Thursday, November 26, 2009
Luther on Thanksgiving
Well, this is Martin Luther on the Eucharist which comes from the Greek meaning "to give thanks." So technically, Martin Luther on the Eucharist is Martin Luther on thanksgiving. I've been studying Martin Luther on the Eucharist (for those who don't know that word, that's "The Lord's Supper" for my Presbyterian friends, "Communion" for my Baptist friends, and that weird snack other Christians have in their worship for my Watermark friends). Luther was careful not to speak of the Lord's Supper as transubstantiation, even though arguing over the mechanics of the Eucharist was not Luther's main concern. (nor is my thoughts on the mechanics exactly like Luther's, though close) Luther believed that a great many benefits come from this means of grace given to the church. Here I will share a few that he identifies:
Luther's primary language about the Eucharist would not be the first concept most other Protestants would associate with the Supper. For Luther, the Eucharist contains with it the forgiveness of sins. Luther explains how he means this in two ways. Luther uses the concepts of pledge and sign.1 As a sign, it signifies the promise of forgiveness given to the believer. As a sure pledge, the Eucharist is assuring to the believer that they have the forgiveness of sins. This is not a resacrifice, but rather the Word coming to the believer to declare this forgiveness, like the word preached.2 When received by faith, the believer has fellowship with Christ.
Fellowship with God and Others
Luther places the “significance or effect of this sacrament is fellowship of all the saints.”3 From this fellowship, all other benefits flow. As Christ has, so His body has in fellowship with him in Christ's life.4 Obvious was the fact that the Eucharist was a fellowship with God through Christ. Luther takes the obvious and fleshes out the meaning of fellowship to also include a fellowship with all other saints. As the church is the body of Christ, and the Eucharist is the sacrament of the body, these two things should not be separated. Such a close relationship between the congregated church body and the sacrament led Luther to have reservations about private celebrations and even taking the Super to the sick apart from the worship service.5
Fellowship in the Eucharist is fellowship in the church. Luther brings out the opposite of the fellowship in the Eucharist being “excommunicare” or excommunication. The opposite is “to receive a sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all the saints.”6 To receive the sacrament then is assurance of union with Christ, because union with the Church is union with the body of Christ.
The fellowship offered in this union is not merely profit. Luther warned that “There are those, indeed, who would gladly share in the profits but not in the costs.”7 Christ experienced loss and suffering in his life. Now, the church suffers loss and pain and to have fellowship in the body is to have fellowship in suffering. Luther offers the illustration of a man injuring his foot. The whole body bends itself towards the foot and covers it, alleviates stress from it and cares for it for the pain is seen not only on the foot but even on the other end of the body on the face, and “once it is cared for all the other members are benefited.”8
In the Eucharist, Luther sees shared misery. “You must in turn share the misfortunes of fellowship.”9 In this fellowship, the Christian fills in the sufferings of Christ, who no longer suffers in heaven, but His body does on earth. For the continuing repeated suffering of the innocent, the Eucharist is taken repeatedly.10 The call for the partaker is to “help the poor, put up with sinners, care for the sorrowing, suffer with the suffering, intercede for others, defend the truth, and...risk life, property and honor for the betterment of the church.”11
Reminder of Need
The suffering of the body points to the need of grace. “Therefore, we need the strength, support and help of Christ and of his saints.”12 Luther goes so far as to say the Eucharist is not for those of no suffering, misfortune or anxiety, but for hungry, needy and anxious. For proof of the necessity of this condition, Luther goes to the instance of the institution of the Lord's Supper. Christ frightens the disciples with the trials that await Him. He also scares them by the announcement that He will be leaving them and one of their own will betray Him. “When they were thus full of sorrow and anxiety, disturbed by sorrow and the sin of betrayal, then they were worthy, and he gave them his holy body.”13
The Eucharist was instituted for the needy and hungry. The language of Luther echoes Christ's words to the Pharisees that Christ came to call sinners, not the righteous.14 The meaning is not that Christians ought to only come when they need it, but Christians always need the grace of the Eucharist and Christians ought to be made to feel their need of grace. The disciples had the same destiny before Christ spoke to them in the Supper as they did after the meal. The different was not their condition, but their awareness of their condition. “On your part, you ought to be impelled by your own need” to come to the Eucharist.15
If Christians are aware of their need, they will desire to take the Eucharist frequently. Luther speaks of the Eucharist so closely with the preached word that one should not think the Eucharist is some magical granter of grace to him. Rather, the Eucharist is another means of communicating the gospel of Christ to the believer. Proper understanding of the Eucharist is essential in the same way that preaching the gospel rightly is important. The believer should never tire of hearing the Gospel and so should never tire of taking the Eucharist. The problem is “we hardly know any more what purpose this sacrament serves or how it should be used...This is the fault of preachers who do not preach the gospel or the sacraments, but their humanly devised fables about the many works of satisfaction to be done and the ways to live aright.”16 When the preacher reminds the believer of their need for grace, rather than flattering them with pronouncements of their ability to fulfill all duties, then the believer will desire the preached word and the sacrament more frequently.
