29 April 2013

The Catholic Consensus of the Church

I've recently made passing reference to the "catholic consensus of the Church," but without offering any specific definition of what I mean by that, and without indicating what the "content" of that "catholic consensus" might include.  A brother in Christ has helpfully prompted me to give some further thought to this, and to comment on it.

In part, I have not been more specific regarding the "catholic consensus of the Church," because it seems to me that the contours of what that comprises continue to grow and develop in the actual life of the Church.  Even so, what I do have in mind, especially, is that we (pastors and congregations of the Church catholic) ought to begin with what we have received from the saints who have gone before us, and that we should then proceed to live and to pray, to serve and assist one another, in continuity with both the past and the present communion of the Church.  Some aspects of that catholic tradition would be more obvious than others, at least in my view, such as following the Church Year, adhering to the basic Ordo of the Mass, using a Chalice for the Holy Communion, confessing the ecumenical Creeds, using clerical vestments in the celebration of the Liturgy, and so forth.  Although such things are, in one sense, "adiaphora," forsaking them for some novel alternatives would not be without significance to the confession and life of the Church.

The "catholic consensus" becomes more "narrow," if that isn't a self-contradiction in terms, within the particular "families" and "jurisdictions" of the Church on earth.  Here what I have in mind are such things as our Lutheran heritage and identity, which would include the Catechisms and hymns of Luther, for example; and then also the particular "synods" or territories of the Lutheran communion (albeit that "Lutheran" has become a more ambiguous and amorphous term in the course of generations; I use it positively here).

I don't believe that it contradicts catholicity for there to be different "local customs, traditions, and practices," from one place to another; but I would assert and maintain that the defining locus for those differences belongs, not to each individual congregation or parish (although each place, as each pastor, will have its own personality), but to the larger fellowship of congregations within a geographical proximity to one another.  This is where I struggle for a greater clarity in my own perspective and thinking, and yearn for clarity and consistency, as well, in the life of the Church at large.  In contrast to the past, modern transportation and communication have, on the one hand, given us a global community, while, on the other hand, they often separate us from those who are, in fact, our real "neighbors" (those whom God has placed right next to us).

Within our Synod, our Districts, and our Circuits, for example, my sense is that many, if not most, of our congregations tend to live as islands unto themselves, and that our pastors (myself included) have as much or more interaction with our self-determined online circles of like minds and kindred spirits, than active fraternal conversation, camaraderie, and consensus with those who are closest to us in the particular "loci" where God has actually stationed us.  So, I would offer that the current pattern of doing things, and the current "status quo," is certainly not "the catholic consensus of the Church."

23 April 2013

ACELC Free Conference on Worship

The papers presented at the ACELC Free Conference, "Christ For Us: The Divine Service," and six of the sermons that were preached at the daily prayer offices during the conference, are now available online at the ACELC website.

In addition to my own paper, in which I attempted to address my assigned topic, namely, to represent and defend a "High Church" attitude and approach to the Liturgy and worship, I would call special attention to the papers by Pr. Rick Sawyer and Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller, and to the sermons by Pr. Scott Porath and Pr. Carl Roth. I don't highlight these several contributions to make light of the others, but simply to say that I found these to be especially helpful.  I appreciated the contributions made by my colleagues, Pr. Philip Hale and Pr. David Langewisch, and I thank them for the opportunity to engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate.  I thought the preaching throughout the week was really quite good.

Kudos to the ACELC for organizing and sponsoring a great conference, and to the pastor and people of Trinity, Austin, for their gracious hospitality and their excellent hosting of the conference.  Well done, one and all!  I was impressed with the tenor of the gathering, and with the way that everything aimed at promoting and facilitating theological conversation.  It was an encouragement to the rigorous engagement of the Scriptures and the Confessions, in a way that is often hailed but seldom found.

Of course, it added tremendously to my enjoyment of the conference, that my daughter and son-in-law, and three of my grandchildren, were in attendance.  Can't beat that with a stick!  But, in addition to the conference itself and my soak-it-up-while-you-can family time, I especially treasure the opportunity provided to share the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  I was reminded, again, as I have been in the past, of what a blessing and a benefit that is, and I am truly grateful to have received that good gift of God this past week.

