How Can Bodily Eating and Drinking Do Such Great Things?
Services are held regularly at Austin Stone, Hill Country Bible, Gateway, and Riverbend. Holy Communion isn’t regularly celebrated at any of them. Do you know why? To them, it’s only a matter of eating and drinking. It's not that big of deal; it's not something worth doing often, as Jesus said. Communion is a big deal to Confessional Lutherans. Do you know why? Because bodily eating and drinking is part of the great things it does. How?
Before we answer that question lets answer a similar one: "How can Jesus' suffering and dying on the cross do such great things?" Hundreds of thousands had been crucified, suffered, and died before Jesus. In one form or another crucifixion was practiced at least 800 years before Christ. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, had known its agony, the difficulty of breathing, the searing nerve pain,, the thick-tongued thirst. Uncountable numbers had been mocked, watched by grieving mothers, and died miserably. The truth is Jesus died, for that day and time, in a normal way for a non-Roman. What makes Jesus' suffering and dying so different than? The fact that He is God in flesh and blood. When they grabbed hold of His arm and stretched it back, it was God's arm they grabbed hold of. When they positioned the 9 inch nails on His flesh, it was God's flesh they indented. When they drove the nail through His body, it was the body of God they pierced; it was the mouth of God that gasped in pain; it was the voice of God that shrieked.
All that happened on that ugly little hill, happened to the true, holy, sinless God. The hundreds of thousands crucified before Him died as guilty sinners. Even if they died innocent of actual crimes, they died guilty. Jesus had no guilt. He was the Beloved Son, the unspotted Lamb of God. He died totally innocent of any real or imagined sin. I am sure that meek, innocent, gentle women and children had died before Him, but done were innocent of original sin. Jesus was. So Jesus' suffering and dying weren’t normal. It was the suffering and dying of the Holy God in place of an unholy world. The blood drops that fell from His hands and feet were being shed for hands that shed innocent blood, for feet that are swift to do evil. The passionate suffering of this God-Man was to pay for our uncontrolled passion. The agony Jesus knew here is the agony that damned sinners know in hell.
Because He is God in flesh and blood, Jesus’ suffering is enough for sinners. There isn't some amount of suffering, big or small, that you need bear to have your sins forgiven. You don't need to mingle your blood, sweat, or tears with that of Jesus to be forgiven. The blood of God, the sweat of God, the tears of God, not to mention the death of God are surely sufficient to pay even for your sins. It's the Word made flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary that makes all the difference between the crucifixion of Jesus and all others. If it wasn't for the Word being made flesh, we wouldn't remember it; care about it; treasure it. The Word made flesh makes the difference. Likewise, it's the Words, "Given and shed for your for the forgiveness of sins," that make the bodily eating and drinking in this Meal different from any other.
Pay attention to the Words. "’Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking are the main thing in the Sacrament." Confirmation students and parents have complained that in 6th Chief Part the last 3 sections sound the same. They're right. We find the answer to "What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?" "How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?" and to "Who receives this sacrament worthily?" in the Words "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." These words express what's here and why. They tell us that this isn’t ordinary bread and wine. No this is Body-Bread; this is Blood-wine. This is the Body given over to death on Cavalry; this is the Blood shed there. Cavalry comes to us in this Meal. The Body and Blood of the God-Man crucified there comes to us here. But hear the rest of what Jesus says. Why are they here? The Body and Blood are not here for judgement; they’re not here for condemnation; they’re not here to scare you. They're here for forgiving, for living, for saving.
But don’t go Catholic on me. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God" (1414). In other words, there are benefits to Holy Communion apart from eating and drinking. While it is edifying to participate in the liturgy, Christ attaches the benefits of Communion to eating and drinking. "Take eat, Take drink," He says. In eating and drinking you get His body and His blood that was given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. But right here is where we're tempted to go astray. We say, "'Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins' along with the bodily eating and drinking are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say." Where do we put the emphasis in what I just said? What words ring in your ears? "Whoever believes these words." If so, then you search your heart to see if you had enough faith to actually receive the body and blood, and if not the body and blood Christ wouldn't be there.
