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).

Behold, the Lamb

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany based on John 1:29-42

Dear recipients of the New Testament: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The last Old Testament prophet proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” These words must have reminded believing Jews of slavery and deliverance.

The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt. God delivered them from slavery miraculously. God had already struck the Egyptians with nine plagues, and then the tenth and final plague was the Lord killing all the firstborn in Egypt as He passed through the land.

The people of Israel, however, were saved by a lamb. They ate the body of the lamb in the Passover meal and put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. As they ate the body of the lamb, the blood of the lamb on their doorposts saved them from death.

Moreover, as John proclaimed and pointed to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, believing Jews would have known about the daily sacrifices in the Temple. A sacrificial lamb was offered as a burnt offering in the morning and at twilight every day (Ex. 29:38-46). Lambs could also be offered as sacrifices for other types of offerings, even though animals such as bulls and goats were also sacrificed.

All these Old Testament sacrifices showed that purification for sins was necessary in God’s sight. Hebrews tells us, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb. 9:22)

However, these sacrifices were just a shadow of the good things to come. As Hebrews also explains to us, these Temple sacrifices continually offered could never make perfect those who drew near (Heb. 10:1). Those sacrifices could not cleanse or purify from sins. They could not take away the sins of the world. Otherwise they could have stopped performing the sacrifices. The worshipers would have been cleansed from their sins and there would have been no need to offer the same sacrifices again and again (Heb. 10:2). It is impossible for the blood of lambs or goats or bulls to take away sins (Heb. 10:4).

Then comes the final Old Testament prophet saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Behold, here is the Lamb who can take away sin.

There is only one way to take away the sin of the world. As we heard, there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He shed His blood to take away our sins. His death was foreshadowed by the twice daily sacrifices of lambs in the Temple. It was foreshadowed by the Passover Lamb which saved from death. But only Christ’s death takes away the sins of the world. Only Christ’s death takes away your sins.

Don’t cling to your sins. Christ wants to take them away from you. Don’t hold Christ up to contempt by living like His death means nothing to you. Don’t walk away from the Divine Service today thinking that you are your own god and can live as you like.

We have the warning, also from Hebrews, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10:22-31)

Jesus didn’t die for you so that you can return to your sins like a dog returning to its vomit or a sow returning to wallow in the mire (Prov. 26:11; 2 Pet. 2:22). Jesus died to take away your sins and to take away the power of sin over you, so that you don’t have to obey your sinful desires.

Jesus is so adamant about taking your sins away that He gives you His own body and blood to eat and drink. Jesus made a New Testament, or covenant, in His blood, and He gives you this blood to take away your sins.

The blood of animal sacrifices could never take away sins, but Jesus’ blood, given and shed for you does take away your sins, because Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus has, by His single offering of Himself on the cross, perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14), and this perfection He gives to you in the Sacrament of the Altar. He gives you the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.

As those who ate the body of the lamb were saved from death by the blood of the lamb in the Passover, so you are saved from eternal death by eating the body and drinking the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

When you fall into temptation and sin, remember that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, so He is the Lamb of God who takes away your sins. He has paid the price of your sins by offering Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for all sin, and He gives you the forgiveness of all your sins in His body and blood, given and shed for you. Amen.

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

Hosanna to the Son of David

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent based on Matthew 21:1-11

Dear crowd shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David”: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Son of David rode into the city of David. He was received with much fanfare and celebration. They shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus entered Jerusalem humbly, riding on a donkey rather than a majestic horse. He came in great power and might because He is God in the flesh, the creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them. However, His power and might were veiled. They could not be seen. The King of kings and Lord of lords humbled Himself and did not come in great demonstrations of power and might. The glimpses that He did show of His power and might were to heal, help, cleanse, and raise the dead; not signs of force or intimidation.

