The Verba


The Words of Institution are called the Verba in Latin, The Words. This sets these words apart from all others. These are the words by which the true God doesn't just give gifts but Himself. Radbertus, 9th century, contrasted Christ's all-powerful, all-authoritative Words of Institution with all other words and authorities (In the Name of Jesus, 291). How about you? What are they to you?

They are words of proclamation not prayer. The pastor isn't praying to God when He speaks the holy Verba. He isn't asking God to do something. Neither is he exhorting the congregation to do something. This was Calvin's view. The Verba are exhortatory not consecratory. In Calvin's view they exhort us to lift our spirits and hearts to where Jesus is in heaven (Oxford Hist. Worship, 322). No, the Verba are words proclaiming what Jesus did on the night He was betrayed, what Jesus does right here: He gives His Body as Bread and His Blood as Wine, and they are words proclaiming what He will do as often as His Church uses them.

The Verba are words of revelation not incantation. An incantation is a spell. By saying the words in exactly the right way, whoever speaks them has what they say. The idea that the Verba were a spell was fostered by the medieval practice of the priest not speaking them loudly. It is thought by some that the Latin for "This is My body", hoc est corpus meum, was heard as hocus pocus' by the laity, and so magicians came to use it in their acts as magical words.

No, the Verba are revelation not incantation. Up till tonight we know that Jesus is the Lamb of God carrying away the sins of the world; that He came to give His life as a ransom; that He will be betrayed, suffer many things by the leaders of the Old Testament church, and be crucified. On the night He is betrayed Jesus puts all the pieces together. His body will be given and His blood will be shed in the manner sacrificial animals were given over to shed their blood in place of those who offered them.

Given' and shed' are important words but there are several that are more important. The first of which is remission.' This spells out why His Body is being given and His Blood is being shed: for the forgiveness of sins. It's not until Jesus speaks the Verba in Matthew do we hear this. But it's not just a general forgiveness or remission of sins. No, His Body is being given and His Blood is being shed "for you." This Greek phrase can be translated "in place of you", "on behalf of you". It's Jesus in your place. This is the end of A Tale of Two Cities only it's not the villain giving up his life in place of the good man; it's the Perfect Man giving up His in place of vile, fallen, disgusting sinners like you, like me.

Having confessed tonight what Lutherans believe about the Sacrament of the Altar, you cannot have missed that the words "for you" are the most important part for us. What is the Sacrament of the Altar? The Lord Jesus' true body and blood "for us Christians to eat and drink." What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? This is shown by these words: "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing as forgive sins and give life and salvation? It's not just eating and drinking but the words "given and shed for you" which set aside the eating and drinking done here from all other. Who then could ever be worthy to eat and drink the Body and Blood of God? The one who has faith in these words: "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Luther said that the Sacrament bridges the gap between Christ's salvation for all and the individual by saying it's for you' (Luther on Worship, 138).

So, the Verba are words of proclamation not prayer, of revelation not incantation, and words of reliving not merely recollecting (Kiehl, Passion, 61). We don't celebrate Holy Communion merely in memory of what happened on the night He was betrayed, but we do this to apprehend Him, to see Him, as a present reality (Davies, Paul, 108). In the East Communion "was celebrated as a timeless event, an appearance (epiphany) of Christ in which the congregation experienced the actual event of the Supper, not as it was or will be but as it is forever" (Church from Age to Age, 352). It's a timeless event occurring in our time and place.

For the Reformed, for the Evangelicals, it's a memorial meal, a solemn, sacred event done in a memory of what Jesus did in the past and who is in heaven now and will return someday but definitely not today in their Lord's Supper. Luther described the remembrance done by those who deny Jesus is present in Communion in our time and place "as an inner effort on the part of man, an ascent of the individual soul to God. Luther called this a remembrance im Winkel (in one's own private corner), for here the individual was expected to secure his own tryst with God, apart from the congregation" (Luther on Worship, 83). A 19th century Reformed preacher's book on Communion had on its cover an illustration of tombstone engraved with the words "'To the Memory of my Saviour." A contemporary Lutheran said that this was "the graveyard tendency, which turns the great festival of the redemption into a time of mourning, and coldly furnishes forth the marriage table with the baked meats of the funeral" (Krauth, Con. Ref., 653).

