Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The saying goes: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Experienced aviators don’t leave much to chance. They prepare carefully, often using a “pre-flight” check list. Before taking off, or even starting the engines, they’ll go over everything—all the control surfaces, the fuel volume and pressure, even that there aren’t any loose objects in the cockpit that might bounce around during the flight. Before landing, they’ll use another checklist. They continually check the gauges and lights and switches.
Why do people with so much experience need to check everything so thoroughly each time? It’s because if you miss something, it might cost you your life. Once you are speeding down the runway or high in the air, you don’t want to realize that you have forgotten something important. So every good pilot, no matter how experienced, goes over a checklist for takeoffs and landings.
In the Epistle lesson from one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth, God gives us inspired guidance to prepare for the Lord’s Supper. We could say it is a “pre-communion” checklist. It doesn’t matter if we have come to the Lord’s Table for one year or sixty years—or even if we are still preparing to come for the first time. Each of us is in equal need of preparation so that we are blessed by our eating and drinking, and not harmed by being improperly prepared.
A checklist for receiving the Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be complicated. But it is very important. God’s instructions—that it is sinful to receive Jesus’ body and blood in an unworthy manner—is the reason we ask those who do not share our understanding of Holy Communion to refrain from receiving it until they are properly instructed and have been included in our fellowship. They are to agree with what is taught and confessed about the Lord’s Supper and many other things about God. Closed communion isn’t about excluding anyone; it’s about protecting them!
It’s also important for us to continually answer the question:
AM I PREPARED FOR THE LORD’S SUPPER?
As Lutheran Christians, we let God’s Word interpret itself. We look at the context in which a prophecy or command is given. Among the many problems facing the Christians at Corinth, Paul had to address their reception of the Lord’s Supper. They had become careless in the way they received Holy Communion. They had forgotten what Paul had taught them. So he went over what Jesus had said. He reviewed the purpose and the content of this sacramental eating and drinking.
On this Maundy Thursday, we have a special opportunity to recall Jesus’ own words about His supper. Our liturgy—especially the Preface and the Words of Institution—also helps us to review the purpose and content of the eating and drinking. Before we come to His table, we must answer the question, “Am I prepared for the Lord’s Supper?” Under that question, these verses from 1st Corinthians direct us to three thoughts. First: Do I have faith in Jesus’ words? Second: Do I remember what Jesus has done? Third: Do I recognize what I will receive?
The first thing Paul did in his attempt to get the Corinthians to consider how they prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper was to take them back to Jesus’ own words. “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Did the Corinthians have faith in those words of Jesus? Did they believe that Jesus’ body was given into death for them? Did they trust that His blood sealed God’s covenant with them? If they did, they would be blessed by their eating and drinking. Jesus’ body and blood would work for the forgiveness of their sins, and strengthen their faith that their sins were indeed forgiven. If they didn’t believe His words, the Lord’s Supper would not be a blessing to them.
All those who commune must ask themselves if they have faith in Jesus’ words. Every time we receive the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the words of institution Jesus spoke. But perhaps our ears have become deaf to what they say. Do we hear Jesus say “for you,” and for the “forgiveness of your sins”? Or do we just go through the motions—chomping and chewing, sipping and swallowing? Is it enough just to believe in general that there is forgiveness of sins? No, we can’t disregard how God has chosen to deliver it. Is it really necessary to believe that there is forgiveness of your sins in the Sacrament? Yes, because Jesus said there is. Each time we eat and drink as Christ commanded, then, we must ask if we have such faith in Jesus’ words.
Picture it this way. You are in a burning building. All the exits are blocked by fire. On the street below are firefighters, holding a safety net. The fire chief tells you they will catch you if you jump. To escape death in the fire, you must trust the net and those holding it, based on the promises of the chief.
So in the Lord’s Supper you must trust the precious words of Jesus. He said, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Through faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit we are able to say, “Yes, I believe that the body and blood I receive in communion with the bread and wine are for me and for the forgiveness of my sins.”
After addressing a communicant’s faith in Jesus’ words, Paul focuses on the second purpose of Communion. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Following Jesus’ own words, “do this in remembrance of me,” Paul called on the Corinthians to consider what they were doing when they ate the bread and drank from the cup. Did they remember what Jesus had done?
For that matter, do we remember what Jesus has done for us through His suffering and death? Do we recall His innocent life given as payment for our sins?
