What is the Sacrament of the Altar?


For Lutherans, the Word is what counts in sacraments. No Word, no Sacrament. 4th Century Ambrose said,” ‘Thus the speech of Christ effects this sacrament.'" (In the Name of Jesus, 347). Luther agreed: "'Therefore this sacrament is brought about by the Word of Christ, on which all things are founded. And thus, what was bread before the consecration, now it is the body of Christ after consecration, because the Word of Christ changes what was created'" (Peters, Baptism & Lord's Supper, 166, fn. 100). So to answer What is the Sacrament of the Altar we turn to Jesus’ Words.

The first Word we look at is the ‘to be’ verb, is. It’s the Word of reality; the Word of substance. Language would commit suicide if it could tolerate the substantive verb expressing not substance but symbol (Krauth, Con. Ref., 619). No Christian denomination denies Jesus says: “This is my Body.” The issue is does it mean: This Bread is Jesus’ Body or not? That’s answered by Jesus saying this is His body given and His blood shed on the cross. Was that His literal body on the cross? Yes! than what He gives to eat and drink must be that same body and blood (Krauth, Con. Ref., 699). "Bread and wine are not 'mere signs' of the 'absent body of Christ." Luther says, "'the body of Christ wears the bread'" (Peters, Baptism & Lord's Supper, 154, fn. 38). Just as in the Feeding of the 5,000: before Jesus blessed the loaves and fish it wasn’t food for thousands, but after the blessing it is. So, “before the blessing that bread was not the body of Christ; after the blessing, This bread is His body" (Krauth, 674).

Jesus tells us the Sacrament of Altar is about reality. His Word also tells us it’s about promise. All 4 accounts call it a testament, a will, which is a promise. Jesus specifies what He is leaving His Church. What treasures can Almighty God, Ruler of all, Lord of the Cosmos leave His people: Great riches? Good health? Happiness? Nope: His Body and His Blood. Jesus doesn’t make a covenant but a will. He testifies what He is leaving to whom. He leaves His Body and Blood in a meal for His Church to often eat and drink. Not carry it around in a festival. Not kept for display in the church as Roman Catholics do, and not for ignoring or denying His presence as Protestants do. Actually according to Catholic radio 75% of Catholics don’t believe Jesus’ promise that Communion is His body and His blood (Drew Mariani Show, 3-25-22).

The Sacrament of the Altar is not just a will or testament but a new one.  Luke and Paul record Jesus calling it a new testament. This is not the word for new in time, neos but new, kainos, in form and quality from the old. It’s also the word for unused. This is the “new thing” the Lord promises in Isaiah 43 (18-19). The heaven and earth John sees in Revelation is this kind of new: unused, different from the old. But why does Jesus only say “a new testament in His blood” and not make reference to His body? Because the OT was sealed with the blood of an animal. But animal blood can’t forgive sins and by it under the OT sins were remembered.

The NT says the Lord from Isaiah to Hebrews is that He remembers are sins no more. It’s a lie that unless a human forgets a sin, he hasn’t forgiven it. We can’t choose to forget. Oh, we have drugs and alcohol but they don’t erase memories just dull them. Greeks and Romans had drugs and alcohol too, but they knew forgetting belonged to divinity. Their myths had Lethe in the afterlife: the River of Forgetfulness, Unmindfulness, Oblivion. The true God can actually forget sins. He remembered all sins on a Friday we call Good and punished them all forever and then some on His only Son. Now He doesn’t remember Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s denial. He doesn’t remember the OT church leaders spiting on Him, striking Him with fists, mocking or teasing Him. And I assure you, in this new testament, He doesn’t remember the sins you or anyone else can’t forget.

Wait a minute. What about “Do this is remembrance of Me?” You got me. Communion is a visible Word of remembrance. Sins aren’t remember but something else is because Jesus says we are to eat His body and drink His blood “in remembrance of Me” and that “Me” is emphatic. “Me” and no one else. “Me” the Man who is God and Lord and Savior. “Me” upon whom the angels go between heaven and earth. “Me” who call all those burdened to Himself. “Me” who rules wind and a waves, but does not put out smoldering wicks and grabs burning branches from the fire. “Do this is remembrance of Me.” 

The Reformed say Jesus hereby makes the Supper a memorial meal. Just as the difference between a funeral service and a memorial is the body is present for a funeral but absent from a memorial, so for them they gather to remember an absent Jesus; a Jesus whose body is only at the right hand of God. The Reformed "understood remembrance as an inner effort on the part of man, an ascent of the individual soul to God” (Luther on Worship, 83). In reality, this special Word for remembrance refers to His reappearance before the gathered people of God veiled in Bread and Wine. The only places this Greek noun is used in the NT is in the Words of Institution and in Hebrews 10:3 where it says that the OT “sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins”. In OT there was a bringing back of their sins; in the NT there’s a bringing back of the Savior.

