Maundy Thursday

March 28, 2013

The Mystery and Faith

St. Matthew 26:26-28


And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”  Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.  For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

St. Augustine once said that he did not see in order to believe but he believed in order to see.  Those are wise words.  I have always felt sorry for those who have had it pounded into them that Christ’s words, “this is my body” and “this is my blood” don’t mean what they say but must rather be taken figuratively to mean that the bread is a symbol of Christ’s body and the wine is a symbol of Christ’s blood.  I have felt sorry for them because they have been deprived of a wonderful mystery and a great comfort in life.


Faith doesn’t require sight to validate it.  True faith rests on God’s word.  It doesn’t depend on the senses.  If God says it, that settles it.  Whether or not I can see it, taste it, feel is, smell it, or hear it is beside the point.  My senses are limited by their very nature.  They don’t have the capacity to rise above what God made them for. 


God didn’t give us our senses to enable us to figure out his holy mysteries.  The almighty and omnipresent God becomes a little baby dependant on his mother’s care.  He hungers, thirsts, and dies on a cross bearing the load of all human sin.  He establishes in his Church a washing with water whereby his blood shed on that cross washes away sin.  Can you touch, taste, smell, see, or hear your way into understanding how these mysteries can be true?  No!  The senses must submit to the Word.  God says it and that settles it. 


Maundy Thursday is the night when our Lord Jesus was betrayed.  He ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  Then he instituted the Lord’s Supper.  The Passover commemorated Israel’s Exodus from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land.  God sent plagues to Pharaoh to persuade him to let his people go.  Pharaoh hardened his heart.  The final plague was the Passover.  God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn son in every Egyptian household.  God commanded his people to put blood around the doors of their homes so that when the angel of death saw the blood he would pass over those homes and kill no one.  That’s where the Passover got its name.  Where the angel of death saw the blood he passed over.


The Passover was also called the feast of unleavened bread.  In those days, yeast was obtained by taking a bit of dough from a fresh batch and setting it aside to ferment for use as yeast.  There was thus a physical connection with the past in every piece of bread eaten.  Unleavened bread, or bread without yeast, signified a total break with the past.  When God delivered his people he delivered his people.


But the Passover was only symbolic.  God’s people needed more than mere symbols.  The signs of blood on the door and bread without yeast reminded people of God’s great power and love – true.  But signs are just that: signs.  They signify.  They don’t actually give.  Even a diamond ring, which can be worth thousands of dollars, doesn’t give the love and faithfulness it symbolizes.  It only symbolizes it.  As the pop song of the sixties put it,


Who wants to buy this diamond ring?

She took off her finger;

Now it doesn’t mean a thing.


Signs are just signs.  They signify.  They are only signs of what they signify.  They aren’t what they signify. 


Except when Jesus says that they are.  And that’s exactly what he says about the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus took the unleavened bread and said of it, “Take eat, this is my body.”  He took the cup of wine and said, “Drink from it, all of you.  For this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”  Faith cannot feel, taste, touch, smell, or hear the body and the blood of Jesus, given and shed for the remission of sins.  The elements appear to be ordinary bread and wine.


The Roman Catholic Church has an interesting theory about this.  Developed by a brilliant theologian of the Middle Ages by the name of Thomas Aquinas who synthesized Christian teaching with Aristotelian philosophy, the theory is called transubstantiation.  That’s a fancy word for a fancy doctrine.  What it means is that the substances of bread and wine no longer exist.  While it may appear to be bread and wine to the senses, it isn’t.  The substances of bread and wine have changed into the substances of Christ’s body and blood.


The theory of transubstantiation became dogma in the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent.  Theories constructed out of philosophical reasoning may be interesting, but they can hardly bind Christian consciences.  We don’t get our theology from Aristotle.  We get it from the Bible.  The Bible says nothing about the bread and wine ceasing to be bread and wine.  In fact, the Bible refers to the consecrated bread as bread.  We eat bread.  We drink wine. 


