At the outset of the day, Jesus’ disciples were in sorrow and grief. Their present circumstances were weighing them down, because in their estimation, “the chief priests and rulers delivered him up to death and crucified him.” End of story. The world had won, in spite of all that Jesus had said. Their hopes were shattered, and they were burdened with uncertainty.
This stranger they had met was odd, because he had somehow missed all the goings on of the past four days. But what of it? It was just another moment to rehash the painful details. Where were you when the Redeemer of Israel came to nothing?
To their uncertainty and affliction, this stranger brought clarity. “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Somehow, out of the terrible events, He brought direction and brought to light God’s sovereign plan.
That’s what worship and daily devotions are like for Christians right now. Who can see through all the fear, the uncertainty about the future, what will see us through the months to come? Definitely not the politicians, the news outlets, or even the CDC. Like all of us, they’re human and they are grasping for answers and trying to judge what’s best to do. But when we hear the Lord’s Word, then our heart burn within us. Here, Lord, you enlighten us to know that this is not some strange thing, an out-of-control circumstance, a global disaster beyond Your mighty hand.
Here in the Scriptures we are reminded of all of God’s mighty deeds, from the moment He created heaven and earth, how all of it was once destroyed on account of wickedness, and how God was still able to safeguard His faithful in the ark. In the Scriptures, we hear how the world’s Savior from sin and death was foretold, how through centuries of twists and turns even the cut-off stump of Jesse sprung forth in the womb of Mary and God’s saving work was carried out. Still, even in these days that are darker and more grotesque than any period of history prior, it our Lord’s Word which gives us an unmovable truth upon which to stand: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28)
After this traveler had opened the Scriptures to them, it seemed that they were about to lose him, they impressed upon Him to stay longer: “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Then at the proper time, it was revealed to them that this was no stranger, but the Lord Jesus Himself who abided with them. “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Especially at a time like this, we want the Lord to abide with us, to give us something sure which cannot be taken away by the changes of this world. Yet right now it seems that even the sanctuary of public worship has been trampled upon. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Ps. 122:1) but the governor told me not to, and the real threat of illness deters me. If even corporate worship can be taken from us (for a short time, God willing), then what cannot? These Scriptures are opened to us when Christ is preached, Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, Christ who destroyed the power of death and left an empty shadow, Christ who did overcome the world.
One thing many of us are longing for is the Lord’s Supper. When everything has been forced into the virtual realm, we long for the Lord’s presence which we can see and touch, taste and smell. And as your pastor, there’s nothing I’d rather do than be able to minister to you in the proper way, face to face. What this longing for the Lord’s Supper has led to in some places is the practice of Communion in a person’s home via a live broadcast. This has caused no small debate in the Missouri Synod over what constitutes the Sacrament of the Altar. What are the requirements, the essential elements (bread, wine, word of Jesus, pastor) in order to know that a practice of the Lord’s Supper is efficacious or valid.
You could derive a proof that the Christian Church is always scattered throughout the world—why not in individual homes, and why not even if the service is watched later. You could argue that the Word of God is what makes this bread and this cup the Body and Blood of Christ for us to eat and drink (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16). You could argue that the pastor is only a mouthpiece but the so-called real power is in the believer holding to the Words of Christ.
This could go on and on, and the most unsettling thing is the uncertainty. You have to go through so many mental hoops that this verges on no longer being faith like a child. The Emmaus disciples were not “with Jesus” virtually, or on the other side of a curtain (as in the temple). In the simplest, most obvious sense of the word, they were together and He was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread—the Eucharist.
What this whole question recalls is something that sets Christians of the Lutheran Reformation apart from others. How do you explain the presence of Christ in His Supper? Using philosophy, the Roman church had developed the theory of transubstantiation, that upon the Words of Institution being spoken, the substance of the bread and wine ceased to be, and they became the Body and Blood of Christ, and happened to still look and taste like the bread and wine (accidens). Those of the Reformed movement were convinced that the finite could not contain the infinite (a philosophical tenant), therefore the bread and wine only symbolized an absent Christ, or transported the true believer by the Holy Spirit to feast on Christ in heaven.
Out of the Reformation, only the Lutherans clung to the simple Word of Christ without any philosophical gymnastics: “Take; eat. This is My Body, given for you…Take; drink. This is my Blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’ But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” (Small Catechism, VI, questions 4 & 5)
Of course, these are unusual times, and very few Lutherans can remember a time in their lives when the practice of the Lord’s Supper was affected by events in the world (even during Prohibition, Lutheran churches were granted exceptions to use sacramental wine). But it is not safe for the present circumstance in the world to make us modify our theology.
It’s good for Christians to highly prize the comfort of forgiveness and strength in the Lord’s Supper. In many sister congregations, they have continued to gather in the simplest explanation of the word using workarounds (small, spaced groups; through the car window), respectful of the health directives. We do this because we honor the commands of our Lord—to do this in remembrance of Him as often as we can, and also to honor and obey our rulers, and not hurt our neighbor by spreading disease. I’m not opposed to gathering in small groups, but I would also like as much of the Body of Christ—young and old, healthy and infirm—here at Bethlehem to be able to be present together, which is why we elected for the parking lot method.
The Sacraments are something that require certainty. In Baptism, we return daily to the promise that we and all our sins have been crucified with Christ and He raises us to newness of life (Gal. 2:20, Rom. 6:4). In Absolution, we need to know when our sins trouble us that the forgiveness Christ’s servant speaks is not just a man talking, but the voice of the Lord Himself. So also, in His Supper, the Lord earnestly desires to eat this Passover of the New Testament, this meal in which He is made known to us in the “breaking of the bread.” Because of this, we can have confidence that we receive His blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Continue to cling to God’s Word. It is the lamp He gives to our feet to lead us through every perplexing time. When this season ends, we earnestly look forward to gathering again. May the Lord cause your heart to burn with a confidence and comfort that He will care for and support you as His child through this present, passing distress. Amen.