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This Sacrament Is The Gospel (1 Corinthians 11.23-32)

Holy [Maundy] Thursday


“This Sacrament is The Gospel”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus     

1 Corinthians 11.23-32

06 April 2023



Luther made it very plain that the Church cannot exist without the Sacrament of the Altar. “This sacrament is the gospel,” he said [AE 36.289]. The Church cannot exist without the Gospel, whose content is Christ. In Luther’s day the divine service was the “Mass,” that is, a service of the Word and at the same time a service of the Sacrament. This Sacrament, whose institution we celebrate tonight, on the night when our Lord instituted it, is vital to our life and growth as Christians. Without it we cannot be Christians nor can we grow in the faith. Some will object and say that they can be Christians without the Sacrament, but that is only an half truth. Christ is always connected with his Sacrament because our Lord says very plainly, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Hermann Sasse, perhaps the most important Lutheran theologian of the 20th century, wrote: “There is something of the truth to the saying often heard in America: ‘If a Protestant goes to church, he finds a preacher; if a Catholic goes to church, he finds Christ.’” I would change the second part of that phrase which Sasse was quoting to read: “If a Lutheran goes to the Divine Service, he finds Christ.” The rest of Protestantism does not find Christ in the Sacrament, and if one does not find Christ one does not have the comfort of the Gospel. One has only an empty rite. Sasse also makes this important observation:

A Lord’s Day without the Lord’s Supper is absolutely unthinkable in the New Testament. Without the Eucharist the church would have ceased to be the church. It would no longer exist at all. [We Confess The Sacraments, p. 88]

Without the Sacrament of the Altar there is no Gospel distributed to Christ’s people and hence, no Christian Church, no communion of saints.

This Sacrament brings Christ to us with his gifts. This is where all non-Lutheran Protestantism misses the boat. Protestantism says that there are no real gifts, only information which the preacher conveys, or at best, merely a pious ritual. The listener is left to act upon what he hears, to work out his own salvation, so to speak, but Christ is not really present to them. But Christ is truly present according to his flesh to distribute his gifts. That’s what Jesus says, “This is my body . . . This is my blood.”

First, this Sacrament distributes God’s love to us. When we hear the word “love” there are all sorts of images in our minds, most of them emotional, warm and fuzzy things. But the love of God always has concrete, defined boundaries. When our Lord announces that his body and blood are present “for the forgiveness of sins,” he is telling us that the love of God has a definite shape. It is cruciform, the shape of the cross, the love that compelled our Lord to go to the cross to give his body into death and to shed his blood for us.

One of the great blessings that comes from Lutheran Service Book is a fine number of Lord’s Supper hymns. The Lutheran Hymnal contained but 13 such hymns, and Lutheran Worship had 15, but LSB contains 27, almost double the number. In Draw Near and Take the Body of the Lord, you sing these words:

Come forward then with faithful hearts sincere,

And take the pledges of salvation here.

O Lord, our hearts with grateful thanks endow

As in this feast of love You bless us now. [LSB 637.3]

The Sacrament has often been known from St. Paul’s writings as “the feast of love.” The first part is the love from God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When our Lord gives you his true body and blood to eat and drink, he is giving himself to you for very specific purposes. The first and foremost of these purposes is the forgiveness of your sins. To be sure, Jesus gave himself into that death only once, achieving it, completing it on the cross. Jesus is not resacrificed again and again for your sins. He died only once, and that death was good for all time. “Once, for all” is the term that the writer of Hebrews uses in describing it [Hebrews 10.10b]. His giving of his true body and blood for you in the Sacrament guarantees to you that this is true, that his one sacrifice is complete, good for all time, good for all your sins. It can never be repeated.

Sometimes you might struggle to love God because you may be resentful of what he allows in your life, such as physical or emotional suffering. You crave assurance that God really does love you. Do you want to love God more? Then come to receive Christ’s body and blood! Here are the divinely appointed proofs that God is not angry with you and does not desire your demise. Here in this Sacrament are the tangible proofs that God loves you because he gives you himself. “If a Lutheran goes to the Divine Service, he finds Christ!”

I especially like one of the hymns in Lutheran Service Book, a hymn by former Kantor Richard Resch of our Ft. Wayne Seminary. He describes the gifts that come in the Word and Sacraments, namely Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. In stanza five [The Gifts Christ Freely Gives, LSB 602] he writes:

The gifts are in the feast,

Gifts far more than we see;

Beneath the bread and wine

Is food from Calvary.

The body and the blood

Remove our ev’ry sin;

We leave His presence in

His peace, renewed again. [LSB 602.5]

Holy Thursday has been commonly called “Maundy Thursday” among Lutherans for a long time, at least, in my memory. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command,” There is the command which comes from our Lord’s words “Do this in remembrance of me.” That’s a reasonably good answer, but unfortunately, that’s the wrong referent. It does come from Jesus, but not from the words instituting the Sacrament. Rather, the mandatum, the command, comes from the words the Evangelist John records from this night when Jesus was betrayed, words he spoke before he instituted the Sacrament:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, ESV)

The mandate from Jesus is that you love each other as Jesus as loved you, but how can you do that? You know that you simply don’t have the ability to love other people as Jesus has loved you. There are people who continually irritate you and make you angry. There are some people who are just plain unlovable.

Jesus said to the disciples as he washed their feet on that Holy Thursday:

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15, ESV)

Christ’s love for you is demonstrated by the fact that he has left you an example. Luther comments:

As he gives himself for us with his body and blood in order to redeem us from all misery, so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor. Whoever knows this and lives accordingly is holy, and has not much more to learn, nor will he find anything more in the whole Bible. For these two principles are here inscribed together as on a tablet which is always before our eyes and which we use daily. [AE 36.52]

Do you want to love your neighbor more? Do you want to love him as Christ has loved you? How do you do that? How do you grow in love, knowing that your gaining such love will certainly not be instantaneous? You come to this Sacrament because Christ is here! “If a Lutheran goes to the Divine Service, he finds Christ!” By receiving Christ and his gifts in this Sacrament you also learn to love and grow in love. Again, the richness of our Lutheran hymnody illustrates:

Let this food your faith so nourish

That its fruit of love may flourish

And your neighbor learns from you

How much God’s wondrous love can do. [LSB 627.10]

The Sacrament of the Altar, instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ on this night, distributes the fruits of forgiveness and love. Forgiveness you always need. You need to be reassured that your Lord’s attitude toward you is one of love. And love is the second fruit. You receive God’s love in Christ and you learn to love your neighbor as Christ has loved you.

“This Sacrament Is The Gospel!”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

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