Eucharistic Meditation

Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head, and on the love which He has shown for us. Parents often entrust their offspring to others to feed. “But I,” says He, “do not so: I feed you with My own flesh, desiring that you all be nobly born, and holding forth to you good hopes for the future. For He who gives out Himself to you here, much more will do so hereafter. I have willed to become your Brother, for your sake I shared in flesh and blood, and in turn I give out to you the flesh and the blood by which I became your kinsman.”

This blood causes the image of our King to be fresh within us, produces beauty unspeakable, permits not the nobleness of our souls to waste away, watering it continually, and nourishing it. The blood derived from our food becomes not at once blood, but something else; whereas this blood does not so, but immediately waters our souls, and works in them some mighty power. This blood, if rightly taken, drives away devils, and keeps them afar off from us, while it calls to us Angels and the Lord of Angels. For wherever they see the Lord’s blood, devils flee, and Angels run together. This blood poured forth washed clean all the world; many wise sayings did the blessed Paul utter concerning it in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This blood cleansed the secret place, and the Holy of Holies. And if the type of it had such great power in the temple of the Hebrews, and in the midst of Egypt, when smeared on the door-posts, much more the reality. This blood sanctified the golden altar; without it the high priest dared not enter into the secret place. This blood consecrated priests, this in types cleansed sins. But if it had such power in the types, if death so shuddered at the shadow, tell me how would it not have dreaded the very reality? This blood is the salvation of our souls, by this the soul is washed, by this is beautiful, by this is inflamed, this causes our understanding to be more bright than fire, and our soul more beaming than gold; this blood was poured forth, and made heaven accessible.

St. John Chrysostom, Homily 46 on the Gospel of  John, Chapter 6

Maundy Thursday: Eating and Drinking Life

Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 17 February 2014. You can listen to a recording of the sermon here.
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23–32

We have heard read tonight the institution of the Holy Supper of our Lord, as narrated by St. Paul to the church in Corinth, and with our own mouths we have confessed what this Sacrament is, does and signifies. Let us spend a few moments longer contemplating the great divine mystery, which we will not only study but receive before we leave this place.

It is not an exaggeration to say that God in the Holy Scriptures is extraordinarily focused on our eating. The first thing we are told about the Garden in Eden, the home of the first man and his wife, is that “out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” The very first commandment had to do with eating:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

In the middle of the Garden was the Tree of Life, which was the source of eternal life. For after the Fall, in order to prevent from fallen mankind to live forever under the curse, God placed cherubim with flaming swords to guard the Tree of Life and to keep man from eating from it.

And since man is what he eats, death began its reign. Cultivating a cursed ground for his food, he remained under the curse. Eating dead food, he himself was destined to be consumed by death.

But since God was determined to remain true to His loving purposes and be faithful even when we were faithless, He continued to provide life-giving food for the people.

When Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, the priest of God Almighty and the king of Salem who foreshadowed the true High Priest of God and the King of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ, Melchizedek blessed Abraham and gave him bread and wine.

When the Lord redeemed Israel from the yoke of slavery in Egypt, He sent the people into their freedom fed with the meat of the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread.

In the wilderness, when the people were perishing for want of faith when food and water were scarce, God sent them bread from heaven and water from a rock.

When the Lord gave Moses the Law, He provided a sacred meal, the peace offering, so that the worshippers gathered in the tabernacle might sit down and eat the meat of the sacrifice in table fellowship with God Himself.

Through His prophets, God promised a time of restoration when there would no longer be a curse on the ground, when creation would be freed from its bondage to sin, when death would die. The people would once again eat the fruit of the land in all its abundance. “Open your mouth wide,” says the Lord, “and I will fill it.” (Ps. :)

* * *

However, not everything was suitable to eat. There was food that was unclean: food that came from things that had been distorted by the fall, and perpetuated the fallenness of creation—such as beasts that ate not the grass of the field but one another.

