Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 35:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus tells His disciples to do this—to bless, break, and distribute bread, which He says is His body, given for disciples to eat. And then to take the cup of wine, which He says is the new covenant in His blood. He says to do this “in remembrance of” Him. But remembrance here is a funny word. When we talk about remembering something, we normally mean it in the sense that we can recall something in our minds. And obviously as long as His disciples were alive, they could do that. They could mentally recall the night on which He was betrayed, and what He said. They could recall His death.
But after the last of the Twelve died, there was no one who could mentally recall those events. St. Paul, however, says that every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes, even though none of us can recall it to our minds the way we would remember things that happened during our own lifetime, things for which we were physically present. None of the Corinthian Christians were in that upper room, or even knew Jesus when He was on the earth (although some of them had certainly been alive).
Lutherans are fond of using the expression “remember your baptism,” which is fine as long as you were not baptized as an infant. If you were, what could we possibly mean by the word “remember” in that phrase? So two instances of the word remember, but neither of them mean what we usually mean when we say things like, “I remember when I was a child,” or “I remember what happened last week.” What does it mean to “remember Jesus” in the Sacrament, or “remember” our baptism?
Perhaps we should say, first of all, what it does not mean. It does not mean primarily a mental exercise. Jesus is not telling us only that we should think about what it must have been like, either in the upper room, or on the cross. The remembering is not in our minds and in our hearts, as if God’s Word were only a record of something that happened in the past, and we had to imagine it all for ourselves. It is not a memorial meal, as if we were at a meal following a funeral, where we all share stories of the dead person and eat and drink. Because our Lord is not dead, but alive. More than that, how could our mental recollection lead to the forgiveness of our sins, words that Matthew includes? Then our forgiveness would depend on whether or not our minds were up to the task. No, the remembering is something far greater, and far better—far better because it actually does forgive sins; far greater because it relies not on us, but on Jesus, who spoke and promised.
To remember Jesus in the way He wants us to is simply what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The proclamation is for remembrance, and the remembrance is for here and now. “When Christ commanded us to do this in remembrance of him he wanted nothing more from us than that with the promise and pledge we should exercise ourselves daily in faith. This is why he instituted this sacrament and gave it to us, for the human soul will be nourished more and more if one frequently remembers this gracious promise” (Luther, LW 36:169). The remembering is in the eating and drinking, by which we receive here and now what He did for us then. “[T]his is the remembrance of Christ when we teach and believe in the power and fruit of his suffering” (Luther, LW 38:116). This is the highest remembrance of Jesus, to believe and receive what He promises and gives here from this altar.
When we remember Him, we proclaim what He has done, and we believe it. This is My body, He says; the same body that was mocked, beaten, crowned, and pierced; the same body that died; the same body that was laid in the tomb; the same body that was raised from the dead and appeared to the disciples; the same body that ascended into heaven and is glorified with the eternal divine glory of the Father, Son, and Spirit. That body and no other—because there is no other Jesus than the one who is both God and Man—is given to us here. As we eat and drink, Jesus’ own words are heard: Take and eat, this is My body, given for you. Take and drink, this is My blood, shed for you.
Here we remember that God will not remember: He will not remember our sins against us. He has buried them in the grave of Jesus. He has removed them from us as far as the east is from the west, by placing them all on Jesus’ shoulders on the cross. He sinks them in the depths of the sea that is Jesus’ eternal and divine blood. There is nothing deeper than the death Jesus died. God dies in the flesh, and when He does, He takes us with Him. He takes us with all our bitterness, gossip, lust, anger; all our lack of mercy, lack of love, lack of patience; all our doubts, unbelief, and all our forgetfulness of Him and His mercy; He takes us and buries us with Jesus in Baptism.
But death for God in the flesh can not be final. And so He brought you with Him out of the grave. And by that final word of death and resurrection in the flesh and blood of Christ, He daily pushes your sin back under the ground; daily raises you up again. Day after day after day, He covers you with baptismal water, until there is no more sin and no more death, until there is only the new and all the old is dead and gone forever.
So this Sacrament of the Altar is “appropriately called food of the soul, for it nourishes and strengthens the new creature. For in the first instance, we are born anew through baptism. However, our human flesh and blood…have not lost their old skin. There are so many hindrances and attacks of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint and at times even stumble. Therefore the Lord’s Supper is givne as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened and that it it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses. But it has to suffer a great deal of opposition. The devil is a furious enemy; when he sees that we resist him and attack the old creature, and when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks about at every turn, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or lose heart and become indifferent or impatient. For times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment” (Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar, 23-27; K/W 469).
When things begin to slip from our mind because of forgetfulness or neglect they are brought back to memory. “Each of us experiences how manifold is the infirmity of faith, how weak its exertions, how often it is almost buried in false security, indifference, and forgetfulness, how easily it is overgrown with the thorns of this life and wallows in the billows of temptation. Therefore Christ, our true Samaritan, in addition to the administration of and meditation on the Word, has also instituted against this dangerous forgetfulness this most efficacious antidote, namely the Communion of His very body and blood in the Supper” (Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper, 192-193). God is forgetful of our sin, but we are forgetful of His mercy. Here His mercy in Christ is proclaimed again and again until He comes, so that we remember.
God is so gracious and overflowing in mercy and love that He is not content to give all His promises and the life of Christ only into our ears, but also on to our bodies in baptism and into our mouths in the Supper. He puts the Word of Christ everywhere in His Church so that we will never miss it, never forget it, never have it far from us. Paul says, the Word of faith that we proclaim is near you, in your mouth and in your heart: in hearing, in faith, in eating and drinking, and in confession, as we say the same things that we have heard from God. We use the word “gratuitous” to mean something that is too much, unnecessary, over the top. But gratuitous literally begins with “grace.” God’s love is gratuitous, more than enough, and it can never be used up. Here we remember God’s gratuitous love in Christ’s death, His body broken and His blood shed; we remember as we eat and drink that same body and blood.
We remember Christ best by “doing this,” that is, eating and drinking in the bread and the wine what Jesus says we have, His body and blood. Here we thank our “Lord Christ for his suffering and God for His grace and mercy! As a sign and confession of such thanks and praise receive the sacrament with joy” (LW 38:116-117). “Lord, I believe what You have said; help me when doubts assail me. Remember that I am but dust, and let my faith not fail me. Your supper in this vale of tears refreshes me and stills my fears and is my priceless treasure. … For Your consoling supper, Lord, be praised throughout all ages! Preserve it, for in ev’ry place the world against it rages. Grant that this sacrament may be a blessed comfort unto me when living and when dying” (LSB 622:6, 8).
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, 4/14/22