Luther’s Catechism – The Sacrament of the Altar

The Worship and Music Committee at my church asked me to write five short reflections on Luther’s Small Catechism for use in our Wednesday night Lenten services. I’m republishing those reflections here. Eventually I will publish a book with slightly expanded versions of these reflections for congregational use (adult or Confirmation study) or anyone seeking to understand more about Luther’s Catechism.

Reflection 5 (read at Trinity Lutheran Church, Chelmsford, MA on Wednesday, April 5, 2017)

The Sacrament of the Altar

OK, you’ve been baptized. You’ve been dipped in water and drawn out again, dead to sin and alive in Christ. The Holy Spirit has brought you to the Church, and you’ve been received into the Christian community.

Now what?

You might be dead to sin, but sin itself is not dead. It follows you day by day. It entices you and tempts you beyond endurance to do things that are contrary to God’s will. You can remember your baptism and know that your reception into the Church is eternal and irrevocable, and you can remember that being the Church means your sins are forgiven. But the Christian Church is so vast, spanning not only the continents but the ages, and blanket statements about forgiveness can feel weak and ineffective against the knowledge of how often you yourself turn from God and embrace sin.

The Church is vast, but that vastness is comprised of individual people just like you. And while we are called into something larger than ourselves, we are not expected to stop being ourselves. God knows who you are, and God knows what you need.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” Jesus Christ said to his disciples as he gave them bread on the night in which he was betrayed. He went on to say, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,” and he gave them wine. Then he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Jesus gave his body and blood for you. Specifically you. It’s not a blanket promise to a nebulous community; his grand act of salvation had a very specific purpose. God the Son died and rose again in order to bring you into relationship with God the Father. You are God’s child and heir. You are Christ’s sibling. You. God does this for you. And Christ commanded you to do this in remembrance of him. Eat this bread. Drink this wine. Each crumb of bread passes only one set of lips, as does each drop of wine. Yours. This bread and this wine are for you, reminding you of your relationship with God, reminding you of how precious you are in his* sight, forgiving you all the sins that you have committed.

In baptism God attaches his incomprehensible Word to ordinary water, making that common element an extraordinary conveyor of God’s promises and forgiveness. In the Sacrament of the Altar, or the Lord’s Supper as it’s commonly called, God makes ordinary bread and wine the conveyors of his promises. As in baptism, he does this by attaching his incomprehensible Word to something common and familiar, making it something we can grasp while also making it something more.

The bread and wine are just common elements, nothing special in and of themselves. But when joined with God’s Word, they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Much ink has been expended in trying to explain exactly how this happens, but the answer is quite simple. The bread and the wine become Jesus’s body and blood because the Word of God says they do.

Baptism is the beginning of a journey, and beginnings happen only once. The Lord’s Supper is given as regular food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle. God recognizes that human life is a constant struggle between obedience to him and obedience to our own desires, and we need constant renewal of our faith. That’s why we’re invited to partake in the Lord’s Supper over and over and over again.

The Ten Commandments tell us what God expects from us. He expects us to obey. And we can’t. We try to obey, but we always fall short of what the commandment demands. But with the Lord’s Supper we have the opportunity to obey fully. Eat this bread. Drink this wine. Do this for the remembrance of me.

We can eat bread. We can drink wine. We can do those things in remembrance of Christ. We can obey, and we can receive a tangible reminder that while our struggles may continue day after day, the outcome has already been determined. Christ has died on the cross and risen victorious for our sake, putting in place a bond that can never be broken.

We will never be worthy to approach the altar of God and expect his blessings. That’s why he instituted the Lord’s Supper. As Luther puts it, “If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort, and strength. If you wait until you are rid of your burden in order to come to the sacrament purely and worthily, you must stay away from it forever.”

You are weak and heavy-laden with sin. So is everyone else who makes up the Church, across the continents and across the ages. Your particular combination of weakness and sin is unique to you, and known to God. And it is for that reason that God was born into human history, conquered sin and death, and bridged the chasm between the holiness of the Creator and the meanness of creation. He gave his commandments, he revealed himself through his Word, he taught us to pray and reach out to him for help. He sent his Spirit to gather us into one.

And he did all this for the sake of the love he has for you.

Amen.

 

*To see my inclusive language policy, click here.

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