Foundations: The Words of Our Lord

By William M. Cwirla

Our walk through the Divine Service continues with the Words of Our Lord (Verba Domini), sometimes called "the words of institution." This is the heart of the Service of the Sacrament, the words of Jesus on the night He was betrayed into death. When He celebrated the Passover with His disciples He used the two elements of the Passover meal--the bread and a cup of wine --establishing the Sacrament of His Body and Blood which He would give as the sacrifice for the life of the world the next day.

The Words of Our Lord both reveal and proclaim. They reveal the bread to be His Body and the wine of the cup to be His Blood. They tell us what we cannot know by our reason and senses. We know that they are bread and wine, but Christ's words reveal them to be His Body and Blood. In this sense, they also consecrate, telling us what is special and unique about this bread and wine. The words proclaim that this Body and Blood  are "for you," for the forgiveness of your sins under the new covenant established by Jesus' death and resurrection. The Words of Our Lord correspond to the Gospel in the Service of the Word, which is why Luther set them to the same chant tone in his setting of the Divine Service. The Words of Our Lord are pure Gospel to the ears of faith.

As we hear them in the Divine Service, the Words of Our Lord are a combination (the fancy word is conflation) of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians. They are closest to the version transmitted by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, which Paul received from the Lord and handed on to the Corinthians. These are the most "liturgical" and represent what the early Church heard in the Divine Service. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each contribute their own details. For example, Matthew highlights "for the forgiveness of sins." Taken together, these four accounts give us the most complete rendering of what Jesus said and did that night when He was gathered with His disciples.

The Words of Our Lord don't take us back to the night when He celebrated the Passover with His disciples. The Lord's Supper is not historic reenactment. Rather, the Words of Our Lord bring that night forward to us so that we, too, might enjoy the blessings and benefits of Jesus' Body and Blood in communion with the first disciples and the whole Church throughout all time. There is only one Lord's Supper, not a series of suppers. Every gathering where the Words of Our Lord are heard and where the Body and Blood are received participates in that one Supper on the night Jesus was with His disciples. There is Body, one Blood, one Supper, one Church. The Body of Christ is not a franchise operation but a unity of all believers in communion with Christ and with one another in every time and place.

Think about that for a moment. When you receive the Body and Blood of Christ, hearing the Words of our Lord, you are at that moment in communion with every believer in Christ, from Peter, James, and John, to Ambrose, Augustine, and Luther, to all those who have communed in Christ before us, including those who have since died in the Lord. This is the "communion of the saints," for where Christ is, there His saints are also.  Even if the pastor brings the Sacrament to us at home or in the hospital, we are not alone but in communion with the whole Church in every time and place. That's an especially great comfort when we are alone and isolated due to illness or weakness. We are nevertheless part of the Body of Christ.

Naturally, the Words of Our Lord prompt prayer. How can you not pray in the presence of such great gifts? The prayers associated with the Lord's Supper (sometimes called "eucharistic prayers") can often be quite long, summarizing the entire history of our salvation in Christ. At times, the prayers became longer than the Words of Our Lord, like an overgrown shrub that hides the view of the house. As important as prayer is, we must not let our words overshadow our Lord's words. This is why Luther trimmed back the shrubbery, leaving only the Lord's Prayer as the "table prayer" of the Lord's Supper. Our Divine Service settings have the option of longer prayers, but they are always careful to distinguish our words from our Lord's words. After all, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

Word made flesh, the bread He taketh,
By His Word His flesh to be;
Wine His sacred blood He maketh,
Though the senses faith to see;
Faith alone the true heart waketh
To behold the mystery.
("Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling" LSB 630, st.4) 

Rev. William M. Cwirla  is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, as well as president emeritus of Higher Things. 

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