Here is a manuscript version of the sermon:
Maundy Thursday: “Return to the LORD: Return to the Table”
April 1, 2021
Text: Mark 14:12-26
In the Holy Communion, God creates a union that is cross-shaped. We can think of this Communion as both vertical Communion with God, and horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians. That is, it is as we pray so often in Luther’s post-Communion collect: With this salutary gift, God strengthens us “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another” (LSB 201). Now, it is critical to understand that in both directions, it is God who creates the Communion, not us. It is the Lord’s Supper, after all, not ours. Communion is not or our making. Communion is not our work.
We do not create Communion with God by our good work of attending the Sacrament, as though we’re doing Him a favor by merely gracing Him with our presence, or, as we commonly think, doing our Sunday morning duty and getting credit for putting in the time. That is the Roman idea of ex opera operato, of the work being worked, getting credit for the mere outward act, even apart from faith in Christ, or the gifts He imparts in this Sacrament. And we certainly must guard against the idea that we create this Communion by our Sacrifice of the Mass, by our repeatedly offering up to God the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to propitiate Him for our sins. That gets the direction of the giving precisely backwards. Instead of God giving us the gift, we’d be giving a gift to God. That would make the Lord’s Supper our work for God rather than His for us, and it would rob our Lord’s death on the cross of its proper honor as the once for all atoning sacrifice for our sins.
So also, God creates our horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians. We do not create that Communion, for example, by being open and affirming of any and every idea someone has, or lifestyle they want to live, or by sweeping doctrinal differences under the rug, or opening up the Altar to anyone and everyone, regardless of what they believe they are receiving, and why they are receiving it. The Communion of the Church is not one big group hug or feelings of affection toward one another. This would be to base the Communion of the Church, at best, on superficial social acceptance and sentimentality; at worst, on deliberate disregard of God’s Word and our neighbor’s welfare, and dismissive dishonesty about our differences.
The question is, what is God uniting us around? Bread and wine? A mere symbol? Or His true Body and Blood, hidden under bread and wine, because He says so in His Word? And why is it we receive what we receive? Is it simply to commemorate Him, and to call to mind His death and resurrection? Does it depend on our faith heroically stretching up to heaven to receive the Lord’s salvation somewhere up there? Or is it heaven come down to us poor sinners (who are incapable of stretching anywhere), Jesus handing over the goods, the Lord Himself present to impart all His saving benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation as He feeds us with His crucified and risen Body and Blood?
As it happens, we don’t have to wonder. Both Jesus and St. Paul answer the question. What is this bread? “(T)his is my body,” Jesus says (Mark 14:22; ESV). What is this wine? “This is my blood of the covenant,” Jesus says (v. 24). And St. Paul underscores the point that the cup of blessing that we bless, that is, the cup we consecrate with the Lord’s own Words in the Supper, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Blood of Christ. We share in it. We partake of it as we drink it. And the bread that we break, he says, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Body of Christ. We share in it. We partake of it as we eat it.
And it is not these things because of some indelible character stamped on the clergyman whereby he is given the mystical ability to confect the Sacrament. Nor is it these things because of your faith’s ability to reach up really high, where Jesus is, and claim it for yourself. It is these things because Jesus says so. The Word makes the thing what it is. The Body of Christ. The Blood of Christ. The Holy Communion.
And it is this Body and Blood that unite us to God, and to our fellow believers in Christ. Because this is the Body and Blood of God Himself, the eternal Son of the Father, who is incarnate, who has taken on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He is a flesh and blood God. It is this very Body given into death on the cross for our sins. It is this very Blood shed on the cross for our sins. It is the Body and the Blood now risen from the dead, and living, and reigning, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And He puts that Body and Blood into us. So that the Body and Blood crucified for our sins imparts the forgiveness He won for us. So that the Body and Blood now risen from the dead becomes one with us and gives us new life. Therefore, being forgiven of all our sins, we are able to forgive one another, break bread with one another, and live together in peace and unity, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
So the sin that separates us from God, and from one another, has been done to death by Jesus, who died for us on the cross. All those sins are forgiven. And the proof of it is the Sacrifice of Atonement that we are given to eat and drink in this Sacrament. And the new life and right spirit we need to live now in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another is likewise imparted in the eating and drinking of the risen Body and Blood of Jesus. In feeding us the fruits of His cross, He creates the cross shaped Communion we enjoy in the Church, Communion with God, Communion with one another.
