12 March 2008

"The A-B-Cs of Lent - Communion II"

Here's the final installment from our Lent Evening Prayer sermon series, "The A-B-Cs of Lent."

“The A-B-Cs of Lent” – Communion II
Acts 2:42-47
John 6:47-57
Small Catechism, Sacrament of the Altar, 3-4

Eating and drinking with God is the highest form of fellowship we can have. We come into His presence with thanksgiving. As guests in His house, we are welcomed to His table to eat His food and drink His wine. People pay hundreds or thousands of dollars just to have a Danish and a cup of coffee with the President or a round of golf with a high-ranking congressman. But table fellowship with God is free, a gift of His grace, purchased with the blood of God’s Lamb, His Son Jesus, poured out on the cross.

The Lord’s Supper is the Lamb’s High Feast. In this meal our Lord Jesus is cook, servant, and meal all in one. Roasted on the cross in the fire of God’s wrath against our sin and His burning love for us sinners, this Lamb of God is our very food and drink. With His very words, spoken through His minister, He gives us His very Body and Blood: “given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” Jesus is speaking to you. Jesus is feeding you. Jesus is your food. This is table fellowship with God in the most complete way.

The Lord’s Supper completes and fulfills the great feasts of the Old Testament. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders went up on Mt. Sinai, and “they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex. 24:11). The Israelites ate the annual Passover meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. They also ate the heavenly gifts of manna and quail in the wilderness.

The Lord’s Supper also completes and fulfills the great New Testament feasts. One time Jesus fed 4000 people, and another time He fed over 5000. Our Lord loved to eat and drink with tax collectors and Pharisees, prostitutes and religious. It seems He never turned down a dinner invitation. (Must be why some called Him “a glutton and a drunkard”! ☺ [Mt. 11:19]). And the day when He rose from the dead, Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus with two disciples, preached a sermon from the Scriptures, and then revealed Himself in the breaking of the bread.

So, from the beginning the Church has devoted herself “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Word and Meal, Sermon and Sacrament—they’re the ongoing rhythm of the Church’s life. For over 1500 years it was unheard of to have the Lord’s Day without the Lord’s Supper. Sermon and Supper, Word and Meal, were one whole thing, not to be divided. It was not the Lutheran Reformation, but the Radical Reformation that broke table fellowship with the Lord. Radical Reformers made the ongoing feast with God an occasional extra, three or four times a year, instead of the weekly, even daily, gift that it had been since Pentecost.

The ongoing feast of Christ’s Body and Blood, given with His words, continues through the centuries, and it remains one unchanging meal—one loaf, one cup. Oh, outward forms may change now and then. They had a cup; we’ve added little glasses. They had a single flat loaf; we have little stamped wafers. Some kneel at a rail; others walk through a line. But for all the outward differences, we still eat the same Lamb as the Twelve did on that night when He was betrayed. We drink the same Blood as they did—one Christ, one Sacrifice, one Supper. So, when we kneel at the altar, we eat and drink the very same Meal as did St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, Ignatius, Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Luther, Chemnitz, and Gerhard, just to name a few. A countless crowd has dined at the Lord’s Table and still dines with the whole company of heaven.

We receive two great comforts from this. The first comfort is that so many have preceded us at this Supper of the Lord. They were sinners just as we are. They felt the grief and shame of what they had done and not done, just as we do. They felt the sting of death, just as we do. They wanted relief from sin and death. They relied on the Lord of life to raise them and give them eternal life. That comfort came in the Supper, and they direct us there as well. We’re in great company at this table.

The second comfort is this. Even though many things change—and changes come at warp speed in our computer-driven world—two things never change: our sin and our Savior’s meal. Our Lord continues to give His Body and Blood that forgives our sins and gives us life with Him. “We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” Every day, even every hour, we do all sorts of things against God and against our neighbor. We might think of it as “just another day at the office,” but words are said that should never be said. Deeds are done that should never be done. Thoughts and desires well up within us that only prove we love to dethrone God and put ourselves in His seat. We are the same kinds of sinners as those in the first, fourth, or fifteenth centuries.

And the solution to our sin is the same as it’s always been, even from the Garden of Eden. What’s that solution? The Word made flesh and nailed to the tree; Jesus Christ crucified and risen. He’s the only solution to our sin. His Body broken for us is real Food, filled with life. His Blood shed for us is real Drink, filled with forgiveness. His words deliver these things and their saving benefits to faith, “for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”

Last week I mentioned our need to revive our hunger and thirst for our Lord’s Holy Communion. This is really God’s answer to our “lukewarmness” in the Church these days. Perhaps you remember the church of the Laodiceans in the book of Revelation. They had grown complacent and lukewarm. They were neither refreshingly cold nor energetically hot. Sounds a lot like us in our personal faith or like many churches these days. And how did our Lord propose to wake up this sleeping giant of the Laodicean church? No, not by putting it on ice or setting it ablaze! Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). Jesus reenergizes us and re-enlivens us by eating and drinking with us sinners.

