This sermon was originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Setauket, New York.
My brothers and sisters in Christ:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Tonight is the first night of the “sacred triduum,” the most sacred three days of the church year. Tonight is Holy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. “Mandatum” Thursday. The Thursday on which Christ gave his disciples the command to “love one another as I have loved you,” washing their feet and taking the place of a servant before those who ought to have served him. But it’s also the day on which our Lord gave us one of his greatest gifts—the gift of Holy Communion. The Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist. The body and blood of Christ.
I’ve had the express pleasure (and privilege) to be teaching our young people in confirmation class about this gift Christ has given us. And on the surface, it seems so mundane (and indeed, some Christians treat it as such)– it is bread and wine. Wheat and grape. But it is more than this: it is Christ’s true body and true blood, given as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. “How can bread and wine do such great things?” It is Christ’s word that makes it so. “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.”
That night in the upper room in Jerusalem, Christ made a promise to his Church. He made a new promise to his Church, a new covenant. We heard the promise again from the Prophet Jeremiah, through whom God promised to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
“For I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” God’s people failed to keep up their side of the covenant made at Sinai, where they swore to be God’s people and obey his statutes. But they failed, and those of you in the Wednesday night Bible class have read time and time again about how the people of Israel erred from the way God had set up for them. But God was always faithful in that covenant, even though his people were not. So, as Jeremiah relates, God would make a new covenant with them wherein he gives them the forgiveness of sins and remembers their sins no more. A new covenant, brought about through his Messiah, who would save his people. This new covenant is found in the supper that Jesus, the Messiah, instituted on that Passover night so long ago, where he gave to his disciples and to his Church his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
But why his body and blood? When God cut his covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai, sacrifices were made. Animals were slaughtered. And the blood was sprinkled on the people to purify them and seal the covenant. Likewise, Christ makes his own covenant with his Church using flesh and blood—his own, true flesh and blood, the very flesh and blood of God-made-flesh, which he gives to those who come to him and who believe that his body and blood have been given for them in and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. No memorial meal, no elaborate symbol, this: his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink, though the manner in which they are present is a mystery for us.
And why to eat and to drink? Just as the flesh of the sacrificed Passover lamb was eaten, so is the body of the Son of God eaten, and his blood drunk. The Passover was a “type,” a foreshadowing, of things to come, where a lamb was eaten and its blood smeared over the doorposts of the house to show that those inside were protected by God’s promise to them to deliver them from slavery. Christ’s supper with his disciples was the fulfillment of the Passover. It was a new Passover meal, a Passover meal that does not preserve one from death for one night, but which preserves one from death for every night. A Passover where “we eat of the Word of the Father, the Son, our Savior [and where we] have the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the new covenant” (Athanasius of Alexandria).
“This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” My brothers and sisters, what we have here is an incomparable gift, a medicine greater than any yet discovered by science. For here, in this sacrament, we have the cure for death. In this sacrament, we have life. Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, chapter 6 (53-54) “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” He said this long before he had instituted the supper, and he was speaking primarily about the importance of his hearers having faith in him for their salvation. “You have to really have faith in the Son of Man.” But in saying it, he pointed ahead to what he would do this night, giving his body and blood for those who trust in him so that they would, by faith, receive the benefit of his death and resurrection. When we realize that we are sinners in need of salvation and come before his altar, we receive healing for our souls. We receive rest and a refuge from our daily struggles with sin.
But what if you feel unworthy of this great gift? To be sure, many have. But let me give you some comfort from Martin Luther’s Large Catechism: “Here stand the gracious and lovely words, “This is my body, given FOR YOU,” “This is my blood, shed FOR YOU for the forgiveness of sins.” These words…are not preached to wood or stone but to you and me; otherwise [Christ] might just as well have kept quiet and not instituted a sacrament. Ponder, then, and include yourself personally in the “YOU” so that he may not speak to you in vain….But those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help, should regard and use the sacrament as a precious antidote against the poison in their systems. For here in the sacrament you are to receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and brings with it God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death, the devil, and every trouble.”1
My brothers and sisters, this holy supper that Christ has made is all for you that your sins might be forgiven and that you might obtain eternal life through Christ’s giving of himself. And not only that, but he has given you himself “to betoken His love toward [you], giving Himself to those who desire Him, not only to behold Him, but also to handle Him, to eat Him, to embrace Him with the fullness of their whole heart” (Chrysostom). Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends. Here, Christ lays down himself for you, that you, his friends, might take and eat, take and drink, hold him and embrace him, and thereby have his life within you. So come, all you who are heavy laden, who are beset by sins, by fear, by worry, by death. Come to Christ’s table. Believe his words, eat his flesh, drink his blood. Here, he will give you rest. Amen.
1Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 473-474.