What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
The answer to what the Lord's Supper is, is very important. From the what' of the Lord's Supper flow the why, how, who, and when. Luther said that we give the Lord's Supper only to those who know what is and why they come (LC,V,2). We know what the Lord's Supper is not based on our reason, opinion, scientific investigation, or theological deductions. We know what the Lord's Supper is because the Lord Himself tells us.
The Words of Institution the pastor speaks are where the Lord Jesus tells us what the Sacrament of the Altar is. In the Large Catechism we say this about the Words you hear every Communion service and probably know by heart: "For upon these words rest our whole argument, protection, and defense against all errors and deceptions [about the Lord's Supper] that have ever arisen or may yet arise (LC,V,19)".
In theology the Words of Institution are called The Verba. Verba is Latin for words. These are The Words. These Words are above all the other words we say or hear because by them our Lord plainly tells us what Holy Communion is, His Body and His Blood. They don't tell us what the Lord's Supper might be, could be, or we wish it to be; the Verba tell us what Holy Communion is.
When we hear these Words, we are never to forget who is speaking them. It is the pastor's lips that move, but it is the eternal Christ, God the Son, who speaks. These Words are powerful not because a pastor speaks them but because God did speak them. Our Confessions compare the Words of Institution to the words God spoke to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply." Those words from God's lips didn't just empower them to be able to have children, but all humanity. They were powerful creative words still effective today. So the Verba once spoken by God in the flesh are still powerful. When we use His Words according to His command and promise, we have what He says we do: His Body and Blood for eating and drinking.
It will clarify what the Words of Institution are if we know what they are not. They are not a prayer asking God to do something. The Orthodox and Catholics understand them to be a prayer asking God to send His Holy Spirit to make this bread Body and this wine Blood. Luther was not in favor of having a Eucharistic Prayer in the Communion Liturgy as the blue hymnal and now the new hymnal have in some services. He wanted to avoid the idea that are going up to God in prayer leads to His coming down to us in Communion.
The Verba are proclamation and declaration not a prayer or incantation. They aren't magical words. Incantations or spells are words that if anyone says them make something happen. In the Harry Potter movies, it doesn't matter who says the words as long as they are said. Our Confessions say, "If I were to say over all the bread there is, "This is the Body of Christ," nothing would happen, but when we follow His institution and commandwhich He told us to speak and to do" we have what He promised. You don't have what Jesus promised if you change either His institution or command. Jesus used wine, but you use grape juice. Jesus instituted a meal of His Body and Blood but you celebrate a meal of bread and wine to remind you of His Body and Blood. Jesus gives His Body and Blood for eating and drinking but you parade it around in a procession for viewing.
The Verba are the last will and testament of Jesus. In a will you use plain, non-figurative language, so everyone understands. In a will, you don't leave people pictures of your diamond bracelet, pictures of your favorite shotgun, or pictures of your house. You leave the real thing. Once you die no one can legally change your will. If it's a crime to change the will of even a person who leaves little, how much more so to change the will of God the Son? That's what churches do when they say Jesus didn't leave His Body and Blood, but a sign or symbol of His Body and Blood. That's what the medieval church did when they said Christ didn't leave His Blood to lay people but only to the priest. How angry would you be at me if you found out that I had changed your loved one's will? Where is your indignation at those who change the will of your Lord and God?
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus had less than 24 hours to live. He could have left His Church money, power, health, happiness, but what does He leave in His will? His Body and Blood for us to eat and drink. I am ashamed to admit this, but it's true. I have more often wished my Lord had left me money, power, health and happiness, then I have thanked Him for leaving me His Body and Blood. Perhaps this is because I reduce His will to His Body and His Blood. Yet, Jesus says more than that, doesn't He? He says, "This is My Body, which is given for you. This is cup is the new testament, in My Blood, which is shed for you."
I leave out important words when I reduce the Verba to His Body and Blood. The Body and Blood Jesus leaves to me are the ones that He gave and shed. Imagine the apostles who first heard these words just hours later witnessing the mob before Pilate, the march to Calvary, and the crucifixion. The Body Jesus left to me is the one that is punched, prodded, nailed, and crucified. That's the Body I take in my hand, put on my tongue, and eat. The Blood Jesus left to me is the Blood that drips from His crown of thorns, the Blood that spatters when He is whipped, the Blood that oozes from His hands and feet. This is the Blood I see, smell, and drink in the cup.
