UnDone Mission

“Our 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.’”

—1 Corinthians 11:23-25

In 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul lays out for the Church the core of our Lord’s Supper theology. He recites how Jesus, on the Passover meal night before he died on the cross for the sin of humanity, took bread and declared, “This is my body,” and then took the cup and declared, “This is my blood.”

His very next words are incredibly important—but maybe get “lost in the mix.” We recite them also in our Lord’s Supper service order, though we quote them much later at the end of the service, in a kind of benedictory manner (which they are). But I wonder if we miss something of their full potency and expectant enablement, because the Apostle Paul and inspiring Holy Spirit intended those very next words to connect inseparably.

Those next words are: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26).

This text has been set before you to feast upon. We’ve together looked at Isaiah chapter 6, where the prophet with unclean lips, having seen the holy God, has been undone. But then by grace this undoing savior sends his gospel Word to the very lips of Isaiah’s shame, touches the gospel–live coal there, and announces over him, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).

And the story seems it could be over, but it’s not! The prophet’s lips have been cleansed—for a purpose! The voice from the temple sounds, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and Isaiah’s ready response is, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:8).

In the literal translation of the Hebrew Isaiah says: “Behold me!” Now! Lips cleansed! Guilt removed! To the mission call of a missionary God, Isaiah responds: “Behold me! Send me!”

But, oh, it would not (and will not) be an easy mission! Consider the verses that follow: [God] said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (6:9-10). He’s telling Isaiah, “You will encounter a resistant audience! Dull-eared, callous-hearted, closed-eyed and closed-minded!” So much so—so long will the witness process take before there is any response of repentance and faith—that the eager prophet, grasping this tough gospeling assignment, cries out, agonizes, laments, “For how long, Lord?” (6:11).

Oh, how long, Lord! Don’t we wonder, as well?

How important to remember that our God is a missionary God. Isaiah is full of reminder of the heart of this missionary God, and of the promised end of his missionary endeavor. In Isaiah 49:6, we hear the missionary purpose of the Messiah (Servant of the Lord), “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And in 66:19-20, God promises of his missionary people, “They will proclaim my glory among the nations.”

Yet this is a tough assignment: “For how long, Lord?”

It is so intriguing that the words of God to Isaiah about the resistant response are quoted in each of the Gospels (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8, John 12) and twice by Paul (Acts 28, Romans 11). In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this predicted Gospel resistance of Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted each time in concert with Jesus telling the parable of the sower. This parable, just like Isaiah’s call (and ours), anticipates widespread failure of the seed ever reaching actual soil where faith not only flashes a moment, but flourishes to reproduction. And this is the purpose of planting, isn’t it? Not mere germination!; not only the flashing color of photosynthesis!; but reproduction!

The point of the parable of the sower is what? Despite the hard percentages, despite the predominant resistance, despite feelings of discouragement or resignation… just keep sowing! Stay with it! There is hope! There is a harvest yet to come.

“Behold me! Send me!”

“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” R.C.H. Lenski asks, regarding this verse—this communion manifesto, “Now what do we really do when we eat of the sacred bread and drink of the sacred cup?”

Wait a minute, Dr. Lenski! “What do we really do in communion?” We’re good Lutherans, right? What do we do? Isn’t that the point of communion? We do nothing. Jesus does it all!

But there is something we do just by taking communion, and something that stirs in us gratefully, necessarily, when we receive communion worthily. Lenski says it’s an “iterative present tense” verb, meaning “with repeated ongoing process or utterance.”

“Whenever you eat/drink…” When this gospel coal touches your lips, those lips also open not just to receive, but to gratefully reflect! “…you are proclaiming the Lord’s death.” Lenski says it’s “…no less a thing than that. Every proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the Lord’s death. Our reception of his body and blood through the earthly elements is our remembrance of him, and at the same time our proclamation of him!” And we do so until he comes: “From the night in which Jesus was betrayed onward until his return in glory at the last day this proclamation is to be made.”

Church of the Lutheran Brethren: We are a sacramental people; and we are a missionary people. These cannot be separated! The Lord moves us from holy communion to holy mission, from the Lord’s Supper gospel reception to gospel expression! We, whose lips have been cleansed and fed, have those same lips to praise and tell; we are God’s missionary people.

Frederick Buechner once famously said: “The final secret I think is this: That the words, ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become, in the end, less a command than a promise.”

I wonder if the same might not be said of “you shall be my witnesses.” We have heard those words as duty, as command.  But perhaps the Lord would lead us to find, in time, that “you shall be my witnesses” becomes less command, than promise.

And now, Lord Jesus we give you thanks, for your body, blood, for your great love, for forgiveness, for words that come and undo us, and then bring us to life. We praise you for being an Undoing Savior. We ask you to fill us with such stunned, joyful gratitude that we are redeemed, that we are yours, and you are ours—that we cannot help but be your missionary people—whose lips receive in, and whose lips then reflect out. For we have heard, “You shall be my witnesses” as duty, and command. But, perhaps, dear Lord, you would lead us to find, in time, they have become less command, than promise. Amen.

Rev. Paul Larson is President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.

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