Do this in remembrance of Me is used in the sense of “so that He comes” back to you (In the Name of Jesus, 192). Or “to bring Me back to you.” In 1582 Lutherans said the word meant remembrance of something present. Than referred to Ex. 20:24: "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you." This stresses that where there is remembrance of the Lord’s name, there He certainly also is present (Apology of the BoC, 251). Weaker but stronger than most people’s understanding is this from a 21st century Lutheran dogmatics book. Remembrance is distinguished from memory as the "'reliving of vanished impressions’” (Conf the Gospel 2, 832). It’s not just something in your memory but in reality. It’s not much of a marriage if husband and wife don’t see each other regularly. That’s true of Jesus and His Bride too.

What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Let’s go by Jesus’ Words: It is a Word of promise concerning a new reality that remembers Jesus appears among His people today in this Meal. But these are Words of comfort too. For Luther comfort was in the Greek word huper. His Body is given; His blood is shed ‘for you’, “in your place”, “on your behalf.” The NT has huper in regard to both His Body and Blood. The words ‘for you’ in regard to the bread had been absent from the Mass’ liturgy that was used in Luther’s time. No one is really sure why they had fallen out, but somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries they had.  Luther put back the words 'for you’ in connection with the giving of the bread, already in 1523 (Peters, 180-1). 

The ‘for you’ words have been important to Confessional Lutherans ever since. Here’s what a 19th century Lutheran said, "By the words 'for you,'…He was reminding them that they ought to explode with joy and gladness because the ransom that would be paid for the sins of the whole world was, so to speak, being put in their mouths" (Law & Gospel, 168). Isaiah trumpets “for us” a Child is born; “for us” a Son is given. Jesus picks up the theme in John 6: He gives His flesh “for” huper, the life of the world; Even unbelieving Caiaphas must testify to this truth: “It was expedient that one Man should die for (huper), in place, on behalf, of the people. “For us” He today gives Body-Bread and Blood-Wine. In Luther’s last explicit treatment of this Sacrament he said, "'It is dear to my heart, concerning the precious, blessed Supper of my Lord Jesus Christ, that He gives me His body and blood also physically, in my physical mouth, to eat and drink with such overwhelmingly sweet, friendly words: given for [all of] you, and shed for [all of] you.'" (Peters, 195, fn. 238).

A word of comfort that doesn’t get much attention is ‘shed’. 3 out of 4 accounts of the Words of Institution have it. In Matthew His blood is shed for forgiveness of sins. In Mark, His “blood of the Testament is poured.” And in Luke His blood is shed for you. English often translates ‘poured out’. The idea is “copiously, gush out, shed abroad” (BLB.org/?????). But crucifixion was meant to be a relatively bloodless process. The Romans didn’t want criminals bleeding out quickly. It was to be a slow, tortuous death. Yet, the Lord speaks of His blood poured out, shed, gushing? A 17th century Lutheran scholar linked this to the Passover lamb noting that in Ex. 12 God commands the Passover lamb be slaughtered in such a way that the blood flows freely. The Hebrew word means "'to slaughter [in such a way] that from the stretched out and extended body the blood would flow forth abundantly'" (Gerhard, History of the Suffering, 188).

As the 18th century hymn says this produces a whole fountain filled with it. Already in 1819, some wanted to make it less graphic. The idea was to change “There is Fountain filled with Blood” to “From calvary’s cross a fountain flows” (www.umcdiscipleship.org/). It failed, but in 1982 the LCMS’s version has the title “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” in the index, but no blood filled fountain in their changed hymn. This is better than the their 2006 hymnal which doesn’t have the hymn at all. Curious, our movies and TV get ever bloodier, but our religion gets more sterile. What is happening is a general Melanchthon-izing of doctrine. He wanted to emphasize the person of Christ unlike Luther Christ’s body and blood (Brecht, Luther III, 329). Sinners who know and feel their sins in real bodies in physical ways need a body and blood Savior given and shed for them. And a tangible, visible fountain of His blood not only to wash their sins away, but to cover them up. Pagans had a River of Forgetfulness to forget sins. We have a fountain filled with blood in this Sacrament where our God can’t remember or see our sins.

What is the Sacrament of the Altar? No Protestant of any stripe and now it seems few Catholics see the Body and Blood of Jesus present in their time and space. Don’t let that bother you. The same Jesus stood before the OT church leaders and soldiers that stood before Peter and John. The first saw nothing but a Jewish Rabbi. That’s not what Peter and John saw and Peter denied. No, He was their God in flesh and blood. That’s why Peter and Judas too were devasted by their giving Him up. But this same body and blood given and shed for them was their way back to Him. And yours too. That couldn’t be if it really isn’t here. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Lenten Vespers 3 (20230308); Lord’s Supper I, Passion Reading 3