01 June 2007

You Either Do, or You Don't

One of my dearest friends and colleagues, a seminary classmate, once remarked that you either read the Holy Scriptures sacramentally, or you don't, and the results are strikingly different. I was reminded of that observation today, as I engaged in conversation with a retired colleague, who essentially wanted to know how it is that young bucks like myself tend to see references to Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion throughout the Bible. It was a frustrating discussion for both of us. He began with the position that the Holy Communion isn't even mentioned, much less emphasized, following Acts 2. He corrected himself when I pointed to 1 Corinthians, but he still maintained that St. Paul doesn't really admonish his readers to receive the Lord's Supper anywhere else in his Epistles. He basically argued that the Holy Gospels could be boiled down to the Cross and Resurrection, and that everything else in the Gospels is ultimately incidental.

I'm not writing this to criticize an older man, who has served in the office of the Holy Ministry for many more years than I have. But it is frustrating to me, and I believe that it is symptomatic of the ills that plague the church in our day. Maybe I've become cynical and jaded, but it often seems to me that the LCMS (for example) has traded the sacramental life of the church for sociologically-driven programs and marketing techniques. I'm weary of going to synodical meetings and conferences that make me feel as though I've wandered into an Amway convention. It's no wonder that so many pastors and laity do not read or hear the Scriptures sacramentally, since they do not live sacramentally. Individual Confession and Absolution is a case in point. Because it was allowed to fall into disuse, by and large, it is no longer understood by the vast majority of Lutherans. It stands there as the fifth chief part of the Small Catechism, but my experience has been that most Lutheran adults do not even consider Individual Confession and Absolution to be a Lutheran practice. Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion are not likely to be thrown out the window altogether, thanks be to God! But they surely don't seem to function as the definitive foundation of the Church and the interpretive context of the Holy Scriptures. I believe they ought to function in those ways. You either do, or you don't.

Here is how I undestand it. The life of Jesus, all that He began to do and teach in His Incarnation, continues in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. His forgiving of sins, His casting out of demons, His healing of diseases, His table fellowship with sinners, His justification and sanctification, His raising of the dead, His granting of peace and rest, all of this He continues to do in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion. He does it by the power of His Word, with the authority of His Cross and Resurrection, through the agency of those whom He has called, ordained and sent in His Name. And this Ministry of the Gospel is the very lifeblood and heartbeat of the Church on earth. It is what constitutes, enlivens and sustains the Church. It is where and how she cleaves to her heavenly Bridegroom. It is her very life, already here in time, and a proleptic participation in the Paradise she awaits.

When St. Paul and the other Apostles wrote their Epistles, they wrote with the Holy Gospels already fully in view as the given authority, content and foundation of the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic faith. Whether some or all of the Holy Gospels were written before or after a particular Epistle is not the point. What the four holy Evangelists recorded is the fundamental Apostolic preaching of Christ Jesus, who is the Word-made-Flesh and the fulfillment of the Prophetic Old Testament Scriptures. The details are important! So there is that, first of all.

Second, St. Paul and the other Apostles wrote to the churches within the context of the Apostolic fellowship, the Breaking of the Bread and the prayers. Which is to say that everything is spoken and heard, written and read, against the backdrop of Holy Baptism and especially within the Divine Service of the Holy Communion. Disciples are made by way of Baptism and ongoing catechesis, and disciples are fed by the Lord Jesus with His Body and His Blood. They pray and confess and carry the cross and live in their vocations, by grace through faith in Jesus. In all of this, they're always living from their Baptism, to and from the Holy Communion, and back again.

Families and friends always develop their own vocabulary, their own catch phrases, inside jokes, and all sorts of winks and nods and nudges that carry an entire shared history along with them. It is much the same with the Church. Her thinking and speaking are shaped by the practice and experience of the means of grace. She confesses the same thing that God has spoken, from one generation to the next. Her vocabulary is that of the Catechism: not the synodical explanation, nor even Dr. Luther's beautiful explanations to begin with, but the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father. Her shared stories are those of the Bible, all centered in Christ Jesus. Her nostalgic memories, her family scrapbook, her home movies, and her archives are the traditional rites and ceremonies that have borne the means of grace through the centuries into the present. In each and every "here and now," she lives in the experience of Holy Baptism, and in the family gathering around the Lamb upon His Throne for the Supper of His Body and Blood.

When the Holy Scriptures speak of washing and rebirth, of cleansing and forgiveness, of eating and drinking (especially in the presence of God), the Church remembers her history, she knows her present sacramental life, and she looks forward to the consummation of all things. Even in heaven, the Sacraments are not forgotten, but fulfilled; much as the Passover was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who was sacrificed for us, whose blood covers us, whose flesh feeds us. Thus, in the heavenly Jerusalem, where God and the Lamb shall be all in all, we shall partake of the Tree of Life and drink from the River of Life and breathe the Spirit of Life forever and ever. Amen.

Dr. Scaer was right. You may not like the liturgy now. But you will.


Susan said...

You've heard people say disparagingly, "Sommmme people think every reference to water somehow connects to baptism." Uhhh, I have sometimes responded to that, "Guilty as charged."

Now, dare I say it?....
I think that the non-sacramental view of Scripture is, to a large extent, due to the hymnody that is engrained in people's hearts. In many ways, LSB is better when it comes to the centrality of the sacraments. But when I see a couple of [different] themes that have been excised from TLH as we moved into LW and then LSB, I fear for the theology that's going to be lacking in men 50 years down the road.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Oh, yes, I'm also happy to plead "guilty as charged," and to make no apologies for it. But it saddens me that so many others do not recognize the sacramental life of the Church throughout the Holy Scriptures. And it frustrates me that there is such a decisive chasm affixed between those who do, and those who don't.

I agree with you concerning the role of hymnody in all of this. The hymns that are sung by the Church are surely among the most powerful means of catechesis and confession of the faith. The best hymnody interprets, confesses and prays the Word of God sacramentally and christologically.