It's a Miracle that We Eat and Drink Our God
"Our" is probably best erased from the title. We don't eat and drink our God as if to imply there may be another one besides ours. No, we eat and drink the only true God. In fact, the only corporeal manifestation of the Most High God we see in this world is the Body and Blood of God the Son in the Bread and Wine (Oxford History of Christian Worship, 236). In The Power and the Glory, a Graham Greene novel set in 1930's Mexico, a priest carries around an individual Communion kit. The locals say he has God in the box. This offends many. Take Ralph Waldo Emerson; in his last sermon on September 9, 1832 titled "The Lord's Supper" he resigned because "he could no longer in good conscience administer that sacrament." The thought of bread and wine being used by God was repugnant to him (Ibid. 597). To us it's a miracle that we eat and drink our God in this Bread and Wine.
It's a miracle because God is Spirit. That's straight from the lips of Jesus in John 4. "God is Spirit." He has no body; He has no blood. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not three men as Don Mclean sang. They don't have fingers and faces as Michelangelo painted. When Scripture speaks of God as having these it speaks anthropomorphically. God warns against thinking He could be confined to a physical building such as temple. He warns against depicting Him in the likeness of any created thing.
Yet the true God took on flesh and blood in the Virgin's womb. God the Father by means of God the Spirit prepared the Son a Body says Hebrews. That's why Jesus can stand before the Church officials of His day in flesh and blood and confess that He is the Son of the Blessed One. And Jesus did in fact say He in His flesh and blood was the true tabernacle of God; the true dwelling place of God. He didn't say He would destroy it but that they would. St. Paul sums these truths all up in the simple statement that "all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Jesus." Because this is so Jesus can say in John 5, that His Body is life giving, and in John 6 that the one who eats His Body and drinks His Blood has everlasting life.
There's the second miracle right there. The first is that God who is Spirit takes on flesh and blood, and the second is that we sinners can eat it. God's Body and Blood are holy. To say God is holy doesn't just mean He is without sin but that sin cannot exist in His presence. In the Old Testament God deigned to dwell over the Ark of the Covenant. When Uzzah touches it to keep it from falling, God struck him dead on the spot. Anyone but the high priest, and then only when he was carrying blood, was struck dead if he entered the holy of holies where the Ark was kept. When Isaiah saw the Lord on His throne he fell to the ground crying he was ruined.
Yet in Jesus God invites weak and heavy ladened sinners to come to Him. Jesus depicts Himself as a mother hen under whose wings sinners can find shelter. In 1 John, John says they seen and even touched Jesus safely. In John 20 Thomas confesses Jesus to be His Lord and God and yet he can put his fingers into Jesus' nail holes and into His side without being struck dead.
We've talked about this before. Just as you couldn't plug an appliance into a high voltage power line without blowing it up but you can plug it into an outlet in your home safely, so our safe contact point with the True God is the flesh and blood of Jesus, but this is because God has made it this way. First, if Jesus didn't veil His divine power we would be like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration or John in Revelation 1. We would be sacred to death. Second, Jesus gives to us His holiness so we sinners aren't destroyed.
You've seen this in Jesus' ministry. When Jesus touched the demonized, the diseased, or the dead, He wasn't defiled they were exorcised, healed, or raised. But Jesus wasn't able to do this by fiat. No, He had to win the right to do this for sinners. Demons had a right to possess us; disease had a right to infect us; and death had a right to take us. By our sins, we had sold ourselves to these things. We are Peter's who have denied God. We are Judas's who have betrayed God. We are church leaders who have rejected Jesus because He didn't fit our understanding of religion. Every sin of thought, word, or deed we commit is nothing less than spit on Jesus' face, blows to His head, and lashes to His Body.
Having mistreated the true God, what don't we deserve in the way of demons, disease, and death, but what do we find? In Gethsemane, Jesus said the demons owned that hour, and so gave Himself up to them in our place. Hunger, thirst, bleeding, and sweating as bad as any disease we will ever go through Jesus suffered to redeem us. The horrible rending, ripping, tearing of soul from body that all men fear, God in flesh and blood suffered in our place. God takes on Flesh and Blood to suffer in place of all flesh and blood to redeem us. Then by means of His holy flesh and blood He gives His holiness to our flesh and blood.
