What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Wednesday after Invocabit 2015
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Catechism: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Where is this written?”
February 25, 2015
The Passion of our Lord begins around the time of the Passover. This was the feast that God had instituted at the time He delivered His people Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was the final plague on the Egyptians—God would sweep through the land of Egypt and kill every firstborn male throughout the land, both of man and animal. After this devastating judgment, Pharaoh would let the people of Israel go.
But the firstborn of the Israelites would be spared. In their houses they were to take a year old lamb without defect, slaughter it, and smear its blood on the doorposts of their houses. Then they were to roast the lamb and eat it all—head, legs, and inner parts, with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Whatever was leftover of the lamb had to be burned by the morning. And when the Lord saw the blood on the doorposts of the house, He would pass over and not slay anyone inside, because of the blood of the lamb.
And God commanded that the Israelites eat this lamb every year at the same time to remember what God had done for them, how He slew the firstborn of all the Egyptians, but the sons of the Israelites He spared because of the lamb whose blood marked their doors.
This was the time of year that was approaching when Jesus entered Jerusalem before His Passion. He had told His disciples that His death was approaching. Now Judas makes a deal with the chief priests to betray Jesus. Jesus knows what is going to happen to Him, and at this time He commands Peter and John to go prepare for them to eat the Passover.
That meant they had to go purchase the lamb and take it to the temple to be slaughtered, and then roast it over the fire to make it ready for the evening meal. So they did. And as Jesus sat down to eat the Passover with His disciples, He told them, “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you that I shall not eat of it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” This means—the Passover meal is coming to its end. What it foreshadowed all these years the Jews have been eating it is coming. The shadow is going away and the reality is coming. The Passover lamb whose blood was shed and smeared on the door so that the angel of death would pass by, the Passover lamb that was completely consumed by the Israelites, and what was left was burned in the fire—this lamb was only a symbol and picture of the true lamb of God, Jesus. He would shed His blood not to save us from physical slavery to Pharaoh but to redeem the whole world from spiritual slavery to sin and the devil. His blood would be smeared on the posts of the cross, on which He stretched out His arms to embrace the world in His death. He would give His flesh to be eaten by faith so that His people might live.
This was already a solemn night. On it they remembered how they were saved by the judgment of God that struck all around them but passed over them. It was made even more solemn by Jesus’ repeated warnings that He would be handed over and killed on this visit to Jerusalem. On this already somber night, Jesus instituted a new sacrament in place of the old yearly remembrance of the Passover. He instituted His last will and testament.
And what is His last will and testament? It’s vitally important that we know the right answer to this question. Surely Jesus didn’t die and leave us something that is of no consequence.
But that’s just how many people look at it—as if Jesus’ last will and testament was of little consequence. Whether or not a church teaches correctly about Jesus’ testament is considered unimportant compared to other things, like how inspiring the pastor is, how much we like the music, whether they have a good youth group, whether the people seem to be “on fire for the Lord.”
But it matters immensely. It was of such importance to the Lord Jesus that He instituted the sacrament of the altar as His final will before He died.
And it matters to you what Jesus’ testament is and that you know why you believe it to be what it is. Because there are many churches and Christians who change Jesus’ testament into something else than He instituted. What Jesus instituted on the night of His betrayal cannot be an unnecessary thing for your salvation. Rather it is of the highest importance.
Also understanding what the Sacrament of the Altar is and seeing the firm Scriptural ground we have for our belief about it will strengthen your faith and increase your hunger for this priceless gift.
So we consider today
What the Lord’s Supper is.
Who instituted it.
And how it is received.
The most concise answer to the question of what the Sacrament of the Altar is is given to us in Luther’s answer from the small catechism: What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.
There you have it in plain language: the Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of Jesus under the bread and wine.
And how do we know this? We have Jesus own words on the matter in the three Gospels and the Epistle mentioned earlier, where Jesus says plainly, “This is My Body,” “This is My Blood of the New Testament.”
We should consider who it is who instituted this Sacrament.
It wasn’t a mere human being, a prophet or some other great man who instituted the Sacrament of the Altar. It was Jesus, who is true God and Man. That means that it is by divine authority that we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar. And since it was God who instituted it, it is necessary that we stick to His ideas about what the Lord’s Supper is and what He wants done with it. And we have no other way to know what the Lord’s purpose for His Supper is than to listen and stick with the Words by which He instituted the Sacrament.
Secondly, because the man who instituted the Sacrament of the Altar is God, we can rest assured that He knows what words He wants to use and how to speak clearly. The divine Son of God in infinite wisdom chose the words by which He instituted the Sacrament of the Altar, and the words He chose were “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”
Third, it was on the night of His betrayal that Jesus spoke these words. It was a solemn night—a night of great religious significance already, a night on which the cloud of death was hanging over the heads of Jesus and His disciples. And Jesus spoke these words as His last will and testament. If ever there was a time to speak clearly and without figures of speech, this was it, because Jesus wanted His disciples to know clearly what He was giving them and what He wanted them to do with it before He died.
So it is not a mere man who instituted the Lord’s Supper, but God Himself. That speaks to its importance and necessity. The Lord Jesus did not institute music, youth groups, or religious zeal on the night of His impending death. He instituted His Supper. When people look at these other things as more important than the Sacrament of the Altar they ignore and treat lightly the last will and testament of the Son of God.
