving them instructions on how the sacrament was to be observed, Paul begins by making it very clear. Listen again: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that he Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also he took the cup after supper, saying This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Paul says very clearly, “This isn’t my supper. This isn’t your supper. If you want the benefits that go along with it, this is what it is.” And Paul summarizes Jesus’ own words, spoken by Him and recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We learn that the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine, which He says are His body and blood, given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins. We are also told to do so “often”.
So from the Word of God, we quickly learn that this is a meal for repentant sinners. For those who seek to be reminded in a real, personal way that Jesus has given His body and shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins and so that we may have eternal life with Him. It sounds simple enough. And it builds on each of the parts of the catechism we’ve reviewed this Lenten season.
We learn the Ten Commandments so that we can, as Paul says “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (v. 28a) We see how we have fallen short and have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We learn who Jesus is and what He has done for us through His Word, so that we know that Christ has indeed forgiven us all of our sins, so that we can indeed put our trust in His words He speaks to us: this is FOR YOU, FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF ALL OF YOUR SINS. That’s why our communion services begin with Confession and absolution that we talked about last week, so that we can confess the truth of our condition apart from Christ, and hear that we are forgiven of all of our sin. We pray the Lord’s Prayer before we receive the sacrament to remind us of all that our Lord promises to provide for us both in this life, and especially for eternal life.
It sounds pretty simple. When I teach First Communion class to children, I simply take them to Christ’s own words in the Gospels and our text for tonight and ask them a simple question: “What does Jesus say this is and what are we to use?” He says we are to use bread and wine, and that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. Now this is where a lot of disagreement has come about by various Christians over the years. Some have tried to explain how this can be by saying that the bread and wine at the moment of consecration (meaning the moment the pastor or priest speaks the Words of Institution over the elements), they are no longer bread and wine, but become the body and blood of Jesus. Thus, at the end of the celebration of the sacrament, the parts that remain are put into a tabernacle on the altar, and must be disposed of in a particular manner. Others approach it logically and say “It’s still bread and wine, it can’t be Jesus’ body and blood because that ascended into heaven, so he just meant ‘this represents’ instead of ‘this is’.” But rather than try to explain it, Luther and those who follow refer simply to Jesus’ words. To those who say the elements change, Luther refers them back to Scripture. Jesus doesn’t give us any indication that there is a change in the bread and wine that no longer make them such. He also indicates that in explaining what happens here, we simply rely on Jesus’ words in faith that what He says, in other words, when Jesus says “this is my body, this is my blood” he means exactly that. We don’t know exactly how it happens, but we simply accept by faith He means what He says, and that the benefits we receive are there because of what He says in His Word.
And those benefits are hearing time and again in our lives in this world “This is my body, this is my blood I have given and shed for you so that you can be forgiven. So that you may know that even in your most difficult of days, I have died and risen again so that you too will one day join me in the banquet feast of heaven.” That is why in our communion liturgy in the offertory we sing before we enter what we call “The Service of the Sacrament” we pray “grace our table with Your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.” We are talking about the feast of heaven. Of seeing the fulfillment of all of the promises of God that are spoken to us in Scripture all of our days. What a wonderful gift that Christ gives to us in this sacrament!
In my last parish, a woman named Helen was very active in one of our congregations and had been her entire life. After I had been there a year, she was admitted to a local hospital one Saturday evening complaining of abdominal pain. We quickly discovered she was suffering from ovarian cancer, and she was not given a good prognosis. Over the next several months, I spent a lot of time with Helen and in some cases, her family, traveling some times up to 80 miles one way. Many of those visits at her bedside at the hospital, rehab center, and the nursing home involved celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion with her. Every time after I pronounced the benediction, she always smiled and said “Thank you, Pastor, I really needed that today, because who knows if I’ll have tomorrow.” And yes, there did come a day when tomorrow didn’t come for Helen. To the ordinary observer, I didn’t really do much at her bedside. I spoke some words, gave her a little tasteless wafer and a small sip of wine. But to her, this meant something, because she truly believed her Savior’s Words, and knew that He offered again for her the fruits of the cross and empty tomb, forgiveness and eternal life. That is why she really needed that. And that is why each one of us truly need what our Lord offers to us in this sacrament. I hope you look forward to receiving it the next time, and every time it is offered, for truly, it is a wonderful feast and gift to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.