"Meal of Faith and Life—Sacrament of the Altar"
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 34-35
So, what’s the big deal about whether we actually receive Christ’s Body and Blood? Why bother with the actual, physical eating and drinking? Why focus so much on whether or not Jesus’ Body and Blood are actually, really present in this Meal?
This has been a major issue since the 16th Century Reformation. In fact, it’s on this rock that the unity of Protestant churches has broken apart. Whether Jesus’ Body and Blood are really given and received in the Sacrament is the issue that separates Lutherans from most other Protestant church bodies. But why? What’s the big deal? Why can’t we just come together in unity? After all, don’t they have the words of Jesus? Aren’t these words the main thing in the Sacrament? Don’t the words still deliver the forgiveness of sins?
The bigger question is this: What is really at stake in this centuries-long debate? What’s at stake is the Gospel itself! Yes, Luther says the words are the main thing. But he also says this—going back to the first question: “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.” Translation: the words of Christ are embedded in the very Body and Blood of Christ. First, the words embrace the bread and wine so that they also become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Second, the Body and Blood of Jesus actually deliver the forgiveness of sins. They actually impart the forgiveness, life, and salvation from Jesus. To say it another way: no Body and Blood, no forgiveness in the Sacrament! Take away the Body and Blood of Jesus—or deny that the Supper really is Christ’s Body and Blood—and you take away the Gospel!
It’s that very Gospel we need, that very Gospel we depend on for life, that very Gospel that strengthens our faith in God’s love.
And now we circle back to creation—or at least elements of creation. After all, it’s in the created order where God works for us and is present with us. From the beginning, God deals with us, communicates with us, is present with us only in and through His creation. From the beginning, we can only deal with God through our bodies—our eyes, ears, mouth, brain, etc.—and elements of the physical world. It’s how God works with us. And it goes to the heart of the Lord’s Supper.
Those who reject the actual presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood do so on two basic assumptions. First, they say, “God is spiritual, immaterial. He does not have a physical body. Nothing in creation can contain God.” So, they claim, we must deal with God through a spiritual/immaterial realm. The second assumption says this: “The physical world, and with it our bodies, is an impediment to a truly spiritual life.” Our spirits—that is, our disembodied consciousness—must transcend, or leave, our bodies and ascend above this world to where God lives. Think of transcendental meditation or contemplative prayer, by which the mind tries to detach itself from the body.
But all of this goes against real life. It also goes against what the Bible teaches. As humans, we are made of both body and soul/spirit. Our bodies connect us to the earth; our “spirits” draw us upward and connect us to God. And the Bible clearly shows us that our bodies and the physical creation are not impediments to life with God. In fact, they are the very vehicles for God’s presence and activity. The universe cannot contain God, and yet He is very much present in the petals of the smallest flower.
What picture does the Bible paint of our God? Scripture portrays our God as a very down-to-earth God, a God who gets His hands dirty in the work of everyday life. How does God do this work? Who comes to whom? It’s God who comes down from the heavens to us. He comes to meet us where we are, so to speak. And where are we? Here on earth! He comes here on earth where we can receive Him in our bodies. After all, we are enlivened bodies, that is, bodies given life by the breath of God.
Consider how God came down to earth to meet Adam and Eve in the garden in “the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), perhaps early morning or late afternoon or early evening. That sets the pattern we see throughout the Bible. God comes down to earth and meets with Moses in a burning bush. He comes down to Mt. Sinai. He comes down in a pillar of cloud and fire. And then, most importantly, God comes down and meets us in the real, visible, tangible flesh-and-blood body of Jesus Christ. God is this man Jesus; and this man Jesus is God Himself! And after the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples and dwells in our hearts by faith. Then, on the Last Day, Jesus will come down to rule the new heavens and new earth forever.
The Christian story is never one of ascending to God, or of rising up above our bodies and this physical world to some spiritual, ethereal plane. Instead, we encounter God right here on earth, with our physical bodies. And now, with our mouths in the Lord’s Supper.
So tonight, we commemorate Jesus’ institution of His holy Supper. It’s the night when He was betrayed, the night before He goes to His death on the cross. He will leave His disciples, but He will not leave them alone. So He institutes and gives this Supper as His last will and testament. And it’s a last will and testament like no other. In this testament—this meal—Jesus bequeaths the entire history of Israel to His disciples and to us. He bequeaths to them and to us a covenant, a promise, sealed by the blood of countless sacrifices that pointed to Jesus. But it’s a new covenant. The old covenant in the Old Testament was sealed by the blood of sacrificial animals; this new covenant is sealed by the blood of the Son of God. The old covenant was constantly renewed with repeated sacrifices; this new covenant is sealed once and for all times with the blood of the sinless Lamb of God.
Just as the old covenant gathered God’s people into a nation, this new covenant unites God’s people in the very body of Jesus. As the Body and Blood of Jesus go into each of us, we share something in common. What’s that? The Body and Blood of Jesus! Not only does this meal unite us to Jesus and all of His blessings; it also binds us together into one body. That’s why we call it Communion—koinonia. This is the real fellowship—the genuine sharing in common of the Body and Blood of Jesus.
And what is the covenant, or promise? The Creator will be our God, our Father. In this covenant, God promises and seals His forgiveness for us. God comes and makes this promise to us. He even puts the promise into our hearts by putting it into our mouths.
It’s interesting that many people have no problem thinking that our spirits can disconnect from our bodies and rise above them to meet God in heaven, but they have a major problem accepting that the Son of God has come to us in a human body and even now comes in His Body and Blood in the Supper. It reveals a lack of confidence in God’s Word, the Word that actually does what God says it will.
Now we circle back to the words of Jesus as the main thing in the Sacrament. Who speaks these words? Jesus Christ Himself—the almighty and powerful Creator and Lord. He uttered a word, and entire galaxies and millions of stars came into being. Well, that same word that created you, me, and everything in this world now brings the Body and Blood of Jesus to us in, with, and under the bread and wine. Yes, God’s Word does what it says! Jesus first spoke these words in the Upper Room, and they still do their thing to this day as Jesus invites us to this feast.
When a person writes their last will and testament, they bequeath their goods and treasures to those they leave behind. Here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus bequeaths to us all that He has to give us—His Body and His Blood, the very Body and Blood that accomplished our salvation in His death and resurrection. And with this Body and Blood, Jesus guarantees in advance a place for us at His table—the table of His banquet, a banquet to end all banquets in His new creation. And what a feast it will be! A feast of fellowship and joy that even now God is preparing for us. Amen.