What is the Benefit of this Eating and Drinking?
Tonight's question of the Sacrament is what is the benefit of this eating and drinking?
Note how precise the question is. We don't ask what the benefits are but what the benefit is. But in the answer we list 3 benefits: forgiveness, life, and salvation. Why? Because Jesus specifically said the benefit of this eating and drinking is forgiveness. He said, "Given and shed for the forgiveness of sins." The other two, life and salvation, flow from that "because where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation."
The problem is this; often when you come to church forgiveness is not the thing you seek. No, you seek "to feel better," (whatever that means). You seek companionship, entertainment, information. You don't come as a sinner seeking grace, but as a troubled person seeking solutions. In such a state, the Lord's Supper becomes like a rabbit's foot for you. You rub up against it hoping that whatever it might do it would address the need you feel.
Whatever needs you might feel the one you need to feel is forgiveness. I promise you if it isn't you will one day go astray from this Sacrament, and therefore, from Jesus. The chief reason He left you His Body and Blood is not to make you healthy, happy, peaceful, or well adjusted. He left you His Body and Blood to forgive you.
Jesus could've have left you every blessing, gift, answer you would ever want or need. He could've left you an easy life, a healthy life, a prosperous life and came down off the cross you saw Him pinned to tonight. If Jesus had left you answers to the answerless problems that plague you, if He had left you fulfillment for your endless aching needs, the sun wouldn't have stopped shinning, and His Father wouldn't have abandoned Him to hell. Jesus could have given you the courage of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the power of Elijah and came down from the cross as His enemies taunted Him to, but He couldn't have forgiven you.
The sun stopped shining and the Father turned away from Jesus because the Father had made sinless Jesus to be sin. The sun was so repulsed by what it saw it stopped looking. The holy Father was so repelled He turned away sending His only beloved Son to hell. Here is what your sins deserve and here is where they got it. This is how sinners should die, must die, and will die apart from the forgiveness Jesus' won here. You just think your big problem is sadness, anxiety, sleeplessness, sickness, loneliness. Feel the full weight of your sins of just today and you'll know your real problem, your only problem, is sin.
In His Supper, Jesus puts the forgiveness you need. "This is My Body and Blood give and shed for forgiveness." You get forgiveness in Baptism and in absolution. But only in His Supper do all 5 of your senses testify you get forgiveness. You not only hear and see forgiveness: you taste, smell, and touch it. Douse the guilt ablaze in your heart with the touch of Communion. Remove that bitter taste of sin in your mouth with the taste of Communion. Take away the stench of that sin in your nose by the smell of Communion. That's why the Lord gives you His Body tasting like bread and His Blood tasting like sweet wine. If it actually tasted like Body and Blood who would use it to get the benefit of forgiveness? Augustine said, "Jesus signified His will through the sense of taste" (On Doctrine, II,3, 336).
Forgiveness is the chief benefit: the one that you should focus on, the one that should draw you to this altar time after time, but it's not the only one. Where there is forgiveness there is also life. This isn't a synonym of salvation. This doesn't refer to eternal life. This is earthly life. Don't think this strange. How did death come into this world? By eating. So life comes by eating and drinking. Luther called Communion the Tree of Life hanging down from heaven. Recall that the Tree of Life was in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, by Revelation it's in heaven. Because of the tree of the cross, it now hangs within reach on earth in the Holy Communion. As a Communion prayer of Reformation Lutherans said, "Thy supper be my heaven on earth, till I enter heaven."
How can Communion be a Tree of Life? Because the only cause of death is sin. No sin, no death. God had promised Adam and Eve that the day they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they would die. Did they visibly drop dead on that day? No, but they did die right then because they were instantly separated from God who is life. Take away sins, i.e. forgive sins and you rejoin God and stop death. The day you were forgiven you stopped dying and started living. Isn't that what Scripture says about Baptism? We were born again by a washing of rebirth.
