Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Is the Benefit of This Eating and Drinking?

Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 17, 2014 (Holy Thursday)

Why do we have the Lord’s Supper?   What is the purpose for it?  Or, as the Catechism puts it, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?  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 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.  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 why do we have to have it?

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 can also imply 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 the Church has gotten 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 an offshoot of Lutheranism called “Pietism,” that if taking the Lord’s Supper wasn’t some huge emotional experience for a person, then it didn’t mean enough to a person, and were taking the Lord’s Supper to their judgment.  Even as recently as the early part of the twentieth 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.  Our reassurance of heaven itself depends not on how much it “means” to us, but solely on the fact that God tells us that we have it.  So also with the Supper.

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 judgment.  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 judgment 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 him secure in his sins and leads him further down the road to hell.

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.’”  Your worthiness doesn’t depend on 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.  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 concentrating on what you were doing, don’t despair.  Don’t think that you just received it to your judgment.  Instead, think, “Christ is so good to me that He is willing to give me these blessings 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.  We who have been resurrected with Christ already in Holy Baptism, eat and drink the food which sustains our new, resurrected selves, both body and soul.  Here we are returned to the garden of Eden to receive the fruit of the Tree of Life, 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.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +


  1. Unfortunately not enough emphasis is put on the eschatological aspect of the Eucharist. It brings the benefits of the Lord's atonement forward to us today, but it also moves us forward, ever closer to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb where we are both guest and Bride. To a place where there will be no more want, sin, sorrow, death or tears. The Eucharist is not just one more channel to deliver remission to us (though it is that), but rather a unique sacrament that propels us into the blessed future we have in Christ, and at the same time brings the future to us now. It is comfort, consolation, strength, gladness, peace, happiness and joy to us in the middle of a very ugly world, where people do unspeakable things to one another, and where bone-chilling happenings regularly take place. Anyone who wants to deny the Lord's People, the Lord's Supper on the Lord's Day with all the aforementioned benefits is no friend of mine. He is guilty of malfeasance and malpractice like a physician who withholds healing medicine from a patient.

  2. The "now but not yet" paradox is something that far too few, even among Lutherans, have been taught. Our resurrection will take place on the last day, but it has already taken place in Holy Baptism, as Paul points out in Romans 6. Resurrection, by definition, involves both body and soul. To say that our new selves are only souls is to deny that a resurrection has taken place at all, because the separation of body and soul is the very definition of the word "death." Which means that it isn't just the soul but also the body of the new man in Christ which is nourished by the body and blood of our Lord.

    I would quibble, however with the idea that the Supper is the only sacrament which propels us into the future (though it certainly does that, while also propelling us backward to the death and resurrection of Christ, as it is precisely from the cross and the empty tomb that the body and blood of our Lord are given). Baptism also propels us both forward and backward, both to our own deaths to this world and to the resurrection at the last day, as well as to the cross and empty tomb where we died and were raised with Christ.

    Of course, the word "malfeasance" applies to doctors, not to patients. I agree that any pastor who refuses to give the medicine of immortality to his patients, is guilty of malpractice. However, a doctor cannot force a patient to take his medicine, nor can he do anything about it when a well-intentioned patient innocently but mistakenly advises his fellow patients not to take their medicine. In other words, I wouldn't condemn a pastor simply because his congregation doesn't yet desire the Lord's Supper every Sunday and festival, nor do I condemn those congregations themselves, but I do condemn any pastor who thinks it wrong to have the Lord's Supper as often as possible.

    My own father-in-law's congregations have not yet seen or understood the need to have the Supper every Sunday, though he himself has been teaching them for more than a decade now that they need their medicine as often as possible. As a retired Navy chaplain, he believes very strongly that the Lord's Supper is necessary as often as possible. His "congregation" in the Navy was composed of military personnel (he thinks of himself as a Marine, though as a chaplain he was technically in the Navy), any of whom could be killed either in combat (he was in Saudi Arabia during Gulf War I) or even in training exercises at any time. He gave the LCMS "members" of his military "congregation" the Supper every Sunday (and even privately to individual soldiers who requested it) for precisely this reason. His farmers out in Kansas also work with heavy and dangerous equipment on a daily basis (tractors, combines, etc.), but he cannot *force* them to partake as often as possible. For that matter, even city dwellers and suburbanites could face death at any time, but there again, we can't force a patient to take his medicine as often as prescribed (though an individual who actually despises it is not to be considered a Christian, as Luther points out), but we must urge them to take it as prescribed, as part of the duties of our office.