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Names for the Lord’s Supper: Holy Communion

Midweek in the Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2017

1Corinthians 10:16–17

In Lent we meditate on the Passion of our Lord. The suffering and death of Christ was a gift brought about by one, Christ, for all. There was no joint effort by sinful humankind to atone for sin. All joint efforts at attaining glory have failed miserably, the Tower of Babel a notable example.

No, the atonement for sin was accomplished by one who suffered and died. The forgiveness He won was inseparably connected with the Breaking of Bread the night before. In giving this bread He was giving Himself. One of the other names of the this gift is the Mass. While this term originally referred to the blessing at the end of the worship service, it came to refer to this great blessing of the gift of Jesus in His sacred meal. Likewise, while the Eucharist is a term simply meaning giving thanks, it came to be associated with the Lord’s Supper as our Lord Himself took the bread and gave thanks and gave it to the disciples. One of the ways the Scriptures refer to this profound gift is to call it the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, it is not from us, it is from Him, just as the gift of salvation secured on the cross was not from us but from Him alone.

This gift, this blessing, this sacred Meal, is a blessing in another way as well. It is a Communion. It does not simply forgive us, although that would be profound in itself. It also brings us into communion with God and with each other.

Further, it is not simply a communion, but a holy communion. And thus the term Holy Communion. The communion that is the Supper of our Lord is a holy communion. As a name for the Lord’s Supper is it merely a label, or is it actually confessing something about what we are receiving?

In Isaiah 6 there is the picture of the prophet Isaiah in the temple. He stands before God and he sees that God is the holy God. The angels declare it: Holy, holy, holy. This is who He is. Further, He demands of us, You shall be holy. But we can’t produce it. The only way it can be received is if God gives it to us. The whole point of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament is not what the people gave to God but that God arranged a way of sharing His holiness with them. He says to them time and time again, “I don’t need your animals. I don’t eat them. There is nothing you can offer Me that I need.” The sacrifices were for the people. It was always part for part—part for God, part for them. The stuff that went to God was burned up. The part that went to them was eaten. By eating it they shared in the holiness of God. He made them holy by the gift He gave them.

In the New Testament Jesus gives Himself wholly to us, His life for ours. In the Holy Communion He gives Himself wholly to everyone who eats and drinks. Holiness is not something you can come up with, it’s only something you can receive as a gift from the Lord.

This is the bodily presence of God’s holiness. In the Old Testament it was in the Holy of Holies. God’s holiness was located there. The glory of God dwelt there and it was extended to the people through the sacrifices, this gift of God’s holiness. In Revelation the dimensions of the heavenly temple, a perfect cube, find their parallel in the Holy of Holies, in which God plants His holiness down on earth. In the Holy Communion Jesus plants God’s holiness here on earth and He shares it with us in this Sacrament.

There is only one person who has lived in an unbroken yes to the Father. His holiness then is the only holiness that is truly whole. He coms to transform everything about life. He is the holy one. We therefore are holy. We live holy lives. We will only stand in the presence of God in holiness, complete holiness.

Paul speaks of this holiness in 2Corinthians 6 and 7: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make My dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me, says the Lord Almighty.’ Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” We are God’s holy people, the temple of God. We cannot worship other gods and then join in here. Paul is saying, let His holiness transform your life.

In 1Corinthians 10 Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.” Idolatry is trying to squeeze divine life out of the stuff of this world, the things God has not put His life, divine life, into. Paul goes on, “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.”

The Greek word for participation in or sharing in is koinonia, often translated fellowship. The primary meaning of Holy Communion—participation in, sharing in, fellowship in—is not the place where you receive the body and blood of Christ, but that this bread participates in the body of Christ. The cup is the sharing in the blood of Christ. When you eat the bread, you are partaking of something where two things are joined in one spot, the bread and the body of Christ. And likewise the cup and the blood of Christ.

What does this mean that we partake of such bread and such wine? In the Preface for the Ascension of our Lord we have the audacity to pray that, because “our Lord, who after His resurrection appeared openly to all His disciples and in their sight was taken up into heaven,” did so “that He might make us partakers of His divine life.” He gives us a share in His life, His glory, His holiness. Only by eating are we sustained. The Son is given us for food. Thus we share in the divine life and have life that has no end.

How is this koinonia used in Scripture? In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used for things that are profane, common. There is a shift in New Testament. John says in his first epistle, chapter 1: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” There is fullness of joy waiting, and it is the result of the communion of the Father with the Son and the Son with us. He came among us in the flesh and comes in the flesh in the Holy Communion.

The union the Father has with the Son is the union we are brought into. The Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father. They are wholly in union. Each one is the delight and joy of the Father. This is what Christ mediates through His Spirit to His people in the means of grace—proclamation, Baptism, Absolution, but above all, Holy Communion. If Baptism puts you into Christ, the Holy Communion puts Christ into you.

And then He is the mediator between us. We are drawn together because Christ stands between us. As Moses and Elijah appeared on the mount of the Transfiguration with Christ between them so we stand before God with Christ between us. The unity we have between us is unity in Christ. If we seek a direct relationship with each other it turns to idolatry. It’s a love that seeks to possess the other. In Christ it is a gift that flows from Him and in the gift that He is He gives us the gift of each other and is what binds us together into a truly Holy Communion.

We sing in the hymn For All the Saints, “Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.” The slightest suffering of one among us is the suffering of us all, because we are one. The individual grains are brought together into one bread, the individual grapes are brought together into one wine. When we come to Communion we are not there by ourselves. It is not just me and Jesus. We are brought together in the Holy Communion. We are brought into communion with the entire Body of Christ. We get to be Christ to each other because we are brought into communion with Him, bearing each other’s faults and burdens, pouring out forgiveness to one another, the forgiveness we have received in Christ for all of our sins.

This is impossible to see. It doesn’t look like a Communion. We need to learn to think and speak of the Church not as she appears but as she truly is, as God declares her to be. Always the object of faith is going to be hidden from sight in this lifetime. That is the nature of this life, in our fallenness. But the holiness of the Church is not imaginary or only a future reality. The holiness of the Church is present, but hidden. Just as the body and blood of Christ cannot be seen in the Lord’s Supper so the Church as the Body of Christ cannot be seen with your eyes by looking around in the world. What binds us together is the faith the Holy Spirit alone works in us which binds sinners’ hearts to the Savior in saving faith. That can’t be seen. It will only be seen on the Last Day. That’s why John says in his first epistle, “The world does not know us. The reason it does not know us is because it did not know Him. But when He appears we will be like Him and we will see Him as He is.” Then the truth of the Church will be seen.

In Acts 2:42 the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the koinonia/breaking of bread, and the prayers. Because of sharing in Jesus their lives now were devoted to one another. The author of Hebrews says in chapter 13, “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.” No longer are animals sacrificed, but our Lord who was sacrificed is given to us to eat. It goes on to say, “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.”

In Acts 2 we see them devoted to each other because of this. Because they had everything in Jesus they were free to share their possessions with others. Holy Communion is a term for the Lord’s Supper that captures the whole life of the Church. The Church herself is the gift of Holy Communion to the world. It is the gift of having the saving presence of God come to us with grace, with mercy, with forgiveness to transform us so that we become one with each other. All the unity of nations people seek is for naught. The Bible says the nations seek in vain. There is no place unity is found except for the Church of Jesus Christ. People of all races, nationalities, ethnicities, cultures are joined together as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, all receiving this same gift, the gift of our holy God who communes with us and the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Amen.


Pastor Paul L. Willweber

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, San Diego, California