For Confessional Lutherans, "Holy Communion is the opposite of a festival commemorating a dead man! It is a meal fellowship with Him who lives, and who by reason of His resurrection victory, is actually present among His followers through the administration of Holy Communion" (In the Name of Jesus, 171). The Greek word for remembrance Jesus uses is not the simple word for recalling something in memory, but for reliving something by a definite act (Kittle, I, 348). The French translation has Jesus saying literally, "Do this to bring Me back to you."

If you really want the taste of this, the physical reality of this, go to the only use of this Greek word outside the Verba. It's in Hebrews 10:3. There the repeated sacrifices for sin done in the Temple are contrasted with the one and done, once and for all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In "those sacrifices is a remembrance of sins every year." What your guilty conscience does to you with a past sin or sins in the dead of night, in the blue of guilt, at an unexpected time, how it brings your sin back to you so you can taste it, touch it, smell it, and be revolted anew by it, that's what Jesus wills the celebration of the Sacrament to do with your forgiveness. Jesus would meet the need you have for His present forgiveness in the way the wife of Charles Lindbergh expressed her need for him. "'I need to see you, and to see you again, and to see you always" (Lindbergh, 144).

The Verba are words of proclamation not prayer, of revelation not incantation, of reliving not recollecting, and words of communion not separation. "Hah!" some of you laugh because you know I'm about to say that "because of the sad divisions that exist in Christianity today we can't invite all of you to the Lord's Table." What you may not know is that Closed Communion is the official doctrine of not only all Confessional Lutherans but of Catholicism and the Orthodox. This should give you pause: it's the official doctrine of those communions that are pro-life, don't ordain women, and don't accept homosexuality. What you probably don't know is that some of the Reformed originally practiced some form of it.

Yes, those who get so upset with us for not communing them while they will commune us and are in fact upset when we won't commune in their churches initially understood that a separation needed to be made at the Communion altar. In Calvin's 1542 Order of Service after the Verba "In the accompanying exhortation, the minister restricted the Communion to the faithful, a feature that later came to be known as 'the fencing of the tables'" (Church from Age to Age, 468). In 1635 they brought in a rail "defending it [the altar] with a decent Rail from all prophanations..." (Oxfor. Hit of Worship, 506). In 17th century Reformed Scotland communion began with a "'fencing of the table,' excluding notorious and unrepentant sinners from communion" (Ibid., 479).

On this side of heaven, the Verba mark a division. Since they are the means by which Christ returns to a time and place on earth in His Body and Blood only one of Him can be present. The One Jesus can't teach both that He is present on this altar in Communion, in my hands, and in your mouth, and that He is as far removed from earth as heaven is. The One Jesus can't teach that you receive His Body and Blood in Communion orally and not orally at all but only by faith. The One Jesus can't teach both "pray to My mother" and "don't pray to my mother", "baptize your babies" and "don't baptize them." "I'm returning to the end the world on the Last Day, and I'm returning to set up an earthly government."

However, the same Meal that reflects separation on this side of heaven reflects communion with the other. Since the earliest days of the Church, she has confessed in the Proper Preface that heaven comes to earth in the celebration of the Supper. Where the King really is there must be His kingdom too. So, after the Verba it's not just those communing on this side of heaven at the altar, but angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. This altar is the place Jacob laid his head and saw the angels of God ascending and descending. This altar is the place Isaiah saw in his 6th chapter. Here six-winged seraphim stand above this altar saying, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts." At this altar there is communion with the throne-room of God that John is taken into where all of heaven is gathered.

The same rail that marks a separation can also confess this communion. Churches whose communion rail is a half-circle were made that way on purpose. They confessed that the half-circle here was completed in heaven. "[T]he other half was in heaven, and Christ is the center both here and there" (A Formula for Parish Practice, 110). Rather than going across the front of the chancel, these rails start at the wall of one side of the altar and make a semicircle to the other side. When those in Christ cease to kneel here on this side, they move to the other side. That means my mother and father, my aunt, your uncle, your sister, your friend, all those in Christ regardless of the Christian communion they were in here, are tonight and at every Lord's Supper on the other side. And there they don't just hear the Verba they see the Word made flesh. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Maundy Thursday (20180329); Words of Institution