Some kings rule through tyranny and force. History is full of military dictatorships, despots, and tyrants. History is full of rulers who crushed their opposition through sheer force and violence, who murdered those who disagreed with them, and controlled their subjects through violence and threats of violence. We can think of examples such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and Mao Zedong in China. Their reigns were filled with conflict, murder, genocide, and war crimes.

Even in the modern-day western world, many politicians depict Machiavellianism, which is an unscrupulous approach to politics characterized by immoral behaviour, dishonesty, and even the killing of innocent people if it advances their political aspirations and goals. It was Machiavelli himself who said that if as a leader you cannot have both, it is better to be feared than loved.

What a far cry from Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem. Jesus came with more power and might than any world leader ever, but He did not come to lead His people by coercion and tyranny. He did not come to force people into subjection through oppression.

Jesus didn’t come on a war horse with an army of soldiers in a sign of force. He didn’t strong-arm people to sing His praises. He didn’t demand that they spread their cloaks on the road in front of Him or cut palm branches and lay them before Him.

Rather, God’s people were stirred to excitement and praise because they had waited for thousands of years for God to send the promised Saviour, and the crowds believed that that time had come. They shouted “Hosanna!” which means “save us now!” Thus, they believed their Saviour had come. They called Him “the Son of David” which confessed that they believed that He is the eternal King of the line of David promised by God through the Old Testament prophets (see esp. God’s promise to David in 2 Sam. 7:12-13).

The crowds may not have understood what it all meant, but Jesus understood. The crowds may not have known how Jesus would use His power and might, but Jesus knew.

Jesus did not use His power and might to coerce people to follow Him. He used His power and might to defeat the enemies of all mankind.

Jesus did not do this in the way that might have been expected. He could have attacked the devil and his demon hordes with the host of heaven and cast them into eternal chains of darkness. He could have destroyed Satan and his evil angels and rid the earth of them without even becoming man.

This, however, would have left mankind to pay for our sin. We would still have had to suffer eternally in hell for our sin if Jesus would have killed our enemy instead of allowing Himself to be killed. If Jesus had come in great power and might and defeated the devil without defeating sin and death for us, we would still be subject to sin and death.

That is why Jesus became man. That is why Jesus entered Jerusalem to suffer and die. By His suffering and death, He not only defeated the devil for Himself, but He defeated the devil for us. He defeated sin and death for us. Because Jesus paid the price of our sins, now we do not have to make the payment. Because Jesus died for us, we will not die eternally. Because Jesus defeated the devil for us, now the devil has no more power over us.

Sure, the devil will rave and storm and try to devour us and accuse us of our sin. Yes, we are still sinful and commit sin. And yes, we will die from this life.

But we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:5). That means, “Satan, drop your ugly accusation: I am baptized into Christ!” That means, “Sin, disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ!” That means, “Death, you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ!” (LSB 594)

The devil has no power over us. He is a tyrant who tries to coerce us to follow him, but he cannot snatch us out of God’s hand (John 10:27-29). He tries to tempt us and accuse us, but he cannot entice us away from Christ, and God will not listen to his empty accusations because Jesus’ death has taken our sin away from us.

Sin has no power over us. Baptized into Christ, we don’t have to follow our sinful desires. Sin does not rule over us (Rom. 6:17-18). Because Jesus died for our sin, He took the punishment of our sin away from us. Our sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12) because Jesus suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, bringing us to God (I Peter 3:18).

Death has no power over us. It may look like it has power over us since we will die from this life, but we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection, so we will rise from the dead as surely as He rose from the dead (Rom. 6:8). Death is now nothing to fear. Death for us is now nothing more than the doorway to eternal life.

Jesus will return as He has promised, and then He will come in power and might that is visible (Matt. 24:30). He will come in great glory that will be seen by all, even those who rejected Him, and all will bow down (Rom. 14:11).