When Jesus first instituted Holy Communion, He had gathered with His disciples for the Passover meal, remembering when the Jews were in bondage in Egypt. Through Moses, God warned Pharaoh to let His people go, but Pharaoh refused. So God sent death upon the land of Egypt. Miraculously, this death passed over the Jews who had trusted God’s Word and smeared the blood of an unblemished lamb on the door frames of their houses. God then commanded His people to remember what He had done by regularly eating a special meal similar to that first Passover. In that way they would remember and proclaim to each generation the greatness of God’s salvation.
For the same reason, Jesus commanded His disciples to frequently gather for the meal of the new covenant. They would remember what He had done and proclaim it—to each other, to their children, and to the world.
The Greek word the Holy Spirit had Paul use in these verses is very revealing. One theological dictionary defines it as “an act done in order to remember.” In other words, Jesus told us to participate in Communion for the purpose of remembering what He has done for us. We do what Jesus commanded in order to remember what He has done for us.
Before we come to the Lord’s Supper, let’s consider it carefully. Do we remember what Jesus has done for us? Do we trust Him as our sacrificial substitute—the sinless Lamb who died in our place so death would pass over us? When we are led by the Holy Spirit to remember all that Jesus has done, we are prepared for the Lord’s Supper. We are then able to eat and drink for the good purposes He intended.
The last item on the spiritual checklist focuses on what we receive when we eat the bread and drink the cup. Many of the Christians at Corinth weren’t being blessed in their communing because they didn’t recognize what they were eating and drinking. “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
A pilot who skips the checklist and forgets to put down the landing gear is in for a rough and dangerous landing. In a similar way, someone who communes without recognizing what is being received puts himself or herself in grave spiritual danger. So again we are led back to our question, “Am I prepared for the Lord’s Supper?” The apostle would have us answer that by asking if we recognize what we receive in the Lord’s Supper.
Once again it is helpful if we look at the context of these words. In the chapter before today’s lesson, Paul asked the Christians at Corinth, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” Paul knew the answers. In fact, Paul used words that were expecting “yes” answers. A person who communes receives the body and blood of Christ in communion with the bread and wine. The real bodily presence of Jesus with the bread and wine make the Sacrament the blessed meal that it is. A believer can taste and see that he or she is forgiven.
But how is this possible? How can we receive the glorified body of our risen Savior with a bite of bread and a sip of wine? We aren’t told how, and it’s arrogant to demand that God satisfy our curiosity. And our puny minds could not understand it even if we were told.
In the Lord’s Supper a miraculous mystery occurs. Faith trusts Jesus’ words; unbelief doubts them, rejects them, or tries to explain them in an intellectually-acceptable way.
It would be a tragedy to reject this teaching just because we can’t understand it. We don’t let our lack of comprehension prevent us from receiving the benefit of other things in life. Why let it happen with the Sacrament? How many of you really understand how a car works? Most people probably don’t. Does that prevent you from receiving the benefits a car provides? No. Can you explain what electricity is? Can you explain how electrical current runs through wires for miles and miles? Can you explain how it gives us light, or heat, or power? Just what is electricity anyway? Very few people can really explain it. But all of us enjoy its benefits. It would be foolish to say, “I don’t believe in electricity because I can’t explain it. So I won’t use it.” The same can be applied to the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s carry that illustration one step farther. How about the wires that bring us electricity? When the switch is turned on, do the wires change into electricity, so that they are no longer wires, but only look like wires? No, the wires are still wires. Do those wires represent or symbolize electricity? No. Is electricity actually being delivered through them? Of course there is. In a similar way: in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper we receive Christ’s body and blood.
Am I prepared for the Lord’s Supper? I am if I recognize what I will receive when I commune. At the powerful word of our Savior, we receive His body and blood with the bread and wine that we eat and drink.
A good pilot goes over a checklist because it’s serious business. Forgetting something could be deadly. Once the checklist has been completed the pilot can proceed confidently.
These words from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians serve as our checklist for communion. We have asked the question, “Am I prepared for the Lord’s Supper?” Under that question we have asked, “Do I have faith in Jesus’ words? Do I remember what Jesus has done? Do I recognize what I will receive?” The Holy Spirit enables us to answer those three questions. Yes, I believe Jesus’ words. He says that His body and blood is “for me.” It assures me that my sins are forgiven. Yes, I remember what Jesus has done. I remember what His death means, and I proclaim it. Yes, I recognize what I will receive. Together with the bread and wine, I receive Christ’s body and blood. With those answers we can answer the bigger question. “Am I prepared for the Lord’s Supper?” Yes, in spite of my sins and my unworthiness, Jesus prepares me; Jesus serves me, and I give thanks. Amen.