12 August 2009

Is the Church a Buffet?

The imagery of feeding and being fed runs as a common thread throughout Scripture and the ongoing history of the Church.

The Genesis account of the garden of Eden speaks of all the permitted array of foods, as well as the one forbidden fruit. The Old Testament sacrificial system involved offerings of food - some of which was burned, others of which were given to the priests and their families to eat. Much of the ceremonial law involved clean and unclean foods. It was a famine that drove the Israelites into Egypt. And the Exodus was centered around the Passover meal. The Lord provided Manna to the children of Israel in the Exodus. The promised land was a land of "milk and honey." In Psalm 23, we pray to our Lord the Shepherd to lead us to "green pastures" and to "prepare a table" for us. In Psalm 34:8, we are exhorted to "taste and see that the Lord is good." The prophet Ezekiel was given a scroll to eat, served to him by the Lord Himself.

The New Testament is likewise filled with the imagery of food. Our Lord begins His ministry by fasting. He participates in the Jewish feasts. His first miracle is at a wedding banquet. He gets in trouble for eating with sinners and because His disciples do not follow the table rules. He feeds the multitudes. And when He raises the 12-year old girl from the dead, he exhorts her parents to "give her something to eat." He tells us to consider the birds who do not sow or reap, and yet are fed by their Heavenly Father. Jesus tells many parables concerning feasts and banquets. Our Lord was even accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. He calls Himself the Bread of Life, and tells us to eat His flesh and drink His blood. The Book of Revelation is filled with glorious imagery, including the scroll that St. John, like Ezekiel, was instructed to eat and which was served to him by an angel, as well as the reappearance of the Tree of Life and its 12 types of fruit in the final chapter.

In America, we are generally not accustomed to simply eating what is set before us by a servant. We like to be in control. At a sit-down restaurant, we often substitute one item for another, or ask for our meal to contain more of this, less of that, or none of those.

And perhaps the most quintessential American approach to food of all is the buffet. You eat what you want, when you want, as much as you want. Service is kept to a bare minimum - if at all. You know exactly how much it is going to cost. You leave whenever you want because you have paid up front. You can simply feed yourself. You become the sole judge of what is best for you.

And along with the buffet, America gave the world TV dinners and microwave cuisine - designed for eating alone, "self-feeding" if you will.

This individualism has even had an effect on the Christian metaphor of feeding on the Word of God and in the non-metaphorical feeding of the Lord's Sheep in the Lord's Supper.

Here is an interesting snapshot as to how the "feeding" metaphor is employed by a Protestant and Emerging/Emergent church and pastor (or more accurately, the pastor's wife).

Notice the "self-feeder" language and the shift in emphasis from the Sunday Divine Service to the home. The notion of the Lord's people needing to be fed is even mocked in a crass way that is alien to the teaching of Holy Scripture. The author tries to make it seem ridiculous for people to want to be fed by recounting a stunt in which a "youth pastor" wore a diaper in the church. I find it hard to believe that any pastor has never fed the Lord's Word, if not His body and blood, to adults wearing diapers. In infirmity and in age (as well as in infancy) is where we often see the lowly service of our Lord to helpless sinners in their most humble estate. This is the theology of the cross and of the monergism of grace at their clearest. It is too bad that this is used as a way to discourage people from seeing themselves as in need of being fed by mocking such helplessness. Our blessed Lord Himself also wore diapers, and was cared for in love and holy service.

It's not my desire to throw stones at Pastor Kimball or his church. Rather, my purpose is to highlight the difference between the traditionalist, Catholic view - grounded in Scripture and the history of the Church - vs. the modern American Protestant view that tends toward the pragmatic. The two emphases are diametrically as opposed to one another as are the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.

Jesus never tells the people they must feed themselves as individuals. For if we could "feed ourselves" we could be saved by the law and would need no Redeemer. In fact, He explicitly tells the apostles: "You give them something to eat" (Matt 4:16, Mark 6:37, Luke 9:13). He specifically uses His ministers to serve the multitudes: "Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds" (Matt 14:19). Our Lord never tells the people they are on their own and must "self-feed."

In John 21:15-19, the Lord specifically commissions St. Peter, as the leader of the apostolic ministers, to "feed my lambs" (v. 15), "tend my sheep" (v. 16), and "feed my sheep" (v. 17).

