The Words of Institution


The Latin motto of the Royal Society of London, the United Kingdom's National Academy of Science, is Nullius in Verba which means "on the words of no one." Not a bad motto for strictly scientific endeavors. It doesn't work so well in life, however. You take your spouses word that you are married. You give your word to tell the truth or serve your country. We only know that policemen, firemen, doctors, and even politicians serve us by their word. So words are very important in everyday life, and none more important than the Words of Institution. While the Royal Society of London says Nullius in Verba, the Church refers to the words with which Jesus instituted His Supper as the Verba. The Words in the superlative, The Words par excellence, The Words above all others. Such words deserve to be, cry to be, understood.

The Verba are words of proclamation that are to be spoken clearly, loudly, and declaratively. The Words of Institution proclaim what Jesus does to the Bread and Wine on are altar. The bread while remaining Bread becomes His Body and the wine while remaining Wine becomes His Blood. What makes this a sacrament or in the Greek a mystery "is the fact that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ" (Sasse, We Confess the Sacraments, CPH, 1985, 149). The Verba proclaim a mystery that man couldn't guess, fathom, or dare to say: This Bread is the same Body that Jesus gave over unto death on the cross. This Wine is the same Blood that He shed there.

When the pastor says the Verba, he is not praying. He's not asking God to do something. He's not speaking to God at all. He's proclaiming to the congregation, to the world, to angels, archangels, all the company of heaven, and even to evil spirits, that God is now present on this altar. The Verba aren't intercession and they're not an incantation either. An incantation uses words to bind a power beyond you to do something.

While Catholics don't believe the Verba are a spell, they do believe they're spoken to God not man. This is what their Cannon of the Mass says, "The priest should just hear his own voice (this is especially important in the case of the words of Consecration, since the form of every sacrament must be sensible), but should not be heard by the bystanders" ( This certainly lends itself to understanding the Verba as magic. In fact many think the well-known magic words hocus-pocus came from people not clearly hearing the priest say "This is My Body" in Latin. "Hoc est enim corpus meum" was heard or perhaps slurred to hocus-pocus.

The Verba are words of proclamation, not intercession, not incantation and not mere information. For the Reformed the Verba impart only historical information about what Jesus did on the night He was betrayed, so you can remember it. The words don't proclaim the Lord doing anything here. They don't proclaim that this Bread is now Body and this Wine is now Blood.

However, knowing that the Verba are words of proclamation that consecrate this bread as Body and this wine as Blood is only to touch the surface of what they are. They are also words of command. "Do this" is no less a command than pray, love, believe. Our Large Catechism says no one is to be forced to go to the Sacrament, but it takes seriously that there is a command to go. "I call that a despising the Sacrament if one allows a long time to elapse with nothing to hinder him yet never feels a desire for it. If you want such a freedom, you may just as well have the freedom not to be a Christian and not to have to believe or pray. One is just as much commanded by Christ as the other" (V, 49).

How often am I commanded to go? The Large Catechism says that while the Lord shows us He doesn't want anyone forced to go to the Table, since He does say "as often as you," that implies we should go often. Some counter since "How often must I go to the Sacrament," is a question of the law and the Lord's Supper is all Gospel it ought not to be answered. Too late; our agreed upon Confession of faith already answers it. The Small Catechism says pastors are to tell people, "'When someone does not seek or desire the Sacrament at least four times a year, it is to be feared that he despises the Sacrament and is not a Christian'" (22) The Large Catechism says, "It must be understood that such people, who abstain and absent themselves from the Sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians" (Kolb,V, 42).

Blatantly disregard any command of God and you despise it, but it is possible to follow a command of God and, yet still despise it. The Verba not only command us "do this" and "do this often," they also command us "do this in remembrance of Me." That's the special Word for remembering that means "bring Me back to you." The Lord didn't institute His Supper to bring your sins or guilt back to you, but Him and His forgiveness. When going to the Lord's Supper brings back to you your sins, guilts, and failures, you're not following Jesus' command that Communion bring back to you Him and His forgiveness.

