A Proper Lutheran Altar Call — The Word Leading to the Supper

732163_bread_and_wineJesus says to the church at Laodicea:   “Look, I stand at the door and am knocking.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will enter for the sake of him and sup with him and he with Me.”   It is the altar call.  The members of the church at Laodicea thought they were so rich, didn’t need anything, they didn’t want to make too much of the altar call, and didn’t want it too often so that it wouldn’t be special to them anymore.

Not the kind of altar call some have in mind, eh?   Well, I know the Four Spiritual Laws evangelism pamphlet uses Revelation 3:20 as some kind of proof text for a poor attempt to show that individuals need to make an original-sin defying, spiritual death ignoring, and natural-born enemy-of-God overcoming decision for Jesus in a convenient little prayer at one of those Arminian synergistic revivals – oh yes, they do also call those “altar calls.”  (All those new methods are synergistic.)  But we’re not talking about that, and neither is St. John nor our Lord in the letter to Laodicea.  This is Divine Service (Luke 22:27).   These are the green pastures where the sheep who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd are nourished.

No the altar call the Lord is making in this seventh of the seven letters is a call for the branches to abide in the Vine.   It is a call for the virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom to fill their lamps with the oil of the anointed one.  It is expressive of the Third Article – that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him.    It is the call to realize that we are beggars, those left to death except for Christ who rescues, heals, forgives, restores, and cleanses us and makes us rich in eternal things, the holy things for the holy people of God.

There is nearly a note of sarcasm to the rebuke of the letter.  Ha!  So, you think you are so rich, well-supplied, got the stuff on the shelf – but you don’t realize how wretched, poor, blind, naked you are.  Ha!  You think you are so rich.  Alright, then buy it – gold refined in fire and so be rich, white robes of righteousness to be truly clothed, christen, chrismate your eyes with salve that you may see the kingly rule of God at work.

“He who craves a precious treasure,

Neither cost nor pain will measure;

But the priceless gifts of heaven

God to us has freely given.

Though the wealth of earth were proffered,

None could buy the gifts here offered:

Christ’s true body, for you riven,

And His blood, for you once given.”  (LSB 636 v.3)

 “But this is a loving rebuke.  As many as I love (or we could even translate as “kiss”) I rebuke and I chasten.  Be eager therefore and change your mind.”   Then is the line about standing at the door and knocking.  But this is written to the Church at wealthy Laodicea, even though it is lukewarm and disgustingly so.  This knocking at the door is not about conversion to faith, but about abiding in the faith, remaining church, understanding that faith is to be at the receiving end of all of God’s gifts, not just to have them on paper.   This was the wisdom in that 1995 resolution of the LCMS to commend a study of Scripture, the Confessions, and church history with an eye toward recovering the opportunity to receive the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, as the Augustana and Apology commend it.  The Scriptures can hardly speak of church without also connoting the Lord’s Supper.   It’s the only place where it is really true – you are what you eat.

The Lord comes to us by His ministers and takes the holy from the altar of the once-for-all sacrifice and cleanses our unclean lips.  We gather around the throne of the Lamb who was slain and yet lives.  The peace of the resurrected Christ is ours as we proclaim the Pax Domini – “the peace of the Lord be with you always.”  For us in the office, we are reminded also of the bestowal of the office of the keys after Christ spoke that peace in His glorified wounds.  For it is not only about “me and Jesus” but in the fellowship of “angels, archangels and all the company of heaven,” as we join in the Sanctus.

A word to pastors:  As we gather, and as we call the flock of our people to the Lord’s House, we recognize that we pastors are God’s instruments, for Jesus service to the people, as the Word of Truth, God’s law and gospel are rightly distinguished, and as the Holy Eucharist is delivered, according to Christ’s institution.  And that forgiveness, that Gospel is for you too.   You preach to yourself first, and yet not you, but the Lord – the office is distinguished, though not separated from the man.   But in the assembly of the Divine Service, Jesus is among us as the One who serves.  We can be so quick to draw the moral directive and example that we miss the gospel point.  Jesus is and continues to be among us in the Supper as the One who serves.   What utter contrast to the Roman sacrifice of the Mass, to the Reformed mere remembrance.  But what an altar call.  What a tremendous invitation to find our life, our identity, our nourishment in that simple bread and wine that the Lord has taken to His use, and invests His very body and blood there and puts it into our hands, our mouths, so that He is with us always to the very end of the age.

That’s the interesting thing, too, about the Confessions.  The Augustana and Apology declare clearly that Lutherans celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and on festival days.  And yet also in the preface to the Small Catechism, Luther is clear that we make no laws about how often it is received – except he doubts the presence of faith where someone doesn’t come three or four times a year (early twentieth century curmudgeon Lutherans took that and ran with it to only offer it 4 times a year).   But what gospel perspective!   Keep it available for the communicants, but make no laws about how often they have to come.  We don’t every other week.   We are not ashamed of that sacramental gospel.  It is a bulwark against the onslaught of the devil and the world against the Church.   For here the Bride of Christ is nourished in the wilderness.

“Hasten as a bride to meet Him,

And with loving rev’rence greet Him

For with Word of Life immortal

He is knocking at your portal

Open wide the gates before Him,

Saying as you there adore Him;

Grant, Lord, that now receive You,

That I nevermore will leave You.”  [LSB, 636.v.2]

Blessed church, rejoice in that altar call.  As Luther says, preach the institution, meaning, and blessings of the sacrament in such a way so as to incite the people to want it more and more and to find their identity as individuals and church in the Body of Christ.   As Luther said, “this sacrament is the gospel.”  It is the new testament in Christ’s blood.   It is Divine Service – Good Friday and Easter come to us here and now.  And this is the energy and presence of Christ in us for the mission of God.  Put the Lord’s Supper on the side and it has consequences.  For from the altar we go forth into our vocations and “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”   That’s the proof text for God’s people giving witness.

And it is strength for the battle we face each day in these end times.  Jesus says in Revelation 3:  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne.”  And likewise the Lord says from Luke 22:  “You are those who have stayed with Me in My trials, and I assign to you, as My Father assigned to Me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  Pastors, that is your stewardship of the mysteries of God, undershepherds of God.  Feed the sheep.  But there also is Christ’s merciful promise.  Christ dines with you, and you with Him.  Therefore leave behind all gloom and sadness, adorn your soul with gladness, for He stands knocking at the portal.  Amen.




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