In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So: if Holy Baptism takes us and puts us with Christ on His cross and brings us out, with Him, from His empty tomb, then we can think of the Holy Supper as how He brings His death and resurrection and gives it to us here at the altar. It is a great mystery, and so Lutherans, following the Scriptures, have never defined how He does this. We don’t call it transubstantiation and we don’t call it consubstantiation. We don’t talk about “substances” at all. Here it is most clear that we simply take Jesus at His Word and refuse to speculate on something that He hasn’t told us. Is it difficult for us to understand or even imagine how Christ can give us His real, true Body and Blood here with the bread and the wine? Yes. But if it is difficult, it is no more difficult than understanding how the eternal Son of God could be present as a tiny, developing human inside Mary’s womb. It is no more difficult than understanding the death of that Son in the flesh on a Roman cross. It is no more difficult than understanding the resurrection of Jesus with an eternal resurrection that He gives to all people. It is no more difficult than understanding how God is, at the same time, one God and yet Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Which is to say, all these mysteries are beyond our understanding. God gives us His salvation in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and we believe and rejoice in it. As Moses said to the people of Israel, “The hidden things belong to Yahweh our God; the revealed things to us and to our children forever, to do all the words of this instruction” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
So we do what has been revealed to us, what has been given to us, for the simple fact that our God has spoken and we believe His Word. In His rich mercy, He gives us gifts beyond what we ourselves would even ask for. As it is, we are like Joash, the king of Israel, whom Elisha told to strike the ground with arrows. Joash struck the ground three times, and Elisha said to him, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times” (2 Kings 13:19). Or we are like Ahaz, to whom Yahweh said, Ask for a sign; make it as high as heaven or as deep as Sheol. Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put Yahweh to the test.” And God said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:10-14).
The Lord gives us His good word, promise, and gift, and in our misguided piety, we say, Oh, no, Lord, I can’t accept that. It’s too often, or I’m not prepared, or I’d rather have this or that. If the Lord were a man, He would roll His eyes. Is it not wearisome to be too pious for God? To be so holy that we do not need His gifts? To be so concerned about preparation that we neglect the feast He Himself lays before us? It is God who prepares us to enter His presence. It is God who covers us with the garment for the wedding feast so that we don’t have to come in our own rags. The only “preparation,” the only thing necessary for those who have been prepared by God in Christ, washed clean in Baptism, is faith in these words, “The Body given and the Blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” The only “knowledge” that is needed is the knowledge that God Himself gives: what is this Supper and why do we come? It is the Body and Blood of Christ and it is given to God’s own Christians to eat and drink. If you know that, in yourself, you are a sinner in need of forgiveness; and if you know that only Jesus forgives sinners; and if you know that this is Jesus, here and now, that’s the one thing needful.
And because this is Jesus for you, and it comes to us by His own will and words, there is nothing you can do to change what it is. You can’t make it less special, you can’t make it not be Jesus, you can’t make it not be what it is. No doubt, unbelief will change what it brings you—judgment, rather than salvation—but that’s because it is Jesus either way. And not believing Jesus is the judgment. Believing Jesus is salvation. This is why we do not simply hand out the Sacrament to anyone who might come to the altar: because we don’t want anyone to come into judgment. We want them to believe and rejoice with us because they know what it is and why they come.
Likewise, your faith or unbelief can’t make the Body and Blood be there if they’re not. If the words of Jesus are not present, or if they are denied or changed, then no amount and no intensity of your believing or deciding or wishing can make Jesus’ Body and Blood be present. This is why we do not receive communion with traditions or congregations who use this meal as a symbolic remembrance, or a sign of our believing. Jesus did not give it only for that. He gave it not only “in remembrance of Me,” but also “for the forgiveness of sins.” Bread and wine, or juice, cannot forgive sins. Therefore, if there is forgiveness here, it is only because Jesus is here. If His Body is only in heaven, then this is only regular food, and it cannot forgive sins. But if He can do things beyond our understanding; if He can, by His own divine power, cause His Body and Blood to be eaten and drunk every time Christians gather around His words; then it—He—certainly can and does forgive sins. The same Jesus who was conceived and born of Mary, in that same crucified and resurrected flesh, comes to deliver His life-giving flesh and blood to us, according to His promise.
And He does this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. He doesn’t make us figure out how to get from Him His grace. He doesn’t hold it away from us in heaven and make us climb to Him or earn it. He simply hides it in plain sight: in a baby, in a crucified man, in water, in words, in bread and wine. And then He tells us where He’s hiding, so faith can cling to a real, present Savior, until the Day when He hides no more, but reveals everything, including us, for what He’s made it. In response to that promise, the Church has always prayed and will continue to do so: Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
And while we wait for that day, He guides us through this wilderness, with the Bread of Life that came down from heaven. And there is nothing like this God, this Savior, this salvation, anywhere else in the world. As the poet John Betjeman put it, “No love that in a family dwells,/No carolling in frosty air,/Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/Can with this single Truth compare -/That God was man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine” (John Betjeman, “Christmas”).
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). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/19/17