Week commencing 2nd November 2017   With a PDF found here

Notes for next Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 26:17-30 “A communion in need of clarifying.”

This week we’ll do a little more history together, and then some theology too! We will be exploring the Holy Communion at the time of the Reformation and how the Reformers came to understand and present the communion. We’ll also explore Matthew 26 so we might see the original context of the supper and understand how Jesus saw it.

DAY 1: Read Matthew 26:17-25

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been wonderfully reminded that the way we become right with God (i.e.; righteous – in ‘right-standing’ with God), is entirely from God; freely given; made possible by the rescue of Jesus in his death and resurrection, and taken hold of by trusting Jesus.

As this liberating news hit home for Luther, he began to see its implications for all parts of church life. In particular, there were very serious but wonderful implications for understanding the Mass or Holy Communion.

The Mass was a very significant aspect of medieval Catholicism. The understanding was that “the actual body of Christ was present (the bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Jesus) and was offered up by the priest as a sacrifice for the sins of the people—a kind of re-enactment of the crucifixion. By eating the body of Christ thus sacrificed, the believer was able to receive God’s grace.”[1]

Yet, if Jesus’ work on the cross was ‘finished’ (Jn 19:30), and his sacrifice ‘once for all’ (see Hebrews 10:1-18), the Holy Communion could not possibly mean what the church claimed it meant! For people to consider they are sacrificing for sin at the Mass is not only implausible, but blasphemous.

In today’s passage in Matthew’s Gospel, we see the setting for the first “Lord’s Supper”. It is the Passover meal. Jesus acted as host in the upper room of a friend. Judas is tragically identified as the one who would betray Jesus. But Jesus will forever change the meaning and significance of the Passover meal so that instead of a commemoration of God’s powerful rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, it would become a commemoration of Jesus’ rescue from sin and death by his own death and resurrection.

Many people today misunderstand the significance of the Holy Communion. Please pray that through the readings notes this week and through next Sunday’s message, we will grasp a Biblical understanding of this meal.

DAY 2: Read Matthew 26:26-30

In this simple meal Jesus shared with his disciples, we begin to understand not only how Jesus understood the supper, but also the significance of his impending death.

Jesus takes the bread that was usually used at the Passover. It was an unleavened loaf or cake. The tense use may indicate that he gave a piece to each disciples individually, and he says, “Take and eat, this is my body.” The meaning of those last four words continue to be debated. They certainly weren’t used in the Passover and their effect would have been significant. Jesus is saying something about his death. When Jesus says this “is” my body, he means that this is a sign of his body.

As the bread was broken and given, so will his body be broken and given. Jesus then takes the cup and similarly gave thanks and offered it to them. Jesus understands that the violent death he is about to undergo, will inaugurate a new covenant with his people. The event by which the Messiah saves his people from their sins is his sacrificial death! “Poured out for many”, is a sacrificial reference; his death would be on behalf of many. There is an allusion here to Jeremiah 31:31-34, when a feature of the new covenant will be the forgiveness of sins.

When Jesus said, ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’, he did not mean they were literally his body and blood. His body was still there in front of them all. Rather, the bread and wine became signs of his body broken and given and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Through his death, forgiveness is made possible. When we now share bread and wine, we recall his broken and given body and his blood poured out, and we are reminded that this is the only means by which we are forgiven and made right with God. We remember, we are humbled, our trust is nurtured, our hearts are glad.

DAY 3: Read again Matthew 26:26-30

In the medieval period before the Reformation, the mass formed the centrepiece of Christian worship and devotion. Three centuries before Luther began teaching in Wittenberg, the fourth Lateran council of 1215 established the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that upon the priest’s consecration of the bread and wine, the accidents (the look, touch and smell of the break and wine) remain the same, but the substance (the internal “essence”) is miraculously transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ.

The implications of this doctrine were widespread. Laypeople began to adore the bread and wine from afar or superstitiously carry pieces of bread back home to plant in the garden for good crops or to give to an ailing animal for good health. To avoid an accidental spilling of the wine, the priests began giving only the bread to parishioners, keeping the cup for themselves. By the 1500’s, even the bread was withheld in most churches! So Mass was something you went to watch, not something in which you participated. The Mass had turned into a show instead of a sacrament. Some parishioners feverishly hurried from church to church to obtain the blessing of seeing more than one host in a given day.

Two things in particular bothered Luther about the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper. First, he disagreed sharply with the practice of withholding the cup from the laity. Secondly, Luther believed that the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacrament as a “good work and a sacrifice” was the “most wicked abuse of all.” Luther argued forcefully that the Mass must be seen as a testament – something to receive, not a good work to perform. The only sacrifice at the Lord’s Table is the sacrifice of ourselves. The idea that a priest could sacrifice the body and blood of the Lord was especially appalling to Luther and he considered this belief the most abominable of Roman errors.[2]

What do you consider is actually happening when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? What is it about? What is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper? Why is it significant (or perhaps not so significant) for you?

DAY 4: Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

It is clear from this passage, that misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper occurred very early on in the life of the church. Here we are in the second half of the first century, and people have already lost sight of the Supper’s intent! It has become individualised not something that unified. It is taken all too lightly, not seriously. The focus has become on the celebration itself, not on what it signified.

I can’t help but think that in our time also, there is much misunderstanding. Some parts of the church, continue to think that the bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus; some think of it a sacrifice we offer God; some have views that border on superstition about what taking communion will do for them (or about what missing out will mean for them.)

The Lord’s supper is a wonderful service of celebration and remembrance. The blessing comes not from physically taking the bread and wine, but in our heart, as we remember that our salvation is completely dependent on Jesus’ giving of himself at the cross. By that focus, are our very souls nourished.

Sources: Kirsten Birkett’s book (see footnotes);
Don Carson’s Matthew commentary and resources from the Gospel Coalition.

[1] Excerpt From: Kirsten Birkett. “The Essence of the Reformation.” p101. iBooks.

[2] https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2008/02/11/luther-vs-zwingli-2-luther-on-the-lords-supper