Did you catch a note of promise, a whiff of hope, a taste of joy? Well prepare for a whole feast for the Verba above all else aren't words of proclamation or command but words of promise. But not a promise in the sense of something that is in future but not yet yours, but promise in the sense of something fulfilled the moment it's spoken. "I forgive you" is not a promise to forgive you at a later time but words that send your sins away right then and there. "I baptize you in name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" is not a promise to bring you at a later time into the Triune God but right then and there does it. Likewise, the Verba are a promise that is fulfilled in their speaking.

This is My Body; this is My Blood promise that in this time, space, and place Jesus is now really, physically, present. No, Jesus isn't just spiritually present or present to faith; this is Reformed teaching. If Jesus is only spiritually present or present only if you believe it He's really absent from the altar. No, Jesus says the same Body and Blood given and shed really and physically on the cross are present in the Supper He gives now.

What we would do if we knew even a city politician or one of our synod's bureaucrats was going to be present at a Divine Service? Be honest; I've seen this before. People tremble with excitement; there is electricity in the air. Someone important to men, to the world, to the press is coming to our church. At each Lord's Supper the Lord of the cosmos deigns to come here. Most men don't care; the world certainly doesn't, and the press either, but angels do; archangels do; even devils do. The Gospels show us that the demons always recognized their Lord even when He hid Himself as an ordinary Man, Son, or Rabbi. Some men also recognized the Lord in His great humility; they were the blind, the suffering, the dying, or those who felt their great sinfulness. They showed they recognized their Lord in Flesh and Blood even as we do in Bread and Wine; they bent their knees and bowed their heads in His presence.

The Verba promise the Body and Blood of Jesus in your time, space, and place and they connect His presence here with His presence on Calvary. Jesus promises this is the same Body given on the cross and the same Blood shed there. Both verbs "given" and "shed" are present, passive, participles. This makes them alive and active. Picture the cross as the fountain filled with blood that we sing about, but see that it flows to this altar. But we don't want to connect it as Catholics do. The Body and Blood of Jesus isn't here to be resacrificed for sins as they teach. No the relationship between the cross and the altar is as Chrysostom pictured it 1600 years ago. He said it was as a man buying servants. He pays gold for them, and then when he wants to deck them out he does so with gold, "So Christ has purchased us with His Blood and adorned us with His Blood" (Homilies on St. John, 46.4).

To buy the world back from sin, from death, and from the Devil, Jesus gave up His holy Body and shed His holy Blood on Good Friday. So almost 2,000 years ago that sin that bothers you, that guilt that haunts you, that shame that reddens you was paid for, carried away, punished on Jesus' Body and covered with Jesus' Blood. His Body and Blood are here now to testify to the reality that the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross is for you.

Saving faith is expressed in personal pronouns. Scripture declares that Jesus carried away the sins of the world; Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world; God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, but without the "for me," it isn't yours. It's theirs. In the Verba Jesus promises the Body and Blood He gave and shed on the cross for the sins of the world is for you. He proclaims loudly: "This is My Body which is given for you," and lest you somehow miss that it's given for you for forgiveness Jesus plainly says, "This cup is the New Testament in My Blood which is shed for you for the remission of sins." Right there forgiveness in that Cup, in your hand, in your mouth signed, sealed, delivered. Bought, won, merited for you on the cross 2,000 years ago, but delivered, received, signed for in 2010.

Now zoom back out from the street view to the world view. We don't commune everybody, not all Christians or all Lutherans. This is not a statement that the Body and Blood of Jesus given and shed on the cross and here now on our altar are only for us. On the contrary, Jesus gave and shed them for the world to eat and drink, but not everyone is ready to eat and/or celebrate together. On Maundy Thursday Jesus' mother and other believers were not invited to the Lord's Table, but that didn't mean He never wanted them to be.

The Verba are for everyone. Ever since Jesus first spoke them someone, somewhere in the world has been taking bread and wine and proclaiming these words every moment since. And those who have taken the Eternal Word made flesh at His own Verba have been forgiven, enlivened, and saved by this Meal. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Maundy Thursday (20100401) Words of Institution