The Second Sacrament of the New Testament
We have two sacraments, baptism and communion. Both have been given to strengthen our weak faith and support us in our endeavor of faith. Baptism happens but once. If someone falls away from the baptismal covenant and goes into the world, he does not need to be baptized again when he receives the grace of return and repentance.
Communion on the other hand is intended to be enjoyed often. In establishing communion Jesus said: "For, as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26).
Communion was part of the life of the New Testament congregations from their beginning. Luke depicts the life in the early congregation after the first Pentecost in this way: "And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). In the beginning they gathered every day to a meal, then on only the first day of the week, and later less often. We cannot place guidelines on how often one should partake of it, but the words "as often" stress the great significance of communion.
Luther teaches: "Christ wants to clearly say: 'I instituted for you an Easter festival or supper, of which you are to partake, not just on this evening once a year, but you shall enjoy it frequently, when and where you choose, according to the opportunity and need of each one, and being bound to no definite place or time.' Thus you see no liberty is granted to treat the sacrament with contempt. To dispense without positive hindrance for a long time to feel no desire for it—that I call treating the Lord's Supper with contempt" (Luther's Large Catechism 47–49).
The Old Testament Passover and Communion
The children of Israel were preparing to leave Egypt to that land, which the Lord had promised to their fathers. Before their departure they ate the Passover meal following the directions of the Lord (Exod. 12).
An unblemished yearling lamb was killed and roasted with fire. The lamb's blood was brushed on the doorposts, for when the Israelites were eating their Passover meal, the Lord punished the Egyptians, smiting all of their firstborn. When the destroyer saw the marks of blood on the doorposts, it went by. Prepared to journey, the people ate the paschal lamb, and as the meal ended they departed for the journey.
No stranger could eat of the paschal lamb. This meal was not only eaten on that historical night of departure, but the Lord commanded that the Passover meal be eaten every year after they reached the promised land. "And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons forever. And it shall come to pass, when ye be come into the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, what mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, it is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who has passed over the houses of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians and delivered our houses" (Exod. 12:24–27).
When Jesus came to Jerusalem with His disciples for the Passover feast at the time when He would suffer and die, they ate the Passover meal as the Lord had ordained it. Jesus gave the Old Testament meal a new significance. He was the paschal lamb. His blood, which was shed for the forgiveness of sins, made the destroyer withdraw. He was the bread of life (John 6:55). The Lord Jesus' Word united with the meal's visible components, the bread and wine, and the new covenant sacrament was born.
The part in the Gospel of John (6:51) does not as such speak of communion. Luther has written a note on the margins of his own Bible "this part does not speak of the sacrament, the bread and wine but of spiritual eating, which is believing, that Christ—God and man—has shed his blood for us."
The New Testament's synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26:19–21, 25–29, Mark 14:22–24, Luke 22:14–20) consistently tell of the institution of communion. The differences in detail emphasize the significance of the different parts in communion. John does not relate of communion being established but in its place the washing of feet which preceded it (John 13:1–17). Paul speaks of Christ as the paschal lamb who was sacrificed in our stead (1 Cor. 5:7) and the New testament communion (1 Cor. 10,11), as do Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In addition he exhorts the Corinthians to try themselves, that they would be acceptable, not unacceptable communion guests.
Communion is a meal of Remembrance
In relating of the institution of communion, both Luke and Paul mention that Jesus said: "Do it in remembrance of me." In eating the Old Testament Passover meal, the children of Israel remembered being freed from Egypt. At communion we remember Christ, our paschal lamb, who gave His life and shed His blood for our sins and the sins of the entire world. As believers we can eat the body of Christ and drink His blood at communion, thus being partakers of His atonement work. Although we do not completely understand the mystery of communion, we, nevertheless, feel the presence of Christ and His grace power at the communion table. Communion strengthens our faith and draws our gaze to that land, which the Lord Jesus has promised and prepared for His own.
Who Is an Acceptable Communion Guest?
This was asked last fall, when at a youth evening in Vaasa we discussed the sacraments. No wonder, for communion is holy, and the Word of God exhorts us to try ourselves, that we would not be unworthy communion guests, who enjoy the sacrament of the altar to their own condemnation. The small catechism answers the question thus: "But he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: 'given and shed for you, for the remission of sins.' But he who does not believe these words, or who doubts, is unworthy and unfit, because the words, 'for you' require truly believing hearts." Luther briefly confirms this in the large catechism: "But he who does not believe has nothing" (V:35). In considering the question of acceptability he separates from each other those, who are hardened and partake of communion and think that as a committed deed it brings a blessing, and those who understand the meaning and value of communion but are fearful, feeling their own sinfulness and unacceptability before God's holiness. To these latter ones Luther says: "People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness" (V:61).
Believers feel holy timidness going to communion. They beg for forgiveness from each other. In homes, parents ask for forgiveness from each other and their children, when they have hurt and offended others, likewise children ask of their parents and each other. I have also noticed that in the communion line at large summer services many take matters to a confessor father. We are guided to this usage by John's narrative that before the first communion Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (John 13), and by the teachings of Jesus: "Therefore if thou bring they gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him" (Matt. 5:23–25).
Juhani Uljas
Translated from Siionin Lähetyslehti no.9, 1997