Friday, April 29, 2011

“Given and shed for you..”:The Sacrament of the Altar

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread,
and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples
and said:'Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. This do in
remembrance of Me.' In the same way He also took the cup after supper,
and when he had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying:'Drink of it, all
of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for
the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.'”

These words are recorded for us by the Apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 11:23-25, an institution made by Jesus Christ himself, for all of Christendom. They are of great comfort for us as Christians and the Lord's Supper is described as a means of grace or a sacrament. A sacrament is simply a sacred institution of God for the purpose of grace to those in reception of it. The names given to the Lord's Supper would be communion, Holy communion, the Eucharist, Sacrament of the Altar, etc. The big question surrounding the Sacrament is “Is Christ's body and blood truly present in the bread and wine or did he institute this for us for symbolic use only?” Most of the Christian world would say that this institution of Christ is merely a symbol, nothing more. They would say that we receive no benefit from the Lord's Supper other than partaking of the elements and in so doing we remember Christ. Some other explanations would be more simplified namely: “This is what Christians do.” And with little to no self investigation of Scripture and the beliefs of the Church throughout history the idea of Christ's body and blood being truly present in the Lord's Supper is thrown out the window. Seemingly our Lord and Savior would simply institute something of this magnitude on the night of His betrayal for no reason and when He says “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” evidently he was just using word play of some sort.

Despite Christ's clear words, “this is my body, this is my blood”, most of the modern Christian world choose to accept the teachings of men on this issue of communion. Man in his blind reason cannot fathom why we would need to partake of the very body and blood of Christ. “Faith in Christ is sufficient enough!” they would proclaim in all their excellence, and I would agree but if you have faith in Christ than you should have faith in Christ's words and make your reason subservient to the Scriptures. The reason I partake in the Eucharist with the hope of being strengthened in faith through the Holy Spirit is directly correlated with faith in Christ and should not be separated by any means. If we apply the same logic of the deniers of the sacrament to the Scripture we can say the same thing. “Faith in Christ is sufficient enough! So why do I need the Scriptures? All I need is faith in Jesus!.” But you see that the Word is a means of grace just as the Sacrament is. The Word brings to us faith, forgiveness of sins, strengthening of faith, life, and salvation. For through the Word we hear of Christ and there the Holy Spirit is present to create faith in the heart's of men as it is written:
Romans 10:17
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

In the same way the Holy Spirit must be present in the Eucharist because not only was it established by Jesus, attached with it is God's Word. And if Christ tells us that forgiveness of sins comes through the Supper that he instituted then surely strength in faith, life, and salvation follow. If we step out of Christ's own word when instituting Holy Communion, which in itself is sufficient enough, we can see that the apostle Paul testifies to what Christ said, we see Christ confirming His words early on in the book of John, and there are Old Testament foreshadows of the Lord's Supper as well.
John 6:53-56
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food an my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

In these verses we hear Christ talk in bold terms and this is exampled in the reactions of the Jews and the very disciples of Christ who were present when he said this. Some people would refute that in this area Christ is speaking about the Lord's Supper but rather he is speaking about faith in Him in general because Christ was comparing himself in the beginning part of the chapter to the manna that came down from heaven to the Israelites. But it is an interesting note that not only the Jews became very disgruntled with Christ's word after Jesus says in verse 51 “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” but also his disciples did as well for we hear their response in verse 60:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

The reason I want to point this out is that it seems whenever Christ's disciples misunderstand something that Christ says figuratively He addresses it with them instead of having them continue in their misunderstanding. We see this in Matthew when Jesus warns his disciples against the “yeast” of the Pharisees.

