1 Corinthians 11:23-29
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
ON THE NIGHT HE WAS BETRAYED
There’s a wondrous beauty about the hour of sunset. The sun impresses its memory upon a darkening world by tinting the western sky with its most original and harmonious colors. The last hour of the day is its most beautiful and memorable. And so it is in human relations. The beauty of sunset glows from the hour of farewell. We say goodbye to those who are not so intimate but reserve the last moments for those nearest our hearts. And after all else is forgotten, we remember the pressure of the hand, the quiver of the voice, the tears in the eyes, the lasting impressions of the sunset hour. These impressions have a still greater intensity when we say our final farewell to a loved one, when the sunset is the end of life’s little day, when the memory imprinted is the yearning for “the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still.” Such is the setting of Maundy Thursday.
Among the incidents of Holy Week there’s none that has more of the deep anguish of the sunset hour than the scene in the upper room on “the night when he was betrayed,” the night before Good Friday. Before another day is done, a cross would go up on Calvary. But before His earthly life comes to an end, our Lord gathers His disciples around Him for an hour of farewell. The apostle John, begins his account with the words, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
In the sunset glow the disciples listen with hushed reverence as our Lord speaks of the mansions in the Father’s house and the way of getting there, of His peace which will enable them to face life with steady confidence, of His power by which they could overcome the world. He then proceeds to imprint His memory indelibly upon the hearts of His followers for all time. He breaks bread and gives to each a fragment, saying, “For you, John,” “For you, Peter,” “For you, for me.” In the same way, He lifts the cup of wine to the lips of each of them. But to each disciple He also speaks the word, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And the church of Christ hasn’t forgotten this word.
Through the centuries an unbroken chain of sacred occasions when His disciples have remembered to “do this” leads us back to the upper room where this word was first spoken. As often as we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper, we do this in remembrance of our crucified Lord. He makes the plea: do not forget me, above all, do not forget Calvary. There I give my all for you. There my body is given for you just as this bread is broken in my hands. There my blood is poured out for you just as this wine is poured into the cup. You may forget many of the words I have spoken and many of the deeds I have performed. You may forget Cana and Capernaum and Bethany, but never forget the hill of the cross. Keep ever undimmed before you the crucified Savior.
This is precisely the way in which He has made His supreme appeal to human hearts. He is convinced that we cannot look into the face of the Crucified and go our way untouched and unchanged. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Human history and human experience vindicate His conviction. Not in the starry garments of the universe, not in the ermine of a king wielding a golden scepter, not in the armor of a soldier, not in the dark robe of a priest or a judge, has He triumphed, but in the royal purple of His suffering, with a reed as His scepter, with thorns as His crown, and with the cross as His throne. Many have looked upon His mangled body on the cross and caught a vision of the mystery of redeeming love. They felt His magnetism, they’ve been drawn to Him, and they have stayed with Him to the end.
At the foot of the cross we feel something of what Lincoln felt at Gettysburg and what we feel at the grave of the unknown soldier, but in a deeper sense. There’s a dimension of eternity in the last full measure of devotion here manifested. The deep calls unto deep, the heart of God calls to the divine in us. Something infinitely precious comes into our lives. We experience the strongest motivation there is for consecrated living. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” (LBW 482, ELW 803)
We can get along without others, but without Christ we cannot live as God intended us to live. Without Jesus, life becomes trivial and futile. We may forget the man who invented the automobile. It doesn’t matter, for we have the automobile. We may forget Luther, or other greats of the Reformation, so long as their work remains. But we cannot forget Jesus and remain Christians. “Without me,” He says simply, “you can do nothing.” Yet we do forget Jesus to easily and to often. We become self-centered and drift away from Him. It isn’t until the consequences of our sin catches up with us that we shamefacedly return to God. We’re like Peter of the bonfire. He forfeited his discipleship when he broke off his relation to the Master, but when he “remembered the word of the Lord,” he came to his senses and returned.
While the Lord’s Supper is “in remembrance” of Jesus, it’s so much more than a memorial. The Lord doesn’t speak of the bread and the wine as mere tokens of remembrance. He says, “This is my body which is for you … This cup is the new covenant in my blood, for you.” To the church, therefore, the Lord’s Supper isn’t merely a precious heirloom. It’s the sacrament of the abiding presence of the Lord among His people. It rests upon the continuing reality of the incarnation, the coming of God to us in flesh and blood. It affirms the church to be the living body of Christ and its members to be in organic relation to their Lord. In the church, therefore, God’s truth, life, and power aren’t merely ideas to be talked about. The sacrament means that we have actual bodily contact with Christ, actual participation in the life of His kingdom.
