The Marks of the Church: The Sacrament of the Altar

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people in communion with Christ: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by the Sacrament of the Altar. Wherever it is rightly given, believed, and received according to Christ’s institution, there God’s holy people are. The Sacrament of the Altar is a public mark by which God’s people are made holy through the forgiveness of sins and nourished with the body and blood of Jesus which strengthen faith.

The Sacrament of the Altar is then the seventh and final mark of the holy Christian church. Wherever you see this Sacrament as Christ instituted it, know that the Christian holy people must certainly be there.

As with all the marks of the church, note the qualifying words. Not just any supper is the Lord’s Supper. Not just any supper is a mark of the church. The Supper instituted by Christ and rightly given, believed, and received according to Christ’s institution is a mark of the true church.

For His Supper, Christ did not institute a private mass for one priest to perform on behalf of the dead. Christ did not institute a sacrifice where His body and blood are offered to God over and over by a priest. Christ did not institute a free-for-all with crackers and grape juice that’s open to everyone or Corpus Christi parades where they parade around with the communion elements as if people benefit just from looking at them.

The church in Corinth thought that it was not a big deal to change around the institution of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. This resulted in people eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. It resulted in them being guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment on themselves, and being punished by God with weakness, illness, and death (I Cor. 11:27-30). Why did God deal so harshly with them? So that they would not be condemned with the world (I Cor. 11:32). God was disciplining them so that they would repent and not go to hell.

The Lord’s Supper can be received to great harm. This is because everyone receives the body and blood of Jesus, whether they believe it or not. Our faith does not make the Sacrament what it is. Rather’s Christ’s Word makes the Sacrament. When Christ says, “This is my body, and this is my blood,” that’s what it is whether or not you believe it. If you do not believe it, Scripture teaches, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11:29)

Further, if you are not repentant of your sins, you eat in an unworthy manner and will be guilty concerning the body and blood of Christ (I Cor. 11:27). Those who are not sorry for their sins do not and cannot receive forgiveness of sins. Those who have no desire to change their sinful lives with the help of the Holy Spirit do not and cannot receive forgiveness of sins.

For these reasons, the Christian church has always practiced closed communion. Out of love for those who do not believe Christ’s words or are openly ungodly and unrepentant, the church is not to commune them. It is not loving to give someone something that you know will harm them. It’s not loving to commune someone to his judgment. This is not just a congregational policy or a policy of our synod, but it is God’s command. We follow Christ’s commands concerning His Supper.

The question then is, how can the church practice closed communion, since we cannot examine someone else’s heart? How can we exclude the ungodly, unrepentant man who does not believe Christ’s words in the Sacrament if we cannot see his heart? The answer is by his public confession.

The clearest confession of what a man believes is belonging to a particular church. When someone is a member at a church, he confesses that he believes what is taught at the church. In order for you to believe what is taught at the church, instruction such as confirmation is necessary. Then, the man publicly confesses before the church that this is what he believes, and we take him at his word.

If someone is a member at a church of a different confession, then we must also take him at his word that he believes what that church teaches. If he belongs to a church that rejects some parts of holy Scripture, then we must take him at his word that he also rejects those same parts of Scripture.

Now, it is possible that someone belongs to a church without realizing that his church teaches falsely. Many false teaching churches hide their denial of God’s Word. We should pray for those Christians who belong to such churches, and commend them to God who works through His Word. We pray that they would drink the pure living water of His Word and not become poisoned by the false teaching of their church. But we must assume that their public confession matches the public confession of their church. We can assume that if only they knew the false teaching that they were hearing, they would quickly flee to a church that teaches the pure Word of God. But we must assume that their public confession is the same as their church’s. We cannot judge hearts and minds. We can only determine someone’s faith by his public confession.

In addition to one’s membership in a church is the outward living of a man. If a man lives contrary to God’s Word, not through weakness but through a refusal to amend his life according to God’s Word, we must assume that he doesn’t believe God’s word of forgiveness and newness of life. Such a man shows by his refusal to repent that he does not desire the very forgiveness of sins that is offered in the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, we must conclude that he would receive the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. To allow such a man to sin against the body and blood of Christ is far from loving. It is a hateful thing to knowingly give someone poison. Such would be the case if we were to give the Lord’s Supper to one who through his public confession denies God’s Word.

So, do you have to be scared about receiving the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? How can you be certain that you receive it for your good? This is where examining yourself comes in. In preparation to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, examine yourself to see whether you are sorry for your sins and desire with the help of the Holy Spirit to amend your sinful life. Examine yourself whether you believe in our Saviour Jesus Christ and His words in the Sacrament: “This is my body… this is my blood… for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28) He who believes in the Word of God that Christ offers Himself bodily through the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins receives exactly what Christ desires for him. He receives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He receives all the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross.

Christ instituted this meal as His last will and testament as He willingly headed to the cross. In these final moments before His arrest, His thoughts were for His church; for nourishing her and strengthening her through this sacred meal.

Thus, the Sacrament of the Altar is necessarily found in the Christian church. A Christian church is recognized as such because Christ’s Supper is found there as He instituted it. God’s holy people cannot be without the Lord’s Supper because through it Christ gives us His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, for eternal life, and for salvation. You can recognize the true Christian church because they don’t have their own-invented supper, but the Supper of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

2 thoughts on “The Marks of the Church: The Sacrament of the Altar

  1. It is the truth and nothing but the truth spoken by the Holy Spirit as our Lord said to his
    Desciple the flesh is not useful bat it is the Spirit is the one who gives Life.John 6-62
    In Christ Walter Wagner

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  2. Absolutely true. The sinful flesh is of no help at all in believing in Jesus Christ our Lord, or coming to Him. It is the Holy Spirit who calls us through the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, including the Sacrament of the Altar, and sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith.

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