April 1, 2010
Text: Luke 22:7-20
Dear Friends in Christ,
One of the most important essays of the twentieth century was the 1938 article “The Church and the Lord’s Supper” by the German confessional Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse. Sasse lays it on the line and calls a spade a spade as they say. What he wrote challenges us and will challenge the church until the end of time. Today/tonight we will look at some of this great theologian’s words from this essay.
Sasse writes: “The Word of God cannot be rightly understood when the Sacraments are not understood. One who does not know that the Sacraments are more than signs - and who does not believe that God does something in Baptism and that something happens in the Holy Supper - will never understand that the Word of Holy Scripture and scriptural preaching are, in every instance, God’s Word. When I as a pastor have baptized a child, then I know that God has said to this child with unmitigated solemnity, ‘I have called you by name, you are Mine.’” Sasse makes a bold claim here. He is saying that if you get the sacraments wrong, you will also destroy the doctrine of the Word. What is Sasse’s concern. He explains a little later: “ The benefit of the Sacraments for the understanding of the Word of God is that they are the way we learn the unconditional validity of God’s promises and the objective nature of divine grace and the means of grace - independent of all human activity. If there should be any misunderstanding that in the case of the Word of God - whether man through his hearing, obeying, willing, or doing can and must cooperate with God - where the Sacraments are concerned there can be no shred of doubt that God is the sole willing agent and that man is the sole recipient. The blessing the Sacrament is indeed dependant on faith, but its efficacy is not.”
Here we have come to the upper room - to the night in which He was betrayed. We have come to that time when Jesus is celebrating the Passover with His disciples, during which Christ establishes His meal - the Lord’s Supper. During this meal He commands that we continue to celebrate this meal among us. Sasse reminds us that this meal is so important that whole Church rises and falls with it. We know the events. The simple words of our text convey what we have heard, and perhaps seen depicted, many, many times. There can be little if any dispute about what Jesus did and said that night. Nor is it difficult to understand. Jesus, gathered with His disciples for the Passover in Jerusalem in an upper room, which would have been rented out to pilgrims for that very purpose. Jesus is gathered with the twelve and almost assuredly some others. Probably, Justice and Mathias, as well as John Mark. It seems likely that some of the women were there as well. And we should be clear that Judas was present for the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Luke clearly states that Judas was still at the table when Christ instituted the Supper, in the verse right after our text: “But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table.” So even at that first Lord’s Supper, there was at least one taking it to His own damnation.
Why is it that Lord’s Supper is the very Gospel? Why is it that if we fail to understand the Supper, we will lose the entire Gospel? Because in the Supper, Christ is the actor. We are the recipient. We receive exactly what His Word says - His very body and blood. In the Supper it becomes clear that we are involved in this in no other way than as recipients of the actions of another - namely Jesus Christ. In the Supper we are made by God to be participants in something of which we had no part - Christ death on the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. The Supper makes it clear that we are empty recipients who must be filled by Christ. We in no way cooperate in our salvation. It is all Christ. We didn’t die on the cross. We made no sacrifice for our sins or anyone else’s. Nor could we. We are not capable of atoning for our sins. But Christ pays for our sins in our place, and gives that to us as a free gift. In the Supper, this is exactly what happens. The very thing that was sacrificed for our sins, namely the very body and blood of Christ, is placed and poured into us. We come to the rail as beggars with outstretched hands. Christ fills them. But in order to see how Christ fills us, we must believe that He is really there. We teach that Christ is materially present among us, in, with, and under the bread and wine. We do not spiritually consume Christ. We consume Christ according to the flesh. Thus Luther would say things like we chew Christ with our teeth. And if we deny this, then we deny that we are helpless recipients. If we deny that we are helpless recipients, the whole of the Gospel is overturned. Thus Sasse writes: “For Luther the struggle to preserve the Sacrament of the Altar as Christ instituted it and the struggle for the pure doctrine of the Gospel are one and the same struggle.”
On the night in which He was betrayed... We are talking about an actual night, April 2, 33 A.D., in an actual place, the city of Jerusalem, with actual, real people. These events are real. They are not myth. Christ really spoke the words attributed to Him. And those Words convey to us the very thing that they say - the Body and Blood of Christ. Nor is it just His body and blood in a generic sense. But we receive the body and blood of Christ that died on the cross. We receive that which was sacrificed for the sins of the world. This is indeed the very Gospel itself. Where this is denied, work righteousness inevitably follows, either subtly or blatantly. That is why we must get this right. Our salvation depends upon it. The Church’s very existence depends up it. In the Supper we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.