It's a miracle that we eat and drink our God in Holy Communion: because God is Spirit, because we are sinners, and because of how casually we commune. Do you wince when you hear how they spat upon, slapped and beat Jesus? Do you marvel that they could mistreat God in flesh and blood so? Do you hold these men guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Jesus? Do you realize that's exactly what Paul says of those who misuse Communion? They're guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Jesus.
I've been celebrating Communion every Sunday for over 20 years now, and it seems to some extent the old people were right who grew up on first once a quarter, then once a month, then twice a month Communion. They were right who grew up going to be examined by the pastor before Communion, then going to announce, and then finally just going to a special confessional services before Communion. They were right: going to Communion has become too caviler, too thoughtless, too casual.
Whatever we do, however we treat, however we think of the Bread and Wine of Communion, that's what we do, treat, or think of the Body and Blood of God. Because we don't believe in transubstantiation with the Catholics, that is because we believe the Bread and Wine are still there, we have a tendency to treat and think of Communion according to its earthly component rather than it's heavenly. This is dangerous. This is what Paul warns about in I Corinthians. Treating Communion as ordinary bread and wine. Luther emphasized that what happens to the Bread and Wine happens to Jesus by saying, "Christ's body is broken and divided at the table and bitten, chewed, and swallowed..." (LW, 37, 333).
The main function of the Communion vessels' veils is to indicate what these elements really are. The outward appearance of the Bread and Wine tell us nothing about what they really are. It's the veils that tell us this. The veils tell us something unearthly, something divine is present here. The reason we paint halos around the beaten, crucified, or newborn Christ, is to confess who He really is. That's the same reason historically the church put veils over the Communion vessels. By doing away with the veils, modern worship is saying what you see is all you get (Heresy of Formlessness, 172-173).
We shouldn't be too harsh on them because we too have done away with things that confess what these elements really are. Because in the Scripture whenever someone recognized the divinity of Jesus they fell down and worshipped Him, the church historically had the elevation after the Words of Institution (Ibid. 125). The pastor turned to the congregation after the Words of Institution and showed them the Body and Blood of Jesus. Then the people bowed before their God now present.
In the Medieval church, this practice degenerated into a "communing with the eyes," the people didn't eat and drink the Body and Blood of their God they just adored them. Luther, for that reason, did away with the elevation. He brought it back as a means to confess to the Reformed who denied Communion was the Body of Blood what Lutherans believed Communion really is.
We have retained the singing of the Angus Dei and kneeling, when able, to receive the Body and Blood. Kneeling speaks an unmistakable language; standing doesn't (Ibid. 133). People stand in lines, stand at football games, stand at concerts, but even in our fallen society when one kneels he indicates he believes he's in the presence of deity. A man on his knees because he believes that His Maker is present in a little wafer is still a stumbling block in many places, and we should thank God for that (Ibid. 30).
Why? Why should we thank God that our kneeling while we eat and drink our God is a stumbling block? Haven't you ever noticed when you stumble you always go back and examine where you tripped? You want to find out exactly what you stumbled over. Luther said that to elevate the Body and Blood of Christ is preaching the Gospel to the whole world (Stephenson, The Lord's Supper, 27). To bow and kneel before that Body and Blood is to make the world stop and examine what is going on.
How we approach the Body and Blood of our God testifies to others and each other that, as we sing, "An awe-full mystery's here to challenge faith and waken fear." Prior to Vatican II the Catholic church referred rightly to Communion as a res periculosa, "'a dangerous and fraught undertaking'" (Heresy, 209). Luther got that. From Luther's first Communion celebration to one of his last, he always exhibited a profound reference. In his first celebration, he couldn't stop shaking because who was he to be involved in such a divine, holy thing? In one of his last celebrations, he spilled the Blood of Christ and stooped to lick it off the floor.
You do err if you think Luther did either of those things for God's sake. Or that we veil the elements, elevate them, bow and kneel before them for God's sake. Having heard once more tonight how God gave His Body and Blood to redeem us can you really think He gives His Body and Blood to us for His sake? The liturgical gestures we do are for our sake and for the sake of others so that they might know and we might be reminded of the miracle of our God coming among us so that we may eat and drink Him. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers III (20110323); Lord's Supper I