Until that time, Jesus still comes to us humbly, in His Word and Sacraments. Jesus does not come to us as a tyrant and coerce us to believe or force us to go to church. Jesus comes to us in His Word which from the outside just looks like a book, but Jesus says His words are life (Jn. 6:63). Jesus comes to us in Baptism which from the outside just looks like water, but which Scripture teaches gives the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). Jesus comes to us in the Sacrament of the Altar which from the outside just looks like bread and wine, but which Jesus tells us are His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Matt. 26:26-28; I Cor. 11:23-24).

Through these humble means Jesus gives us faith and keeps us in the faith. Thus, it is also appropriate that as part of the communion liturgy we join the Palm Sunday crowd and sing, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

We recognize that the Saviour promised long ago comes to us in humble form. We sing “Hosanna!” which means “save us now!” because we believe our Saviour comes to us in His body and blood to save us from our sins. We sing that He comes in the name of the Lord because we confess that He is the eternal King of the line of David promised by God through the Old Testament prophets.

We receive our Lord with fanfare and celebration who comes humbly to us. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.

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

The Lord’s Supper – A Matter of Life and Death

Sermon for Holy Thursday based on 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 11:17–32

Dear children of God who have come to be fed: grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the sad realities of Christendom is that we do not all agree when it comes to the Sacrament of the Altar. Sometimes there seem to be as many views on the Lord’s Supper as there are church bodies. What if this issue could have been settled already in the Early Church, so that all Christians would be in agreement now? What would it have taken, so that everything that we need to know about the Lord’s Supper would be crystal clear, with no possible inaccuracies? What would have needed to happen so that there would be absolutely no doubts?

Well, first, we would want to have an eyewitness who was there when Christ instituted His Supper. But no, let’s say two eyewitnesses in order to establish the truth for legal purposes [Dt. 17:6, 19:5, Mt. 18:16]. Just for good measure, because of the weakness of our faith, let’s double the legal requirement and say that we would want four eyewitnesses that were present at the institution. Then let’s still multiply that by three and desire twelve eyewitnesses, of which at least four would give us, in writing, the truth of the Lord’s Supper. If the written reports of the four were not accurate, then the other eyewitnesses could respond and set the record straight.

Next, we would want the institution to take place in a somber setting – perhaps the day Jesus knew He would be arrested to be crucified. Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables (Mt. 13:34) but to His disciples He taught plainly the secrets of the kingdom of God (Mt. 13:11), so we would want this institution away from the crowds, only with His disciples.

We would also want what Jesus said to be something that must be taken literally, such as a last will and testament, so there would be no doubt concerning the meaning of the words. The will would come into effect upon Christ’s death [Heb. 9:16 – 17], and would be binding and unchangeable, since no one can change or annul the will of someone after their death [Gal. 3:15].

Also, we would want Jesus to have used the simplest of words to ensure that they cannot be misunderstood. Maybe if He just said, “Take eat; this is my body [Mt. 26:26],” and “Drink… this is my blood [Mt. 26:27 – 28].” With this, He would make clear that it is His true body that is eaten and His true blood which is drunk in words so simple a child can understand them. And further, if He would connect this Supper to His covenant, which is a testament that cannot be broken or changed, and then say the reason for this covenant – “the forgiveness of sins [Mt. 26:28].”

And still, just for good measure for the doubters and those slow of heart to believe, if the apostle who wrote thirteen of the Epistles in the New Testament would have, after Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension, written confirming that this is how the disciples and the Early Church understood the words of Christ. And finally, if another New Testament author, perhaps the writer to the Hebrews, in connection to Christ being a guarantor of the better covenant, would write, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind [Heb. 7:21b – 22].” With all of this, what more could we ask for? How is it possible that it could have been made clearer?

I hope you are starting to see the picture here, that all of this is indeed true. We do have four eyewitness testimonies and Christ’s clearest of words regarding His Supper. Matthew, Peter [recorded in the Gospel written with Mark his interpreter], Luke, and John were all eyewitnesses of the institution, and they all write concerning the Lord’s Supper [even though John doesn’t specifically mention the institution]. This issue was settled by Christ, and the Early Church believed and held onto His words as demonstrated by St. Paul’s writings. Jesus says that it is His will or testament. No one can change or annul the will of someone after their death [Gal. 3:15]. There is no way anyone can change the Lord’s Supper into something Jesus did not institute. It is His true body and blood we receive.

