In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wilhelm Löhe, a pastor in Germany in the mid-1800s, once wrote, “I’d like to compare the structure of the liturgy of the Divine Service to a two-peaked mountain, one of whose peaks, similar to Horeb and Sinai, is lower than the other. The first peak is the sermon, the second the Sacrament of the Altar, without which I cannot even imagine a complete Divine Service. In the Divine Service we climb ever higher until we reach the Lord’s table, where there is nothing higher than heaven itself. That is my thought. Take it and consider it. Let it evoke in you an even deeper and greater love of the Sacrament. Let it give you such a longing that you cannot be without the Sacrament, that the Sacrament would be your greatest earthly happiness, that after receiving it your entire life would be nothing other than a communion in the cup of thanksgiving.”
We are on our way to the high point of the Divine Service, for which the rest of the service has been preparing us. Nowhere else in all of creation does our Lord come to us as intimately, as physically, as personally, as when He gives into our mouths His own Body and His own Blood. If the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, if we are baptized into the one Body of Christ for salvation, then it is here, at His altar, that we are renewed and strengthened in the unity of that one Body. Here He delivers His forgiveness yet again and in yet another way. Here the Vine nourishes the branches. As we eat and drink the holy Body and cleansing Blood of Jesus, He keeps us united with Himself, and so we are one with His Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Here, as always, the action of salvation is Trinitarian, the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. As we are brought into this close fellowship with our Savior, we are, necessarily, brought into close fellowship with all others whom Christ gathers and feeds. St. Paul sums up our communion in both directions, with Christ and with other people, when He says, “This cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). As this Body of Christ, this single and unified Church, we pray the Preface, which is probably the oldest and least-changed part of the liturgy.
We begin, as at the Collect, with the Salutation, in which we ask the Lord’s blessing upon each other. Indeed, in the Sacrament, Jesus has promised to be with us. In joyful thanksgiving we respond to the call to lift up our hearts with the words, “We lift them up unto the Lord.” He has answered the prayer of the Offertory and given us clean hearts. For this we give Him thanks, as it is “meet [good] and right so to do.” The Proper Preface, in some form, is very ancient as well, probably 17- or 1800 years old. In our hymnal, we have Proper Prefaces (proper to the day or season, remember) for the major church seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost as well as three general ones for the season after Trinity Sunday. All of these end with the words, “therefore, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying…” At the altar of God, gathered by the Holy Spirit as Jesus serves and feeds us, we are not only joined with those on earth who are baptized and believe, but also with those in heaven who wait with Jesus for the resurrection. Heaven meets earth, God meets man, in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is the communion of the holy ones in the holy things. If you are joined to Jesus, then you are also joined to all others who are joined to Him, on earth and in heaven. Your friends, your parents, your grandparents, your children; all who have died in Christ are as close with you at the altar as they were when they physically kneeled next to you. In the one Body of Christ, then, we join with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in the everlasting Sanctus of the servants of God: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory” (Isaiah 6:3; LSB 195; cf. Revelation 4:8).
You may see me bow during this song, recognizing, as Isaiah did, that we are in the presence of a thrice-holy God whose glory shakes temples and makes sinful men fear for their lives. Sabaoth is a Hebrew word meaning “hosts” or “armies.” If the God who commands the armies of heaven were to come to us, unhidden and uncovered by the flesh of Jesus, we would rightly say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, [Yahweh of armies]!” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV). When we come into this House of God, God is no more distant from us than He was from Isaiah. He is really here, and as we come into His presence, our words and actions should be reverent with holy fear as we recognize that. But we do not fear God in the sense that we do not know what He will do. We have His promise that, in Jesus Christ, He will save us. So we sing both the song of the angels and the song of the crowds at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, not only three “holys,” but three “hosannas” and three “blesseds”: “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:38; John 12:13; Psalm 118:25-26; LSB 195; cf. Zechariah 9:9). Hosha nah, hosanna, means “save us,” or “deliver us,” and our Lord promises that He comes to save and not to condemn (John 3:17). Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! And He does come, as surely as He rode through those gates of Jerusalem. He came in the Name of Yahweh two thousand years ago and now He comes to us, both God and Man, as our Deliverer each time the Sacrament is celebrated. The Sanctus (which means simply “holy”) is our song of praise to the One who has come, who will come again in all His glory, and who comes to us now with His Body and His Blood for our salvation. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7, ESV).
Then we pray the prayer that our Lord, Jesus, taught His disciples and us. Our Lord’s words, given as a gift to us, sum up all of our prayers and gather all things which we have not spoken, or even what we have forgotten. Nothing is neglected in the prayer that Jesus has given us, which not only gives us an outline for our own prayers, but gives us words when we have none of our own. There are moments when all words dry up on our lips and this prayer becomes our lifeline to the Father, since Jesus Himself has taught us to pray with Him, “Our Father….”