But there was one eating prohibition that stood above all others. Unlike the laws about clean and unclean food, which were given to Israel through Moses at Sinai, this prohibition was given through Noah to all mankind: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. :)

This commandment was repeated when the Law was given through Moses, not once but six times, and the whole of chapter  of Leviticus is devoted to it. Why was it such a terrible thing to eat blood? Because the blood was the life: eating the blood was to eat the life. Israel’s pagan neighbours would eat and drink blood, or pour it over their crops, to benefit from the life-force of another, whether an animal or a human.

To Israel God said,

If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Lev. :–)

Life comes from God and it returns to God. You are not to take what is God’s for yourself. Nor should you seek to gain anything for your life, except from God, who has created you and numbered your days. The only use of another’s life is for the sake of atonement, one life for the sins of another, as commanded by God: hence the Passover Lamb and the sacrifices of atonement.

* * *

Today, we share the condition of Adam and Eve, of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Israelites. Today, we still live off a cursed ground, in mortal bodies, eating dead food and being consumed by death. Our sins and the sins of others are still destroying us, until the wages of sin is paid out to us.

But today, we too are fed by God. Like Melchizedek, Christ brings us bread and wine and His blessing. But the bread and wine are not mere bread and wine, mere signs and symbols without a power of their own.

No, this bread and wine are combined with the all-powerful words of Christ. By the power of Christ’s words, the words of institution, we are given the flesh of Christ to eat and His blood to drink, hidden in, with and under the bread and wine. That’s right: we eat flesh and we drink blood. Only now the drinking of blood brings with it not punishment but blessing. Why? Because the blood is the life. The blood of atonement that was made once for all, the blood of the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, is now given to us so that our sins might be covered, that the angel of death may pass over us, and that we might have in us the life of Christ, who overcame death and hell and lives forever.

Jesus said,

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, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6:53–57)

We eat Christ and we drink His life—the flesh with its blood. Not dead food that nourishes a dying body for a moment, but living food that nourishes the body and soul to life everlasting. Really and truly—hidden but undoubtedly present.

The tree of the cross is for us the new tree of life, from whose fruit we eat so that we might live eternally in an imperishable Paradise. The blood shed on that cross brings us atonement, covering our sin and washing us so that our scarlet sins are made white as snow. Our garments, soiled by transgression, are purified and made white in the blood of the Lamb, and now we can stand with confidence before the throne of Almighty God, and His Son who will judge the living and the dead.

Thus though we don’t see our Bridegroom now as He is with our eyes, He is not far from us. Rather, He comes to us in a most intimate union, making Himself one flesh with His bride, the Church, and with each of her members. We are not left only to think about Him, whether in remembrance or in anticipation—no, He lives within us in His body and blood.

In this way, the miracle of the incarnation is echoed at Christian altars each time the words of institution are spoken over bread and wine: the Son of God makes His dwelling among us in the flesh of the Son of Mary. This is why Christians bow or kneel during at the consecration, to recognise and reverence the great mystery: that Jesus, our Immanuel, is with us. This is why Christians sing the Agnus Dei, the hymn to the Lamb of God, not to the backs of their eyelids, or up to the ceiling, but to the altar where the Lamb of God to whom we sing is present.

And this is why also the Church exercises great care in admitting people to this most holy meal: whoever eats such sacred food and drinks such sacred drink without recognising in faith what is being offered and for what purpose, profanes the holy mysteries and thereby incurs judgement rather than forgiveness, wrath rather than blessing.

And so, dear friends of Christ, we have come to the Holy of Holies, to the presence of יהוה of Sabaoth, the God of Israel. The benefits of the sacrifice of Golgotha are being delivered to us tonight, and Christ is giving us His immortal body and the blood of His eternal life to us to eat and to drink.

Examine yourselves, therefore: Are you a sinner in need of forgiveness? Are you weak, and in need of strength? Are you starving and in need of feeding, parched and in need of refreshment? Are you a sojourner, longing for your true home? Are you dying, in need of life?

Here is forgiveness and life; here is strength for the pilgrimage; here is food and drink; here is a foretaste from the banquet prepared for every prodigal son and daughter by the Father, a full token of Christ’s love for His beloved bride.