But I can already hear one objection arising in your mind. If it is God who creates this Communion, both with Himself, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, why do we practice closed Communion. It feels like we are being exclusive, particularly of other Christians whom we confess to be believers in Christ and children of God. Actually, your concern is noble. If the purpose of closed Communion were to keep the Communion Table pure, so that we don’t soil ourselves with the unclean or the otherwise inadequate, we’d be no better than the Pharisees who couldn’t bear to see Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners. And if we were honest, we’d have to end up excluding ourselves. Because we are the tax collectors and sinners.
The Church is not a club, never mind an exclusive one. There is no one we don’t want in this Communion. The purpose of closed Communion is actually not to keep people out. It is to bring them in by the proper, God-given way. It is to protect them from the dire consequences of playing around with very powerful, Holy Things they don’t yet understand, or about which they maintain false beliefs. In other words, it is done in fervent love. It is to take seriously St. Paul’s warning that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” and that “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). He doesn’t deny that they are Christians and that they will go to heaven when they die. He says that eating and drinking without discerning the body, without knowing and believing what it is that the Lord here gives us, is dangerous spiritually and physically.
So what is the solution to that? Instruction. We make this too complicated. Closed Communion is actually quite simple. We simply ask that before you commune, you take an instruction class with the pastor. And if you agree with what he teaches, you join the congregation and come to Communion. And if you don’t agree with what he teaches, why would you want to go to Communion here? Communion is, after all, a confession of unity with this Church, that you believe what this Church believes, teaches, and confesses. Where there are disagreements, by the way, between this and other Christian Church-bodies, we shouldn’t just say, “Oh well!” and jump into Altar and Pulpit Fellowship (that is, Communion) together. We should work toward agreement on the basis of God’s Word, and pray that God gives us unity, for He alone can. Communion is always the goal. Always. And if we don’t reach that goal in this world, we know it will be our reality in heaven. And in the meantime, we love one another, we pray for one another, we rejoice in the faith we do hold in common, even as we discuss our differences honestly, and we wait upon the Lord to deliver us from all division. For He alone creates the Communion of the Church.
And yes, it is also true that another facet of closed Communion is that those who refuse to repent of their sins are denied Communion until they repent. This is not because they are worse sinners than those who commune, or even than the pastor distributing the Communion. Not at all. It is rather because of their refusal to repent. It would be dangerous for them to come to Communion while refusing to acknowledge and confess their sins. It is the loving exercise of Church discipline, the exercise of the binding key the Lord has given His Church, as in “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). This is the Law. The unrepentant are bound in their sins, but always with this goal: That they come to repentance, that they come back to faith in Jesus, that they be loosed, absolved, forgiven, and restored to the Holy Communion. This is the Gospel. The Lord must do this. He must work in their hearts, by means of His Spirit, in His Word. But this is important, because it is a matter of eternal life and death.
The truth is, all who come to Communion (and that means you) are sinners. And if they come in repentance for their sins, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive His Body and His Blood for the forgiveness of their sins, this is the Lord’s doing, by His Spirit, in His Word. By His cross, the Lord Jesus creates the cross-shaped Holy Communion of faith toward God, and fervent love toward one another. Sins forgiven, what is broken is restored. It is not something we do. It is all Him. It is all His gift, to be received as He gives it. He gives it by His Word, which makes the thing what it is. Heaven comes down. Our Lord hands over the goods, the fruits of His cross, His true Body under the bread, His true Blood under the wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. When you eat and drink this Supper, you eat and drink Jesus Christ. By it, He forgives your sins, and gives you eternal life, in Communion with Him, and with the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus.
“May God bestow on us His grace and favor That we follow Christ our Savior And live together here in love and union Nor despise this blest Communion! O Lord, have mercy! Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us; Grant that heav’nly minded He make us; Give Thy Church, Lord, to see Days of peace and unity: O Lord, have mercy!” (LSB 617:3). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme for this sermon is from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).