Date: 20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 2, 2016
Texts: Genesis 14:14-20; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Matthew 26:26-29
Context: ** We continue our alternate text selections for the remainder of the liturgical year in order to preach through Luther’s Small Catechism ** Having studied God’s guidelines for living (the Ten Commandments) and explored this God as He has revealed himself to us (the Apostle’s Creed), and having learned how to pray from him (the Lord’s Prayer) we turn our attention to the gifts God continues to bestow upon his people in the form of Sacraments. First up for consideration would normally be Holy Baptism, but since this is a Communion Sunday at our congregation, and because we have a baptism scheduled for next Sunday, I’ve opted to swap the order and deal with Holy Communion first.
In our denomination, we have two main sacraments and a sort of half sacrament. We define a sacrament as something commanded by God, which conveys his grace and forgiveness, and which utilizes a physical element. Baptism uses water. Holy Communion uses bread and wine. The other sacrament – confession and absolution, doesn’t have a physical element beyond the word confessed and the word of absolution, which is why it occupies an awkward place in our sacramental treatment.
Holy Communion has long been held as a gift of God. In it we receive the physical body and blood of Jesus, in with and under the bread and wine set aside for this purpose. The Words of Institution uttered by the pastor are not an incantation, but rather a setting apart of the wine and bread on the altar for God’s use, distinguishing those elements from any other bread or wine that might be lying around at the moment. The bread and the wine remain, but Christ joins us with his body and blood through those elements. Not in tangible ways, but in a way that is every bit as real, despite not being able to see it under a microscope. We take his words literally, something that other Christian denominations may not do, and which alters their understanding of what is happening in Holy Communion, and why we do it.
Genesis 14:14-20 – Jesus consecrates bread and wine used during the Passover Seder meal, but this is hardly the first time that bread and wine are mentioned with special significance. All the way back in Genesis we meet Melchizedek, the mysterious priest-king who meets a victorious Abram and offers him bread and wine. Certainly these would have been expected elements of any meal, but the fact that only bread and wine are mentioned here, and specifically in the context of this priest-king make it reasonable to think that something more is going on here, a foreshadowing of what Christ will do in the upper room at the Last Supper. St. Paul in writing his letter to the Hebrews picks up on this interesting connection, no doubt thinking of Psalm 110 and Christ’s fulfillment of this psalm.
Psalm 116 – This is a psalm of Thanksgiving, a first-person expression used in a communal worship to express thanks for God’s deliverance. The psalm has been divided into separate psalms before (in Greek and Latin Bibles, as well as in certain liturgical settings) but makes the most sense as a single psalm. It develops the theme of love for the Lord, which is an unusual start for a psalm. Love calls on the name of the Lord (v.4), love rests in the Lord (v.7), love seeks the ongoing presence of the Lord (v.9), love fulfills the vows it has made to the Lord (v.14), and love serves the Lord (v.16). Mention of the cup of salvation (vs.13-14) make it particularly meaningful in two liturgical settings – first as one of the psalms recited at Passover meals, and then for Christian Eucharist services.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 – These verses are critical to understanding the traditional Christian practice of closed or close Communion. This practice restricts participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who have been fully taught (catechized) in the faith and understand the significance of this meal and what and who they receive in it. Some traditional denominations still utilize this practice (Roman Catholic and conservative Lutherans, for starters), although more frequently in other denominations the practice is to allow anyone who wishes to commune to do so.
Paul makes it clear here that there are ramifications to receiving Holy Communion. What is intended as a great blessing and good can also wreak great harm to those who are undiscerning about what is going on. While this can’t be boiled down to an IQ test, it does require that Christian communities take seriously the sharing of this holy meal. What is at stake is not fellowship or a feeling of inclusion, but rather the coming of our Lord in a way unlike any other in this lifetime. Few people want to talk about Paul’s clear implications – receiving the Lord’s Supper inappropriately can lead to physical ramifications including death. Perhaps we should take more seriously who we invite to this meal, and ensure that what they receive is the blessing of our Lord’s presence as intended, rather than a moment of judgement.
Matthew 26:26-29 – Matthew records Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Experts in Greek argue about the semantics of these words. Is Jesus speaking metaphorically or literally? How can we understand him literally when what He says seems so incredible? The Church has long believed these words to be literal – that in partaking of the bread and wine offered to them, Jesus’ disciples and therefore us as well receive his actual body and blood. He does not cut off a finger and offer it to us to gnaw on. He does not slice a vein and bid us drink. Rather, He offers the reality of his body and blood in with and under the bread and wine. Christians have come to different conclusions about what this means, but regardless, we need to take these words seriously, particularly in light of St. Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 11. Jesus clearly expects that the reality of what happens at that meal 2000 years ago will remain a reality for you and I 2000 years later. It is the establishment of a covenant in his blood rather than our obedience, and it brings with it the forgiveness of sins. What a beautiful thing we receive when we hear those same words today, and come forward to taste the grace and forgiveness and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior!