St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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3rd Mark – Sacrament of the Altar
Matthew 28:19ff
June 23, 2024

The ten commandments are summarized, or perhaps a better word to use is epitomized, in two formal laws, two commandments.

Jesus, in Matthew 28, before He ascends and is hidden by the clouds, tells us to make disciples by baptizing, and by teaching, among other things, these two formal laws. And it is right here at the rail where the two formal laws and the Gospel flow into us.

The first formal law, and we all know it, right? We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. This formal law encompasses the first table of the law, the first three commandments. What do we mean by this?

Let’s consider this relationally. In the Gospels, how many times does Jesus call us to abide in Him or in His Word? In the Book of John, Jesus calls us to abide 12 times…” abide, abide, abide.” Our Lord’s call to us to remain in Him, to abide in Him, is a first table of the law call, isn’t it?

Jesus says, “Abide in me,” and the First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” Jesus says, “Abide in my Word,” and the Second Commandment says, “Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Jesus says, “Abide in the vine,” and the Third Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” You see?

Being of the body of Christ, abiding in Him, this is a call for us to be united to God and God alone, to be in union with God and God alone. In John 15 Jesus uses the imagery of the vine, that He is the vine upon which we, the branches, are to abide. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? God the Father is the vinedresser; He is the God who dresses and sustains and tends to the vineyard, and Christ Jesus, the Son of God, He is the fruit of the Father, the Word of God that goes forth from the Father as the vine, the lifeblood of the branches. This is one of the reasons our Lord chose to use wine in His holy Supper. Wine symbolizes the joyful unity and community we are given by the blood of Christ, the blood of the vine. It is the abiding blood which unites us to the Father and makes us one, one people, one body, one church.

The blood of the vine is for the branches of the vine, for those who abide, who seek out and love the Lord their God with heart and soul and mind, who abandon false doctrine, for people who confess the same faith along with the rest of the branches of the vine.

And it’s not pick and choose, it’s not 80/20 or 90/10. Abiding in the vine means seeking to abide 100% in the Word of God. Loving God with all heart and soul and mind is not a call for us to merit God’s favor by being perfectly right in our understanding all the time. It is a call for us, instead, to desire it, to love the truth and seek the truth, and to live a life which seeks the truth, always learning, always growing, always reforming to the vine.

When someone we don’t know walks into the church and we don’t know what they confess, we don’t know what they believe about the commandments, whether or not they confess the creed, whether or not they abide in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, or even if they’re baptized at all, what they believe about all matters of the faith, and whether or not they subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, should we open the abiding rail to them, and they be bad fruit, fruit that does not seek God, or desire to abide in God’s Word, we risk breaching the unity of the vine.

As a congregation who seeks to abide in the vine, to abide in the truth, and to be one body, we should not haphazardly break the unity by opening the communion rail to anyone and everyone.

It’s hard to say “no” to someone, but when it’s right to say “no” it’s right to say, “no.”

Those of you who are married, you wear a wedding ring, unless it doesn’t fit on your finger anymore and you aren’t able to wear it. That wedding ring is closed communion. It is the band which confesses to the world, “No one else, but the one person in whom I abide and who abides in me.”

Imagine if your spouse came to you and said, “Spouse, I am putting a sign out in front of our house and running an ad on Facebook that says, ‘come on in and experience the love,’ and you must affirm my open-door policy to our marriage bed because that’s loving!” It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, and certainly not loving, though, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much what goes on at college campuses across the country day in and day out, so our kids aren’t really learning any different which is part of the reason marriages do struggle so much these days, but I digress.

We don’t do this with our marriage, and marriage is a symbol of Christ and His Church, so no, we don’t do this when it comes to the most intimate part of being a member of the holy vineyard either: the Service of the Sacrament where we join with our Lord and He gives us His body and blood.

But there’s two formal laws to consider. The first, that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and this one alone should draw us to true repentance because how imperfect we are at keeping this first law. Too busy or too uninterested to go to church regularly? This formal law is the law which says, “Never be too busy or too uninterested to go to church,” and my, how people breach this commandment as if it doesn’t at all matter. Of this we must humbly repent.

The second law: Love your neighbor as yourself. To abide in the vine means that we also share from the vine what good and gracious things God has shared with us. God loves us, we share that love with others. God forgives us, we share that forgiveness with others. God helps us in our deepest need, we help others in their trials and needs. God protects us from the devil’s snares, we protect others from the devil’s snares.

Well, who are the “others” for whom we are to share? Who is our neighbor? It’s the branches, every one of us in this place who gather here to grow on the vine by word and sacrament. It’s the other branches, those who are not part of this flock but are still of the vine. Just because the church across the street isn’t LCMS doesn’t mean we can’t be their friends and serve them when needed. We can’t commune them because of the first law, but we can serve them with love and kindness. Same with the Baptist church, the Catholic church, the Methodist church, and yes, even the ELCA churches because there are people in ELCA churches still on the vine. We can help and serve them just as we do one another. We can pray for one another and ask our Lord to help one another remain on the vine and abide in the vine.

But what about those outside the church, should we also love and serve them as our Lord so richly loves and serves us? Absolutely. Coworkers, classmates, internet friends, Facebook friends, unbelieving relatives, next door neighbors. We are to love and serve all people because everyone is our neighbor.

