The Lord is indeed everywhere, but is he there for you? – Martin Luther
We often think of receiving Communion — or the Lord’s Supper — these days as a self-centred affair for some. This holiest of Sacraments seems to be the most imbued with a sense of entitlement. How can something so profound, so beautiful be misused and misconstrued?
The Revd Naomichi Masaki of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, explores the history of these misconceptions, which are almost as old as the Sacrament itself. In ‘It’s Not Ours but the Lord’s Supper’, he explains that St Paul was the first to observe its misuse. Some Corinthians treated the Body and Blood of Our Lord the same way they would treat a supper in their own homes (1 Cor. 11:20-21). Martin Luther also noted the same in his day. He cautioned: ‘It is the Lord’s Supper, not Christians’ supper’.
The Greeks were heavily influenced by Hellenestic mystery religions which predated Christianity. In them, performing certain ceremonial rituals was necessary to win salvation. Some scholars of the time claimed that the early Christian liturgy, similarly, belonged to the people. When applied to Communion, they reasoned that the greater the public participation, the ‘better’ the sacrament. Their early rituals involved the laity more than they should have. In the last century, this notion was revived in certain Protestant denominations with a lay apostolate replacing ordained ministers. Later on, Vatican II gave lay Catholics an increased role with the idea of ‘liturgy as the work of the people’ — a good work intended to instil grace.
These days, we sometimes place overemphasis on the Communion Mass or service as a celebration, coming together as a congregation or receiving Communion because everyone else does. But, is this really the way the Lord intended us to receive this most precious gift to us? Luther warned against the tendency to ‘diminish my Lord Jesus Christ’.
Luther believed that we must think of the Supper in the way the Lord intended us to receive it. He believed that an ordained priest was necessary to transmit the necessary grace to the Sacrament. He stated that the means of grace and the Office of the Holy Ministry go together. This is part of the Augsburg Confession, Article V. Just as he did not believe it was the congregation’s supper, he also stated that it was not the pastor’s supper. He said that when this doctrine was not observed, the confession of the means of grace was weakened or damaged, and, by association, the Office of the Holy Ministry that accompanied it.
For Luther the words ‘This is My body … This is My blood’ were central to the approach with the Lord’s Supper. He did not impose human limitations on Christ’s body and blood. He was careful not to let emotion, works or reason interfere with the Sacrament. He said neither our personal reflections on it nor our actions around it increased our knowledge of it. Nor did an attempt to reason or explain the Sacrament. The words of Christ not only make the sacrament, but bring and give us the forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26:28).
Revd Masaki explains:
What is said of the words is not, however, at the expense of the Lord’s body and blood. Again in the Large Catechism, Luther calls the body and blood ‘a treasure and gift’ . . . ‘through which forgiveness is obtained’ on the cross and which is ‘brought to us’ as the words say ‘given and shed for you’ (LC, V, 22, 28-31). Notice he did not say that the treasure was personalized to Christ Himself. He said it was His body and blood. Of course, the Lord’s body and blood may never be disjoined from Himself. Luther, however, stayed as close as possible to what the words of the Lord say and rejoiced in the proprium of the Lord’s Supper, not allowing any Christological considerations or “spiritualization.”
In another place Luther left us a very important word: ‘the Lord is indeed everywhere, but is he there for you?’ (AE 37:68). This echoes in his catechisms where he stresses not only that the body and blood of the Lord are there at the Lord’s Table, but that they are given out ‘for you’. The Gospel which comforts us comes from this little phrase ‘for you’ because the mere presence of the Lord can also be for our judgment.
In Greek, this ‘for you’ in the words of institution involves not only ‘for the benefit of you’ but also ‘in the place of you’. This language of vicarious satisfaction is seen also in another little phrase, ‘for many’ (Mt. 26:28; Mark 14:23; cf., Heb. 9:28), which echoes Ebed Yahweh, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:11), the Lamb of God.
Therefore, Luther stated that Christians receive the Lord’s Supper in order to obtain the forgiveness won on the Cross. He believed that the forgiveness of sins had to be both remembered and delivered. The Lord delivers us this forgiveness independently through His instrument of ‘the preaching office’ — the priest.
Revd Masaki concludes:
He and what He gives are sure. When the Lord’s Supper is reduced to our own supper or Christians’ supper, we may celebrate it as we want, but our deepest comfort is lost.
The Lord’s Supper remains His Supper when He gives His body and blood for us to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sin. Faith receives this gift which does not come from inside our hearts. Rather it comes from outside us through external means, both into the ears and upon the tongue.
He bids you come to eat and drink. He invites you in the most friendly way imaginable. All Law, works, worthiness, reason, inward movement, upward movement, ‘spiritualization’, compulsion are excluded. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28). He now serves you at the Lord’s Table by giving you His body and blood to eat and drink. Blessed are those who are at home in His liturgy, for there they receive forgiveness, life, and salvation, not through their own supper, but the Lord’s Supper!