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Names for the Lord’s Supper: The Sacrament of the Altar
Midweek in the Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 5, 2017
It is fitting that we conclude our look at the names for the Lord’s Supper with The Sacrament of the Altar. This is the name used for the Sixth Chief Part of the Catechism, the first being the Ten Commandments, the second the Creed, then the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession, and finally The Sacrament of the Altar. The place of Baptism is the font. The place of the Lord’s Supper is the altar. While we think of an alar as the place where offerings are brought forward, prayers are offered up, and certainly, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, an altar has a much more unpleasant use as well. It is the place where sacrifices are offered. Why is it that we still use an altar since we no longer offer bloody sacrifices?
To answer that, we first ought to look at the first term in the name The Sacrament of the Altar, Sacrament. As we ponder in Lent the passion of our Lord we see the profound nature of Sacrament. If sacrifice is something we offer to God, Sacrament is what God offers to us. And nowhere is this more seen than in the passion of our Lord, His suffering and death on the cross. It is pure gift. It is completely grace. It is sacrament.
The Catechism asks, “What is The Sacrament of the Altar?” and answers, “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” This tells us what it is and why it is a Sacrament. This word is not in the Bible. The weight of it however is entirely Biblical, in the same way that the term Trinity is, which also is not found in the Bible.
First and foremost, a Sacrament is not what many Christians think of it as—an ordinance—an act of obedience in response to God’s command. A Sacrament is a gift from the Lord and the Lord Himself is the Divine giver and performer of the action.
The word is a translation of the Latin word sacramentum which is a translation of the term in the New Testament, musterion, where we get our word mystery from. 1Timothy 3 says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.”
What is the Biblical content of musterion? The answer is simply, Jesus. He is the mystery. The way the Bible uses the word mystery is that it is not something you can figure out using your reason and intellect. It is something God has to reveal, to show you. But the nature of the mystery is that He shows it in a way that it is still hidden. You still don’t see it. It is made known by what it said about it. It remains mystery even as it is revealed to us.
In Mark 4 Jesus is teaching with parables and says to His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the Kingdom.” What is the key to unlocking the parables? Jesus. Jesus is the mystery. He is the Sacrament. Luther said that there is only one Sacrament and His name is Jesus and He exists under a number of Sacramental signs. The word sign is thoroughly Biblical. For example, the rainbow God sent after the flood He said was a sign. He gave the sign and attached a promise to it, He would never again destroy the earth with a flood.
Over time the word sacrament began to be understood as a sign in this way: as symbol of an absent reality. What is present reminds you of what is absent. But in the Sacrament Jesus has attached His word to the things that are present, namely, bread and wine, and His word says that His body and blood are truly present. The bread and wine show you the location of the thing present God is giving you.
In 1Corinthians 4 Paul says of himself and the other apostles, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Those our Lord has called to carry out the ministry of grace are stewards of the mysteries and those mysteries are given in the Sacraments.
Nowhere is the nature of God’s sacramental action and presence more profound than in this meal of the Lord’s body and blood. The real presence of His very body and His very blood in the Sacrament of the Altar is not only the place where our Lord is at work, as He is in Baptism, as He is in Absolution, as He is in preaching, it also is the place where He is. This is My body, this is My blood. Jesus the priest becomes the sacrifice. The sacrifice is given us to eat and to drink.
It is this sacrifice offered to us that leads us to the second term in the Sacrament of the Altar, which is altar. An altar is a place where something is killed. It is a place where something is offered to God. Sacrifice is at the heart of every other religion. The idea that humanity has something to offer deity is the very nature of altar. When we look at history, we see that the altar is a place where there is a lot of blood, as animals, and in some religions even humans, are killed and offered to the gods people worship.
In Matthew 23 Jesus says, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
This is the opposite of the way we normally think about what’s going on at an altar. We consider the gift sacred and the altar simply as the place where that sacred gift is offered. But Jesus is saying that the gift is nothing, it is the altar that makes the gift sacred. To Jesus the altar is sacred, and therefore, it sanctifies what is on that altar. This is because the altar is the place that has been set apart by God to be the place where sacrifices would be offered up.
Paul says in 1Corinthians 9, “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?” He goes on to make the point that those who serve in the Gospel ministry ought to make their living by that Gospel ministry. But the point here is how Paul sees no divide between the Levitical/sacrificial ministry of the Old Testament and the New Testament Gospel ministry. Whereas the altar had been used for offering up sacrifices it is now used to offer to the people of God Christ Himself.
So then in 1Corinthians 10 Paul goes on to say, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” You eat the sacrifice, you partake of the altar! In the Old Testament it’s all part for part. You have communion with God by taking part of the sacrifice and giving it to God, it’s burned up. But part of the sacrifice you take from the altar and you eat. And as you eat the sacrifice you have participation in the sacrifice, in the altar, and so you have communion with God. The New Testament always ups it and goes one better. On the altar of the cross, the only true altar, Jesus gives Himself wholly to the Father so that on the alar of the Church He can give Himself wholly to you and so that you have can have communion with Him.
Paul then says, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” Paul has a clear delineation here between Church and everything that is not Church. And the mark of the Church is this Table, this Altar, where the sacrifice is truly present, the body and the blood. Both fully given by God in Christ and now both fully given to us.
The author of Hebrews says in chapter 13, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
This is the Sacrament of the Altar in one paragraph. The saints who have gone before us, Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the altar on which is offered to us the sacrifice of Christ so that we may have a lasting city, eternal life, and the reason our lives are continual eucharistic sacrifice of thanks, praise, and service to one another, sharing with them what we have which is really what our Lord has given to us.
Thus we see in Revelation 11, “Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, ‘Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there.’” The Church doesn’t have many altars, it has one altar. The Church is one and always gathers around the one altar. That one altar is always the cross. The Sacrament of the Altar that is offered at the altars in our churches is the Sacrament of the Altar, the Sacrament of the Cross, where Christ gave Himself wholly to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins and then gives Himself wholly to us.
Finally, in Revelation 16, we have the altar speaking! “And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are Your judgments!’” Truly at the altar of the cross we hear the true verdict of God upon sin and the answer for sin. Here is the gift of divine life given at the cross. We were not there when Jesus was crucified. But the Jesus who was crucified is there at the altar, given, for you. Amen.