This second formal law summarizes the second table of the law. We are to respect and honor all who are in authority over us. We are to protect and uplift one another’s lives by repentantly subduing hatred and anger in our hearts against one another. Anger has no place among the branches of the vineyard, and it is not fueled by the blood of this vine but fueled by another vineyard not part of God’s kingdom. We are to respect and protect one another’s chastity and virtue and not give into the passions of the flesh. Youth and young adults have such a tough time with sexual sins. You got pastors like me saying, “no sexual intimacy until marriage,” then there’s others who say, “As long as you’re responsible and make good decisions,” friends and classmates saying, “Eat, drink and be merry,” coaches turning a blind-eye to sexual sins, television and music and Hollywood cranking the sexual dial so far that it causes the young to think that if they’re not having sex outside of marriage there’s something wrong with them. All these voices make it hard for them to know what to believe. Christian parents and pastors, we must be consistent in what we tell and exhibit to our kids. Chastity is a virtue that we should never subject to worldly corruption.

But we who love the neighbor as God so loves us, we should never put our neighbor into sinful situations or encourage sinful activity. Jesus says that it would be better if a large millstone be tied to our necks, and we be drowned in the bottom of the sea than we cause another one to sin. We must abide.

And on with the rest of the commandments, theft and gossip and coveting, all these commandments from the second table are meant to teach us virtue, to teach us how to truly love and serve the neighbor as God has so graciously and lovingly served us. The second formal law is the law of vineyard life, how do we be the branches in this eternal vineyard.

And we do not give the food of communion to anyone who refuses to abide in this vineyard, who refuses to live repentantly and truly seeking to love the neighbor as God commands.

It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about some special power pastors have to look into people’s hearts. Heaven forbid that I or any pastor claim to have such skill. But it is about looking at the branch and testing its fruit.

Out along the church driveway are hundreds of raspberry bushes. I sometimes get tempted to put a fence out there so the bushes have something to cling to so more raspberries grow, but that sounds like a lot of work, so I don’t do it. But when those buds bloom and then die and the raspberries start to grow, all you have to do is look at those berries and you know which ones are good to pick and eat and which ones should be left alone. It’s the same with the apple tree in my yard, the same when I pick blueberries up around Duluth, same I suspect with vineyards throughout the world. Some grapes are clearly meant to be used and others not. Some branches are pruned so they grow stronger and bear more fruit, and some branches are removed because they do nothing but steal the vine’s blood and risk damaging the fruitful branches.

It’s the same in the church. We don’t need to look into anyone’s heart to know who repents and who doesn’t. Just ask…just ask. “Do you know that what you are doing is sinful? Do you repent?” If the answer is “yes,” well enough, for that person is living as a good branch on the vine. He may not be perfect; he may struggle with sin most severely, but he is worthy of the vine because he acknowledges it is true. “I am a sinner, and I so desperately need the blood of this eternal vine to forgive me and help me amend my life.” That’s repentance. But if he answers, “no,” then he want’s not what the vine offers – the forgiveness of sins and life eternal, so we don’t give it to him, but we instead pray that the person come to repentance and faith and leave it in God’s hands.

Being of the vine means abiding in the vine. It means seeking to love God with the whole heart, the whole soul, and with the whole mind – in other words, with faith, with virtue, and with understanding. And when we fall short, we repent, we acknowledge that we have sinned and then we keep abiding because Jesus our Lord never stops abiding in us.

Being of the vine means abiding in the vine. It means loving the neighbor as we love ourselves and serving the neighbor as God so graciously serves us. And when we fail to love the neighbor as we ought, we repent, we acknowledge that we have sinned against our neighbor and then we hold fast to the vine and the forgiveness that flows through it and by God’s Spirit we amend our sinful ways so that we bear good and plenteous fruit.

It also means that we abide in a right understanding of the Sacrament. Because there are only two views: “is” and “isn’t”. The Lord’s real presence IS in the bread and wine, or it ISN’T, but it can’t be both. One has got to be wrong. We’ll be watching a satire video during our Bible study today to help with this “is/isn’t’” dichotomy and we’ll learn about where the “isn’t” teaching came from, the man named Huldrych Zwingli who employed human reason to change the clear meaning of the Scripture.

Before Zwingli, before the reformation, there was really no debate, not in the western church or the eastern church, concerning our Lord’s real presence. Christians everywhere believed and took comfort in Christ’s true body and blood given in the bread and wine. In fact, early church Christians were martyred, in part, because they confessed Christ’s true body and blood were given in the bread and wine. They were accused of cannibalism for eating the flesh and blood of their God, a false accusation for sure. Because we believe our Lord’s body and blood are present in a supernatural, mysterious way, and not that the bread is full of his teeth and bones, and the wine full of his cholesterol and lipids, and His true presence isn’t about digestion. There instead is a sacramental union that we dare not try to explain by reason or philosophy, but we simply believe what Jesus says and let it be.

We abide in Him and He in us, we are the branches of the vine, and we receive the food of the vine as God our Father gives it.

And all this abiding culminates right here at the rail because at this rail, kneeling before this altar, we abide in Christ and He abides in us, in the most intimate way we can experience. It is here at this rail where we confess the purest and closest fellowship there is, fellowship between God and man and between one another. We share the same cup and the same loaf, partaking of the same body and blood of Christ our Lord.

No breach of this fellowship is permitted, but all who come must come with a common confession of faith and with words of repentance and trust flowing from their lips. For here, we abide in God and He abides in us and loves us. This is what it means to love God with our heart and soul and mind, and to abide in one another by sharing unity and community, fellowship and family, by being one body in Christ. Amen.