The Lord’s Prayer takes on different shades of meaning depending on the context. As we pray it in the midst of the Service of the Sacrament, we find our minds and hearts turned toward what God is doing there: It is His will that the Supper be celebrated and given for the forgiveness of sins. His Kingdom does come and we who are baptized members of that Kingdom are strengthened by the work of the King. Here, our daily bread is the Body and Blood of our Lord and it is more precious than any merely physical food and drink. Just as we eat and drink for the health of our bodies, so here we eat and drink for the health of both body and soul. Having received the forgiveness of God from Christ’s own mouth and hand, we go out to bring that forgiveness to others who need it from us. We are here given Christ’s own strength to resist temptation, and in His Body and Blood we are kept from the ultimate effects of evil promoted by Satan, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Here is life in the midst of death. And so you may make the sign of Jesus’ cross at “deliver us from evil” to remind yourself that it is only by His cross that you are delivered from evil here and hereafter.
That the Lord’s Prayer gives us an outline for our prayers can be applied to the whole liturgy. What can you say in the face of unspeakable tragedy? Often, I find my mouth saying, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” What words of our own can be better as a song of praise than the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest”? Confronted with our sin and finding the mercy of God bigger than that sin, are there more fitting words than, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit”? And at the side of a dying Christian or on our own deathbed, there is little comfort greater than the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
Then we come to the beating heart of the Service of the Sacrament, the words of Jesus Himself. They are sometimes called the Verba, which is Latin for “words.” In the Roman church of their time, Luther and the other reformers found these words of the Lord obscured by the prayers of people. The words of Jesus seemed hidden behind human words. This is perhaps the one point in the liturgy where Luther took a sharp knife to a tradition in which he had grown up. In most other ways, Luther was a very conservative reformer when it came to the liturgy, but here, at the most important part, he could not allow Jesus to be buried under human words. Jesus alone should speak, lest the pure Gospel of the forgiveness of sins be unclearly heard or not heard at all. These words are not my words, they are not the Church’s words; they are Jesus’ words of promise to you. So I bow while I chant these words, because it is really Jesus speaking. It should also be said that the words are not magic, as if by saying them I could control whether Jesus is present or not. No, Jesus uses the pastor’s mouth to speak His words, and He chooses to be present in mercy and grace, giving to you what He won on the cross. These words, which we sometimes call “The Words of Institution,” are as pure a summary of the Christian Gospel as any in the Scriptures. Jesus says, “This is for you. My Body, crucified on the cross, is for you. My Blood, shed on the cross, is for you.” Eat and drink, and live forever. Pure Gospel. Pure forgiveness. Eternal food. And we simply take Jesus at His word, which is what faith does. He says that the bread is His Body and the wine is His Blood, without making the bread and wine disappear. How He does it, we leave to Him. But that He does it, Christian faith can have no doubt.
For most of the Church’s history, there was very little debate about whether Christ’s Body and Blood were eaten and drunk. But in the past 500 years or so, a teaching has sprung up in the Church that denies that Jesus meant what He said. Sadly, this new teaching divided those other Christians from Lutherans, as much as the teaching on justification divided Rome from us; indeed, the Lord’s Supper is also about our justification. We should always pray for the day when such divisions will cease, on both sides; but we are bound to hold the words of Jesus as they stand. This is His Body; this is His Blood. And His Body and Blood, eaten and drunk, mean forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, as He says. After I speak the words of Jesus, by which He makes Himself present here among us, I speak the words of Thomas who encountered the same crucified, risen Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” When you see me lift up the bread and then the cup, you can also marvel with Thomas, and worship the risen Lord with the same words: My Lord and my God. Then I bow before Him because He is present in the bread and the wine. If Jesus were not there, it would be the worst kind of idolatry to bow and speak those words. But Jesus’ Word stands fast, and we trust that He is able to come to us in bread and wine because He is God, because bread and wine are part of His good creation, and because His Word always does what He says.
Jesus is here to forgive your sins, and because of that, there is no greater peace that can be given; thus, I chant the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and you respond, “Amen,” that is: it is so, I believe it. And we sing together the words of John the Baptist, which we call the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace. Amen.” Indeed, the Lamb of God has been sacrificed, and He, as both priest and sacrifice, has taken away the sin of the world on the cross. Now He comes to you, risen and alive, to take away your sin. Here He has mercy upon you, poor sinner! Here He grants you His peace! Here is a foretaste of the great wedding supper of the Lamb (Matthew 22:4), which has no end. Here are the Lord’s gifts for the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day. Those who hold to these words never should have let the Service of the Sacrament be divided from the Service of the Word. From the beginning, the Word of Jesus and the Supper of Jesus were united in one Divine Service. At the very least, Word and Supper were both given out on the first day of every new week, because every first day of the week was a little Easter for those who rejoiced in the risen Lord’s gifts to His people. Our passover Lamb has been sacrificed, let us keep the feast in sincerity and truth! Blessed are those who eat and drink in repentant faith. Blessed are those who know where the Lord has promised to be found. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9, ESV). Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, with peace and joy and life everlasting.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/5/16