“What Does It Give? The Benefit of the Sacrament of the Altar” (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
This is the second 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 Does It Give? The Benefit of the Sacrament of the Altar”
In this midweek Lenten series, we’re looking at the Sacrament of the Altar–Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, are other names by which we know this sacrament instituted by Christ. Last week we began by focusing on “The Nature of the Sacrament.” We asked the foundational question, “What Is It?” And the answer came, “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.” Our answer was based on what Jesus himself said about this meal, namely, “This is my body, this is my blood.” Indeed, everything we want to say about the Lord’s Supper is found in, and based on, the words Christ spoke when he instituted this sacrament. That will be the case again tonight, in part two, as we focus on “The Benefit of the Sacrament of the Altar” and ask the question, “What Does It Give?”
What does it give? What does it offer? What good is it, for us to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Certainly as a meal, as meals go, the Lord’s Supper does not offer much–a piece of unleavened bread, one drink of wine. You would say, that’s not much of a meal. And, in a sense, you’d be right. This is not a fancy feast. If you’re just looking for a big meal, this is no big deal. You would do better going out for brunch on Sunday morning than going to the Lord’s Table. And some people opt for just that. If your god is your belly, there are better altars to worship at.
What is the benefit of taking Communion? Some people would say, “It’s that I get such a good feeling when I do! I feel so close to my sisters and brothers here at church, as we break bread together on our knees.” Well, now you’re getting a little closer, there is some truth there, but you’re mistaking the byproduct for the main thing. Certainly a close, warm feeling among fellow Christians can and often does result from taking Communion together, and that’s a good thing. The Sacrament does strengthen us “in fervent love toward one another,” although in a deeper way than just hugs and holding hands. You see, if we’re just looking for a touchy-feely “warm fuzzy,” we’re missing the main point.
So what is the main benefit? What does the Sacrament give us? Like last week, we will find the answer in the words Christ used when he instituted the holy meal. That’s where the Catechism goes to answer the question, as follows: “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
“The forgiveness of sins.” That’s it. That’s the main benefit of the Sacrament of the Altar. “The forgiveness of sins.” That’s why Jesus gave his body and shed his blood on the cross. He did it “for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And so now when he gives you that same body and blood in this sacrament, he is giving you the great benefit that comes with it, which is, “the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus knows what your greatest need is. It is not a big meal or a warm fuzzy feeling, as nice as those things may be. You have a greater need, a deeper need, one that goes to the heart of things, a life-or-death matter, eternal life or eternal death–and that need is . . . forgiveness for your sins.
Your sins are your biggest problem. They stand in the way between you and God. Your sins are everything you do to assert yourself as your own god, rather than relying on the one true God who created you. It’s when you do things that God says are wrong, like placing your own pleasure and desires over listening to God and respecting the life, property, relationships, and reputation of others. It’s when you fail to do the things that God says you should do, like loving him and loving your neighbor. It’s when you want to be your own god, making your own decisions about what is right and wrong for you. That is sin, in its essence. And it shows up in a thousand different ways, in the things that we say, do, and think.
Is that you? It is, but do you realize that it’s you? Do you recognize that you are that sinner, who does all those sins? Then this Supper is for you. It meets your greatest need, forgiveness. For there is no other way for you to deal with your sins or get rid of them. You can’t offset them with enough good works. You can’t wish them away, or pretend they’re not really sins deserving judgment, or hope that God doesn’t notice. That ain’t gonna happen.
The only way for your sins not to be held against you and sentence you to eternal death is through forgiveness, God’s forgiveness. And that does not come cheap. Indeed, it took God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, giving his body for you on the cross into death, shedding his holy precious blood for you there. And that is what Christ gives you here in the Sacrament of the Altar. His body and his blood, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Are you a sinner? Imagine a big sign over this altar, “For Sinners Only.” Do you qualify? Then this is just the spot for you. Here where you receive forgiveness for your sins, and, along with that, everything else that follows as result.
“For where there is forgiveness of sins,” the Catechism rightly teaches, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” Sins lead to death and damnation. Forgiveness leads to life and salvation. If sins are no longer in the picture, then death and damnation are taken care of also. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” So if the chief benefit of the Sacrament is forgiveness, then it also gives us what goes with forgiveness, namely, life in place of death, salvation instead of damnation.
The gifts that Christ won for us by his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead–these gifts are delivered to us and taken into our mortal bodies when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This is why the Sacrament is sometimes called “the medicine of immortality.” It is the true elixir of life that we take into our dying bodies that will heal our soul and be a pledge to us of the resurrection of the body and the everlasting life to come. To receive Christ’s body and blood into our bodies is to receive forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation.
My friends, I cannot tell you anyplace you could go where you could receive anything better than what you receive right here in the Sacrament of the Altar. You could travel the world around, to Paris or Rome or New York, you could go to the finest five-star restaurant and run up a $5,000 tab, and still you would find no greater meal than what you get right here for free. It is the Lord’s Supper–the Lord’s Supper, the one he has for you. What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? What does Christ give you in this meal, when he gives you his body and his blood? The forgiveness of sins. And that–that opens up everything!