Come, open your mouth, and it will be filled!

The entire Gospel embodied and presented to us

Grunewald: LambTherefore also it is vain talk when they say that the body and blood of Christ are not given and shed for us in the Lord’s Supper, hence we could not have forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. For although the work is accomplished and the forgiveness of sins acquired on the cross, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word. For what would we otherwise know about it, that such a thing was accomplished or was to be given us if it were not presented by preaching or the oral Word? Whence do they know of it, or how can they apprehend and appropriate to themselves the forgiveness, except they lay hold of and believe the Scriptures and the Gospel? But now the entire Gospel and the article of the Creed: I believe a holy Christian Church, the forgiveness of sin, etc., are by the Word embodied in this Sacrament and presented to us. Why, then, should we allow this treasure to be torn from the Sacrament when they must confess that these are the very words which we hear every where in the Gospel, and they cannot say that these words in the Sacrament are of no use, as little as they dare say that the entire Gospel or Word of God, apart from the Sacrament, is of no use?

via The Large Catechism – Book of Concord (V.31–32)

Give her something to eat

Standing over the lifeless body of the daughter—the only-begotten child—of Jairus, Jesus brought her life back by his life-giving words. Wonder of sonders and miracle of miracles.

Now what? How do you follow that up?

“He told them to give her something to eat.”

Death to life to being fed. That’s resurrection life in a nutshell.

The Full, Final Sacrifice

One of my favourite 20th Century English anthems is Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice (Here’s a Spotify link, and here’s a YouTube link, both performed by the outstanding choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge). I have sung it a few times and listened to it many times more. But, in a way that is very typical of many choral singers, I have only paid partial attention to the words.

Well, for slightly complicated reasons, I decided to delve into the words recently. And I found out that Finzi took as his text selected (and re-arranged) extracts from a long paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas’ “Lauda Sion Salvatorem”, as well as from a paraphrase of Aquinas’ “Adoro Te” by the 17th century English metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw (c. 1613–1649).

What a find!

Crashaw was son of a noted puritan theologian, but ended up converting to Catholicism. We can only assume that “Lauda Sion” comes from the latter period.

I offer a longer extract from Crashaw, which I’m hoping might be included in a forthcoming collection of hymns, set to a completely new tune. More on that project another time.

XI.
So the life-food of angells then
Bow’d to the lowly mouths of men!
The children’s Bread, the Bridegroom’s Wine;
Not to be cast to dogges, or swine.

XII.
Lo, the full, finall Sacrifice
On which all figures fix’t their eyes:
The ransom’d Isack, and his ramme;
The manna, and the paschal lamb.

XIII.
Iesv Master, iust and true!
Our food, and faithfull Shephard too!
O by Thy self vouchsafe to keep,
As with Thy selfe Thou feed’st Thy sheep.

XIV.
O let that loue which thus makes Thee
Mix with our low mortality,
Lift our lean soules, and sett vs vp
Con-victors of Thine Own full cup,
Coheirs of saints. That so all may
Drink the same wine; and the same way:
Nor change the pastvre, but the place,
To feed of Thee, in Thine Own face. Amen.

 

Love

Wonderful lines from George Herbert, on the eve of Trinity 2 (Luke 14:15-24)

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

Eating and Eating

Listening to an outstanding sermon (mp3, in Finnish) by the Rev. Markus Pöyry, a very gifted young pastor serving a Luther Foundation congregation in Finland is to blame for the following:

I wrote this post quite some time ago about my misgivings concerning the term ‘spiritual eating’ to refer to the reception of the promise of Christ in faith. The Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran confessions, make this a key distinction, possibly following Martin Chemnitz (my education is patchy!). Luther refers to this, but as far as I know, it wasn’t a key idea in his system.

My problem with this kind of language is this: it creates far too much room for receptionism (both of the Anglican and the Lutheran types), and poses the danger of diminishing the importance of the physical eating of the physical sacrament.

