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“Sermons in Stained Glass: Communion Chalice”
1 Corinthians 10:16


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—June 24, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our summer sermon series this year is on the stained-glass windows of our church.  Architecturally, the two smallest windows at the front of our sanctuary are called “clerestory” windows, the name given to high windows above eye level, especially in a church.  Last Sunday we looked at our clerestory window with the shell and three drops of water symbolizing the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  This morning we continue with our clerestory window that symbolizes the Sacrament of Holy Communion with a beautiful Communion chalice.

At the beginning of our service today we confessed, “We are by nature sinful and unclean.”  All humans are born with a hereditary spiritual condition that is fatal, eternally fatal.  As the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church says, “Since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. . .  full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs . . . unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. . . this inborn sickness and hereditary sin . . . condemns to the eternal wrath of God. . .”

“We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed. . . we justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.”  The book of Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”  God, in his justice and holiness, could not simply write off the debt of our sins.  The due price and penalty had to be paid. 

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”  Our sin is a capital offense and only a capital punishment could earn us forgiveness.  God’s justice required that someone pay that ultimate price, the shedding of their blood and giving of their life, in order to pay off our spiritual debt and earn forgiveness for our sins.  God’s mercy found a way.  He provided a substitute to pay that ultimate price for us, a substitute to shed his blood and give his life in our place.

In the Words of Institution, Jesus proclaims to you the Good News that his blood is, “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  “Behold, the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist declared, “who takes away the sin of the world.”  On the altar of the cross God’s own Son sacrificed himself, gave his body and shed his blood for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.  By his sacrifice your sins are all forgiven, as the book of Hebrews continues, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“This do . . . in remembrance of me.”  “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,” Paul says in today’s Epistle Reading, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  In Holy Communion you remember and give thanks for your Lord’s sacrifice, you see and hear and taste and touch the Good News of his death for you, the Good News that Christ gave his body and shed his blood for you, and you receive in this Sacrament the forgiveness of sins he earned for you. As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism, “In the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given.”

Paul says in today’s Epistle Reading, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”  Those are called “rhetorical questions,” a literary device that Paul uses to make a point.  He wasn’t actually calling into question or calling upon us to debate whether or not the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.  He was using these rhetorical questions as a way to affirm, without a doubt, that in Holy Communion these earthly elements truly are the body and blood of Christ.  “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”  The expected answer is, “Yes, they are Christ’s body and blood.” 

But, very early in the history of the Christian Church there were some who doubted and denied Jesus’ words, “This is my body, which is given for you. . .  this is my blood . . . which is shed for you.”  And that is the reason why Christians began very early to use elaborate vessels made of precious materials, like the one portrayed in our window, to contain the elements for Holy Communion.

The original Communion chalice used at the Last Supper was probably nothing special, a pottery vessel typical of those used in the ancient world.  The early church father Chrysostom said, “The chalice was not of gold in which Christ gave his blood to his disciples to drink.”  There are many legends about the search for the Holy Grail, the authentic vessel used at the Last Supper.  But, if you actually found it, you probably wouldn’t recognize it as anything special, because it would look just like countless other drinking vessels from that period.

Since the vessels used by Jesus himself at the Last Supper to institute this Sacrament were probably quite ordinary, it is obvious that the validity of the Sacrament does not depend in any way on the vessels used to administer it.  All that is necessary for a true Holy Communion is bread and wine consecrated with our Lord’s Words of Institution.  The Sacrament is completely valid even if the most humble vessels are used.  But, although elaborate vessels made of precious materials are not necessary for a true Holy Communion, there were important reasons why very early in the history of the Church Christians began this custom of using of such precious vessels for Holy Communion.

It was first of all as a confession of faith against the heretics who denied the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament.  For, if Christ’s body and blood really are present in, with, and under the earthly elements of bread and wine, it was considered natural and appropriate that out of reverence those who truly believe this should administer these elements using precious vessels made of the finest materials.  Every time Communion was administered with such vessels it was a powerful testimony to the heretics: “We use these precious vessels because we believe the Lord’s precious promise, that in, with, and under these earthly elements we receive his precious body and blood.”

That is also the reason why many other customs developed surrounding Holy Communion, such as humbly bowing and when possible kneeling in reverence to receive the Sacrament, making the sign of the cross over the elements when they are consecrated, taking care to treat the leftover consecrated elements respectfully.  In our new church we installed a special sink in the sacristy called a “piscina” that drains directly into the ground, to dispose of the leftover consecrated elements, so that they will not be disrespectfully flushed into the sewer. All these actions surrounding Holy Communion are a confession of faith in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament.

The use of precious vessels for Holy Communion is also a teaching tool, especially for children and others new to the faith.  They learn by observing the special reverence shown in the administration of the Sacrament that it is not mere bread and wine we are receiving.

Finally, the use of precious vessels is an aid to those receiving Holy Communion, a visual reinforcement and reminder to you that this is no ordinary bread and wine of which you partake, but in this Sacrament you are communing with your Lord, blessed with his very body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, to strengthen you in the true faith unto life everlasting.

In the Nicene Creed we confess, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church,” and in Ephesians Paul says that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” The beautiful pictures of Apostles around the bowl of the chalice in our stained-glass window symbolizes that our faith is not some new contrivance or strange sect, but goes back to the teachings of the Apostles.  Our own Communion chalice is more modern, but it also has Christ and the Apostles beautifully cast in silver around the base. 

People often comment about the unusual 3-D effect in the bowl and base of the chalice in our window.  Bovard Studio is the only stained-glass firm that still uses the Tiffany process, painting the picture on several layers of glass to create this 3-D effect.  The gems on the node and base of the chalice are cut-glass stones.  When the sun hits them just right they act as prisms, sending beautiful rainbows of light into our sanctuary.

That was the purpose of clerestory windows with stained glass high up in the great cathedrals of Europe, to flood the upper part of church with colorful rainbows of light.  About 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon the sun strikes directly on our Communion chalice clerestory window and floods the entire altar area with beautiful red light. 

People sometimes wonder why this pair of windows has completely different background colors.  It seems asymmetrical, but it’s not a mistake, the window designer did it that way on purpose.  We define a Sacrament as a rite instituted by Christ himself, with the promise of forgiveness of sins attached, and a visible element, something you see, feel, taste, or touch.  The visible element in Holy Baptism is water, so the background of the window representing that Sacrament is blue to symbolize the visible element in Holy Baptism.  The visible elements in Holy Communion are the bread and wine, so the background of the window representing that Sacrament is red to symbolize the visible element of wine in Holy Communion.

On the cover of today’s bulletin is a picture of an ornate gold Communion chalice brought to the United States from Germany in 1839 by the Saxon Immigrants who founded our denomination.  Like that historic chalice you may not realize that our Communion chalice window is actually made with pure gold. Because, the different colors of stained-glass are created by adding different minerals to the molten glass.  The only way to create that shade of red is by adding pure gold dust to the molten glass.

“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”  The precious vessels we use for Holy Communion, symbolized by our Communion Chalice window, is a reminder of our Lord’s precious promise, that in, with, and under these earthly elements we receive his precious body and blood.

Amen.

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