“What Is It? The Nature of the Sacrament of the Altar” (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
This is the first in a five-part catechetical sermon series on the Sacrament of the Altar. One of the purposes of the Brothers of John the Steadfast is to promote the faith as it is taught in the Lutheran Confessions, including the Catechism.
“What Is It? The Nature of the Sacrament of the Altar”
When the Lord God brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and led them up to the Promised Land, he provided for them along the way. He gave them food and drink for their journey, to sustain them as they traveled. He gave them bread from heaven. It came in the form of a fine, flake-like thing that fell on the ground in the morning, for them to gather up. The first time the Israelites saw it–they had never seen such a thing before–they were amazed, and they asked one another, “What is it?” “What is it?” Now the way you would say that in Hebrew is “manna.” And so that is what this bread from heaven became known as: “Manna,” “What is it?”
Dear friends, that is the first question we want to ask tonight, as we begin a five-part series on the Sacrament of the Altar. Our first question is, “What Is It?” “The Nature of the Sacrament of the Altar” is our topic tonight. Then in the weeks to come, we will take up other questions that follow on this. So next week, part two, “What Does It Give? The Benefit of the Sacrament.” Third, “How Can It Do Such Great Things? The Power of the Sacrament.” Fourth, “How Do We Receive It Worthily? The Reception of the Sacrament.” And then finally, to wrap up this series, “Christian Questions with Their Answers: For Those Who Intend to Go to the Sacrament.”
You see, our purpose here in this series is not just to give you a bunch of information about the Sacrament. No, our purpose is to prepare you to receive the Sacrament. The goal is that you would go to the Sacrament–go willingly and full of faith, and go often, frequently, to receive this great blessing that Christ has given his church. By unpacking this great treasure and exploring it in its depth and its simplicity, you and I will hunger and thirst all the more for the righteousness and life Jesus gives us in this sacrament. We will want to receive what Christ has to give.
Our guide for this series will be Luther’s Small Catechism. In the Catechism, Luther arranges his treatment of the Sacrament in the order we have described, namely, its nature, benefit, power, and right reception. So then tonight, on the nature of the Sacrament, we ask the “What is it?” question: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?” And the answer comes: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
Now everything we want to say about the Sacrament is based on the words Christ used when he instituted this blessed meal. And so when we say, “It is the true body and blood of Christ,” we are saying nothing more, and nothing less, than what Jesus himself said: “This is my body. . . . This is my blood. . . .” We’re just agreeing with Jesus. We believe what he says. He is our Lord and Savior, and he will not mislead us. His word is true and powerful, and it can accomplish infinitely more than we can imagine. If Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” then that’s what it is.
That little word “my”–that makes all the difference. It is Jesus’ body and blood, and so what the Sacrament is, is tied to who Jesus is. You cannot separate the two. Your view of the Sacrament will run with your view of Christ. If Jesus is the very Son of God come in the flesh; true God and true man in one person; his two natures, divine and human, united in the personal union–if all that is true, and it is, and our very salvation depends on it being so–then it should come as no surprise that in the Sacrament we discover the same thing, the union of the heavenly and the earthly, in a most blessed sacramental union. What I mean is, here is the true body and blood of Christ “in, with, and under” earthly bread and wine. It is not just bread and wine that reminds us of, or represents, Christ’s body and blood. No, it is–is–his true body and blood, along with the bread and wine.
Christ is God and man in one person. The Sacrament is body and blood, bread and wine, in one Holy Communion. St. Paul will write to the Corinthians and ask the rhetorical question: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” Answer expected: Yes, yes it is. And again: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Answer: Yes, yes it is. Bread and wine, body and blood, one sacrament.
Who Jesus is and what he came to do–the person and the work of Christ–all of that is packed into this sacrament. What he came to do–that is why he says, “body and blood.” It is the body that he gave into death. It is the blood that he shed on the cross. “This is my body, which is given for you. This is my blood, which is shed for you.” Jesus institutes this sacrament “on the night when he was betrayed.” Here is the sinless Lamb of God being betrayed into the hands of lawless men, to rescue us poor sinners from eternal death and judgment. All that Christ won for us by his suffering and death on the cross–the giving of his body, in which he bore the burden of our sins as the perfect sacrifice; the shedding of his blood, by which we are cleansed and purified–all this is what we receive when Jesus gives us his body and his blood. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” With the shedding of blood, when it is Christ’s holy precious blood, there is forgiveness, full forgiveness, for all of your sins. And that is exactly what you receive in the Sacrament of the Altar.
When you receive the true body and blood of Christ, you are receiving everything you could possibly need. The nature of the Sacrament, as Christ’s body and blood, makes it the greatest gift you can receive. Do you want Christ? Then you will want, and eagerly desire, and gladly receive, his blessed Sacrament. You would gladly run a thousand miles to get what he gives you here. You could search the whole earth, and you will not find a greater treasure. What you receive here at this altar, what Jesus is here to give you in his very body and blood–you would gladly trade all the gold in Fort Knox, all the rubies and diamonds in the crown jewels of England–all the wealth of this world cannot equal the inestimable gift that our Lord gives us in this holy meal.
Earlier I said that when God brought the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt and led them through the wilderness up to the Promised Land, he provided for them along the way. God gave them food and drink to sustain them on their journey. He gave them bread from heaven, in the form of manna. What was it? It was a type of “way-bread” for the pilgrim people of God.
Now God gives us something even better. For Jesus Christ is himself the true bread from heaven. He it is who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And here in this sacrament, Jesus gives us food and drink for our journey, to strengthen and sustain us, as he leads us through the wilderness of this world on our way to the Promised Land of heaven. What is it? It is way-bread for the pilgrim people of God. What is it? It is the Sacrament of the Altar, “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
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