When I first met my now-pastor, I had already pretty well hammered out what I believed about Baptism. But I was still trying to understand the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Pastor Hein gave me a simple answer: Jesus says of the Supper that the bread and win is His body and blood, and since Jesus is speaking, it makes things happen.
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
— Matthew 26:26-28, NASB
Now, in the past when I read that I would interpret the word “is” as “signifies” or something like that. “This symbolizes My body.” But that’s not what Jesus says. In plain language, Jesus says “this is My body.” Of course my rationalization for interpreting it this way was that Jesus often spoke in parables and metaphors, so when He says something so absurd — that the bread and wine contain His own Body and Blood — clearly He must be speaking in a metaphor.
But then as I studied more of what Luther had to say I realized that I was the one being absurd. After all, Jesus is the God-man. If I believe that the same God who created the entirety of the World by the word of His mouth took on flesh, isn’t it absurd to believe that this self-same God in the flesh cannot continue to speak authoritatively? Jesus, who raised the dead simply by speaking could certainly use that same omnipotence to make Himself present in the Supper. And that is, in fact, what He says He has done: This is My body. This is My blood.
And that is how the Apostle Paul understood Jesus’ words of institution when Jesus delivered them to him. He says that in the bread and in the cup that we bless, we have participation and fellowship — we have “communion” — with Jesus’ body and blood themselves; we commune with the full person of Christ, who is “with [us] always, even until the end of the age.” That promise of Christ is sure and certain: He is truly with His people assembled.
So what is the point of the Sacrament, then? Jesus Himself tells us: It is “for [the] forgiveness of sins.” We eat and drink His body and blood because we are sinners who need His word of forgiveness. It is not our act of the eating and the drinking whereby God forgives us; that is, it is not because we fulfill our duty in coming to the Sacrament that God forgives us. Again, this is a matter of Law and Gospel. The Sacrament rightly offers us forgiveness of sins in Christ’s words, not in our work of eating and drinking. But by coming to the Altar, by trusting in Christ’s word of forgiveness in the Sacrament, one truly has what Christ promises. Through faith we receive this Grace, forgiving our sins, strengthening our faith, and feeding us unto everlasting life.
Every objection I could raise, my Pastor gently answered with the Words of Christ. “It’s a memorial!” “This is My body; this is My blood.” It is indeed a memorial, where Christ comes to us and forgives our sins for the sake of what He has done. “Isn’t Christ spiritually present, rather than physically present?” “This is My body; this is My blood.” “Is” means “is;” Jesus doesn’t say that He is spiritually present but that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood. As a side note, we Lutherans call this the Sacramental Union. It is a real, heavenly, supernatural presence in the Supper whereby we commune with the full person of Christ, not merely His spiritual nature.
In the Old Testament, God institutes the Passover celebration as a means of commemorating His mighty deliverance of His people out of Egypt. On the Passover, God instructed His people the Israelites to take a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood. When the Angel of Death walked through the land of Egypt that night, he would see the blood and pass over the houses of the Israelites, sparing them from the wrath they deserved. Thus the Passover lamb is a type of Christ, whose blood was painted on that wooden cross, who died in our place, and who spared us from the wrath of God which we deserve. So far all of this already made sense to me. But then came the part that threw me off: The Passover lamb was taken inside and eaten by the people it protected. It served as their meal, strengthening them for the journey they were to take the next day out of Egypt.
So when Christ, whom Paul calls “our Passover lamb,” says “eat this, my body, and drink this, my blood,” what we once saw as shadow we see in clear daylight! Christ, our Passover lamb, gives Himself to us truly and fully, in order that we might be strengthened for our long pilgrimage here below. I take great comfort in knowing that Christ is not far off and aloof, but that He gives Himself to me as often as I have need, in order that His blood may cleanse me of all sins. This Supper is our great strength in the war against sin. As John Chrysostom says, “let us return [from receiving the Eucharist] like lions breathing fire, having been made terrible to the Devil; thinking on our Head, and the love that He has shown for us.”
I hope this encourages you to compare what you believe about the Lord’s Supper to what Scripture has to say about it. The Supper is perhaps the greatest gift Christ left His Church on earth, for it is in the Supper that we receive Christ Himself. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below, or contact me via email or twitter. I’ll be covering a couple more topics in this series, so subscribe via email or follow me to read more.