The Lutheran historian and theologian Herman Sasse said that whenever the Church takes seriously the Lord’s Supper, the Church is renewed and grows. Sermon, Supper, and prayer—they’re the three pillars on which the Church was built from Pentecost onward. Apostolic teaching, table fellowship in the Breaking of the Bread, and corporate prayers—where these things are practiced, where they are our very heart and soul, there we can be sure we have the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” There we can be sure Christ is present with us and that His gifts of salvation are being given out. Numbers large or small are irrelevant; Christ’s presence is everything.

Before we wrap up our sermon series on “The A-B-Cs of Lent”, let’s consider personal preparation for Jesus’ ongoing feast. In Luther’s day, people tended to stay away from the Sacrament out of fear, even though they came to church to hear the Gospel. Today, though, people tend to “belly up to the bar” with hardly a thought about their need for the Lord’s gifts or what those gifts truly are. The Small Catechism reminds us that “fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” Luther spoke to people who were overly concerned with the outward things of fasting and bodily discipline. We have quite the opposite problem. We think we dare not fast and we frown on disciplining our bodies as a way to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

We live in a culture that trumpets feasting without fasting. Many see Holy Communion as an individual right rather than a corporate privilege. We think everything should be “my way” or no way, or even “majority rules” in matters of faith and life with God. We tend to treat the Church catholic as a religious McDonald’s franchise, and the local congregation as the place where we can rush through the drive-thru to get a little snack on the way to our other, more pressing commitments. We have lost the days when pastor and communicants would sit down and talk about their souls, their sins, and Jesus’ forgiveness. Today, if a pastor suggests that an unrepentant member refrain from the Lord’s Supper, that person simply runs off to another congregation nearby and is received no questions asked. This, dear friends, is far from healthy! Actually, it’s quite shameful.

Yes, the Catechism says that “that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” However, casual communion undermines the words of our Lord. So, let me propose three ways to improve our preparations and our communing in faith. And with these three ways, we can set a most excellent example for our sister saints and brother believers around us.

First, commune prayerfully and preparedly. Take some time on Saturday night or Sunday morning before church to meditate on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Supper section of the Catechism, and even Luther’s “Christian Questions and Answers” in the Catechism. If your health permits, try fasting—that is, not eating anything for 3-4 hours before coming to church. Remind your belly that you do not live by bread alone, but by the true and living Bread, our Lord Jesus Christ. I offer this as a suggestion, not a rule. And if you do it, don’t judge others who may not do it.

Second, commune at the congregation where you are committed, where your membership is, where your pastor is. When you travel and visit other congregations, remember that you are an ambassador of Hope. You represent the teaching and practice of this congregation. If that congregation is not in full fellowship with us in teaching and practice, do not commune there. That would imply a unity that does not truthfully exist. We are called to bear witness publicly to what we believe, not to blend into the background like Christian chameleons.

If the congregation you visit is in full fellowship with us in both teaching and practice, then please have the courtesy of introducing yourself to the pastor. Tell him that you are a member of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Louis, and request his permission to commune. If he says, “No, not today,” don’t be offended, but thank God that he is a responsible, faithful shepherd of souls. If he says, “Yes, by all means,” then thank him and ask him to communicate that with your pastor. If you don’t have a chance to talk with the pastor ahead of time, then simply don’t commune that day, even if the usher wants to take you by the arm and shove you down the aisle. ☺ After all, we’d never just barge into a stranger’s house at supper time, sit down at the table, and proudly say, “Please pass the potatoes” without at least mentioning our name.

Third, commune confessing your sins. Spend quality time with the Ten Commandments and their Catechism meanings. Examine your place in life—who you are and what you’ve done. Make use of your pastor’s offer of Private Absolution, either on Wednesday evenings before the service or by appointment. Come to the Lord’s Supper with broken hearts and bent knees. Don’t come proud and arrogant—It’s not a right—but come humble and hungry—After all, it’s a divine privilege. Come with empty hearts and hands, ready to receive our Lord’s blood-bought forgiveness, life, and salvation.

We at Hope certainly are not big, and we are far from flashy, but we do have the Lord’s gifts in His Sacraments. They are the best medicine against the godless church growth-ism and reinventing of the Church in our day. The Sacraments keep us from turning the Church into a business and the Gospel into cheap entertainment. And we can be an example to the whole church. We can show other people that we are saved by God’s grace in Christ crucified and risen. We can show that we live only by His mercy given in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. These Sacraments are our best medicine against the cancer we inherit from Adam. They are the best weapons we have against the forces of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Our Lord has washed us and given us new birth in Baptism. He authorizes us to speak His forgiveness in the Absolution. And He gives us His ongoing feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation in His Supper.

If someone were to hand out free $100 bills each and every Sunday, I doubt many people would stay away, especially once word got out that they’re free. Dear friends, we have something much more precious than $100 bills. We have the Lord of Life who comes among us and gives us His gifts—His “A-B-Cs of Lent.” The gifts are here. You can receive them, believe in them, and live. “In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Amen.

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