This is not to discourage Bible study. Far from it. But pastors are given to the people of God to "feed" them with the Word and with the Sacrament of the Altar - nourishing them as a community in the faith that makes us all members of one body. This is why pastors are to be "apt to teach" (1 Tim 3:2). The modern American view of religion is, by contrast, individualistic and focused not only on "study" (rather than "mystery") but also on "self" (rather than "community"). Christian bookstores even sell individually packaged one-shot "communion" kits, with a plastic creamer-style container of grape juice and an attached wafer for individual consumption. To many, study Bibles take the place of attendance at a Bible class, and watching a sermon on TV has replaced attending a Divine Service in the flesh. We are a nation of do-it-yourselfers, even when it comes to our faith.

We Lutherans need to keep in mind what we confess about not only the Church but also about the Sacraments (especially Holy Communion - which is, by definition, communal) lest we fall into the trap of individualism and reducing the mysteries of God to intellectual knowledge or Bible trivia.

The eternal heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb is not a self-centered buffet where you take what you want (and believe what you want), at your own convenience and according to your individual tastes and wants; nor is it a lonely mouthful of once-frozen industrial grog from a microwave oven, served in a PVC "dish," eaten alone hunched over a computer screen. No indeed! It is a glorious banquet eaten with all the faithful in the presence of the One who feeds us! The Lord has armies of servants - both there in eternity and here on earth - who serve the Lord's people.

The Christian faith has never been about being a "self-feeder." In fact, the one time we were entrusted with "self-feeding" didn't turn out well at all. By contrast, we confess in the words of the hymn from the ancient Liturgy:

Lord of lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood,

He will give to all the faithful

His own self for heav'nly food.
(LSB 621)

--- Rev. Larry Beane


University Lutheran said...

Thanks Rev. Beane for the interesting discourse here. Certainly there are a few things that we jump back from when we see Dan's post here.

I wonder, however, if the discussion of Dan's "self-feeding" concept may be a bit too polarized here and may make Lutherans out to be sacerdotalists while evangelicals are made out to be anticlerical.

The object of Dan's post appears to me to be a celebration and exhortation to teach the average lay person some "solid food" theological stuff - hermeneutics, rather than continuing to keep them dependent on the same level of milk-feeding.

The danger is found in the allegory here. Blessed St. Paul uses the verbal imagery of "solid food" vs. "milk" (I Cor 3) but he is not using it in an allegorical sense that demonizes either milk or solid food. We require both the Word of God given to us from the pulpit and the altar and the font, and we are commanded to read and inwardly digest the Word in our lives at home - including being in that community, teaching our sons and daughters using the Word and the Catechisms.

In short, I guess I'm crying "foul" on the idea that we should not be training for some sense of self-feeding.

I do, however, wholeheartedly agree that the sense of community must be retained in the church and that we far too often get away from living with one another in the Lord's house seeking what He has to feed us. After all, whether it is the pastor who is giving us the food or if we are feebly attempting to put it to our own mouths - is it not still Christ who is the Bread of Life?

in Christ,

Father Hollywood said...

Dear JW (I'm sorry I don't know who you are!):

Thanks for your insightful reply.

Obviously, I'm all for giving people "solid food" and for them to study (and pray!) the Scriptures, even to do so daily and with rigor.

However, what most Protestant churches espouse (and what many Lutherans ape) is the idea that "Bible study" is a primarily solitary endeavor, and that they can, in fact, "feed themselves" quite apart from church and ministry. In the current American uber-individualistic culture, the faith is overwhelmingly seen as a private matter, quite severed from the local parish and the pastor in his capacity as the parish preacher *and teacher* (AC XIV, 1 Tim 3:2).

Pastors who are making delinquency calls can all attest to the attitude out there that "my spiritual life is none of your business, Pastor!" and "Just because I don't go to church doesn't mean I'm not a Christian. I read the Bible!"

Article V of the Augsburg Confession repudiates this "private self-feeder" view that a pastor is a nice add-on if you can afford it, but the "real" feeding comes from Bible study done by the individual, or perhaps in small, lay-led cell groups.

In that sense we are "sacerdotalists" in the way that Protestants use the term. Pastor Kimball's church could never subscribe to Article V, which if you really read it and pore over it, is almost shockingly "sacerdotal" in its view of the necessity of pastors, and in its condemnation of the Anabaptists who deny the office of the ministry as a mark of the church.

