Altar Guild Workshop 2019 – Session 01, “What is the Lord’s Supper?”
An Overview of the Sixth Chief Part
Our most gracious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, promised us in the Gospel that He would never leave us nor forsake us, that He would not, “leave [us] as orphans.” He made these promises with His own ascension in view. Though He would be parted from the Disciples and us in the immediate sense, yet He would also dwell among us to strengthen, comfort, and forgive His beloved flock. In the Lutheran Church we have a term for the ways in which our Lord carries out these promises. We call them the Means of Grace. The Means of Grace are: The Scriptures, the Sacraments, and “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.” (Smalcald Articles, Pt. III, Ar. IV) The topic for our workshop tonight and the following weeks is one of these means: The Lord’s Supper. In our time together we will be reminded of the treasure our Lord has given us in this meal and how we might reverently receive it.
It is true that the Holy Scriptures, in regards to the Lord’s Supper, speak mostly about the doctrine of the meal and prescribe little beyond the administration of the Sacrament. For example, the Scriptures teach us about who should commune, but do not command us to place a veil over the communionware during the service, or that we receive the Supper from metal vessels; yet, we do so. Why? We do these things because they reflect what is taking place. What we believe should be reflected in how we act. This holds true in many parts of our lives. It should also be true here. What we believe about the Lord’s Supper should be reflected in how we go about receiving it and, perhaps, how we prepare for and take down after it. However, let’s not put the cart in front of the horse. Before we discuss setting up, receiving, and taking down the Lord’s Supper, we should review what the Scriptures teach and what we as Lutherans believe about the Sacrament of the Altar. We’ll do this from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
First of all, what is the Lord’s Supper? From the Catechism we answer, “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.” In clear and succinct words, this is what we believe. We believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who took upon Himself our very same human flesh. He was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” On the Mount of the Ascension, Jesus taught us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. (Mt. 28) All that the Father has is His. (Jn. 16) This includes power over all creation. (Heb. 1) Just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are all-powerful, so, also, is the Son. That includes the power to do things which, to us, seem impossible. Such as, giving us His true, real, very body and blood with the earthly elements of bread and wine. Yet, this is precisely what our Lord does.
The same body and blood which were broken and shed for us on the cross, He distributes to us beneath the forms of bread and wine. The term Lutherans use for this is the sacramental union. This means that by the power of His Word, Christ joins Himself to the bread and wine in such a way that the earthly elements retain their substances, but are also joined to the body and blood of Christ. In the Athanasian Creed, we confess that Christ became man, “not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.” Jesus didn’t change from God to man, but joined the human nature to Himself. He became both God and man. In a similar way, in the Lord’s Supper we receive at the same time both bread and wine and body and blood. Our Lord affects this union by His own power through the Word. Our Lord teaches with His own words, as St. Paul also testified through the Holy Spirit, that in the Lord’s Supper we receive the true body and blood of Christ. (Matt. 26, Mk. 14, Lk. 22, 1 Cor. 11)
But, to what end do we receive this Supper? What special comfort does our Lord intend for us to receive through this sacred meal? As He says, “Do this.” The Catechism answers the question this way: “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.” This is what the Lord’s Supper is for: that by it we poor sinners receive the forgiveness of our sins. In the Post-Communion Collect, we also confess that by this Sacrament, our faith is strengthened and our love for God and each other is increased.
In the Lutheran Church we recognize that our Lord Jesus Christ purchased for us the forgiveness of our sins by the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood on the cross. He gives us that forgiveness of sins by His grace as a gift, which we receive through faith (which is also a gift received in Baptism). We would have the forgiveness of our sins by faith, even if we were never to receive the Lord’s Supper, but our Lord instituted this meal to be a way in which we are continually assured that our sins are forgiven. This part of why the Sacraments in general were given. The Augsburg Confession acknowledges this when it says,
Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Therefore, we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith, which believes the promises offered and set forth through the Sacraments, is increased.Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, Paragraphs 1-2
Did you catch that? We must use the Sacraments in a way that faith is increased? We’ll come back to that at the end.
How can the Lord’s Supper do this? How can it give us the forgiveness of our sins, such a small thing as eating a piece of bread and drinking a small amount of wine? We know the answer to this. The Catechism says,
Certainly not just eating and drinking…but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘Forgiveness of sins.’
It isn’t just the eating and drinking, but the Lord’s Word along with the bodily eating and drinking does all these things.
In Confirmation class, I sometimes use an illustration that might not necessarily be the best; but it gets the point across. If you take a tube of toothpaste and turn it around, it will almost always list an active ingredient of some sort – something inside that paste that makes it effective in preventing cavities, tooth decay, etc. In most toothpastes, it’s sodium fluoride that prevents cavities. In the Lord’s Supper, the active ingredient is the Lord’s Word. It is the Lord’s Word which makes the elements the body and blood. When we receive the Supper believing the Lord’s Word – that it is what He says it is and why – that is how we receive the benefits the Supper gives. And this brings us to the final question: Who receives this Sacrament worthily?
Our reason for being here tonight doesn’t permit us to stretch into the topic of Closed Communion – maybe we can come back to that sometime later. But, we should review who receives the good things the Lord’s Supper gives. In Luther’s time, it was commonly taught that, in order to receive the Mass, one must first do penance and fast. These were necessary elements. If someone had not fasted, and the priest found out, no Mass. This persisted in the Roman Catholic Church well into the 1900s and, in some places, continues today. In the Catechism, Luther points out correctly that it’s isn’t fasting which makes one receive the Sacrament worthily – as if we could make ourselves worthy to God, anyway. What makes one worthy, what makes one to receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, is faith.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Cor. 11:29) By this, St. Paul teaches us that those who commune without faith in the Supper’s essence or its purpose do not receive its benefits; rather, they receive judgment. The one who comes to the table in faith, however, receives all its benefits. The one who comes repenting of their sins and desiring Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins receives exactly that.
Now we’ve reached the point that I’d like us to ponder tonight and into next week. The Scriptures teach that in the Lord’s Supper we receive the true body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. This, we know and confess. What I’d like us to ponder is this: How should this belief be reflected in our practice, in the way we worship? Though this thought can spread to most areas of our practice, our focus at this time is on how we set up and take down the Sacrament of the Altar. Next week we will begin looking at what goes into the set-up of the Sacrament. What are the items, how should they be arranged, why these items?
There is an old Latin phrase that has, more or less, become a motto throughout different areas of the Christian faith. The phrase is: Lex orandi, Lex credendi. A loose translation: the law of prayer reflects the law of belief. Or, even looser: how you pray reflects what you believe. How you worship, how you practice your faith, reflects your faith. How we receive the Lord’s Supper should reflect what we believe about the Lord’s Supper. More on that, next week.