More Than Forgiveness is Being Communicated
Do you see the physical trauma Jesus suffered in the Passion Reading? Pilate had Him flogged. The soldiers jammed a crown of thorns on His head. "Again and again they struck Him on the head with a staff and spit on Him." Do you think such bodily suffering by God the Son won nothing but spiritual, invisible things for you? The forerunner of the World Conference of Churches thought that. In 1937, 123 different churches, no Roman Catholic or Confessional Lutheran ones, agreed that Communion was "'in the realm of the Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that the blessing and gift are given'" (Ox. Hit. Wor., 732). We say more than Spirit is here.
Jesus words tell us what is being communicated: "My body which is given for you" and "My blood which is shed for you." Well, that's pretty clear, isn't it? Paul says the Lord's Supper is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Luther said the Words of Institution "teach emphatically that Christ's body is broken and divided at the table and bitten, chewed, and swallowed like other bread, though in the form of bread or in the bread" (LW, 37, 333). Christ's body and blood is what is actually given and eaten and Jesus tells you what for: "for the forgiveness of sins." So, you eat and drink pardon, absolution, release from a burden, a paid in full receipt, a not-guilty verdict.
Communion communicates the Body and Blood of Jesus for your forgiveness but more than forgiveness is given us through the words "given and shed for you for forgiveness"; life and salvation are too. "For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation," we confess. Salvation is heaven, is everlasting life and you eat and drink them at the Lord's Table. When Jesus says, "Peace be unto you," He doesn't just mean for your soul but for your body. God the Father didn't prepare a body for His Son to keep the Law in your place and die under its judgments just to save your soul and let your body go to hell or to dust. Christ didn't just tell the paralytic, "Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you," but "rise, take up your bed, and walk."
Luther cites church fathers to prove this was the teaching of the ancient church. "Irenaeus and the ancient fathers pointed out the benefit that our body is fed with the body of Christ, in order that our faith and hope may abide and that our body also may live eternally from the same eternal food of the body of Christ which it eats physically. Therefore He wills to be in us by nature,' says Hilary, in both our soul and body, according to the word in John 6, He who eats Me abides in Me and I in him.' If we eat him spiritually through the Word, He abides in us spiritually in our soul; if one eats Him physically, He abides in us physically and we in Him" (LW, 37, 132).
When you eat the King of heaven, you eat heaven. All Scripture says about heaven you eat and drink here bodily. Here tears are wiped away; there is no more death, nor mourning, or crying or pain. Here the old order has passed away as Rev. 21 promises. Here the wolf lives with the lamp, the leopard lies down with the goat, and the calf lies down with the lion. Here the cow grazes with the bear and the lion eats straw like the ox. Here the infants plays next to the cobra's den and the young child puts his hand into the viper's nest and neither are harmed, as described in Is. 11. Since heaven comes to earth, Hear the sound of angel and archangel wings; hear the rush of many waters; hear "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung by all the company of heaven. At this altar, the church walls become crystal, the roof disappears and angels ascend and descend covering their faces crying, "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord." (Hammer of God, 28). Think that's too much? No, what is unbelievable is thinking that heaven can come to earth and not leave a footprint. The King and kingdom come like a giant dinosaur planting its foot knocking everything around it over. That's how Psalm 114 describes the presence of the Lord: It causes the sea to flee, the Jordan to turn back, mountains to skip and earth to tremble (5-7).
The forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting that are in Christ's Body and Blood impact this life. In smaller church buildings, after everyone has left a Communion service the sweet smell of wine hoovers in the air. That's the smell of forgiveness; that's the smell of heaven on earth; that's the smell of a new start, a cleansed conscience, a saved body and soul. When we confess not only that forgiveness is in this Sacrament but life and salvation, life is not a synonym of salvation but refers to this physical life that precedes everlasting life. We say so in the Larger Catechism. Holy Communion is "soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefited also" (V, 68). We say we receive the "same treasure that is appointed for me against my sins, death, and every calamity" (V, 22).
