As st. John opens his record of Our Lord’s last three days, he opens it with one of the most beautiful and profound statements the Holy Spirit inspired. “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” This statement summarizes everything that will follow—the foot washing, the institution of the Supper, the final time of instruction, His high priestly prayer for His disciples and all Christians, His patience and willing endurance through trials and mockery and beating, and finally His triumphant death to reconcile all to the Father. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”
As much as that is a historical statement spoken about the Twelve, it is a present statement as well. It’s an internal thought of Jesus about us sitting here in Dorr, Michigan, some two thousand years and six thousand miles removed from the original writing of those words. What St. John records is that what unfolded in the last three days of Jesus’ life He did for all people of all time. These are comforting words for us who sit here this evening who are filled with so many different emotions, affected by any number of joys or sorrows. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” What comfort this gives to us as we stare death in the face, as we mourn, as we battle illness, as we lament our broken family, as we stare into the abyss of depression, as we rejoice in a promotion, as we celebrate the nearing end of the school year, as we wonder what this summer or next year will hold. Jesus loves you, His dear child who is in this world and surrounded by so many things, and He loves you to the end.
And how perfect this sentence is for the night when the Church commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper! We hear that He loves us to the end, that He upholds and defends and preserves us to the end, and then we receive the very means by which He does this! This is why the Lord’s Supper is just what the Church does. For two thousand years the Lord’s Supper is the primary reason the Faithful have gathered. In sorrow, in persecution, in schism—we eat and drink Christ. In joy, in thanksgiving, in peace—we eat and drink Christ. We hear those words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” and we receive all that we need to know that Our Lord is with us to forgive us, to strengthen us, to give us bold courage to go forward; to celebrate with us, to perfect our joy, to be in our midst.
When Jesus institutes this Sacrament, He gives it to disciples who have no comprehension of what was to come. Yes, they heard His Words, His declaration that He would be betrayed, shamefully treated, and crucified, but that He would rise on the third day. But this didn’t make sense to them. They couldn’t comprehend it. They had the head knowledge, but it didn’t mean anything. Jesus gave this meal to friends who run away at the first sign of trouble, who would deny even knowing Him, who would lock themselves away in fear for their lives, who would deny that Jesus could possibly be alive. All that is to say, He gave this meal to sinners. He gave this meal to men who would do what they do best.
And still today Jesus gives this meal to sinners. Like the disciples, we have no comprehension of what is in our future. We hear Jesus’ Words: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “My grace is sufficient for you.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.” It doesn’t make sense to us. We can’t comprehend it. We have the head knowledge, but it doesn’t always mean anything. We get into the middle of trouble and we think “It would be nice if You were here with me, Jesus.” “It would be nice if You would fix this mess I’m in.” “I wish the joy and success you gave me the other day would still be with me today.” We doubt and we question. We wonder if God really is in control, if all things really work out for our good. All that is to say, Jesus gives this meal still today to sinners, to people who sin and doubt, those things we do best.
But Jesus also gave that meal to men who would go out after Pentecost with boldness. He gave that meal to ten disciples who would give up their very lives for the sake of the Gospel. Through them that meal was given to St. Stephen who was the first to have his blood shed for confessing Christ. That Sacrament has been given to countless martyrs whose bones were broken, whose bodies were consumed by lions and flames. The Body and Blood of Christ has sustained the host of witnesses who have gone before us, living proof that “having loved His own who were in the world,” Jesus loved them and forgave them and sustained them to the end.
And it sustains us as well. The Sacrament is the beating heart of the Christian Church, the source and summit of our spiritual and earthly lives because of what it gives us. In your uncertainty, in your joy, in your anger, in your heartbreak, Christ Jesus comes to you. As an embodiment of His unfathomable love for you, He makes His dwelling in you. He does this to forgive you all your sins, to give you strength for what lies ahead, to be with you to wipe away your tears and to make your hearts brave and your arms strong.
The world doesn’t get it. Just look at all those who scratch their head following the Notre Dame fire. The chaplain of the Paris fire department bravely rushed into the burning cathedral and ran out with what he called the greatest treasure in the building. He didn’t come out with irreplaceable art or musical instruments. He didn’t reach for relics. He didn’t grab furniture or money. He made a line for the Tabernacle, where the Body and Blood of Christ left over from the previous service was stored. He risked his life to get Jesus out of the cathedral. It doesn’t make sense outside of these four walls, but it makes perfect sense for us Christians who know that in ordinary bread and wine comes Christ who is our Joy, our Strength, our Forgiveness, our Life, and our Salvation.
“Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” This meal which you eat, this tiny piece of bread and this sip of wine bring to you healing, reassurance, and peace that the world could never give, but also that the world can never take away from you. In Christ, in what He gives you here is salvation, life, and resurrection from the dead.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.