22 April 2013

Those Who Believed Had All Things in Common

Here is Part XI of my ACELC free conference paper (16 April 2013).  It is one of the sections that I omitted in my presentation of the paper, because of time constraints.  The entire paper will be made available on the ACELC website.

The Lutherans of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries regulated the practices of the churches within each territory, in the interest of a unified confession of the faith they held in common.  We in our day could, and should, learn something from them.

There does not need to be, nor could there be, a “lock-step uniformity” in all ceremonies.  However, a unity and harmony and consistency of practice, as belonging to our confession of fellowship in the Gospel, is desirable and would be edifying.  That was true at the time of the Reformation, and it is not less so in this modern age of internet communications and rapid mobility!

As Luther and others often cited, it is appropriate that we Christians should have common rites and ceremonies for the administration of the Sacraments, since we have the Sacraments themselves in common.  Indeed, we have one Lord, one faith, one Holy Baptism, one God and Father of all.  We are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by one and the same Holy Spirit, and we all partake of one Holy Communion.  We are all one Body in Christ Jesus, because we all eat of the one Bread, which is His Body; so do we all drink of the one Cup, which is the New Testament in His Blood.  As our fellowship is found in the Sacrament, it is appropriate that our celebration of the Supper be similar.

The regulating of adiaphorous rubrics, rites, and ceremonies within the good order of the Church’s fellowship, within a particular jurisdiction of the Church’s life on earth, is not contrary to the Gospel, but serves the confession and catechesis of the Gospel within the Church’s catholicity of faith and love.  Such commonly agreed-upon rubrics, coupled with the supervision of an overseer, or “bishop,” provides for a common practice from place to place, and from week to week, while it also allows room for genuine pastoral care of the Church in each time and place.

This approach to the life of the Church, as a fellowship of congregations in the unity of the faith, is beneficial, not only to the mutual relationships of the congregations with one another, but also to the life of each congregation, and to the relationship of pastors and people within each congregation.

Pastors benefit from the use of what has been received and adopted in common.  Especially because  it is the case that pastoral piety, in both large and small ways, is never simply personal or private, but is public, “political,” and pedagogical.  The people learn from their pastor’s practice.  They also pick up on discrepancies between his preaching and his practice (as in his handling of the Sacrament).

Parishioners benefit, too, when pastors use the common rites and ceremonies of the Church, rather than inventing their own practices, or else importing practices from outside of the Lutheran Church.  Wilhelm Löhe advised, for example, that a layperson should be able to discern where there is Lutheran doctrine and Lutheran worship, by comparing what the pastor preaches and teaches with the Small Catechism, and by comparing what the pastor says and does in the Divine Service with the rubrics, rites, and ceremonies of the Lutheran Liturgy.  In any event, the people of God should not be asked or expected to pray and confess words which they have never seen before, and which they will most likely never see again.  How shall they give their “Amen” to such things, without even knowing where they came from?  Of course, they listen attentively to the sermon, which they haven’t heard ahead of time; but they are not asked to pray and confess the sermon, nor to give their “Amen” to it, without first being given an adequate opportunity to follow it through and to consider it against the Scriptures.

19 April 2013

The Sacred Tradition of Christ in His Church

Here is Part III of my ACELC free conference paper (16 April 2013).
The entire paper will be made available on the ACELC website.

It is with His own Institution of the Holy Supper that our Lord Jesus Christ establishes the Ministry of this Sacrament for the Life of His Church.  His divine command, “Do This in remembrance of Me,” is the power and authority by which the pastor acts in the place of Christ; so that each celebration of the Holy Communion, even to the close of the age, is not the pastor’s supper, but the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, the “remembrance” of Jesus, here, is not simply (nor primarily) our recalling of the past, but it is first of all His own active remembering of us in love, and so also the Father’s remembering of Him on our behalf.  And then, for us, it is not only an intellectual and emotional “remembering,” but a bodily receiving and trusting of Christ, who gives Himself bodily to us, by and with His Word.

There, on the Altar, is the Lamb upon His Throne in the midst of His Church on earth.  And where He is, there is heaven, and all the company of heaven: The angels and archangels, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, the saints and martyrs of all the ages, are gathered together around Him at the Altar of His Church on earth.  For it is there that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus reveals and gives Himself to His disciples in the Breaking of the Bread.  Right there is the Gospel: in the Flesh.

