Catechetical Refresher - The Sacrament Of The Altar
The Sacrament Of The Altar
Christ Lutheran Church
August 21, 2018
The sixth and last of Dr. Martin Luther’s six chief parts of Christian doctrine as found in the Small Catechism is: the Sacrament Of The Altar. You will get the most benefit from this essay if you have your catechism open as you read.
The reason it is the last is because all that has come before is done to lead us to the altar. It prepares us for this: to participate in this Blessed Sacrament. We learn the Commandments so that we might know what our sins are, and so that the Divine Word will convince us that we deserve present and eternal punishment because of them.
Having a due sense of our sins we next learn the Gospel of our salvation in the Creed: most importantly of the redemption that Christ has gained and obtained for us by the cross. It is pure and true redemption that cleanses and purges us from all our sins: God be praised. We then learned about prayer, about baptism and Absolution, without which no one may approach the altar. But now we have arrived at the zenith.
The Sacrament of the Altar is called by several names each of which highlights an aspect of it. It is known as the Lord’s Supper because it is a fellowship meal with Christ and his church. Every meal ever spoken of in Scripture points to this Meal of meals, even as this one points to the Great Messianic Banquet of Heaven so elegantly spoken of in St. John’s Revelation.
It is called Holy Communion because herein believers commune with the Holy God, with the Father Son and Holy Spirit. It is called Eucharist because Jesus gave thanks (eucharistia in the Greek) for it; even as the church does today. Indeed it is the church’s chief way of thanking God, and confessing the Gospel of Salvation. For Christians the giving of thanks is never merely a matter of words, even heartfelt words, but it is to receive this blessed sacrament. When in liturgy we proclaim: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God” we are saying, “Let us now celebrate the Holy Eucharist which Jesus gave us.” It is a public show of intentionality to the church, to the world, and finally to the devil and all his angels: an announcement that we are about to feast with, and feast on, Jesus - so that death no longer has dominion over us.
Of all the names given the Sacrament of the Altar Eucharist is the name that has stuck. We find it in all the Epistles, and in the earliest church writings after the close of the canon of Scripture. Up to this very day the name Eucharist is unbroken, except among Protestant churches that rejected the term. Rejected it because they wanted to put distance between themselves, and their nemesis, Rome. But this is a case of throwing out the treasures with the trash.
What is the Sacrament of the Altar? In Luther’s classic words it is: “The true body and blood of Christ under the bread and wine given for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
What benefits does it give? Again in Luther’s classic words, “the remission of sins, life and salvation.” That is to say every single, good and blessed gift that God has in his storehouse to give to his beloved children in Christ. He gives it to us in the Eucharist.
But if there is a weakness in the catechism it is the fact that in Luther’s estimation all other blessings of the Eucharist were laid aside so that the forgiveness of sins might be emphasized. But there are other important aspects to the Lord’s Supper. To name a few the Eucharist is:
… the fulfillment of the promises of the 23rd Psalm. Here the Lord God sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies sin, death and Satan, and feeds us with his living flesh and blood as they watch helpless to stop our liberation and victory over them.
… the fulfillment of Genesis 2:24 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Jesus is the Man who left his heavenly Father and earthly mother to go to the cross to gain a Bride for himself cleansed with his own blood and made spotless by it. St. Paul writes, “Ephesians 5:26-27 “that he (Christ) might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Christ is the Groom; you are the Bride! In Holy Communion the two become one flesh.
… it is power for all our weakness; courage for all our fears; consolation for all our sorrows and in the famous words of St. Ignatius of Antioch (115 AD) “the medicine of immortality.” As the Lord says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:51 This is what we receive in the Lord’s Supper. Not the dead flesh of Jesus from the cross, but the resurrected and glorified flesh of Jesus, which is not fleshy but spiritual. Whereas fleshly food that we eat is transformed into our body; this food transforms us into what it is: Spirit and Life.
Each celebration of the Sacrament is an installment of the Parousia (the return of Christ). In it Jesus returns to earth. He intervenes into the affairs of men bringing judgment and salvation with him. Judgment against sin, death and Satan; and salvation to all who believe in him.
At Christ Lutheran Church we practice closed communion because not everyone may safely receive this Bread. The Lord’s Supper is not a social engagement, but a Divine Encounter meant only for certain people. For those who are baptized, and who confess the holy Christian faith. For those who are instructed in the Sacrament: what it is, what it does, and what it is for. He must discern in it the true Flesh and Blood of Christ; and not just a sign, seal, symbol or facsimile of it. To come unprepared is to eat and drink judgment on oneself. No pastor wants to be party to that.
Finally, Jesus says: “This cup IS the New Testament in my blood.” What does this mean? It means that to participate in the Sacrament of the Altar is to live in the New Testament. Such participation is the sum and substance of Christian worship and Christian confession. The Lord’s Supper is not an add on, or after thought but constitutes and defines Christian worship; and Christian life. All other aspects of Christian life proceed from the Altar, and bring us back to it.
Well … there is much more to say, and it will be said. But let this suffice for now; and know that the best place to learn more is in the Pastor’s Class each Sunday at 9:00 AM, and from Christian sermons given each Sunday at 10:30 AM.
“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)
Peace be with you. Amen.