Matthew 16:5-12
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn't bring any bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

So we see that with a sharp rebuke Jesus gets His disciples thinking on the right track about the message he is trying to convey. Now there are other places where Jesus talks in potentially confusing terms of His body and does not explain. In the case of John chapter 2 when Jesus is speaking with the Jews about the temple. Christ says:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

We learn of course that Jesus is speaking of His very body not the actual Jewish temple and here he doesn't go into an explanation. But if we examine the attitudes of the people in each account we see that Jesus' disciples were acting in ignorance where as the Jews were speaking in arrogance and demanding that Jesus would give them a sign and for Christ to speak plainly to the Jews wouldn't have served his purpose because we know that Jesus was speaking to unbelievers in parables instead of literal terms so that they might ponder what Jesus was trying to say instead of hearing Him plainly and rebuking Him on the spot, as they do when Jesus is speaking of his body and blood in this account in John. We know that these Jews didn't have faith in Christ but the disciples did and we also know that Jesus tells his disciples that they will have the secrets of the Kingdom of God revealed to them. Furthermore we see some of Jesus' disciples leaving Him because of this issue and if he was speaking in figurative terms we would have to assume that Jesus wouldn't just let those who had faith in Him walk away because of the misunderstanding of words.

Briefly, another account in John where Jesus goes to raise Lazarus from the dead we hear:

John 11:11-15
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

I moved away from the issue of the Lord's Supper but I think these serve as good examples for the point I'm trying to make. When Christ speaks of His body and blood in this account in John, I have no reason to believe He is speaking figuratively. Clearly he would have set His disciples on level ground so that they could understand that this hard teaching wasn't meant to be taken literally.

Now lets see what Paul has to say concerning this issue. I already wrote the words of Christ's institution of the Lord's Supper so what does Paul have to say after he records these words of Christ. We hear in 1Corinthians 11:27-29:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself.

Paul tells us that if we eat of the bread and drink of the cup unworthily we will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ! Now how can that be if the only thing contained in the supper is merely bread and wine. How can we sin against Christ's body and blood if they are not truly present. And how is that we drink in an unworthy manner? Paul talks about self examination which makes me believe that we should be repenting of sin and recognizing that we are sinful. He also says that if we do not discern the body of the Lord we eat and drink judgement on ourselves! So Christ wants us to be repentant and trust in his words “this is my body, this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

My question to those who would deny this blessed sacrament is, if God can create from nothing what we see today, if he can drown the sinful world in a flood and save Noah and his family in an ark, if he can keep Jonah in the belly of large fish for three days, if he can heal the sick and cast out demons, walk on water and be raised from the dead, then why on Earth could you not believe the words that He speaks during the Passover meal with his disciples? Nothing that I write can convince the unbelieving Christian of this merciful reality but I will say that I find pardon and peace in this sacrament. And its not because I trust in the ceremony or the bread and wine its because of Christ's own words “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” I don't share these things out of boastful pride but rather out of love. I would have all Christians experience this institution of our Lord. Christ has left this behind for us as a visible means of grace, along with the Scripture and Holy Baptism. The Triune God is present in these things to bring us to faith and keep us strengthened in that same faith.
Again, like every other useful tradition or legitimate institution of God, the modern Christian world has abandon God's own word on this issue because of its perceived association, namely, the Church of Rome. Christians today want so badly to flee from anything that appears Roman Catholic that they manage to throw out things that aren't Roman Catholic but Scriptural. And a lot of these Churches like to quote ancient Church fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose, Irenaeus, Justin, and Polycarp as well as Martin Luther all the while ignoring the fact that these men believed in the very bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For in Justin's own words:

“This we receive not as common bread and common drink. We receive them as Jesus Christ, our Savior, who through the Word of God became flesh. For the sake of our salvation he also had flesh and blood. So we believe that the food blessed by Him through the Word and prayer is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I don't write this to suggest Justin Words are above Christ's or Paul's but to show that they are in agreement with them. So if the words of Christ, “this is my body, this is my blood”, are to be understood literally by the ancient Church all throughout her history then why would we stray from the agreement of the Church? Again I say it is to separate ourselves from the Roman Catholic Church and this is ignorance because Martin Luther himself recognized the false teachings of Rome even to the point of excommunication and the fear of death but held onto the sacraments because of Christ's Word.

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?:

It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words, which are given here, “Given...and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” These words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, the chief thing in the Sacrament. The person who believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.”

-Martin Luther
Small Catechism
VI. The Sacrament of the Altar

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