Still many ask, “how can the bread and wine of the sacrament be the body and blood of Christ?” This remains a mystery, although theologians have explored and debated it for centuries. Today the consensus of thought in Christendom is that the real presence of Christ must be affirmed even though it cannot be fully explained. According to Luther, when Christ says, “This is my body,” he may be compared to a mother who points to the cradle in which her child is lying and says, “This is my child.” Christ doesn’t mean to say that the bread is his body any more than the mother implies that the cradle is her child. But “in and under” the elements of bread and wine the true presence of the glorified resurrected body of Christ is present. In this glorified state, the body of Christ isn’t confined by time or space. Christ can therefore be bodily present always and everywhere. But what does this bodily contact with Christ offer us?
It offers what the gospel always offers and what we need most, the restoration and strengthening of our personal fellowship with God. “This is the new covenant in my blood,” said Christ, but according to Matthew, he added the words, “for the forgiveness of sins.” “The chief things in the sacrament,” declares Luther’s Catechism, “are the words ‘given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” The sacrament isn’t a sacrifice by which we give something to God, but a means of grace, by which Christ gives Himself to us. As pledges of the assurance of forgiveness, He offers us His body and blood to be received in grateful faith. The primary emphasis isn’t on the love of the communicants, but on the descending and pardoning love of Christ. Our prayers, offerings, sacrifices, attempts to remember and to elevate our hearts – all these are secondary. They are derived from the great central truth: “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.” (Small Catechism)
The forgiveness of sins which the Lord bestows in the sacrament isn’t a general amnesty. It has a personal application to each individual: “the body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you.” While the preached word is for the congregation as a whole, the “visible word,” as Saint Augustine described the sacrament, makes its impact upon each individual person and it touches concretely the whole person, body as well as soul. Here the believer has communion with his Lord who assures him, “My life is your life, my strength is your strength.”
To an outsider, the sacrament means little or nothing, for “the love of Jesus, what it is, none but His loved ones know.” (LBW 316, ELW 754) Those who have experienced time and again the presence of the Savior in this sacrament, who know what courage and joy and hope He so often gave there, they know what communion means. They long for these contacts with Him and they pray with Paul that they may know Him ever better and better as the days of their pilgrimage lengthen and eternity draws nearer.
The sacrament is communion not only with Christ but also with all of Christ’s people. It is a bond of Christian fellowship: “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). Our Lord instituted the sacrament to bind His people to Himself and to one another. One of the earliest communion prayers of the church says beautifully that just as the bread of the sacrament is made of grain grown in various and scattered places, so Christians scattered and divided in many ways here become one.
We walk our several ways in solitude, often in loneliness of heart. We know one another imperfectly and we misjudge one another, for we cannot read one another’s hearts. But at the Lord’s table we meet. We meet our Lord and we meet one another. We receive the supreme gift of His love, His body given for us and His blood poured out for us. Together, from all our various ways, we come to Him, all as sinners for whom Christ died, all in need of the grace and healing which He alone supplies. And every broken heart He heals and binds our hearts together in faith and love in His living body, the church. Not even death can break this bond of fellowship. As we commune with our Lord, together with all His people, we also strengthen the ties that bind us to our loved ones who have gone before us and are at home with God. For not only with all of God’s people on earth, but “with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify” the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. But it doesn’t stop here. The sacrament has various other facets.
It’s also an expression of gratitude for the riches of God’s grace in Christ, an aspect contained in the very name which the early Christians gave the sacrament, Eucharist, thanksgiving. It’s a witness of faith: “You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26) It keeps the church’s attention riveted upon Calvary, upon the center of its proclamation. The promise “until he comes” keeps alive the hope of the Lord’s return in glory. The Lord Himself said, “I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of heaven when we no longer need the mediation of earthly elements to commune with our Lord.
The sacrament established “on the night when he was betrayed” is such a many-splendored thing because it contains an epitome God’s whole covenant of grace with us. What it means to us is what Christ means to us. He comes to His people in the humility of His incarnation, in the saving grace of His crucifixion, in the power of His resurrection, and in the promise of His assured ultimate triumph. And as His people, we respond with joyful gratitude, with strengthened faith, with empowered witness, with consecrated life, and with brightened hope. The Lord’s supper is indeed, the holy of holies of Christian worship.