The End of Division through the Word of Christ
1 Corinthians 11:23-32
Undoubtedly, one of the chief ironies to be observed in the history of the Christian Church is that the gift of the Lord in which we are most intimately united with Him has, from the beginning, been the center of controversy and chaos. The very place where there should be the most unity—the very Body and Blood of Jesus—has often been the center of division. But this should come as no surprise, for wherever Christ’s words are disregarded and set aside, there will be only confusion and lack of clarity.
For Martin Luther, restoring clarity and dispelling confusion with the truth of Christ concerning the Lord’s Supper was of paramount concern. He preached and wrote exhaustively, refuting sinful error and raising up the wondrous truth of our Lord’s gift to His Church. At first, at the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s denouncements of false teaching were directed solely at the Roman church of the papacy, in which the Sacrament had been redefined to be “the unbloody repetition of the sacrifice of Christ.” In other words, they believed and taught that, at every mass, the priest was again offering up Jesus as a sacrifice, going against what Scripture says in the book of Hebrews, that “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” and that “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
As terribly wrong as this and certain other Roman Catholic teachings about the Lord’s Supper are, Luther would later comment that he would sooner receive Holy Communion with the pope than with those who were denying the Real Presence of Christ’s true Body and Blood, for at least the pope did not deny that. Of course, Luther did not really mean it. This statement is hyperbole of the highest sort meant to emphasize just how horribly and tragically wrong are those who believe and teach that Jesus can’t really mean it when He says that the bread IS His body and the wine IS His blood—who teach and believe that the Lord’s Supper only symbolizes and represents what Christ actually offers and gives, namely His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Controversy and division surrounding the Lord’s Supper were nothing new at the time of the Reformation. It had gone on before. Already in the New Testament, within a matter of a few years after the Lord’s death and resurrection, there were divisions that centered in the Lord’s Supper. In the Epistle Reading, we hear that such sad divisions have arisen in the congregation in Corinth. The apostle Paul, of course, laments this poor state of affairs and says, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Now, when Saint Paul says “there must be factions among you,” he means it in the sense that it is only to be expected, for it is the way of our sinful human nature for people to hold to their own opinions—to what they think is right and true—rather than to what the Lord declares as truth in His Word. There is division because, apart from the Word of Christ, there can be no unity.
So, what was the problem in Corinth? What was it that had made for division in the congregation? Well, some in the congregation looked upon the Lord’s Supper as something other than what it is. They were converts to Christianity who had left behind the worship of the false gods of the Greeks, but who had ended up returning to their old ways, while continuing to claim faith in Christ. They went to both the pagan temple and the church. At the temple, there was food and drink upon which they feasted and got drunk. And when they came to the church, they regarded the the Holy Meal of our Lord’s Supper as the same sort of ordinary, earthly food and drink.
The apostle writes to the Corinthians as a man under orders, whose word is not his own, and who speaks according to his calling and office only that which Christ has given him to speak. This faithful servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God, therefore, does not, like so many in today’s churches bow to popular thought or to what will make people like him. Nor does he leave the whole problem unresolved, as if it doesn’t really matter what one believes and confesses regarding the Lord’s Supper. Instead Saint Paul begins by stating: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
These words of Christ tell us what the Sacrament is. These words say that is the true Body and Blood of our Lord given under the bread and wine for us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sin. These words are the Lord’s gift, His blessing, and His invitation for you to receive what He gives, in the means that He gives it. It’s with these words, and these words alone, that Saint Paul works to heal the divisions in Corinth and restore unity of faith, all for the ultimate purpose of the forgiveness and salvation of sinners.
This blessed goal of salvation and everlasting life is that to which the apostle directs our hearts by saying, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” With the full and complete remission of all your sins, that Christ offers and gives through this blessed Sacrament, you are renewed and restored in the faith bestowed upon you in Holy Baptism—the faith that joins you to the perfect righteousness of God’s own Son and makes you a fellow heir with Him of the eternal kingdom of God. Living, therefore, in this saving faith, you proclaim that Jesus died for you; you proclaim that He offered up His life on the cross as a single and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin; you proclaim that the bread you eat and the wine you drink in the Lord’s Supper is as Jesus says it is—the very same body and blood that was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, that suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again, that ascended into heaven and will come again on the Last Day to judge both the living and the dead.
The Sacrament of the Altar, dear friends, does not depend on us but on the Lord Jesus who established it in the night in which He was betrayed. It depends on Him and the Word that He speaks to make it what it is and to make it give what He says. It is not your faith which makes the Sacrament. All who come to the altar receive Christ’s body and blood whether or not they believe. This is why Saint Paul goes on to warn the Corinthians that those who partake of the Supper in an unworthy manner are guilty not of sinning against mere bread and wine, but of sinning against the Body and the Blood of the Lord. Your faith does not make the Sacrament what it is, but it is only in faith that you may partake of our Saviour’s Body and Blood in a way that is salutary and beneficial—in a way that gives life and salvation instead of condemnation.
Therefore, Saint Paul says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” When you examine your life in light of God’s holy commandments, you will see your sins, for the Holy Spirit will convict you of them. And He will then lead you to repentance; He will work in you a holy desire to confess your sins and a hunger and thirst for the forgiveness that our Lord bestows in this Sacrament. There is only one way to eat and drink worthily of the Lord’s Supper and that is with faith in the words of Him Who is the Host and Donor. The Catechism says it well: “…he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” This is most certainly true, dear friends. In the name of Christ, your Passover Lamb, sacrificed for you. Amen.