Jesus could have left us His Body and Blood without being tortured and crucified. It would still be His Body and Blood, but it would not be His Body given for you and His Blood shed for you. In the Words of Institution Jesus gives you His Body and Blood, but He specifies as you do in a will that He is giving you His Body and Blood that He gave and shed for you.
When people leave things in their wills, do they ordinarily leave things to upset people? Does the mother leave the pieces of her favorite vase to the son who broke it? Does the father leave the receipt for the car repair his daughter cost him? So how come Jesus leaves His Body that was given over to merciless beating and His Blood that was gotten out of His veins not by a needle's pinprick but by whips, nails, and blows? How come this meal of His Body and Blood is not a gruesome reminder of what our sins caused Him to suffer?
It's true; the Passion reading for tonight can be preached that way. See what your sins caused! The blows that landed on Jesus holy face should've landed on yours. The whips that tore His flesh should've torn yours. The nails and whips and slaps and kicks that shed His Blood should've shed yours. Your pet sins; your monstrous sins; your disgusting sins that you blush merely to think of deserve your body to be given over to death and your blood to be shed drip by painful drip.
You can preach the Passion of the Lord this way, but you can't preach the Lord's Supper this way. Why not? You know why. Jesus doesn't just say Communion is His Body given for you and His Blood shed for you. No, wonder of wonders, joy of joys, comfort of comforts, Jesus says, "This is My Body and Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." This isn't a meal to remember your sins but your Savior. This isn't a meal to bring your guilt home but your forgiveness home. Jesus doesn't leave you a busted vase or a car repair bill; He leaves you what He used to win your forgiveness, to pay for your sins, to satisfy God's wrath against you.
My sainted seminary professor Dr. Robert Preus said that some seminary students walked back from the Lord's Supper looking as if they had just drunk poison. Over the years, I've noticed plenty of people with tears in their eyes at the Lord's Table. I've always hoped they were tears of joy at being fully forgiven. I've always hoped they were eating Christ's Body and drinking His Blood saying, "Here is proof that the sin that bothers me; another won't forgive me for, and I can't forget is actually forgiven." Jesus no more wants your tears of sorrow at this altar than He wanted those of the daughters of Jerusalem on His way to Calvary.
Surely you parents understand this. If you bear a hardship to spare your kids, you don't want them bearing it with you. Christ Jesus gave and shed His Body and Blood so that you might not go through such painful agony for your sins. The highest thanks you can give Him for this is to receive what He gave and shed for your sins with joy, with relief, with the comforting knowledge that this Body and Blood not anything you do or even believe is the answer to your sin and sinfulness.
Yes, the Body and Blood of Jesus are the powerful answer to your sins, the devil that tempts you, and the death that stalks you. Believing they are powerful influences what you do with them. Did you notice the two different reactions to the Blood of Jesus in the reading? Pilate believed it was powerful. He no more wanted Jesus' blood on His hands than Lady Macbeth wanted the blood of Duncan on hers. The crowd thought nothing of the blood of Jesus, so they don't care if it was held against them and their children. To Pilate the Blood of Jesus was really there, and therefore, really powerful. To the crowd the Blood of Jesus wasn't really there, and therefore, wasn't really powerful.
There you have it. The Protestants and Reformed say the Blood of Jesus isn't really in the Supper though the Verba say it is. Therefore, they open their altars to everyone. Let His blood' be on whomever. Conservative Lutherans, Catholics, and the Orthodox say the Blood of Jesus is really in the Supper because the Verba say it is, and so they won't give His real Blood to everyone. Fake blood doesn't do anything; you can get it at stores and give it to anyone. Real blood is powerful; you can get it only at a blood bank and you had better not give it to just anyone even if they want it.
You get the real Blood of Jesus here, and far from staining your hands as Pilate was afraid it would do, it cleanses not only your hands, but head and heart. And far from cursing you as the crowd didn't care if it did, Jesus' blood blesses you. More about those blessings next week. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek V (20070321); What is the Sacrament of the Altar?