A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “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?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

The cup of wrath

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

Before going to the cross, Christ prayed, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed about the cup of God’s wrath, which is described by the Old Testament prophets: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17); “Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me, ‘Take from my hand this cup of wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15); to Judah, God says, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much; you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria, you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 23:32-34). Imagine in heaven a cup with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of poison falls into that cup, the poison of the wrath of God. For every lie, another drop of poison. For every careless deed that causes harm, another drop of poison. For every neglected opportunity to help a neighbor, another drop of poison. Imagine that cup of God’s wrath waiting for you when the Day of the Lord comes, the Day when all sinners will be judged.

But now that cup is empty. Jesus took your cup and drank all that it contained. In exchange, he gives you his cup, the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13; I Corinthians 11:25-26). As in a comic movie, one cup is poisoned and the other is pure; but Jesus purposely takes the poisoned cup and gives to you and me the cup that is pure.

For this reason, Christians do not fear the wrath of God. Nor are we terrified of the Day of the Lord. Because Jesus drank the cup of wrath and gave us the cup of salvation, we are confident that we belong to the Lord and will dwell in his kingdom forever. The wrath of God is real; but Christians will never face that wrath. It was consumed and finished on the cross, granting us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

No one can teach the whole message of Scripture without speaking of the wrath of God. God’s commandments (his Law) show us why we deserve his wrath; God’s promises (his Gospel) show us how we are spared his wrath through the saving work of Christ. God is love, which is why Christ provided an atoning sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath. No Christian should seek to be a wrath-monger; we should always delight to share the grace of God with sinners. The purpose of teaching the Law is to show our sins and our need for a Savior. This leads to repentance and the joy of sharing the Gospel, which shows us our Savior. The full message must be taught for sinners to come to repentance and faith and thus receive the Lord’s salvation. J.

Holy Communion (part four)

The Bible says: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28).

Luther explains: “Who receives this Sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”

Salvageable adds: Many traditions have become attached to the celebration of Holy Communion. Some Christians eat no food before going to church and receiving the Sacrament, so that they break their fast with the Lord’s body and blood. Some wear their best clothing to church on Sunday, and they do other physical things to prepare for the Sacrament.

Luther calls those actions “fine outward training,” but he says that the most important preparation is faith. Someone who does not believe that Jesus is Lord should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not believe that his death on the cross brings forgiveness of sins should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not want to be forgiven because he or she loves a sin more than he or she loves the Savior should not receive the Sacrament.

But we do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we are good enough for it. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we are not good enough for God. We do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we have risen above our sins. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we need forgiveness for our sins.

Moreover, we need a share in the Lord’s victory over sin and evil. None of us is personally responsible for all the evil in the world. The devil remains a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The sinful world around us tries to drag us down to its level. The sin within each of us agrees with the devil and with the sinful world. God limits the power of evil, but he permits evil to exist. He permits his people to suffer the consequences of evil around us, even though we have been forgiven all our sins. God then strengthens us for our life on this battlefield. With his Holy Supper he equips us to battle the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful flesh. With his Holy Supper he shares the victory he has won—for where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.

A Christian is truly prepared for the Sacrament when that Christian knows that he or she is a sinner needing a Savior and when that Christian knows that Jesus is the Savior he or she needs. Knowing our need for forgiveness, we approach the Table of the Lord, prepared to receive his body and blood, and with them forgiveness, life, and salvation. Thanks be to God for this precious gift! Amen.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “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 eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

Holy Communion (part two)

The Bible 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?” (I Corinthians 10:16)

Luther explains: “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.”

Salvageable adds:  If the bread were merely a reminder of Christ’s body and the wine a reminder of Christ’s blood, then eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper would be something we do for Jesus, a way to show that we remember him. Indeed, many Protestant Christians focus on the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and they consider the Lord’s Supper a work they do for Jesus. Luther and Lutherans focus on the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” They focus also on Paul’s word, “participation”—also translated as communication, fellowship, or communion. We participate with people, not with pictures. We have fellowship with people, not with reminders. In Holy Communion, our link is to Jesus himself, not to reminders of what Jesus did.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” wanting us to remember him every time we eat and drink the Sacrament. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions of religion. God hates seeing his people going through the motions of religion. He disparaged the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament, even though he had commanded those sacrifices. He spoke bitterly about those sacrifices because his people were going through the motions of religion without faith in God and his promises. Likewise, Jesus wants people to eat and drink the sacrament thinking about him, believing his promises, and claiming what he offers—namely, the forgiveness of sins.

Even though we are Christians, we sin often. We need forgiveness often. We repent daily, renewing the relationship established with God through Holy Baptism. We confess often, hearing the absolution and being assured that all our sins are forgiven. We receive Holy Communion often, coming as close to Jesus as is possible before the new creation, since he says that his body and his blood are truly present when we eat and drink at his Table.

“Where there is forgiveness of sins,” Luther says, “there is also life and salvation.” The three come as a package. We cannot have eternal life without the forgiveness of our sins. We cannot be rescued from sin and from all our enemies without the forgiveness of our sins. But when our sins are forgiven, eternal life is guaranteed to us and we share Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

Holy Communion (part one)

The Bible says: “The Lord Jesus Christ, 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 given 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 Testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (I Corinthians 11:23-25; see also Matthew 26: 26-28, Mark 14: 22-24, and Luke 22: 19-20).

Luther explains: “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.”

The question of Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) divides Lutherans from other Protestants, even as it divided Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli during the course of the Reformation, keeping them from cooperating in their resistance to Rome. When Zwingli said that the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine represents his blood, Luther pointed to the words of the Bible and insisted, “’Is’ means ‘is’!”

Lutherans do not believe that the bread changes into Christ’s body or that the wine changes into Christ’s blood. They believe that Christ’s body is present with the bread and that his blood is present with the wine. The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament can be compared to the mystery of Christ’s two natures. As Jesus is completely God and completely human at the same time, so the bread in the Sacrament is completely bread and still completely Christ’s body; the wine is completely wine and still completely Christ’s blood.

Jesus instituted this Sacrament during a Passover dinner. In the Passover dinner, God’s people remembered the lamb that was killed in Egypt, its blood painted on their houses, so they would be spared death and rescued from slavery. John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Part of the Passover meal was bread made without yeast, a picture of a life without sin. Jesus took that bread and said, “This is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving (the third of four cups served during the Passover meal, the one after supper) and said, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood.” Holy Communion replaces the Passover meal from which it was taken. The Sacrament is celebrated, not once a year like the Passover meal, but often when God’s people gather in the name of Jesus.

Because Jesus is human, he can give us his true body and his true blood. Because Jesus is God, he can keep on giving and never run out. When he appears in glory, he will be missing none of his body and none of his blood, even after feeding his body and blood to his people over many centuries. Yet the body and blood from his crucifixion are truly present whenever his Sacrament is observed. Even unbelievers who mistakenly eat and drink the Sacrament receive his body and his blood, but because they do not believe, they encounter a Judge rather than a Savior.

Human flesh is not kosher; it is not among the meats permitted in the Law of Moses for God’s people to eat. Even animal blood is forbidden; meat is not kosher until all the blood has been removed. Why, then, does Jesus give Christians his body to eat and his blood to drink? He does so because of the New Testament, which unites Christians with Christ in a special way. The metaphor of eating and drinking appears in many parts of the Bible to describe a believer’s relationship with God. In Holy Communion, the metaphor becomes reality, for as Luther said, “’Is means ‘is’!”

Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.