Look what Christ's presence in the physical world brought forth in our text. Accusations from his enemies, beatings and mocking from soldiers, cries of crucify from the crowd, the fear of a Roman governor, and the ridicule of a "Jewish" king. Jesus' presence was so real that it invaded the dreams of Pilate's wife. Jesus' presence in our time and space disturbs unbelief, pricks consciences, and leaves no one neutral. But that's not why He is here. He is here in this Sacrament, on this altar to eat and drink. He says in John 6, "My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink." "Who-ever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life." Think that's too much? How can it be? They're Jesus' own words. Also in the OT Church, millions were sustained by manna for 40 years. Elijah was fed by an angel and "went in the strength of that food 40 days and nights." If bread from heaven can do that, the Bread that is the King of heaven can do much more.
Luther toed a fine line here. Communion wasn't to him what it was to the late Middle Ages: protection from misfortune on earth. It wasn't a patch to earthly problems. It wasn't an antidote against unfruitfulness, a blessing of property, or a talisman of good fortune (Peters, Bpt. & LS, 211). Yet, with the church fathers, Luther describes it as a Medicine of Immortality. Ignatius of Antioch who died just 8 years after St. John calls Communion "remedy of immortality, antidote against death, to live forever in Jesus Christ'" (Wor. in Jesus, 193). Gregory of Nyssa said that just as those who've been tricked into taking poison must offset its harmful effect by taking another drug, so the poison of original sin in our body had to be offset bodily. "And what is this remedy," he asked? "Nothing else than the body [of Christ] that proved itself superior to death and became the source of our life"(ACC, OT, I, 78).
You know how a person must be brought up slowly from deep in the ocean lest they develop decompression sickness? By eating and drinking the immortal body and blood of Jesus, your mortal body is being prepared for immortality. Hear Luther: "'Just as we eat Christ's flesh physically and spiritually, this food is so powerful that it changes us within and makes fleshly, sinful, dying human beings into spiritual, holy, living human beings '" (Peters, 216). "For He is not digested or transformed [like other food] but ceaselessly He transforms us, our soul into righteousness, and our body into immortality. So the ancient fathers spoke of the physical eating" (LW, 37, 132). I pointed out to confirmation kids how our bodies take God's beautiful food and change some of it into what we need to live but much of it into filthy things. Not so Christ's Body and Blood. It changes us into heavenly beings. One of them said, "You mean like flamingos." That's a great illustration and possibly why in the early church "the bird represented resurrection and immortality" (World Book, 1967, F, 200). They are born white and become that beautiful pink from what they eat.
The changes worked by the Body and Blood in those in Christ are real. We're not in the realm of metaphors. Just as some of those who misuse the Lord's Supper get physically weak, sick, and even die, so we eat, drink and live. Though they don't age instantly to dust as the antique collector who drank from the wrong chalice in The Temple of Doom, the effects on their bodies is no less physical. Likewise, we who eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ based on His promises really have forgiveness in body and soul, and where there is forgiveness of sins, there is not just salvation when we die but life now. Just because you can't see yourself changing from a white bird to a pink flamingo is no more surprising than Jesus not looking like the Lord of glory, the Author of life, the King of heaven in tonight's reading. But, based on Jesus' words, we see more happening here than a spiritual, invisible, otherworldly thing. What we do with our bodies, confesses this. We bow before kneeling at the Lord's Table. That's how one acknowledges the presence of an earthly king let alone the King of kings. We kneel if able for this same reason. Even the Reformed know what kneeling means and want no part of it: The Anglicans in the 16th century went out of the way to say their kneeling had nothing to do with Deity actually being present. The Book of Common Prayer in 1552 and again in 1662 had the Black Rubric. It explains that by kneeling "no adoration is intended or ought to be done...and the natural Body and Blood of our Savior Christ are in heaven and not here." Contrast this with our confession: "No one - except an Arian heretic - can or will deny that Christ Himself, true God and truly Human, who is truly & essentially present in the Supper when properly used, should be adored in spirit and truth..." ( FC, SD, VII, 126). Even Calvinists admit that if Christ is present in the bread corporally "we would haveto show God due reverence no less than Thomas did" (Diaskepsis, 272).
We confess that in Communion, the God-Man comes to earth again, and that reality bows are head and bends are knees as we confess that there is a reality here that is supernatural, heavenly, but no less real. In fact, since Paul says, "What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal," (2 Cor. 4:18), the forgiveness, life, and salvation here is more real than your sins, your sicknesses, your downfall. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek IV (20190327); Sacrament of Altar II, Passion Reading 4