A Lenten Sermon
During this Lenten season, we’ve been hearing Martin Luther’s explanations of the Sacraments we as Lutherans celebrate. Tonight, as we reach the end of our Wednesday Evening Prayer Services, I will continue with the Sacrament of the Altar a.k.a Holy Communion.
It has been over a year since we last celebrated communion with our Lord together as one body. Yes, we have had the occasional virtual sharing of the body and blood of Christ – making do with a cracker or piece of toast and a blessed swig of our house wine or whatever we can find in the fridge while at the breakfast table or in front of the TV, but I will be honest with you – to me it seems a bit sacrilege and has left me feeling a bit empty. Most definitely, this long pandemic fast we have endured has made me hungry for the day we can be together again to share a blessed communion with one another, bound together by our common Baptism and a bond of love that reflects the love of Christ for us.
I have vivid memories of receiving and giving the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ throughout my life – from my very first communion as a newly confirmed 8th grader in my lace-trimmed white dress and black patent shoes surrounded by family and fellow formally dressed confirmands to the last time I served communion to my father on my last Sunday at our family’s church in Billings before I moved away. As I held my dad’s eyes and spoke the same words spoken by Christ – there was a love so deep and a common understanding between us that only God could create out a piece of bread and sip of wine. I have witnessed grown men cry as they came forward for this special meal, I have watched broken souls struggle through infirmities to come forward with the help of others, I myself have cried with tears of relief and tears of joy that I only feel after tasting the bread and drinking the wine.
Which begs the question that Luther asks:
How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing?
Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sin.”
But, you ask, weren’t we already offered and given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? Do we somehow lose that forgiveness so that we need to be re-forgiven, re-saved, resurrected to life again every week? What does that mean for us during a pandemic when we haven’t communed in over a year? Gasp! No forgiveness doesn’t work that way. What Jesus is offering you in Holy Communion is a RE–membering – a tangible reminder of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of Him but a memory that makes us members of His body. An intimate interaction with His presence. And where Christ is found, there is complete forgiveness – there and only there, whether you take the bread and wine this week or not.
What joins you to Christ is your faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins, faith that comes from hearing and living in His promise. Jesus called you to Him in the waters of your Baptism and through your faith in Jesus and His promise, your sins are counted – counted as forgiven – always and completely. But while God doesn’t keep a tally of your sins, the world and the devil do and they will do their level best to work against God and on you.
Your faith in God is a target. During His last days with them, Jesus told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) And He was right! You are literally surrounded by enemies who seek to sever your connection to Jesus, to pull you away from Him, and pull you away from God’s forgiveness and life. Who are your enemies? Who or what comes between you and God and keeps you from sharing God’s promises with the world and living the life that God wants for you?
Because Jesus knows what it is like to be human, to have our weaknesses tested and our faith tried, Jesus wasn’t content to give you only a once-in-a-lifetime Baptism. Jesus knew you would need more than that, something tangible – a symbolic reminder of His enduring presence and an open invitation to His mercy, grace, and love in the face of the world’s troubles and all that would pull you from Him. In remembering and celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, through the bread and wine, body and blood, He gathers your life and the lives of the world to Him.That is why Jesus, on the evening before he died, took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I dare say there are a multitude of things vying for God’s place in your life right now. And you might – after a year most often described as one of separation, polarization, judgment, frustration, distrust, and hate – you might be feeling a bit unworthy of this great gift of God’s love.
Such thoughts were not foreign to Luther either. Indeed, he questioned this himself:
Who, then receives this sacrament worthily?
Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, because the words “for you” require truly believing hearts.
I think we have this fasting thing down pretty good – and we have been keeping our bodies well- prepped against ruthless invaders for over a year now – so that should make us worthy, right? Sure, that might make you LOOK worthy to others and FEEL worthy. But it isn’t very concrete. How can you be certain you have fasted enough or kept your body primed enough? So how do we define worthiness? It’s in our human nature to like lists and categories and systems that enable us to measure our success, align with the “right” group, and see others as not like us – you know – not worthy.
So here goes – where do you fit in? If you don’t have a single sin that needs forgiving, then by all means,don’t come taste and see. If you have no fear, no doubt, no weaknesses of the heart, then this bread for the journey is not for you. If your faith can’t be moved or shaken, if you’ve never thought only of yourself, if your “love for one another” is already perfect, and if you have had it with Jesus and feel no need for communion with Him, then this invitation isn’t for you. It probably isn’t going to mean much to you because this divine invitation is meant for sinners.
Who is worthy? Christ’s body and blood – His eternal presence – is for YOU. You who yearn to walk with Christ – but get tripped up every so often; you who long to be touched again by His sacrifice even when you can’t find the time to sacrifice for Him; you who long to receive forgiveness for all your sins from His wounded and outstretched hands all the while holding onto a grudge, and you who need His help in order to fulfill His command to love one another even though you have yet to love yourself.
If you feel the world pulling you away from God, if you know you need Christ and you know that all His forgiveness and all His strength is in here – in your heart – as you eat the bread and drink the wine of this Holy Communion, if you believe that you have been personally invited by your Savior to this feast for sinners, because you have, then come – taste and see. You are most certainly worthy and most certainly welcome.