Learning Luther: The Lord’s Supper in the Large Catechism By Paul R. Hinlicky

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

This month we turn to the section on the Lord’s Supper in the Large Catechism, found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), pp. 467–76.

The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of reunion with the community of Christ: the believers dispersed into the world assemble as the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 11:18) to partake of the Body of Christ in anticipation of His public manifestation to all (I Corinthians 11:26). In keeping with this teaching of Paul in I Corinthians, Luther accordingly affirms something more concrete than an effervescent “real presence.” Presence means being there, somewhere in time and place. Whatever other kind of presence can there be than a real one? This reality Luther affirms. He affirms Christ’s bodily presence. The Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood, in and under bread and wine, for us to eat and drink.”

Yet this bodily presence is not a “Capernaum” presence, “like sausage hanging in the butcher shop” (see John 6:59–60). To talk about this paradoxical presence of Christ “born of the Virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate yet raised on the third day” before His public Parousia, Luther thinks with Paul, who can distinguish the glorified body of the risen Lord from flesh and blood which cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 15:42­–50). From this Pauline perspective, he can also accommodate the Johannine teaching that the “flesh” of Christ is food, indeed the living bread that comes down from heaven, since John 6 also rejects that “carnal” understanding of the “flesh” imagined by disciples from Capernaum who took offense and deserted Jesus at the “hard saying” about eating His “flesh” for salvation. Terminological or semantic differences should not obscure the unity of witness between John 6 and I Corinthians to the paradoxical presence of the very One who suckled at Mary’s breast and died impaled on the Roman stake.

It is likely that the Apostolic Father, Ignatius of Antioch, had this schism in John 6 in mind when the disciples from Capernaum deserted Jesus at his “hard saying” about eating His “flesh” when he wrote to the Smyrneans around 110 AD:

“Mark those who hold strange doctrine concerning the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us, how that they are contrary to the mind of God. They have no care for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, nor the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from the eucharist and prayer, because they do not allow that the eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness raised up.”

While it is unlikely that Luther knew this text, he would have loved it. For Luther too, unlike ordinary bread which we consume, metabolize, and thus change into us, this food changes us into it. The anti-docetic stress on the personal identity of the risen, glorified, and paradoxically present Christ with the body born of Mary that suffered under Pontius Pilate, moreover, is at the heart of Luther’s Christus pro nobis, Christ-for-us, the only saving Christ, as Ignatius also witnesses.

As with the Lord’s Prayer and Baptism, so also the Lord’s Supper is grounded in the creative divine command, DO THIS, meaning not, “Do this whenever you happen to think about having communion,” but rather, “This is how I want to be remembered, as the One who laid down His body and blood for you, once on Calvary, but also now, whenever you assemble as my Body in the world.” The creative, divine command is, as we say today, performative. It is a performance, a speech-action which says what it gives and gives what it says, though only faith benefits from this performance of God’s creative Word. In the Words of Institution faithfully spoken by the presiding minister, Christ Himself not only speaks but effects what it said, so that of all the bread in the world, this particular bread is singled out as the place of His body given for you and this particular cup of blessing the cup of His blood shed for you.

If this faith-nurturing Word of Christ, who presents and imparts Himself today as the One who once for all suffered and died, is what the Sacrament is, then the question of how it benefits almost answers itself. Christ does not so much offer benefits as Himself. The gift of Christ’s innocent self-offering for us who are guilty secures and vouchsafes the forgiveness of real, not fictitious sinners. Here the barrier between the holy God and sinful humanity is breached by the interposition of Christ’s body on the cross, so that sin disappears into forgiveness and all the treasures of God come gushing forth for life and salvation.

Like with prayer and baptism, the gifts do not depend on faith but are given for the sake of faith, so that God who gives can take hold of consciousness and organize anew the desires of the heart. So the new born creature of God is fed and fit for renewed battle against the sinful self, the hostile world, and the uncanny devil, expected to progress forward in faith, hope, and love. Faith is the understanding appropriation i.e. taking what is offered pro me, “for me,” and making it my very own.

