Maundy Thursday.18 “Two Views of the Supper” Mark 14:12-26
There are two views of the Lord’s Supper, widely held in Christendom today. The first view is supernatural and sees that the Lord’s Word makes the bread His very Body and the wine His very blood for us Christians to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sin, for our eternal life and salvation. This Supper began in the (borrowed) upper room in Jerusalem around April 6, 30 AD. But it is the true “moveable feast” and continues wherever two or three gather together in Jesus’ Name, and invoke His Words of Institution over the consecrated bread and wine, thereby pulling up a chair themselves to the Table that was set in the Upper Room and receiving the very Body and Blood of Christ ourselves (by mouth!) and thus receiving unconditional forgiveness of all our sin, life, and eternal salvation in Jesus’ Name. This is the view of the evangelical-catholic Church also known as “Lutheran”. Variations of this view, some quite significant, are held by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican churches.
The second view of the Lord’s Supper is historical and sees the Lord’s Supper as an important event in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth a prophet in Israel active anywhere from 26-33 AD, who some think might have been the Son of God. This view acknowledges there is good (though not indisputable) evidence that after a Jewish Seder Supper in old Jerusalem on Thursday (or Friday morning, depending on when your day starts) between 30 and 33 AD, 3rd and final year of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus took some bread and wine and said “This is my body and this is my blood of the new covenant” to which he connects forgiveness of sins in some way. Most of those taking this historical-rational view will see this as an important symbolic event for the Christian Church, demonstrating Jesus’ premonition that He’d be crucified and killed and that He conceived this in some way as a sacrifice for our sins. Of course, since it is impossible, rationally and scientifically, for a human body to be present in two quite different places and manners at the same time, they view it as a purely symbolic event. And if they observe it still today, it is in the manner of a chancel drama, or a passion play—just re-enacting some historical scenes to inspire us to emulate the example of the (sadly!) now absent Jesus, who is (hopefully!) up in heaven (whatever that means!) and might well show up again, somehow, someday. This is the view of “Protestant” churches of the world, variations of which are held by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, nondenoms (which has become its own denomination, ironically) and the majority of Anglicans.
It might interest you to know that those who hold the second view are the ones who came up with our current Maundy Thursday services. Because they viewed the Supper purely as a symbol with no actual divine, supernatural bodily presence of Jesus, they saw value in re-enacting it only at certain times, and Holy Week, Thursday evening when it first happened being the most opportune of those times. The old catholic, orthodox, Lutheran churches would celebrate Holy Week with the service of the Three Days, starting around noon on Good Friday, continuing with a Saturday evening vigil, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper Easter Sunday as the culmination of the Feast—because for them this isn’t mere history, and we are not Christian re-enactors. We are participants here and now in the Great Feast of salvation, and that is always the grand finale of Christian worship and so should be the last and great part of our Easter celebration.
So, awkward, I guess, a little bit that we’re here this evening. But Jesus says wherever 2 or 3 gather together in His Name He’s present with all His gifts, which is always all good. But still, I think it is worth some reflection on why we do what we do. Because the two views are not compatible in any way. One of them is right and one of them is wrong. There is no melding or middle way here. One must take a stand with one or the other.
After years of study, I realized my feet were planted firmly with Luther on the Word and the practice of the evangelical-catholic Church. Not by my choice, or as a result of my studies, but because the Holy Spirit, through Word and Sacrament, had brought me to this place. I can do no other. Here, God will help me. Amen. [to quote Dr. Luther’s famous words at Worms].
Hermann Sasse’s famous teacher Karl Holl, the great German church historian used to insist that the various theological and liturgical novelties the Missouri Synod had introduced (and there are more than you might realize!) could all be traced to Calvinism—one those things being the Maundy Thursday services in the Reformed rather than Lutheran fashion. Sasse thought Holl went a little far with the LCMS as closet Calvinist thing, but it can’t all be dismissed entirely. Where there’s smoke… or uh, where there is the absence of the smoke of the incense the early church usually used, maybe there’s some Calvinist fire, to mix my metaphors thoroughly?
I grew up in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 4th generation apparently. I went to LCMS grade school K-8 and graduated from a Lutheran University. And I learned growing up that there were certain things that were simply unthinkable—that a Missouri Synod Lutheran could ever mess up the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, for Christ’s sake! Or the liturgy, or the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, what it is and how it’s properly celebrated.
But I wonder if this isn’t Pharisaical hubris on our part? When I went to an ecumenical div school after college, I was surprised to find lots of things the old Lutherans did that we’d broomed or changed in the LCMS. And doing my year of penance at Concordia St. Louis (for getting an M.Div elsewhere) I noticed that “we’ve always done it that way” was the standard answer for awkward questions like “what happened to the Easter Vigil?” or “why do we worship more like Calvinists than old Lutherans?” which troubled me greatly.
The assumption that because we’re LCMS we just can’t be wrong on the big things has led to a lot of very bizarre worship forms and ideas of the church’s mission—things Luther would be appalled at. Lent is a season of repentance and we all have a lot to repent of(!) myself included. And maybe this is a good place to start that mind-change, that repentance: Jesus is betrayed not by an outsider from the ELCA or Episcopal Church but by one of the 12, a lifelong LCMS guy! And Jesus has some harsh things to say about those to whom much is given and then throw it all away.
If Judas can betray Jesus, is it so certain you and I cannot?! If Peter can deny and David fall away, why not you and me, huh? The Lord’s Supper is a wild, weird, divine Mystery. We can never understand it! We can so easily have the wrong view of it. We can turn it into a work we do, a sacrifice we offer, a little chancel drama we re-enact to show our good faith and smarts.
Or… or: we can kneel and beat our chest and say “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” We can say “is it I, Lord?” and mean it. We can start on our knees remembering all the ways we get Jesus wrong, and plead with Augustine: “Command what You will and make me love what You command” and come on our knees, empty hearts, open hands to receive what He is pleased to give: His very Body, His very Blood, here now, for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.