A Celebration for the Ages
A 16th century Lutheran Father, Chemnitz, tells us that the ancient Church Fathers had various names for the Supper our Lord instituted this night almost 2,000 years ago: "the refuge of the soul, the medicine for the sick, and the traveling expenses for the dying" (Ap. of the BOC, 341). How about "A Celebration for the Ages"? Heb. 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Holy Communion celebrates that fact.
The yesterday that Hebrews refers to in reference to Jesus goes way back farther than Roy Clark or John Lennon sang. It's even before time so it's certainly to the beginning of time, all the way back to the Garden. The Garden is where we first come in contact with bread and learn that because of Adam's fall man is cursed to eat daily bread by the sweat of his brow. And there too we learn that in order for our naked sinfulness to be covered sown together fig leaves aren't enough. No, the Lord Himself had to make garments of skin to cover our sinful fallenness. You don't get a skin off an animal without shedding its blood. So we have bread and blood right there in the fall reminding us of our sinfulness.
Hit the scene-skipping button on the remote. Fast-forward to 1500 BC. and Passover. There we see hardhearted sinfulness calls for the death of the firstborn, and that the Blood of God's Lamb which He commanded to be painted on the doorposts was thick enough and rich enough to cover the sinners in that house, and so the terrifying angel of death passed over them. Here we also find out that the lamb to be sacrificed would be kept by a family for two-weeks. If it takes your kids longer than 2 hours to name a stray dog, a hurt bird, or even a snail, that's unusual. How many fathers and mothers said, "Don't get to close to this little lamb; don't get attached to him; stop calling him Benji"? But you know they didn't listen. So in Passover we see the forerunner of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the only beloved of His heavenly Father and earthly mother, and of blood that can cover, i.e. atone.
Hit the scene skip a couple of times till you go from 1500 BC to 30 AD. That's still yesterday for us. Every Sunday that we're here using the Words passed down to us through the pen of St. Paul, "The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread" (1 Cor. 11:23,we're back there. We're back to where the Lamb of God is going to be made the 2 goats from the Day of Atonement, i.e. Day of Covering. He will be both the scapegoat carrying away the sins of all people and He will be goat sacrificed on the cross to appease God's wrath against sins and sinners.
The Lord's Supper is a celebration for the ages. It was prefigured by the Tree of Life, Manna in the wilderness, Passover, Day of Atonement, and sin offerings that only benefited sinners that ate of them. All pointed to the Salvation of God, the Protection of God, the grace, mercy, and peace of God being given to mankind by mouth. We take steps back in time but we remain in ours. The Preface begins in the present: "The Lord be with you." And after the call to lift up your hearts away from the Sin, Death, and Devil that surround you, beset you, threaten you, I say, "Let us Eucharist, i.e. Let us give thanks". Then after the Words of Institution perform the promised miracle and Bread is the Body of Christ and Wine His Blood, I place my hand on the altar where these gifts sit and say to everyone present: "The peace of the Lord be with you always." Boom! The forgiveness Christ won on the cross in 30 AD is here in 2021 A.D.. Jesus said to do this often. In the words of St. Ambrose, "Because I sin often, I take communion often."
Even so, Death is at work in me today. A Sunday School teacher had her class take an ordinary apple and carve a face on it. It turned brown, wrinkled, and shrunken. She said this illustrated the Death at work in us because of our sinfulness. It did. The antidote to Death is life and we need it now because we're dying now. It comes to us in the Body and Blood of Jesus. Jesus says, "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself" (Jn. 5:26). When Elijah, Peter or Paul raised someone from death, life didn't come from them. The Life of God came through them, as a channel. Not so Jesus. His flesh was life-giving because it is the flesh of God. Since the 3rd-century Ignatius on through Luther, Communion has been called the Medicine of Immortality. We've confessed for about 500 years that this Sacrament isn't "something harmful from which we should flee, but a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body also is relieved. Why, then, is it that we act as if it were a poison, the eating of which would bring death" (LC, V, 69)?
