A belated happy Thanksgiving to all, and blessings during Advent to all. For those keeping score at home, my wife and I were confirmed in our local LCMS parish recently. Today marks the third time we’ve communed with the body and blood of Christ. We can finally say that we’ve partaken in the sacrament as it was intended: God’s gift to us.
Though the first time was rather special since it followed our participation in the rite of confirmation and we no longer had to sit in a pew while others communed, we otherwise cannot look upon the service when the sacrament is given and think in grandiose terms of the scene that unfolds weekly. There’s no memorable show that’s put on for us to remember for years to come. The organ music played during the distribution isn’t especially provocative. The lighting in the room does not change. All-in-all, if you compare it to the rest of the service, it seems rather ordinary.
But that’s exactly the point of this sacrament. God’s promise in Christ, united to the plain, ordinary, common elements. In this service, God takes what is profane and consecrates it, making holy. No longer are the elements mere bread and wine, but they are a Christian’s life-sustaining promise from God in the person of the resurrected Christ, united to ordinary bread and wine. The bread and wine are of themselves nothing special, but the sure promise of God in his Word that accompanies them is nothing ordinary. For by the Word, we are forgiven our sins and conformed to Christ’s image.
A few posts back, I wrote briefly on the natures of Christ: human and divine. I wrote, summarizing, that they are united but distinct in the person of Christ and that they are distinct but indivisible in the person of Christ. Stated differently, it’s a mystery. We don’t (or shouldn’t) ask the manner in which Christ’s two natures are united because the scriptures are silent on this topic. That was an awfully big pill for my former Calvinist self to swallow, that there are just some things whose inner workings the scriptures don’t describe in exacting detail but to which they give clear testimony nonetheless. The fact that Christ was and is, at this very moment, fully God and fully human is one such mystery. The attributes of each nature communicate, so that each nature partakes in the other.
Lutherans see more than mere parallels between this doctrine of the communication of attributes in the hypostatic union and the union of Christ to the communion elements during the sacrament. Somewhere in the course of the many-week series on the two natures, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt touches on this topic (note that I’ve linked to a different source for those lectures, pointing to a rather interesting-looking blog from a Lutheran pastor). In communion, Christ’s attributes are said to communicate with the elements. This is drastically different from any view of the sacrament in the FE world. In the Biblical view of the sacrament, we see the fullness of the Gospel, a highly Christo-centric view where Christ is exulted because of his work.
In the FE faiths, Christ is not locally and physically present in the sacrament. The forgiveness of sins cannot be found in this service, only something pointing to the forgiveness of sins, and even then only if your pastor has made it to point to the right place. You want this sacrament to mean more to you? Sing the hymns more emotionally or try concentrating harder on the solemn prayers during the service. Perhaps the local congregation can help you by “setting the mood” to make you more receptive to the sacrament. Perhaps it’s easier instead to redefine or re-emphasize the sacrament as being a demonstration of our common unity in Christ. Without re-hashing the last post on this topic, this denies the Gospel, as any benefit attained in this sacrament comes from within the believer.
The foundational problem in the FE faiths is that they implicitly deny the gospel. Again, I think that the majority of FE’s are content to live in a happy ignorance of the conclusions of their beliefs, so the denial of the gospel is not explicit. None of these people intentionally mean to crowd out God’s saving work. Nonetheless, the gospel is implicitly and consistently denied in key doctrines. I’ll give one quick example of the same problem manifested in a different way.
Just as the FE believer turns inward (rather than to God) for the Sacrament of the Altar to have worth and value, so also he turns inward at his conversion. I cannot possibly count the number of services I sat through where every effort was made to properly set a mood and appeal to emotion in order to encourage a person in and of his own effort to make decision for Christ, that he might be saved. Sometimes that emotion is fear. Sometimes it is a desire to be loved. Sometimes it is a sense of hope. Through eloquence, finesse, authority, comradery in misery, or another mechanism, the sinner is placed emotionally in a bad position. The cure to this position, Christ, is dangled in front of the sinner like a carrot. The sinner is encouraged, “The choice is yours. You can be saved if you just believe. God has done the rest, you need only do this one last step.” Whether it is the doctrine of conversion, the doctrines of the sacraments, the doctrine of sanctification, or any other doctrine, the message is the same: “You got yourself into this mess, but the good news is that with Christ’s help, you can get yourself back out of it.”
But this is not the Gospel. Drawing from scripture, Lutherans teach that there is no amount of work we can do to be saved. Christ has secured our salvation. Christ comes down to meet us where we are, even in the dirty mess that we’ve created for ourselves. We don’t lift ourselves up to him through fond sacramental memories of his work on the cross, nor our confession of faith, nor our daily chaste living. He comes to us in the sacrament and forgives our sins. Through him, the Holy Spirit looses our tongues to make the good confession. In Christ, the Holy Spirit strengthens us daily to obey the law. God does this. It is his work. His work in us, by the means he has ordained. Christ comes to us, we do not go to him.
On this first Sunday of Advent, this was captured quite well in a homily I was privileged to hear.
It’s no mistake that we sing “Blessed is He that cometh in The Name of The Lord” before The Consecration. For we do not believe in a Christ Whose Body is locked up in heaven. We do not believe we must get ourselves into the right frame of mind to worship Him by entering into His Holy of Holies. No, He makes this place His Holy of Holies. He unites heaven with earth here. He entered that place once for all when He gave up His life upon The Cross to make atonement for all our sins. Now He comes here to give you the fruits of His Passion.
He comes through The Sacraments. They are not things we do to prove our loyalty to Him. They are things Christ does for us. At the font The Name of The Blessed Trinity is spoken with the water poured over the baby, and the pastor’s hands are but The Lord’s instrument. He there gives His Spirit to the baptized and washes the little sinner clean of sin in His Blood.
At The Altar He speaks the words spoken nearly 2000 years ago in The Upper Room and the bread you eat is His Body and the wine you drink is His Blood. He gives to you His forgiveness, the forgiveness He obtained for you on The Cross, and where there is forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation. He must raise you from the dead and rescue you from Satan’s wrath to live with Him eternally.
This was not the main point in the pastor’s sermon, but it was part of the entire theme, Law | Gospel preaching. It is good to hear Law | Gospel sermons each Sunday. I’m thankful to God for his faithfulness to me, and for faithful messengers to tell me of his faithfulness to me, even when I am faithless to him. I pray that you can say the same. I pray you would believe the Gospel of our savior, who has made himself known.