In Part Five of his Small Catechism, Martin Luther teaches us about the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Luther repeats some of the same concepts he taught in Part Four on the Sacrament of Baptism. He asks of each, ‘what benefits do we receive,’ and in both he replies, ‘the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.’ He asks of each sacrament: how can mere water, or, how can mere bread and wine do such great things; and in both sections he replies that it is not the water, bread or wine alone that does such great things, but the Word of God connected to that earthly element and our faith in that Word of God. And in both sections Luther has harsh words for those who think they do not need such seemingly meaningless rituals. To such people he says, “Who are you, little man, or little woman, to despise what God in his love offers you and in His Word so clearly commands of you?” Both sacraments, Luther said, were commanded by Christ himself, and if anyone wants to forget about Baptism and Holy Communion, they may forget about Christ as well.
In both sacraments we receive the promises of God as offered and commanded by Christ; and in both, that command and promise is connected to some earthly elements– water, bread, and wine. The who, what, why, and where of the two sacraments are thus pretty much the same. The only real difference is in the WHEN and HOW OFTEN. Baptism comes only once, and it comes at the very beginning of the Christian life. For some, this is in infancy, brought by the parents who make a promise to bring up the child in the faith. For others, Baptism comes when, as adults, they make conscious decision to become a Christian. But for both, Baptism is a one time event in which they receive God’s promise that he will be their God and they will be His child forever.
In Holy Communion that promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation is repeated again and again throughout the person’s life. But why, if we have already received an eternal promise, do we have to go and receive that same promise over and over again? Well, Luther would say, you are thinking too much. Is it so hard just to do as you are told? If God had told you to go on a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, crawling on your hands and knees all the way, you would have to try and do that, if doing so was the only way you could gain eternal life. But what God commands here is simple and easy. While you are at church remembering the Sabbath Day anyway, at the announced time, get up out of your seat, walk to the front, and get a little wafer of bread, and a little sip of wine, and the Bible says, you will receive the forgiveness of sins, nourishment for your soul, and the gift of eternal life. God makes it so easy, says Luther– yet some people want to argue the point. Yes, you receive everything in Baptism, but also yes, Jesus commands that you eat the bread and drink the wine, his own body and blood, he says, in remembrance of his suffering and death for you. To say ‘no’ is to disobey a direct command of Jesus Christ who said, “Do this as often as you eat, or drink, of this, in remembrance of me.”
Therefore, since the nature of the blessings and the commands of the two sacraments are so similar, Luther spends much of the time in the Large Catechism talking about the one big difference– the ‘when,’ or the ‘how often’ question. This is how Luther addresses this question (paraphrased):
Now that we have a proper understanding of this sacrament, there is a great need of a strong admonition, so that such a great treasure may not be heedlessly passed by. What I mean is that those who claim to be Christians should receive this blessed sacrament on a regular basis. For we see that many are becoming listless and lazy about its observance. A lot of people who have now heard the Gospel of God’s free gift of forgiveness, and have been freed from the burden and oppression of the Law, will now let a year, or two, or three, or even more years pass by without receiving the sacrament, as if they were such strong Christians that they have no need of it. Some believe they should go only if they feel like going. Some think now that all they have to do is believe and from then on not do a single thing of any sort. Is this all they have learned from the preaching of the Gospel, that they can be so smart and confident that they can despise both the sacrament and the Word of God? In all this, the devil wins a great victory. He is always setting himself against every Christian activity, hounding and driving people away from the true faith in every way that he can. Here he even twists the Gospel itself into a tool which he uses to lead people away from God. Do not let yourself be deceived. Rather, listen to and obey the clear words of Christ, ‘DO THIS in remembrance of me.’ There should be no reason to compel anyone to come to the sacrament, and I will not do that; but all should want to freely obey and please our Lord Jesus Christ. You may examine yourself in light of this commandment and say to yourself, ‘If I am a Christian at all, I should have at least a little longing every once in a while to do what my Lord wants me to do.’
It is certainly true, as I have found in my own experience, and as everyone will find in his own case, that if a person stays away from the sacrament, day by day he will become more hardened against and his faith will grow cold, and eventually, he will spurn it all together. To avoid this we must examine our heart and conscience and act like a person who really desires to be right with God. The more we do this, the more will our heart be warmed and kindled and our faith will not grow cold and dead.
Finally, Luther speaks to those who may stay away from communion because they feel they are unfit. For this problem, he has a great deal of compassion, and simply points to the fact that all who come to communion come precisely because they are unfit and unworthy, and it is Christ who receives us and welcomes us and forgives us, and thereby makes us worthy. So come as you are, it is the Lord Himself who has invited you.
1 Corinthians 11:23-25 — 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.”
Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life. Enable us to receive him always with thanksgiving, and to conform our lives to his; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen —Lutheran Book of Worship