I find this paradox. Most Christians take 1 Cor. 11:30 seriously as they should: "That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (i.e. died)". A congregation the you is plural misusing the Body and Blood of Jesus spreads weakness, sickness, and death among its members. We shudder in our very bodies, don't we? Well, eating and drinking faithfully, brings the opposite: strength, health, and life today. What? Am I saying you partake of the Lord's Supper and you'll never get cancer, or get cured of heart disease, or be strong as Samson. No, I'm saying you are to believe that as the misuse of the Lord's Body and Blood leads to bodily problems, so it's proper use leads to bodily blessings.
But the endgame of the Body and Blood of Jesus given and shed on the cross was not long, healthy, or stronger life here. If that was the endgame, you and I would've been raised in Eden. But " the Lord God said, The man...must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden" (Gen. 3:22-3). The goddess Eos and her lover Tithonus illustrate this. She asked Zeus to give her mortal lover everlasting bodily life but forget to ask for health and youth, and so he aged till he became a shriveled-up old man who looked like a cricket and just sat there chirping. Living forever in an aging body is not life but living death which is also called hell. Hear Luther on this: "'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, which is what we are already now, but such a condition is still hidden in faith and hope and is not yet visible; on the Last Day we will see it'" (Peters, Baptism & Lord's Supper, 216).
Think this is saying too much? Hear your Lord then: Jesus said to them, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life now, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:54). All Christians partake of Jesus' flesh and blood through faith. In fact, if you don't, you're not a Christian. But how much more intimate and comforting to do so physically. You're loved one tells you on the phone that they love you and send kisses and hugs, but that's nothing compared to being in their arms and being physically kissed. There would be something wrong in the relationship if you thought those words or even believing those words was good enough.
Tonight, and every Sunday, we have a celebration for the ages. We're taken back to a yesterday that only the Bible knows of. To today where Sin, Death, Damnation dog our every step and haunt our ever breath. But Jesus is Lord not only of yesterday and today but forever, literally it's "into the ages". This is Buz Lightyear's, "To infinity and beyond." This is Star Trek's warp drive or Star Wars' hyperdrive. It's the fast forward sound effect. As in the Orthodox, Communion is celebrated by us "as a timeless event, an appearance of Christ in which the congregation experiences the actual event of the Supper, not as it was or will be but as it is forever" (Church from Age to Age, 352). Paul tell us so in the alternate Thanksgiving we use during Lent: "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till He come". Here to when Eternity comes knocking on Time, we're pointing back to the Lord's Death. This Supper is the point of all human history and we're celebrating it right here and now, forever.
The Lord Himself hits the fast-forward tonight. You heard Him in the Gospel say, "For I tell you, from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." If not on the road to Emmaus, then certainly when He passed on to Paul the Lord's Supper, He communes again; His kingdom had come. Yesterday, today, and forever are collapsed into this single Meal. No wonder not only angels and archangels but all the Company of heaven join in it! It's their Meal too.
We see this in all 3 eras we've been looking at. In the yesterday of Isaiah, the Lord says He is preparing for all people a banquet of rich food and finest wines to celebrate death being swallowed (Is. 25). And today is a time when many come from east and west and recline at the Meal with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 8:11). And Jesus speaks of when He returns at the end of the ages. Then He will greet those watching for Him and do the incredible thing of dressing Himself for service, have them recline at table and serve them (Lk. 12:37). And who do you think is serving at the Lord's Table tonight? It's my lips that say, "Take eat My Body"; "Take drink My Blood", but it's His mouth speaking. And this goes on and on till you see His lips moving with you own eyes.
You know the joke based on DaVinci's Last Supper painting? What was said just before it? "Okay guys let's all line up on this side of the table for a picture." Really, it shows DaVinci's genius. He painted the Lord's Supper as if was a meal for his age. And it was for that age and this age bringing forward all the ages past till ages cease to run. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Maundy Thursday (20210401); Hebrews 13:8