So it is that everything else — in the Liturgy, in the Church’s worship, and throughout the Christian faith and life — everything else leads to and from this central high point, that is, to Christ Jesus at His Altar, to His Body and His Blood, which are given and poured out for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Catechesis aims, not only at making disciples of Jesus, but at bringing them to His Holy Sacrament, to eat and to drink His Body and His Blood in repentant faith.  It brings them to and from the waters of Holy Baptism, to the Altar of the Holy Communion.  Not only to begin with, to get them going on the way, but catechesis continues in pastoral care, whereby the Lord our Shepherd leads His lambs and sheep beside the still waters, and through the green pastures, to the Feast at His Table in His House.

The pastoral care of ongoing catechesis and discipleship, which is rooted in the ongoing significance of Holy Baptism, is also continued in the regular practice of Individual Confession and Absolution; so that the baptized faithful are regularly brought to the Holy Communion, by the Spirit through the Gospel, in the holiness, righteousness, and worthiness of faith in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus.

It ought to be noted that pastoral care is the context in which the Sacrament is administered; and that the administration of the Sacrament, itself, is a fundamental aspect and exercise of pastoral care for the Church.  The catholic practice of closed Communion also belongs to this context of pastoral care.

Preaching, likewise, always aims at bringing the disciples of Christ Jesus to and from His Supper.  Liturgically speaking, the Sermon has for its primary task the bringing of the people from the Lectern to the Altar, from the Word to the Word-made-Flesh, by proclaiming His death “until He comes.”  By the same token, the right administration of this Holy Sacrament, in accordance with the Gospel, includes and requires ongoing catechesis and the preaching of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ (which is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name).  To be specific, the pastoral care that brings people to the Supper, also belongs to the right administration of the Supper.

“Word and Sacrament” is not simply a cliché, nor a “short list” of necessary parts to be performed. Indeed, the means of grace are not “parts” and “pieces” for us to put together like some kind of puzzle, but they are the means by which the Lord Himself lays hold of us in love, and puts us back together.  His Word and Sacrament are the heart and soul of the Liturgy, as well as its flesh and blood.  For these are His good gifts, and His good works, which He gives and does for us by the Ministry of the Gospel.

As we then live and worship the Lord by faith in His Ministry of the Gospel, by receiving His good gifts at His Altar, our Christian faith and life is characterized by thanksgiving (eucharistia), which culminates in the celebration of the Holy Communion: as Christ Himself gave thanks at His Supper.  From there, His Cup of Thanksgiving “runneth over” into the Christian life of love within the world.

Love for the neighbor is the fruit of Christ’s Love for the Christian in the Holy Communion.  That is the priestly vocation of all the baptized faithful, as they live to and from the Lord’s Altar, into the world wherever God has stationed them.  In the Divine Service, they stand in faith before the Father in Christ, hearing His Word and receiving His Gifts with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  So do they offer up themselves, their bodies and their lives, to serve their neighbors as Christ has served them.

This Divine Service is the sacred Tradition of the Church — the seat of true catholicity — namely, Christ in His “Word and Sacrament,” as the Lord’s Supper and its administration are handed over.  For Christ is the Head of His Church, and He is actively present with all of His speaking and doing and giving, within each congregation, wherever He gathers disciples, “in His Name,” by and for the preaching of His Gospel and the administration of His Sacraments in accordance with His Gospel.

It is the Tradition that begins on the night when He is “betrayed,” or, better to say, “handed over.”  Judas betrays Him, that is true, but it is the Father, first of all, who hands over His Son to the Cross. And the Son of God hands Himself over: To His voluntary suffering and death, yes, but so also to His Church, to His disciples as the first communicants, and to His Apostles as the first ministers of His Gospel.  The Apostles, in turn, hand over the same Lord Jesus Christ to the Church that comes after them, in the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, and in the distribution of His Body and Blood.

The Divine Service is not a malleable tool in our hands, to be “used” by us to achieve some purpose (no matter how noble, sincere, or well-intentioned the purpose may be).  It is, rather, a sacred Tradition of the Lord, to be received from Him, and to be handed over faithfully to His Church, by His grace.