Since we receive the true body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, how should we approach the altar? St Paul writes that we should examine ourselves and recognize the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament so that we do not eat and drink judgment on ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28-29). This is why we practice closed communion. We recognize what the Lord’s Supper is.

In a way, the Lord’s Supper can be compared to a powerful medicine. The pharmacist doesn’t just give it to anyone. If taken in the wrong way, the powerful medicine can harm the patient. If the patient doesn’t know what it is and pops it like he does tic-tacs, he will die. It is important that the illness is recognized, the medicine is prescribed, and then that the medicine is taken properly. No principled pharmacist gives out such a medicine willy-nilly to just anyone who shows up. But this isn’t because the pharmacist is on a power trip, but because he wants to protect those who do not know what they are receiving. He wants everyone to receive the medicine for their benefit, not their harm.

It is possible to receive the Lord’s Supper to your harm. Those who are not repentant over their sins receive the body and blood of Christ unworthily. Those who do not recognize the real presence of Christ’s body and blood eat and drink to their judgment. This is not what we want for anyone. For those who are living in a sinful situation that is against God’s will, we want those people to turn from their sin and receive forgiveness instead of receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily. For those who do not believe Jesus’ words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, we want those people to be taught first what the Sacrament of the Altar is instead of eating and drinking to their judgment. Paul says that unworthy eating and drinking is why many of the Corinthians were weak and ill, and why some had died (1 Cor. 11:30). Unworthy eating and drinking is eternally serious.

Pastors are stewards of the mysteries of Christ, and it is required that we be found faithful [1 Cor. 4:1 – 2]. We want to ensure that no one eats and drinks to their judgment. But we cannot examine your hearts. This is why we have confirmation. You are taught the truth of God’s Word, and the truth of the Sacrament of the Altar. And then you confess whether or not you believe it. Based on your confession, you are admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This also puts the responsibility on you to examine yourself and what you believe. It puts the responsibility on you to examine yourself if you repent of your sins and seek to amend your sinful life with God’s help. It puts the responsibility on you to confess what you believe the Lord’s Supper is.

Even though it is possible to eat and drink unworthily, Christ did not institute the Supper to scare or frighten us. As He Himself said, He instituted it to give us forgiveness of sins. That is why we cling to the absolute certainty of the Sacrament that Jesus instituted and do not change what He has given us. We dare not change anything in His last will and testament. We dare not change anything or we will introduce uncertainty. We hold to what Jesus gave us so we have the certainty of the forgiveness of sins. We hold to what Jesus gave us so we have the certainty of eternal life, because the Lord’s Supper is the medicine of immortality.

How often do you want this medicine of immortality? How often do you want the forgiveness of sins? How often do you want the strengthening of your faith? We should desire it often. Jesus Himself said, “As often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

If you struggle with your sins; if you feel weak and in need of strength; if you’re tired of your battle with sin, then I have wonderful news for you: the Lord’s Supper is for you! Jesus gave us the Supper specifically to strengthen us in our faith and give us forgiveness of our sins. The Lord’s Supper is for the hungry soul; the soul that needs forgiveness; the soul that needs strength in the battle against sin. Jesus specifically said the purpose of the Supper – “the forgiveness of sins [Mt. 26:28].” In His Supper, Jesus personally distributes to you the forgiveness of sins He earned by His death on the cross. Jesus died for your sins on the cross, and He gives that forgiveness to you in the Sacrament of the Altar.

So let us cling to the clear words of Jesus concerning the Supper that He instituted and let us gather to receive the gift of forgiveness often. Jesus left us His last will and testament for our good. He instituted it to give us the certainty of the forgiveness of sins. So come receive what Jesus here gives you. Amen.

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