"Faith comes by hearing... how will they hear without a preacher?" "Feed My sheep!" "He who hears you hears Me." "You give them something to eat."

Again, I am wary of exhortations to more individualism and independence, in shifting the focus from the Divine Service to homes, cells, or private devotions. We Lutherans have the hindsight of the era of Pietism to see how destructive this is, both to faith (fides quae), and to *the* faith (fides qua).

Thanks again for advancing the discussion!

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

Pastors used to be trained, called, and ordained experts in the Word of God who fed God’s sheep at His command. In his divinely inspired list of qualifications for ministers, St. Paul says that the man must be “apt to teach.” Since he saw the time coming that people would not put up with sound teaching, St. Paul charged Timothy with the duty of devoting himself to “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, [and] to teaching.” He charged Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Jesus Himself chose and sent out ministers and solemnly charged Peter, three times, with the duty of feeding His sheep with His word.

But today, we’re told that what people really need are practical plans for living their lives, and the proper motivation to be everything that they can be. So, Pastors are life-coaches. People want to feel closer to God, and they need someone who can produce that experience. So, pastors have to be charismatic showmen and master managers of staged theatrics. Pastors aren’t there so much to feed God’s sheep as they are to coach and motivate the sheep to feed themselves.

What ever happened to men who put their noses to the grindstone, who went to a seminary and wrestled with the Scriptures, who were sharpened in the faith by their professors and fellow students? Today, men get their training for the ministry on the internet, or though the mail. Would we accept a doctor who got his degree on line? What ever happened to Pastors who who believed that bringing the Word of God to people, without error, was so important that they devoted themselves single-mindedly to its study? Today, if a man’s good at shaking hands, kissing babies, and giving good advice, he’s considered more than qualified to lead a Christian congregation. Proper training, a proper calling, and properly distinguishing Law and Gospel don’t even come into the equation.

Anonymous said...

After all, whether it is the pastor who is giving us the food or if we are feebly attempting to put it to our own mouths - is it not still Christ who is the Bread of Life?

It is telling that so many evangelical churches emphasize Bible study at the expense of the Sacrament of the Altar.

Like many who grew up in the 60's and 70's I fell away from church for a period of time as a young adult.

When God in His kindness finally tapped me on the shoulder and let me know that my lone wolf spirituality needed the support of the ecclesia, it was a return to Word and Sacrament as understoodd in the Lutheran Confessions that I instinctively turned.

I know we are living in a post-Christian society and that many young people did not have the advantage of being raised in a Christian home, but I hardly recognize the historical church in some of these American evangelical communities.

Self-feeding? Only the One who is the living Vine can feed His branches and those He has called to the pastoral ministry to serve His flock are the means He uses.

That in no way implies that Christians shouldn't grow into the fullness of the knowledge of Jesus Christ through both personal and communal Bible study.


Susan said...

A couple of years ago after a visit from Stuckwisches (and little Frederick) I wrote a blog post about the image of what we see as we see in the front of the church during communion distribution, as we see the pastor doing the feeding and placing the elements into our mouths instead of doing it ourselves. Personally, I think advocating "self-feeding" is a natural outgrowth of a theological viewpoint that doesn't want to see myself as a helpless beggar in need of Jesus' mercy.

Rev. Daniel Robert Skillman said...

That is a penetrating insight. Thanks.

Matthias Flacius said...

There is nothing new. Read this quote from Luther:

"Many indeed blurt out that they no longer require pastors and preachers, since they can read the Word for themselves at home. But the fact is that they don’t do it. Or if they read it at home, the Word is not as productive, nor as dynamic {kraeftig}, as it is when publicly proclaimed through the mouth of the preacher whom God has called and ordained to do such preaching for them."

Luther, Eighth Sunday after Trinity (First Sermon), Luther’s House Postils, vol. 2, p 337 (1532)

Mike Baker said...

I like the idea of being a self-feeder. It is a work that I alone can take credit for. It is a good way to become more curved in on myself than I already am.

I think that the Biblical term would be more accurately rendered "self-discerner". We are taught by others in the community of the faith... but we individually search the scriptures to ensure that what we are receiving is in accordance with the apostolic faith.

Training in wisdom and righteousness is still an external process that must proceed outside from us. As the Ethiopian eunuch replied to St. Philip, "How can I [understand what I am reading] unless someone explains it to me?"