Saturday, March 22, 2008

Maundy Thursday

Sermon on John 13:1-15, 34-35
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin
March 20, 2008 (Maundy Thursday)

Why do we have the Lord’s Supper? What is the purpose for it? What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? The Catechism’s answer is that we receive the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, for where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. But for many people, and perhaps even some of you, that doesn’t completely answer the question. We also receive the forgiveness of sins through Absolution and through God’s Word. If what we receive in the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, if the whole point of receiving Christ’s own body and blood is the forgiveness of sins, then why do we need to come to the Lord’s Supper? After all, we receive the forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution and through the word of the Holy Gospel which is preached to us. Why do we need the Lord’s Supper at all, let alone as frequently as it is offered, every week and more often than that during special times of the year such as Holy Week? If the whole point of the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, and we already have forgiveness of sins, then what’s the point?
Let’s think about that question for a minute. “Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper?” It sounds like a small child asking why does he have to clean his room. When did the Lord’s Supper become like chores or housework? Why should the Lord’s Supper be something we only do if we “have to”? The whole question implies that partaking of Jesus’ body and blood is something that is a burden on us, or a chore or a drudgery. It implies that the person asking such a question wants to get away with doing as little as possible and still meet God’s requirements. It implies that the Lord’s Supper is something negative and frightening and dangerous and that we should try to get out of it if at all possible. But if this were a true picture of the Supper, then if God were truly loving and gracious He wouldn’t put us through it at all in the first place.
To be sure, sometimes we get the idea that this is what the Holy Supper is: an opportunity for God to test us, a frightening encounter with a God who is just waiting to “zap” us if our minds wander for a moment. In times past, it was thought by some folks, who belonged to a group called the “Pietists,” that if taking the Lord’s Supper wasn’t some huge emotional experience for a person, then they were taking the Lord’s Supper to their judgment. Even as recently as the early part of this century there were a number of Lutherans who would only come to the Holy Supper four times a year, and burst into tears every time they came. Of course, you can’t go through that much emotional upheaval every Sunday, or even twice a month for that matter, and not destroy your health in the process. And so that’s why these people would only come four times a year. After all, if you come more often, then the Supper isn’t “special” enough to you, and therefore you’re taking it to your judgment. Granted there’s nothing wrong with emotions when they result from what God does for us in Word and Sacrament, but our worthiness to receive the Sacrament should not depend upon our emotions.
For that matter, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t depend on anything that we do. It doesn’t depend on how earnestly or carefully we have prepared for it. It doesn’t even depend on whether or not we are able to keep our minds from wandering while we are receiving it. Many people think that if your mind wanders while you are taking the Lord’s Supper, you have taken it unworthily and to your judgement. They get worried that if they take it too often their mind is going to wander more often and that they’ll take it to their judgment more often. Well, it just isn’t true. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. If the Lord’s Supper depended upon how worthy we were and how carefully we are paying attention for its benefits, then quite frankly every single one of us partakes to his judgement every single time we take it. None of us is focused enough or prepared enough to earn our worthiness to receive Christ’s body and blood.
It is true, of course, we should examine ourselves as St. Paul tells us to do. We should make sure of three things when we come to the Holy Supper. The first is, “Are you a Christian? Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and that you are saved because of His sacrifice?” The second is, “Are you living in some deliberate sin and being unrepentant of that sin, which casts the Holy Ghost out of your heart?” And the third is, “Do you believe what Christ says, that His body and blood are truly given you to eat and drink in the bread and wine of this Sacrament?” The reason for this is because if you’re not a Christian then your heart is only hardened in its unbelief, and that’s what partaking to one’s judgment means. But the same thing is true of a person who hears the Gospel in a sermon and uses it to excuse his sin instead of repenting of it. The Gospel causes such a person to become worse than he was before. It’s simply the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel that is at work. That’s why we in the Missouri Synod practice close communion and why there is such a thing as excommunication. For a person who doesn’t repent of his sins or doesn’t believe, the Lord’s Supper makes them secure in their sins and leads them further down the road to hell. And by the way, when we turn those from other denominations away, we aren’t saying that they personally don’t have faith, but we are saying that the public doctrinal confession of their denomination, a confession which they also share because of their membership, is against Scripture and therefore it is not a true confession of the faith into which we are baptized.
And so we should take care about the Lord’s Supper. But we should also heed Luther’s words: “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” If you believe this, then it doesn’t matter what other preparations you forgot to make or how distracted and harried you might be that particular Sunday morning. Granted, fasting and so on are indeed fine outward training. And I’m not arguing for carelessness in approaching the Sacrament of the Altar. But if your mind does wander while you are up at the altar, or if you realize after receiving the Supper that you weren’t really thinking about what you were doing, don’t despair. Don’t think that you just received it to your judgement. Instead, think, “Christ is so good to me that He is willing to give me these blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation despite how weak and frail, I am.” Instead of meditating on how bad you are, meditate on how good God is that His blood which you just received, covers even the weaknesses you just showed while you were receiving it.
The Lord’s Supper is the center of the Church’s life. It is here that we partake with all of our senses in Christ Jesus. Here God touches us, not just through our eyes and ears to our brain, but He Himself enters our bodies and sprinkles our hearts with His blood. Here God serves us just as Jesus served the disciples by washing their feet. He is our Lord precisely by becoming our servant. Here we partake already here and now in the eternal feast of victory which has no end, the great marriage feast of the lamb who was slain and is risen again. Here we receive the body and blood of Him who died, the body and blood of Him who in His resurrection has become the beginning of the new creation in which we will live eternally. Here we are returned to the garden of Eden to receive the food which causes us to live forever. Here we see God at His best. God identifies Himself as the giver of life, as the God who is love. In the Lord’s Supper He feeds us with the food of eternity. God is shown most clearly as a good and loving God by feeding us with His Son’s body and blood.
Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper? As well might a child ask why he has to eat his chocolate cake. As well might we all ask why we have to go to heaven. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you get to do. If you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble, it means that the Old Adam is putting up a fight inside you. And in that case you need it most of all, because, unless you are an outright unbeliever or a wilfull, unrepentant sinner, it means your faith needs all the help it can get. And there is no help for our faith that is more powerful than Christ’s body and blood. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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