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.

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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’!”

Confession and Absolution

The Bible says: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Luther explains: “What is confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution—that is, forgiveness—from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.
Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Salvageable adds: Martin Luther is famous for protesting the system of Penance that the Church had developed over the centuries as part of Confession and Absolution. Some Christians and historians mistakenly believe that Luther was opposed to Confession as well, but that is not the case. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Lutherans affirmed that they would continue the historic practice of private Confession and Absolution. Only the thought that Penance is needed to finish Confession and Absolution was rejected.

When other Christians visit a Lutheran congregation, they are sometimes surprised by the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the service. The worshipers pray to God, confessing their sins and throwing themselves upon His mercy. The pastor then responds, “In the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This Absolution shows the Office of the Keys at work in the congregation. When sugar or salt is dissolved in water, the sugar or salt is still there, as anyone can tell by tasting the water. When sins are absolved, they are gone. They are nailed to the cross with Christ, killed with Christ, and buried with Christ. They do not rise with Christ. They have been washed away by Holy Baptism, which is why the Absolution concludes with the same Name of God that is used in baptism. The practice of Confession and Absolution is an expression of repentance. It is repeated often, because we sin often and need God’s forgiveness often.

For many twenty-first century Lutherans, this group experience of Confession and Absolution is the only form they know. Private Confession and Absolution remains an option, even though it is not required. A Christian may look a pastor in the face, confess to that pastor a sin that is troubling one’s heart, and hear a clear and unconditional guarantee of forgiveness. This gift of the Church is even protected by secular law; the confession heard by a pastor, priest, or minister is completely confidential. When we need a personal assurance that the sins troubling our hearts are forgiven, the pastor or priest or minister or other fellow Christian is there to hear our confession and to announce our absolution.

The Church’s neglect of Confession and Absolution has led to its reintroduction in other walks of life. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that fight addition include a fifth step in which the recovering addict admits all his or her sins and wrongdoings to another person. Many people visit counselors to relieve their consciences of the burden of sin and guilt that is spoiling their lives. Some people confide in friends, only to have those friends whisper their secrets to others, so that a private confession becomes a matter of gossip. How much better it is when the Office of the Keys can function as Jesus intended, conveying forgiveness to sinners through the powerful Word of God, spoken to them by fellow believers.

The Office of the Keys

Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.

When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.

Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.

Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.

Holy Baptism (part four)

The Bible says: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

Luther explains: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Salvageable adds: The Psalms tell God’s people to sing a new song to the Lord. Jesus tells his disciples that he gives them a new commandment, to love one another. Paul tells Christians that each of them is a new creation. Through Holy Baptism Christians are born again and become new. Even though baptism happens only once, it causes a Christian to be new every day.

Luther writes about daily contrition and repentance. Contrition means being sorry for our sins. Repentance means turning around—turning away from our sins, and at the same time turning to the Lord. By regenerating the Christian, baptism makes this sorrow and this change happen. Every day we sin, but every day we are new people, regenerated by Holy Baptism, able to repent and to be pure and holy in the sight of the Lord.

Holy Baptism connects the Christian to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died only once to redeem us, and he rose only once to live forever in his Kingdom. A Christian is baptized only once. Yet because of the death and resurrection of Christ, a Christian lives a new life every day. Because of Holy Baptism, a Christian lives a new life every day.

We look forward to the new creation, a world without sin or evil or death or tears. Eternal life is guaranteed to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Holy Baptism connects us to that guarantee. When we struggle with doubts, when we question whether our faith is strong enough to save us, when we are overwhelmed with shame because of our sins, Holy Baptism assures us that the promises of God remain true. They are true eternally, and they are true for each of us. Already today we have eternal life, through the grace of God and through his promises.

Holy Baptism (part three)

The Bible says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying” (Titus 3:5-8).

Luther explains, “How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Salvageable adds: Anyone who treats baptism as a good deed done for God must be concerned about using the right amount of water, saying the right words, and being baptized at the right age. Anyone who sees baptism as a gift from God understands that the amount of water is not the point. The words that are said (other than the name of God) are not the point. The age of the person being baptized is not the point. In baptism God makes a promise. Because of the sacrifice made by his Son, God keeps that promise. All the work is done by God; none of the work is done by the believer.