But the bread that we eat is Christ’s body.  The wine that we drink is Christ’s blood.  The bread is Christ’s body not because the Church says so but because Jesus says so.  The Church doesn’t determine what a sacrament is and what a sacrament gives.  Christ does.  The one who permitted his body to be nailed to the cross and who shed his blood on that cross to forgive us our sins is the one who took bread and wine and gave it to his Church and said to her that this bread was his body and this wine was his blood given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.


So that’s what it is.  It is what Jesus says it is.  We don’t need to explain how what looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like bread and wine can be Christ’s body and blood.  We don’t need to explain it because Jesus said it is so and whenever he says something that makes it so.


Just as surely as Jesus offered up his body on the cross as the sacrifice to take away God’s anger against us sinners, so surely Jesus gives that body to you to eat when he gives you the sacramental bread.  Just as surely as Jesus shed his blood on the cross to take away your sins once and for all, so surely Jesus gives that blood to you to drink when he gives you the sacramental wine.  What does he say?  He says, “This is my body, this is my blood.”  That means it is his body and it is his blood.


One of the biggest tragedies of the Church’s history is that the Protestant Reformation was divided over this matter even though it is settled in God’s word.  The reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin rejected the authority of Rome.  But instead of relying on Scripture alone for their teaching, they exalted human reason above the clear words of Jesus and taught that the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper were not the body and the blood of Jesus.


The Westminster Confession puts it this way:


The outward elements in this sacrament . . . are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.


In other words, even though Jesus calls the bread and the wine his body and blood they are not his body and blood but are only bread and wine as they were before.  Is it any wonder then that the Reformed churches deny that the Lord’s Supper actually bestows the forgiveness of sins?  It is but a memorial meal.  It is an opportunity for them to exercise their faith by ascending spiritually to heaven where they feast on Jesus by faith.  But the bread and the wine, they say, are as far away from Christ’s body and blood as earth is from heaven.


But heaven has come to earth.  Heaven came to earth when God became a man.  Heaven and earth were reconciled when the God-man suffered and died on the cross.  And every time Jesus gives us bread to eat and wine to drink and tells us that this bread and this wine are his body and blood heaven comes to earth again.  Thank God!  We cannot ascend into heaven.  So God descends to earth.


It is no small matter to deny that the sacramental bread and wine really and truly are the body and the blood of Jesus.  It is a sin to question what God says.  It is one thing to wonder how it can be.  Mary wondered how it could be that she would become the mother of God.  But she didn’t question God’s messenger.  She believed his word and was blessed in believing.  Zacharias, on the other hand, didn’t believe the angel when he was told that his wife would conceive and bear a son in her old age.  On account of his denial of God’s word the angel took away his ability to speak until John was born.


If the bread and the wine remain only bread and wine then it is not the Lord’s Supper.  It is a meal that only signifies but doesn’t actually give salvation.  But we need more than signs that signify what they don’t give.  We need the real thing.  Not just signs, but substance.  And that’s what we receive every time we come to the Lord’s Supper.


The Lord’s Supper is for sinners who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We see in our Savior a righteousness so pure and holy that we can only stand back and watch in amazement.  Look!  The Creator humbles himself before his creatures.  The God whom all must serve stoops to serve as he washes his disciples’ feet.  We see this humility and we consider our own pride.  We think of our anger against those who have slighted us; our hurt because we weren’t praised; our sadness because we weren’t considered to be as important as we think we are.  Oh, how we want glory.  And oh, how we must admit that vainglory is a sin and we are all guilty as sin.


We admit our sin.  We confess our sin to God.  He knows our sin.  He bore it.  He invites us to eat and to drink.  This holy meal has been called the medicine of immortality.  The body and blood that we eat and drink give us forgiveness of sins, peace with God, deliverance from the power of the devil, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and everlasting life.


We commune only at altars devoted to the whole truth of God’s holy word for every time we commune we confess that the teaching of that church is God’s own truth.  We confess together at the altar.  And we are joined in a communion with one another that is as wonderful and miraculous as is the communion of the sacramental elements with Christ’s body and blood.  We are one body.  We are joined together by Christ’s body and blood.  All divisions are healed by his life-giving sacrifice.  Here, where we receive together the forgiveness of sins, we are the Communion of Saints.  Amen