Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the Epistle text tonight:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the 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.”1 Corinthians 11:23-25, English Standard Version.
These words, together with the accounts of the holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are called the Words of Institution. These are the words by which our Lord Jesus Christ gave to us a new meal to be celebrated without end, the holy meal of His true body and blood.
This event, the instituting of this Supper, is the reason for our gathering tonight. Today is Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin translation of the Gospel text, “A new commandment I give you.” (Jn. 13:34). Holy Thursday references that this is the day our Lord was handed over into the clutches of sinful men for us, as well as, especially, the instituting of the Sacrament of the Altar. This will be our focus tonight. In the Lord’s Supper, our Savior Jesus Christ gives us His true body and blood under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins.
Our gracious Lord and Master knew that Thursday evening that His earthly ministry was drawing to a close and that He would soon be handed-over into death for the sins of the people. In faithful observance of the Scriptures, He desired to eat the Passover meal with His disciples one last time. This is the context of the Gospel reading tonight and the setting in which He gave us His new Supper. As they were eating, Jesus taught the disciples about what would soon happen, and what would happen after that. He was departing back to the Father, and they would be His witnesses to the world. He would send upon them the Holy Spirit to comfort them and make them bold. Still, there was one other thing Jesus would give them to strengthen and support them (and us) in the wilderness of this life.
Let us hear, again, the words of our Lord through St. Paul.
[Our] 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.”
As our Lord would soon die, rise, and ascend to the Father, He desired to give us a gift by which He would remain among His faithful until He returns on the clouds. This gift is a meal by which His passion is remembered and confessed, and also by which the fruits of His cross are received. This gift we now call the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord took bread and gave it to the Disciples, saying, “This is My body.” With the cup, He said, “This is My blood.” And, so, we believe that in the Lord’s Supper we receive, as Jesus says, His true body and His true blood.
This is the clearest and simplest understanding of Jesus’ Words. The Evangelists and St. Paul are all in agreement in using the literal words “This is” to convey our Lord’s teaching to us. Both our Lord and St. Paul employ figurative language in other parts of Scripture, but there is no indication from the text that creative language is used here in any way. Our Christian Book of Concord speaks about the Words of Institution in this way:
We believe, teach, and confess that the words of Christ’s testament are not to be understood in any other way than the way they read, according to the letter. So the bread does not signify Christ’s absent body and the wine His absent blood. But, because of the sacramental union, ‹the bread and wine› are truly Christ’s body and blood.Formula of Concord, Epitome: Article VII, paragraph 7
In the Lord’s Supper we receive the true body and blood of Christ, the very same which were broken and shed for us on the cross. And, yet, we receive it in way that the bread and wine are also present. This is what St. Paul teaches earlier in 1 Corinthians, when he 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?” (1 Cor. 10:16) That is to say, we receive at the same time both the bread and wine and the true body and blood of Christ. We Lutherans call this the Sacramental Union. We believe that Christ, by the power of His Word, unites His true essence to the earthly elements. The substances of bread and wine are not changed, but they are united to Christ’s body and blood in such a way that we receive with our mouths His very body and His very blood beneath, under, with, and in the bread and wine.
Our Lord also tells us why He gives us this precious gift. He says, “For the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28). This, truly, is the whole point of His Incarnation, and of the Scriptures as a whole. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in the flesh. He took upon Himself our same human flesh that so that He might bear in Himself the sin of the whole world and make the complete payment for it on the cross. By His perfect life and sacrificial death He won for us the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Supper, He gives that forgiveness to us. The Lord’s Supper is, therefore, a Sacrament and Means of Grace.
Our Lord did say, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor. 11:25) He encourages us to receive this precious meal often – not as a command, but a gracious invitation to receive continually the forgiveness of sins He won for us. As long as we are in this flesh we will remain both saint and sinner. As long as we are in this flesh, we will need the forgiveness of our sins – and our Lord gives that to us here, in His Supper. Let us, therefore, respond to His invitation with joy. Tonight, we receive with the bread and wine the true body and blood of our Savior. In this sacred meal He gives us the forgiveness He purchased for us by His death on the cross. As the Catechism says, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” Thanks be to God. Amen.