Faith is usually expressed in words, but words are not necessary for faith to be present. We do not lose our faith while we sleep. A person who suffers dementia due to illness or injury does not stop being a Christian. Likewise, no minimum age exists for faith to begin. John the Baptist leapt for joy when he heard the voice of his Savior’s mother, and he had not even been born yet!

The water of Holy Baptism is not magic. Water does not cause faith; the Word of God causes faith. But God combines his Word with water to emphasize what happens to the person who has faith. As water washes away dirt, so baptism washes away sins. As water is needed for health, so baptism produces a healthy faith. Therefore, Paul described baptism as “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” So also Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Anyone who has been baptized has been regenerated; he or she truly has been born again.

For the Christian, though, the best statement is not “I was baptized” or “I have been baptized.” The best statement is “I am baptized.” The gift of baptism is given only once, but the benefits of baptism last a lifetime and longer; they last into eternal life. Every day of our lives, each Christian can face the enemies of the devil and the world and the flesh with confidence, knowing that we have been rescued from their power. Baptism guarantees each of us a share in the victory Jesus won for us on the cross. J.

Holy Baptism (part two)

Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Luther explains: “What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Salvageable adds: That triple blessing of forgiveness, rescue, and eternal life were won by Jesus on the cross. He shares those gifts with all who believe in him. Baptism is a means of grace because it conveys those gifts to each individual Christian. God’s promise is made personal through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism is also an adoption ceremony. No one is a child of God through being created by God. All of us have strayed like wandering sheep, forsaking the God who made us. None of us deserve to call him Father. Jesus claims us for his Kingdom and makes God our Father by his sacrifice on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus pays the full price for our adoption. Holy Baptism is the ceremony that applies that payment personally to each Christian. Even Jesus was baptized. He did not need to be baptized. He is the true Son of God and does not require an adoption. He is sinless and needs no forgiveness. He overcame death and the devil and already possess eternal life. Yet Jesus was baptized to (in his words) “fulfill all righteousness.” His baptism grants power to our baptisms. Through the adoption conducted by Holy Baptism, the Father of Jesus Christ sees each of us as his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Mark 16:16 clearly says that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It also clearly says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. Whoever has been baptized but does not believe remains condemned. Baptism did not fail that person, but that person failed to remain in the faith given by God.

The verse does not address the question about someone who believes but is not baptized. God does not want us to live in doubt. He prefers that whoever comes to faith should be baptized as soon as possible to remove any doubt about God’s promise. Likewise, Christian parents arrange for their children to be baptized at the first opportunity. Trusting the promise of God and the power of his Word, they seek his guarantee, just as Peter said on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). J.

Holy Baptism (part one)

Jesus says: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Luther explains: “What is Baptism? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.”

Salvageable adds: The Word of God that empowers Holy Baptism is God’s name—that name that describes him as three Persons yet one God (“in the name,” not, “in the names”). When that name is spoken while water is applied to a person, a baptism occurs. God does not say how much water to use. Clearly, if someone were to substitute some other name for God’s name—or some other substance for water—no baptism would occur. When a baptism has occurred, however, that person is baptized, and under no account should that person be baptized again.

Baptism does not depend upon the goodness of the person being baptized. The person being baptized is a sinner who needs a Savior. Baptism brings that person to Jesus, the only Savior. Baptism does not depend upon anything said by the person being baptized. Those who were not baptized as children are usually taught the beliefs of the Church before being baptized, but even little children receive the benefits of baptism. Jesus told his Church to baptize all nations, not all adults. He said that we must enter his kingdom in the manner of little children. The apostles, according to the book of Acts, baptized entire households, and households usually include children.

Baptism does not even depend upon the goodness of the person performing the ceremony. If a Christian was to learn that the person who performed his or her baptism was a hypocrite, a heretic, an imposter, or even an unbeliever, the baptism would still be valid. Baptism depends upon God’s promises, which is why baptism is not done a second time even if the person who once was baptized spends years as an unbeliever and an enemy of Christ and His Church. J.