Strengthening and Gladdening
Because of the sufferings of the church and the sinfulness of humanity, the Eucharist is needed in a positive way (or as Luther puts it: profits). The responsibility to shared sufferings is assumed by the believer, but the believer is not sufficient to meet these demands. Luther takes two of the positive benefits of the bread and wine in the Eucharist from the Scripture's description of the purpose of bread and wine. In Psalm 104:15, the Psalmist writes that God gave “bread to strengthen man's heart” and “wine to make glad the heart of man.”
Luther takes as further proof of the strengthening of the Eucharist Acts 9:18-19, where Paul is given back his sight and then is “baptized and taking food was strengthened.” Luther takes this food as being the Eucharist.17 The strengthening of the Eucharist consists in the forgiveness offered in the Eucharist. Where our sins accuse and attack us, the Eucharist reminds the believer of the payment for sin in the life and death of Christ.
This strengthening results in joy. The wine in the Eucharist communicates the gladdening of the heart of the believer. “Let him go joyfully to the sacrament of the alter and lay down his woe in the midst of the community of saints and seek help from the entire company of the spiritual body.”18 In this sure sign of Christ's love for the person, “The heart cannot but rejoice and be strengthened.”19
The reality of the Eucharist resides in union with Christ. Although Luther begins by using the word fellowship for the relationship between Christ and the believer, it soon becomes apparent that Luther means more than friendly relationship. The union the believer has by faith is one that is more vital, real and organic than mere relationship. Although Reformation theologians assailed the mystics, the sacraments remain a mystical subject. Luther conceives of the union with Christ a believer enjoys illustrated in the Eucharist as “no more intimate, deep, and indivisible union than the union of the food with him who is fed. For the food enters into and is assimilated by his very nature, and becomes one substance with the person who is fed...thus in the sacrament we too become united with Christ, and are made one body with all the saints, so that Christ cares for us and acts on our behalf.”20 The Eucharist enables some understanding of union as we share in the benefits of Christ though vital union.
Desire and Hope
Christians, for Luther, should be seen frequently coming to the table. When one considers that greatness of the gift of the sacrament, given by Christ, what would restrain the believer from coming? Although Christ left the means of encounter with Him by the Word by way of the ear, so too did Christ leave a means of encounter with Him by way of the eyes and the hands. The desire of believers to come into the presence of their Savior should be evident. So obvious was this to Luther, that if one was known to be frequently absent from the table, they ought not to be considered a Christian.21 If Christ instituted the Supper to remember Him with “the very words, 'as often as you do it,' imply that we should do it often.”22 If one is truly a Christian, how often should they wish to remember their Savior? If rarely or never, are they truly a Christian?
Ultimately, the Eucharist is comforting. “We see now how necessary this sacrament is for those who must face death, or other dangers of body and soul, that they not be left in them alone but be strengthened in the fellowship of Christ and all saints.”23 When the need compels the believer to the table, the Eucharist comforts them. For the needy, it is “pure, wholesome, soothing medicine.”24
Luther ends one of his treatises on the Eucharist with this imagery: “Baptism leads us into a new life on earth; the bread guides us through death into eternal life. And the two are signified by the Red Sea and the Jordan, and by two lands, one beyond and one on this side of Jordan.”25 Luther here compares the former pre-Christian life to Egypt. In Egypt, God's people were under slavery. To free them from this, God led the Israelites through the Red Sea, paralleling (as Peter and Paul also pick up on) Christian baptism. After being freed from slavery (Egypt with the Jews, Sin and Death with Christians) now God's people are fed with bread (manna from heaven for the Jews, Eucharist for the Christians). The bread is a sign of God's care and sustaining in between lands, no longer in Egypt, but not yet in the Promised Land.
The Eucharist represents the continual, sustained nature of faith. Though every believer has a point of entry into the Christian life, they also have the time after to live within. The food for the journey is the Gospel of Christ pictured by body in bread and blood in wine. Therein is the sustaining and joy of the Christian. Therein is the suffering and comfort of fellowship for the Christian. Therein is the reminder of need and the promise of forgiveness. Because all these benefits are exhibited in the Eucharist, the benefit of hope is given to those who partake of the bread and wine. For Luther, the Eucharist is no mere rite, but the visible word of the Gospel.
1 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 449
2 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 450.
3 Martin Luther. “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, 1519.” Luther's Works: Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 50
4 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 452
5 Harry Boonstra. “Home Communion” Reformed Worship. Issue #13. retrieved at: http://www.reformedworship.org/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=44
6 Martin Luther. “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, 1519.” Luther's Works: Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 51
7 Ibid., 57
8 Ibid., 52
9 Ibid., 54
10 Ibid., 55
11 Ibid., 57
12 Ibid., 55
13 Ibid., 56
14 Matthew 9:13
15 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 454
16 Martin Luther. “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, 1519.” Luther's Works: Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 56-57
17 Ibid., 53
18 Ibid., 53
19 Ibid., 54
20 Ibid., 59
21 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 451
22 Ibid., 452
23 Martin Luther. “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, 1519.” Luther's Works: Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 65
24 Martin Luther. “Luther's Larger Catechism.” Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), 454
25 Martin Luther. “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, 1519.” Luther's Works: Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 67