Monday, April 25, 2011

Joy in the Lord's Supper

In Luther’s questions and answers for those who intend to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, he outlines three questions why we should remember and proclaim the Lord’s death: “First, so that we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and man, could do that. Second, so we may learn to be horrified by our sins, and to regard them as very serious. Third, so we may find joy and comfort in Christ alone, and through faith in Him be saved.”[1]  It is noteworthy that Luther includes joy as a reason to faithfully receive the Lord’s Supper.  Prior to Luther’s reforms the Lord’s Supper had in many ways become a source of superstition and terror rather than a true comfort and joyful gift.  Luther recalls this sense of terror in his first mass, where he trembled with fear with the awful and abominable task of offering up the sacrifice.  Though the Supper has been misunderstand since Jesus’ own ministry, we pray that all Christians would be led to a true knowledge of this Sacrament, holding fast to this gift as a source of comfort and great joy.    

In the liturgy we ask that God give us joy.  This joy is not simply a feeling or sentiment, but more so a way of life which has the cross and the resurrection at its center.  The familiar words of Psalm 122, point to the joy of worship and holy communion, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord.”  Many of the feasts and festivals instituted by God in the Old Testament were times of celebration and teaching, particularly the Passover.  The Psalms are full of such shouts of joy, recounting the Lord’s deliverance and saving presence among His people.  In Peter’s Pentecost sermon set among the activities of baptizing and the Lord’s Supper, he preached the words of Psalm 16, “You have made known to me the ways of life, You will make me full of joy in Your presence.”  Of the various Biblical themes that converge in the Lord’s Supper, “joy of the sacrament” might not be at the top of the list.  After all, is not joy merely an emotion or byproduct of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Therefore, wouldn’t it make more sense just to speak about the Lord’s Supper and its benefits?  Maybe, but upon further reflection, I believe that joy is more than a positive emotive affect of the Sacrament and in fact a central biblical theme.  That is to say, joy is more than an incidental aspect to worship and the reception of the Supper, but a central biblical theme that runs throughout scripture.  Therefore it is good to speak of joy in the Sacrament!      

It is good and right that we place emphasis on the objective character of the Lord’s Supper and its benefits in the context of worship.  Spiritual care always points to the Words of Christ and His body and blood in the Sacrament.  Lutheran theology is correct to orient the Christian outside of the inner recesses of the human heart to the certain and performative words of Jesus.  We do not look to our emotions as an indicator of how God regards us, or whip up our emotions toward some mountaintop experience.  What matters is the experience of Scripture and receiving the Gospel, not enthusiastically, but through the sensorium of hearing and upon the tongue in the blessed Sacrament.     

There is some wisdom in speaking tepidly about joy in regards to the Lord’s Supper, insofar and where that joy is rooted and how it proceeds.  It is not rooted in the Vatican II notion of “ecumenical hospitality,” nor is it some love fest where we all just get along to get along.  Rather there is joy in receiving those gifts which God loves to give – namely His Son and all that belongs to him – life and salvation.  Jesus and His life-giving sacrament comes to us poor sinners.  Essential for a proper understanding the Lord’s Supper, and the Divine Service as a whole, is confessing the presence of the crucified and risen Christ in the flesh to serve His Church.  For the presence of Jesus, in the flesh, fresh from the grave is linked with this joy.  He is God with us and for us and in us.  Therefore, there is no greater joy than receiving the Gospel and the Lord’s Supper.  In many ways we cannot speak enough about the experience of joy in the heavenly Supper, and thanking God for this comfort and gift.  For in a world that is increasingly being experienced as joyless there is all the more reason to speak of joy in the sacrament and forgiveness of sins.

Joy is granted throughout the Divine Service, in worship and praise, receiving God’s gifts and responding with thanksgiving.  The service that frames Word and Sacrament worship is festal in nature.  In many ways the entire Communion liturgy keynotes joy.  It is important to see that the Divine Service revolves around preaching of the Word and the Lord’s Supper.  Because we come before God with eleisons, we realize that His self-giving service and sacrifice to us is wholly undeserved and comes as pure grace.  The Gloria erupts with doxological praise and thanksgiving.  Angels and the heavenly host appear before the shepherds praising God, announcing the birth of the long awaited Messiah.  God takes on human flesh, born of the virgin, to suffer and die for the sins of the world.  The long awaited Messiah is now here.  God is with us (Immanuel) in the flesh to be received in the most special and intimate of ways – through His preached Word and His holy body and blood.  This hymn of praise cannot be sung as a stoic but proceeds as a Trinitarian hymn of praise that fixes our eyes on the Father’s sending of the Son to be a sacrifice for sin.  This is good news and the only comfort for sinners.  The Sanctus reminds us of Psalm Sunday, hearing the loud shouts “Blessed is He the cometh in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.”  We also see Isaiah’s vision where we are taught that heaven, which had been closed to us because of sin, is now flung open for the sinner through the intercession of Christ’s cross.  The sinner no longer stands in judgment, but like Isaiah is absolved through Christ’s Word.  The angels sing because sinners receive gifts from God.  The congregation sings because Christ and His forgiveness is what they love.  In many ways, heaven and earth meet as the communion of saints in heaven and on earth meet in the body of Christ.              

The greatest joy and surest comfort for the Christian are in the Words of Institution themselves.  Nowhere in scripture is there a more succinct and clearer Gospel than the words, “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.”  The sacrament is the Gospel and the Gospel is the forgiveness of sins, nothing more and nothing less.  For where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation and heaven itself.  Receiving the Supper is only a joyful event through self-humiliation and the gift of faith.  Only faith can receive this Gospel – Christ’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.       

Members are brought through holy baptism into the church, joining the body of Christ in a truly supernatural way.  We are kept in this unity also through a participation in the sacrament of the altar as one body.  Though congregations commune at their own local altars, they are joined to the true una sancta ecclesia, and there is great comfort and joy in this.  As isolation and loneliness increase in this mad world, a confession and participation of the one holy Christian and apostolic church, as an article of faith is also a statement of great joy and a cause for celebration.  Here all Christians are joined together with Jesus and therefore also joined with one another through a participation in His body and blood.  Saint Paul writes, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).  Therefore, this communion (koinonia) is both a participation in the true physical body and blood of Christ in the sacrament as well as membership in Christ’s mystical body – as one holy church.  Only by a confession of the physical eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood can one understand and enjoy the company of the one holy catholic church.  The epistles of the New Testament emphasize the joy and peace of this holy fellowship: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Rom. 16:16; 1 Peter 5:14).  These joyful greetings are cues for the celebration of the Supper and fellowship in Christ. 

Understanding the true presence of Jesus in the Supper and the greater mystery of the una sancta ecclesia does not take us out of the sufferings of this world, but brings us into greater participation with them.  The joy of Holy Communion is not like the joy of the world, which to a greater extent views joy as mere pleasure or absence of pain or discomfort.  Because joy is located precisely in Christ’s suffering, atonement, death, and resurrection, the Lord’s Supper helps us to realize the shape of the new life in Him – which is ultimately cruciform in orientation.  If one member of the congregation suffers, all members suffer with him and attend to his needs.  The Lord’s Supper when faithfully received by a congregation dashes the myth of autonomy and brings Christians into one body together.  There is joy in the unity that Christ brings through His Supper and great joy in suffering together under the cross

[1] LSB, p. 330.

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