Following Paul, however, Luther sees that unfaithful and ignorant reception is possible – scandalously so. Such eating and drinking despises the body of Christ in that it “shows contempt for the church of God and humiliates those who have nothing” (I Corinthians 11: 23b). The cup of blessing thus can become a cup of poison when it is not received faithfully, for the purpose intended, with discernment and self-examination (I Corinthians 11: 30).

Note well: in this case, the Lord’s Supper is not a nothing but a poison, not an empty and inefficacious sign but the thing signified working as curse and not the divinely intended blessing because the dear divine cost of the crucified and risen body of Christ for the holy communion of redeemed sinners is blasphemed by undiscerning, worldly partisanship (I Corinthians 11:18). In the Lutheran theological tradition this warning about the mandicatio indignorum, the eating of the unworthy, not for blessing but for curse (I Corinthians 11:28–32) has been regarded as a standard of doctrine. In principle, the Lord’s Supper is meant for the evangelized, catechized, and baptized people of God who in faith know what they are doing when by eating and drinking they are turned into the body of Christ.

Luther attends as well to the much botched question about the frequency of communion. I say, “botched,” because the actual history in the West of how often a Christian should receive goes something like this. When the European peoples were converted to Christianity in mass by the conversion of their warlords, the illiterate and uncatechized multitudes brought with them all sorts of non-Christian superstitions. Stealing the consecrated bread for magical use as talisman was commonplace. Spilling from the chalice or guzzling of wine took place too. After the cup was removed from the laity on the grounds that body and blood are interchangeable “elements,” so that Christ was said to be equally present in either, and after communion wafers were invented so that they would dissolve when placed upon the outstretched tongue (making it difficult to take the bread home for magical purposes), the question inevitably arose whether it was necessary to commune at all.

The ruling was that it was necessary to commune at least once a year, after private confession, during Holy Week, if one was to be counted a Christian. The celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday largely had become a spectator sport. The chief thing was witnessing the “hocus pocus” of the transubstantiation, the priest sacrificing the body of Christ to appease an angry God on behalf of the sinful masses gathered to witness the offering. “Hocus pocus” is a corruption of the Latin, Hoc est corpus meum, “This is my body.”

This was the “botched” practice Luther inherited. While he refuses to make a law about frequency of communion, he emphatically taught that communion is the gift of God for Christians in the struggle, and so he exhorted fervently that the gift be taken seriously and received gratefully. Yet it cannot be said that a full recovery of the patristic practice was achieved by Luther’s reforms.

He was so concerned with evangelizing and catechizing the common people that the church services practically turned into academic lectures. The vestments of the learned doctor replaced the regalia of the priesthood. Luther had advised reception at least four times a year, under his historical circumstances a fourfold increase in frequency. But this intended increase turned into a de facto limit. To this day in parts of Europe, quarterly communion is the prevailing practice, offered for those who desire it after the congregation is dismissed from the preaching service. Even in professedly Lutheran churches, communion is not especially understood as the gospel Word of God, “This is my Body, given for you,” offered then as the particular way in which Christ commands that He be remembered amid His faithful. Only in recent years, thanks to the liturgical movement, has communion been restored as belonging to the normal shape of Christian assembly. But, one fears, even this renewal has more to do with belonging than believing.

For the historical Luther, it is the devil who hates the holy communion and so mocks mere bread and wine on the altar as nothing but bread and wine, just as it mocks the water of baptism as mere water, and the external word of preachers as mere opinion, and at bottom of all this the mere humanity of Jesus, born of Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, as nothing but another fool for God, denied, betrayed, abandoned, and defeated once and for all. The devil, according to Luther, deceives by making such appearances appear as the whole story and the end of the story.

Jesus Christ – empty idol or icon of the living God? In either case, we deal with the same appearance (persona) in the world, just as the word, “This is my body,” asserts. “Take away such assertions,” Luther asserted against Erasmus, and “you take away Christianity!”

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

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