We think this because we misunderstand "whoever believes this." It does not say whoever believes this has the body and blood, as if you didn't believe it, they wouldn't be there. What it says is that the benefits of eating and drinking the body and blood are received by faith. This was written specifically against the Catholic error called ex opere operato. This says that the Sacrament gives grace by the act itself apart from faith. Lutherans specifically rejected this teaching, but they didn't do so to set up a tyranny of faith, to encourage soul searching to see if you have enough faith, or to make faith the power of the Sacrament. No, look what we say is the main thing in the Sacrament. Not faith. Faith isn't even mentioned. We say, "These words [Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins], along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament."
Did you notice that there are not 2 main things, but one? The main thing is the words and the bodily eating and drinking. The words are joined to the bodily eating and drinking. In answering the question, "How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things," the emphasis is not put on "whoever believes" but on “These Words, along with the eating and drinking.” How wonderful! This objectifies salvation. It hangs our salvation on what God says and on ordinary eating and drinking. Faith receives the benefits of those words and of the eating and drinking but it doesn't cause the benefits to be there. Why mention faith at all? Remember this is about the Catholic error. They not only said "faith" wasn't needed but faith was never enough. Faith without works couldn't do anything. The Lutherans asserted the opposite: Faith all by itself, apart from working, apart from penance, apart from changing receives all the benefits of Communion.
But don't read this as I did for years. Bodily eating and drinking can do such great things because I believe! No, no, a thousand times no. If the great things Communion does are caused by my faith, how can I go to the Lord's Supper when my faith is tried by illness, doubts, or sorrow? No, bodily eating and drinking does such great things because by eating and drinking I get what Jesus says is given and shed for my forgiveness, His Body, His Blood. Set the words, "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" against your sins. Say, "Although I am truly guilty of all manner of sins, these words say that Christ's body and blood are here for my forgiveness." "Though I don't feel like I can ever forgive myself these words say that in Jesus’ body and this blood I am forgiven." "Though I've been such a weak, doubting, unbelieving person, nevertheless, these words say that Christ's body and blood are here to forgive sins, and those words make no exceptions, not even for my sins."
Do the same with your eating and drinking. Set your eating and drinking against your doubting. O yes, I doubt that my many serious sins could ever be forgiven, but Jesus says that as sure as I eat and drink this Meal, I am eating and drinking forgiveness. And I doubt that I can go on sometimes; I feel so sick and weary, but Jesus says when I eat His Body and Drink His blood I am eating and drinking life. And I doubt terribly whether eternal life is really mine. But Jesus says that as sure as His body is given to Me to eat and His blood to drink so sure do I eat and drink salvation.
Let me put this matter of "faith" to rest for you. Let me show you that Luther is not trying to put before you a stumbling block, or a question mark. Let me show you that the ending, “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say," is really a comfort. Do you desire that forgiveness, life, and salvation could all be given to you right here? Do you wish right here could be God's final Word on your sins, on your life, on your salvation? When I say, “This is God's last Word to you,” does a part of you gasp, "O if only it were true?" Then my friend, you have all the faith needed to receive these blessings.
This is what Walther said in Law and Gospel, "One who desires to believe is already a believer. …As soon as I want to believe something, I am secretly believing it” (Dau Ed., 202). Again, “Where there is a spark of longing for mercy, there is faith" (Ibid., 369). When you hear the Words, "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins," and you eat the Body given and drink the Blood shed, that desire to believe, that longing for mercy is all the faith you need, and you receive exactly what those words say. You go away from this eating and drinking more forgiven than you ever dared wanted, more saved than you ever longed for, more mercied than you ever hoped for. That's why this bodily eating and drinking is such a big deal to us. Amen