“How Do We Receive It Worthily? The Reception of the Sacrament of the Altar” (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
This is the fourth 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 Do We Receive It Worthily? The Reception of the Sacrament of the Altar”
During this series on the Sacrament of the Altar, we’ve been following the outline Luther uses in his treatment of this part of the Small Catechism. And so we began by asking, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?” And we said that the nature of the Sacrament is that 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.” Then in week two we asked, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?” And we said that it gives the forgiveness of sins and that which comes with forgiveness, namely, life and salvation. But that raises the question, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” And so last week we said that the power to do these things comes from the words Christ attaches to the bread and wine that is his body and blood.
Now, given all that–that the Sacrament is the body and blood of Christ, for the forgiveness of sins, made so by the powerful words of Christ, and that Christ gives us this meal for us Christians to eat and to drink–that brings us to tonight’s topic: “How Do We Receive It Worthily? The Reception of the Sacrament of the Altar.”
The Nature, the Benefit, the Power, and now tonight, the Reception of the Sacrament. All of these things–everything the Sacrament is and does, everything we want to say about the Sacrament, flows out of and is based on the Words of Our Lord, the Words of Institution. The answer to the “Where is this written?” question is where we find the answers to all our questions, and that is, in the words Christ spoke when he instituted this holy meal: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of me. . . . Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
It is simply faith in these words, it’s simply believing what our Lord says about his Supper, that makes for a worthy reception of it. That’s the point Luther makes in the Catechism: “Who receives this Sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”
“Faith in these words”: There is the right reception of the Sacrament. Various other pious preparations may be fine and good and helpful, but faith in Christ’s words is always the one thing needful. Some Christians find fasting to be a good way for them to prepare for the Sacrament on Sunday morning, so that the body and blood of Christ is the first thing they receive to start out the week. There is a long custom in the church of solemn, penitential fasting especially on certain days during Lent. That’s fine. Some Christians show their reverence for the Sacrament by coming to the altar dressed in their “Sunday best.” That’s fine, too. The same piety and reverence for the Sacrament may be shown by different Christians in different ways: whether that’s kneeling at the altar or standing; whether by receiving the host in the right hand or directly on the tongue; whether bowing, making the sign of the cross, saying “Amen,” and so on. All these things can be signs of respect and reverence, and that is appropriate, fine, and good. But “faith in these words”–faith in the words of Christ, believing what he says this Sacrament is and does and who it is for and why–that is the indispensable thing when we come to receive this Sacrament. That is how to receive it worthily.
“That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'” You see, the right reception of the Sacrament is not a matter of how personally worthy you are in yourself. No. Indeed, Christ says this sacrament is “for the forgiveness of sins,” and that means you must be unworthy in order to receive it! You must qualify as a sinner! You must have sins to forgive–that’s the whole point! So a worthy reception is not based on how worthy of persons we are in ourselves.
No, a worthy reception consists in faith. And even that is not a matter of what we can muster up, how strong of a believer I am, how pious I feel on a given day. No, it is faith in Christ’s words. Faith has value only because of its object, and that object, the thing we believe in, is Christ Jesus and his words and his gift for us. It’s all about Jesus. He is our worthiness, from start to finish.
And so we believe what Jesus says about his Supper: That it is his true body and blood, the same body and blood he shed for us on the cross. That it is for, and that it actually gives, the forgiveness of sins. And that all this is for me.
Yes, I am that sinner who needs forgiveness. I have sinned against God in more ways than I can count. My thoughts, my words, my actions, the wrong things I’ve done, the good things I’ve neglected to do–these all mount up in my conscience if I stop and think about it. I need God’s forgiveness. I am that hungry, thirsty sinner Jesus is talking about when he says “for you.”
Yes, there is the “for you” that tells us who this sacrament is for and why! It is “for you”! Jesus died on that cross, gave his body and shed his blood, for you! “For you”! Yes, God loves you that much, more than you can imagine. That Christ Jesus, the holy Son of God, would willingly go into betrayal and suffering and death, and that he was doing this for you, so that you would be completely forgiven and receive eternal life, saved and safe forevermore–it staggers the mind! “For you!” Yes, beloved, God has your name on this blessed Sacrament–it is here to bless you! That is the beautiful, wonderful thing Jesus is saying when he puts this “for you” tag on the gift!
Faith is simply being on the receiving end of God’s gifts and saying “Thank you.” This then is why we call the Lord’s Supper the “Eucharist,” literally, the “thanksgiving,” the bread and the cup of thanksgiving. If faith is the thankful reception of God’s good gifts, then what higher gift can we receive than Christ’s body and blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation?
“Faith in these words,” a believing reception of his gifts, is what Jesus means when he concludes his Words of Institution by saying, “This do in remembrance of me.” This “remembrance” is more than the mere mental recall of some remote details from the distant past–like, “Oh, yeah, I seem to recall that a man named Jesus died on a cross a long time ago.” No, the “remembrance” that Jesus calls for, and calls forth, is a living faith: faith, trust, reliance on, who Jesus is for you; faith in what he has done for you by dying on that cross; faith in what Jesus is giving you now in his Sacrament. Our Lutheran Confessions put it this way: “It is remembering Christ’s benefits and receiving them through faith, to be enlivened by them.” Faith in these words of power and promise that our Lord attaches to his meal, and that all this is “for you”–it is this kind of faith that Jesus is talking about when he says, “This do in remembrance of me.” And that, my fellow believers, is the right and worthy–and supremely worthwhile–reception of the Sacrament.