So what is it that the Lord says is given in the Sacrament of the Altar? First of all, bread and wine. He took bread, it says in the text. He took the cup, it says, which was a cup of wine. And so in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper we are not free to substitute other elements for bread and wine. It’s not our supper that we may change as seems good to us. It’s the supper of the Lord Christ which He instituted on the night when He was about to die.
And just as we can’t change the elements which Jesus prescribed to be used in His supper, we are also not free to deny or change the heavenly gift which He says He bestows in the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus does not say, “Take, eat, this is a picture of my body.” He says, “This is my body.” He doesn’t say, “This is a representation of my blood, which is shed for you.” He says “This IS my blood, which is shed for you.”
Imagine a cardboard representation of the sun that you might have in a set on a stage or in a play. The cardboard picture might remind you of the sun, but in reality it is as different from the sun as cardboard is from a star in the heavens. A picture of the sun doesn’t make anything grow. It doesn’t give any heat. It’s a dead thing. But the sun makes crops grow, separates day from night, makes your skin get tanned or burned. It is a living and real thing.
In just the same way churches and preachers who tell us that the Lord’s Supper is only a symbol of the body and blood of Christ substitute a lifeless imitation for what is real and life giving. Because Jesus’ body and blood really and truly give life and the forgiveness of sins.
In Exodus chapter 24 Moses reads the words of the Lord to the people of Israel, who say, “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.” Then Moses took the blood of sacrifices and threw half of it against the altar and threw the other half on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words.” In doing that it showed that both God and the people were bound together by blood in the Old Covenant.
Jesus used the same language in instituting the Sacrament of the Altar: “This is my blood of the covenant,” or of the New Testament. He did this for a reason. Just as the blood of the old covenant had bound God and the people together under the covenant of the law, so the blood of Jesus which is applied to us in the Sacrament of the Altar assures us that we are bound with God in the New Testament; we are sealed into the new testament of the forgiveness of sins. Because Jesus took His blood into the heavenly sanctuary to atone for our sins before God. And in the Lord’s Supper He gives us that same blood to drink to assure us that we are included in this atonement.
And in the Passover, the blood of the lamb was smeared on the doorposts and the lamb was eaten inside, and the angel of death passed over the house. So we have Jesus’ body and blood applied to us personally in the Lord’s Supper to certify that the judgment of God will pass over us.
How is this Sacrament to be received? Jesus makes this clear in His words of institution also. He says, “Take eat, take drink.” He doesn’t tell us to spiritually eat His body and drink His blood, which we do by faith always. He tells us to eat the bread that is His body with our mouths and to drink the cup of His blood. Nor does He tell us to sacrifice His body again and again, or carry it around in procession, or lock it up in a box and worship it, as they do in the Roman Catholic church. It is really and truly His body and blood, and it is to be eaten and drunk in faith for the forgiveness of sins.
Now there are many Christians who argue this and say that the Lord’s Supper is symbolic, a mere remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross for us. They think this because it doesn’t fit with human reason to say that Jesus is giving us His body and blood with the bread and wine. They also say this because they don’t understand that Christian faith clings to God’s Word and not to the inner experiences of the heart. We need the Sacrament of the Altar as well as Baptism and the preached Word because our faith cannot live on itself. It lives by the Word of God that comes to us from outside; it holds to the word of God that says we are forgiven and not the inner experience of feeling forgiven.
If you tell a person of this doctrine that you know that you are saved because you receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, they will worry that you are not really saved because your faith rests on Jesus’ word instead of an experience you had of being converted or a prayer in which you asked Jesus to be your Savior.
They will say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that communion is His body and blood. He was using figurative language.” The only reason they say this is because they are following fallen human reason instead of the Word of the Lord.
First of all, Jesus had no need to institute another symbolic meal. They were already celebrating a symbolic meal at the Passover. The lamb they ate was symbolic of Jesus whose death gives life to the world. Jesus didn’t need to institute another symbolic meal. He was giving the reality, not a picture.
Secondly, these words of Jesus are the words of His last will and testament. He is instituting a testament the way that Moses did when He threw the blood on the people. No one makes a testament or a covenant using symbolic language. When you are making a will you write very clearly what you want given to whom. When you are writing a contract you don’t use metaphors. You write and speak clearly so there is no misunderstanding. Jesus was not telling a parable when He instituted the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, when Paul repeats the words of institution to the church at Corinth, he adds the warning that whoever eats the bread of the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of Christ is guilty of profaning the body of the Lord and eats and drinks judgment on himself. In fact, he writes, this is the reason why some of you are sick and weak, and others have died. Paul doesn’t say the Corinthians are guilty of misusing a symbol of Christ’s body and blood. They have misused the body and blood itself because they have not recognized it for what it is. In the Old Testament people get sick or die in the presence of the Lord when they approach the Ark of the Covenant without authorization or when they mishandle the things that are the Lord’s. The fact that the Corinthians got sick or died because of misuse of the Lord’s Supper indicates that this was something holy–not mere bread but the very body of Christ.
This gives us great comfort. It is not a reminder of the body and blood of Jesus that were given and shed for us that we receive when we approach this altar rail. We receive the very body and holy blood of Jesus Himself. That gives us great, firm, and glorious assurance that our sins are truly forgiven before God and that we have eternal life, no matter what we may be suffering in this world. May God increase our faith in the words of this Sacrament, so that we highly esteem this gift and take from it great assurance that our sins are forgiven.
Soli Deo Gloria