“How Can It Do Such Great Things? The Power of the Sacrament of the Altar” (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
This is the third 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.
“How Can It Do Such Great Things? The Power of the Sacrament of the Altar”
Two weeks ago we began this series by establishing “The Nature of the Sacrament of the Altar,” asking the question “What Is It?” and hearing Christ’s answer, “This is my body, this is my blood.” Last week we followed that up by asking “What Does It Give?” and Jesus told us, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” We said that this is “The Benefit of the Sacrament” and that “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
But now stop and think about that for a moment. Are you saying, you Lutherans, that when we eat and drink this bread and wine, we are actually receiving Christ’s true body and blood, and that this actually gives us such enormous, eternal, heavenly treasures as forgiveness, life, and salvation? Are you serious? You’ve got to be kidding! You’re really saying that taking a little bit of bread and wine can do all that? But, but . . . “How Can It Do Such Great Things?”
Well, that’s the objection Luther anticipates at this point in the Catechism, and so he raises that very question: “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” And the answer comes: “Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.'”
“The Power of the Sacrament of the Altar”–that’s what we’re talking about tonight. Where does the Sacrament get that kind of power? How can it have the power to be what Christ says it is, his very body and blood, and to do what he says it does, forgive sins? The short answer is . . . the words. The power is in the words. The words Christ speaks, and who it is that speaks them–that is what gives the Sacrament the power to be and to do all that. These are Jesus’ words, and therefore they are true and powerful and full of promise.
Think about that for a moment! This is Jesus speaking! When he speaks, things happen! After all, Jesus Christ is the very Son of God come down from heaven. He, the Word made flesh, was there in the beginning, active in Creation. He is the one “by whom all things were made.” Therefore, the words that Jesus speaks are powerful, creative words.
When Jesus speaks, things happen. Jesus speaks a word to a concerned centurion, “Go, let it be done for you,” and the centurion’s servant is healed. Jesus speaks a word to wind and wave, and the storm is stilled. Jesus speaks a word to demonized souls, and the demons must flee. Jesus speaks a word to a paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” and then another word, “Take up your mat and walk”–and what do you know? Both things happen, both the forgiving and the walking! Jesus speaks a word to a dead girl, “Talitha cumi!” and to a dead man, “Lazarus, come forth!” and the dead girl gets up and the dead man comes forth. Jesus speaks a word of blessing over a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and thousands of people are fed. You see, it’s just sort of a general pattern: When Jesus says something, whatever that thing is, it happens. His words carry that kind of power.
And notice, the things Jesus speaks into being, these powerful words are words of blessing–health, wholeness, life, forgiving sins, feeding multitudes. Jesus’ words are words of promise. And so if Jesus attaches his powerful promise of blessing to whatever it is he has for us, then we do well to believe his words and receive his gift. Even if Jesus were to attach his word of promise to a stick of wood or a piece of straw, then that wood or straw would be able to do whatever it is Jesus wants it to do.
Now in this case, it is the bread and the wine Christ uses in this sacrament. Christ has attached his powerful promise to just this bread and just this wine. And the promise is, the forgiveness of sins. Of course, bread and wine in themselves have no power to do this marvelous work. But the bread and wine that Christ sets aside and uses and to which he attaches his powerful word–the bread and wine that are Christ’s body and blood–that bread and wine can forgive sins, because Jesus says so. That’s it. His words accomplish what they say.
Jesus puts the power of forgiveness into his words because he has won that forgiveness for us by giving his body into death and shedding his blood for us on the cross. Your sins are forgiven because God’s Son died for you in your place. Your sins–your sins against God, your sins against the neighbor God has put near you–these sins of yours would have condemned you to eternal death. But Christ paid for your sins by his sacrificial death, and now those sins are not held against you. That is forgiveness, and that is exactly what Christ packs into this sacrament when he gives you his body and blood and attaches his powerful word of promise to it.
And so Jesus is saying really two things about this bread and wine of the Sacrament: 1) That it is his true body and blood, which he gave and shed for us on the cross and now gives us in, with, and under the bread and wine. That’s the first thing. And then secondly, 2) That this bread and wine that is his body and blood, that this gives us the forgiveness of sins. These two things are intimately interrelated–the true body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus says both things about the Sacrament in the words that he uses, and we therefore believe both things–real presence and real forgiveness–when we come up to receive the Sacrament.
Now there are groups that have arisen in recent centuries–the so-called “Reformed” Protestants, the Zwinglians, the Calvinists, the Baptists, and the like–groups that do not believe Jesus’ words on either point. They do not believe that it is the true body and blood of Christ. And they do not believe that it gives the forgiveness of sins. But these groups badly underestimate the power of Christ’s words, and in so doing, they are robbing Christians of the great benefit and comfort they should receive in this sacrament.
Luther had to take on this false teaching when it first appeared. The Zwinglians were one of the first groups to deny the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and they were the ones raising the objection, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” And so Luther takes on that question in the Large Catechism, where he writes: “But here our wise spirits twist themselves about with their great art and wisdom. They cry out and bawl, ‘How can bread and wine forgive sins or strengthen faith?’ They hear and know that we do not say this about bread and wine. Because, in itself, bread is bread. But we speak about the bread and wine that is Christ’s body and blood and has the words attached to it. That, we say, is truly the treasure–and nothing else–through which such forgiveness is gained. Now the only way this treasure is passed along and made our very own is in the words ‘Given and shed for you.’ For in the words you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood, and that it is yours as a treasure and gift.”
Dear friends, as for us, we will believe what Jesus says. We will stick with his words, for they are true and powerful and full of promise: “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”