Of course, there is a biblical root for the idea of spiritual eating: John 6. Jesus appears to use the language of eating as a metaphor for faith in him. And in the Lutheran exegetical tradition, the whole of John 6 has been understood as referring to faith in Christ rather than the sacrament, for a number of reasons which I won’t rehearse here.

However, there is a problem: the language of Jesus. For part of John 6, Jesus speaks of eating using the generic term esthiō. However, when the argument between Jesus and the Jews gets heated, he switches verbs to trōgō, which means to ‘chew, munch, masticate’. It’s physical, concrete, bodily activity.

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat (esthiō) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on (trōgō) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.”

When things begin to fall apart and disciples begin to desert Him, Jesus has plenty of opportunities to correct the misunderstanding. “Hey, calm down, I was talking about spiritual eating.” But He doesn’t.

And the rule of thumb is: if Jesus says something, we should pay close attention. When the word is ‘munch’, teeth are involved.

(This is also why I have little time for the pious suggestion that it is irreverent to chew the host. Jesus didn’t seem to think so, and while I may be holier than thou, I don’t want to be holier than Him.)

Given that the notion of spiritual eating is a mainstay in classical Reformed teaching, and as such a method of writing out the spiritual benefit of the physical eating of the body and blood of the Lord, I really do think we do better to use more direct and unambiguous language.

Leaving your gift at the altar

I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.

Spiritual eating: Taking issue with Chemnitz

Thus in these latter words concerning the salutary use of the Supper there is a description of the spiritual eating of the body of Christ which takes place by faith. And just as the substance of the Supper and the salutary use of the same are distinguished, so it is one thing when Christ says: “Take and eat; this is my body,” and another thing when He says: “This do in remembrance of Me,” which takes place by spiritual eating through faith. Thus the sacramental and the spiritual eating are dealt with and described separately. For there is a distinct and clear description of how the substance of the Supper, which consists of the bread and the body of Christ, is received,namely, in the mouths of the participants. This is the sacramental eating … And then there is also a distinct and clear description of how those who participate in the Supper receive it and use it in a salutary way, namely, by faith. This is the spiritual eating. (‘The Lord’s Supper’ [CPH, 1979], 112-113, underlining added)

This is an unhelpful distinction. Or rather, the categories are unhelpful.

To refer to the anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’) as “spiritual eating” has the tendency to drive a wedge between physical and spiritual eating, despite Chemnitz’s eloquent and earnest efforts to the contrary.

Presumably the category of ‘spiritual eating’ as distinct from ‘physical eating’ derives from John 6 where, according to traditional Lutheran (and Reformed) exegesis, Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to spiritual eating in the form of receiving Him and His words in faith.

This category of ‘spiritual eating’ has here been transposed onto the Lord’s Supper, even though I’m not aware of New Testament references to the ‘spiritual eating’ of the Supper.

Is it not the case that Jesus’ words instruct the disciples concerning how they are to eat (physically) His body and blood, namely in faith (“in remembrance of me”)? This is not a twofold eating—physical and spiritual—but a single eating with one of two effects.

The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is not that one eats physically and spiritually while the other eats physically only. The believer eats physically with faith, thereby receiving grace through the physical eating. The unbeliever also eats physically but without faith, thereby receiving condemnation through the same eating.

So there is only one category of eating: physical eating. But there are two categories of reception: in faith to salvation, and without faith to condemnation.

By avoiding the misapplied category of ‘spiritual eating’, we can make a clean break from those who deny the physical eating of the Lord’s body and blood, as well as avoid all sorts of ecumenical ambiguities when dealing with those who thrive in the blurring of lines (e.g. mainstream Anglicans).

*****

Am I missing the mark here?

Insufficient reason

When I do not find a passage in Scripture that denies that the body of Christ is present in the Supper or interprets the words of the Supper in a different way than they stand, I do not have a sufficiently strong reason to teach a new idea, especially one that arouses so great a scandal and one that i know cannot be preferred if we do not have clear and definite proof from Scripture. (Philipp Melanchthon, quoted in Chemnitz, ‘The Lord’s Supper’ (CPH, 1979), 89)