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’!”

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The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.

 

One God, one Savior, one faith

Christians recognize one God, although God is three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christians recognize one Savior—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christians recognize one faith—a right relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ.

Clearly God is timeless. He created time and remains outside of time, eternal and unchanging. Yet the Son of God entered creation and became subject to time. He was born to Mary and grew from a child to a man. When the time was right, Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice to rescue sinners. His sacrifice stands at the center of history. In one sense, it marks a change in the relationship between God and his people. In another sense, it makes no change, because the faith of Old Testament believers was a relationship with the very same Savior known by New Testament believers.

The chief difference between the two groups of believers is the time in which they lived. Old Testament believers were looking ahead to a promised Savior. New Testament believers look back to a Savior who kept all the promises of God. In both cases, believers are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word in the Old Testament gave his people faith in Jesus, and God’s Word in the New Testament also gives God’s people faith in Jesus.

Although we cannot go beyond the words of the Bible to describe the content of faith before Jesus was born, we read that Abel and Noah both came to God through animal sacrifices. We also know that those sacrifices were pictures of the sacrifice of Christ. Adam and Eve heard the announcement that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head, but not without suffering himself. By faith in that message, Adam and Eve and Abel and Noah were saved and were guaranteed a home in God’s new creation.

In his letter to the Romans, chapter four, Paul specifically says that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works. He talks of the faith of Abraham enabling him to prepare to offer his promised son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Abraham might have believed that Isaac was the promised Savior, the one who had to die so sinners could be rescued. By obeying the command of God, he acted out the history of salvation—a Father offering his Son—in a way that strengthened the faith of other believers both before and after Jesus fulfilled that which Isaac only represented. In the letter to the Hebrews, chapter eleven, we are told that the content of Abraham’s faith included the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Hebrews 11 presents a large list of people who were saved by faith. Adam and Eve, Abel and Noah, and Abraham and Isaac are on that list. Moses is on that list. He acted as a picture of Jesus, serving as a mediator between God and God’s people. Moses proclaimed that a greater Prophet would come after him—Moses knew about Jesus. (It happens that the man who replaced Moses as leader of Israel and the man who replaced Moses as the final Mediator have the same name—Y’shua—although in English the earlier replacement is called Joshua and the ultimate replacement is called Jesus, from the Greek version of his name.)

David is also mentioned on that list. David wanted to build a Temple, a house for the Lord; but God sent the prophet Nathan to tell David that David would not build God a house—God would build David a house. His house would be the Son of David, who would rule an eternal kingdom. He would be disciplined by the Lord (bearing the burden of the world’s sin and paying in full to forgive all sinners.) David still made plans and preparations for his immediate son, Solomon, to build the Temple that David was forbidden to build. David may have been muddled in his faith, seeing either Solomon or the Temple as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Both of them were pictures of Jesus, but neither was the final fulfillment of the promise concerning the Son of David. Even so, David had saving faith in God’s promise to cleanse him from his sins and reconcile him to the Lord.

God’s means of creating, strengthening, and sustaining faith changed with the sacrifice of Jesus. From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, males were circumcised to initiate them into God’s chosen nation. A little blood was shed as they were brought into God’s kingdom. Even Jesus first shed blood in his circumcision. Now God’s people have Baptism, washing with water accompanied by God’s Word to initiate people into God’s chosen nation. Baptism is painless, is available to all people, and pictures the work of cleansing that is made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Before Jesus died on the cross, people sacrificed animals to the Lord, shedding the blood of animals as pictures of the future sacrifice. When people went through the motions of sacrifice without faith, God hated what they were doing. (See Psalm 50.) When they sacrificed in faith, God blessed their work and strengthened their faith. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the picture of sacrifice, his people no longer sacrifice animals. But they remember Jesus and his sacrifice in a sacred meal that features his body and his blood, strengthening and sustaining faith through the Word of God that accompanies that meal.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Jesus stands at the center of all that is done by the people of God. From every tribe and language and nation—and from every time in history, from Adam and Eve to present and the future believers—we are united in the same faith in the same God and the same Savior. Abraham, Moses, David, and the other believers of Old Testament times will feast at the same heavenly banquet to which all Christians are invited, where Jesus is the host and we are all his special guests. J.