Where there is forgiveness there is life. Death is at work in all our bodies, and disease might be. Death one day will and disease might literally devour these physical bodies, but in physical bodies is not where life really is. Life is in God. Jesus says, "For as the Father has life in Himself; so has he given to the Son to have life in Himself." We only live when we're connected to God. The only way to be connected to God the Father, safely, is through God the Son.
I know what you're thinking. What a simple, even silly looking, way to be connected to life Communion is! A thin piece of unleavened Bread and swallow of wine connects me to the source of life and is the remedy for the death I feel at work in my body? Now you know how the thief on the cross felt. Hanging next to him was One dying just like he was. What a miracle that the thief believed what the others only taunted: that this was the Son of God. He did save others. He would return with a kingdom. What a miracle that the thief believed the sweaty, bloody, bruised Man hanging next to him was his God and Savior. Yet he did. Faith produced by the Holy Spirit isn't based on sight; it's a miracle. The thief looked at a crucified man and said there's the answer to my death. You can look at Bread and Wine and say, "There's the answer to my death."
What if Communion visibly extended your life? What if it was the fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon searched for? What if people who came to Communion were healthier, younger, and more vibrant? If this were visible to sight there would be a stampede to our altar every Sunday. However, even if you could see the physical life that is distributed at this altar, that wouldn't be enough. God purposely drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden so they wouldn't eat from the Tree of Life and so live forever in a fallen world. That's why there's not just physical life in this Sacrament, but eternal life.
Before I continue, let me make sure you don't get a wrong impression. You don't have to receive Communion on your deathbed in order to go to heaven. You may be unconscious; there may be no pastor there. While Lutherans believe there is such a thing as an emergency Baptism, they don't believe there is such a thing as an emergency Communion. What makes a Sacrament powerful and comforting is the Word. While you can't have a Sacrament without the Word, you can have the Word without the Sacrament. Therefore, Luther admonished the dying to make the last will of Christ, "Given and shed for you for forgiveness" their last pillow. You always have those words even when you can't have Communion.
There is eternal life in this Sacrament. St. Ignatius, born 50 A.D., called Communion "the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live forever in Jesus Christ" (Ephesians,20). Luther said, "The Body [of Christ] nourished man's body for eternity. When the mouth receives the Body, a person acquires a kind of immortality" (LW 38,57). And he said, "This food changes him who eats it into itself and makes him like itself: spiritual, living, and eternal" (LW 37,100).
Your body takes physical food and drink and converts it into energy. Not wishing to be crude, your body takes fine steaks, bright salads, red wines, brown beer and also converts these beautiful things into well.offal, feces, repulsive things. Your body changes food in beneficial and disgusting ways. Christ's gives you His Body and Blood for food to change your body only in a beneficial and beautiful way. Christ's Body and Blood converts your temporal, dying body and blood into one that lives forever. His Body and Blood, looking so weak, ordinary, plain in Bread and Wine converts yours into something eternally beautiful. Think this far fetched? Then what does Paul mean when he says that Jesus transforms our lowly body to be like his glorious body? Do you think Jesus works on physical bodies without physical things that touch them?
We constantly want to spiritualize our faith. Root it in our head or hearts. Root it in some mysterious operation of Jesus or the Spirit apart from things that touch these bodies of flesh and blood. But that's just not how God works; that's just not how God gives benefits to His people. In the Garden of Eden it was a real Tree of Life that they could eat of. He brought the Old Testament into His church by physical circumcision. He gave protection from the angel of death by real blood painted above the door. He gave forgiveness of sins through people eating of the animal sacrificed.
In our New Testament era, do you think all that's changed? Then why did John come preaching a Baptism, a washing of water, for the forgiveness of sins? Then why did God take on flesh and blood that could be touched, held, and handled as St. John says the disciples did? Then why when Jesus physically died all sorts of real world, physical things happened: the temple curtain was torn, the earth shook, rocks split, and tombs broke open? Then why on Easter night does Jesus physically breathe on the apostles to give them the Holy Spirit?
Jesus works His miracles by means of physical things. When you're longing for forgiveness and its benefits of life and salvation, don't peer inside your heart or look inside your head. Open your mouth and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek VI (20070328); Lord's Supper II