I've bantered about it with buddies in the past, and it became the operative thesis of my presentation on the Liturgy this weekend. I really want to get all of my notes typed up for the sake of sharing my thoughts and soliciting discussion of the topic. For the time being, I'll have to stick to some preliminary comments on this preaching thesis. At any rate, I'm convinced that we (in the LCMS) need to grapple with the theological heart and substance of the matter, instead of constantly engaging one another in the "worship wars" by way of combat over ceremonial practices and aesthetic preferences. Such practical things are not inconsequential, incidental or irrelevant, but they are also not the place to begin; nor must they be the same in every place. Yes, differences in practice may well reflect divergence in doctrine; indeed, I have no doubt they often do. Precisely so, it is the doctrine that ought to be dealt with, whence the practice will emerge as its confession.
In the life of the Church, which finds its home in the Liturgy, orthodox practice flows from (and with) orthodox preaching. Where the preaching is properly liturgical, everything that matters will follow eventually; not necessarily right away, and not ever "perfectly" in this vale of tears, but nevertheless, it will be progressing on the way that leads to life, here in time and hereafter in eternity. Where the preaching is not what it should be, then everything else will languish and may falter altogether. Sure, there are liturgical safeguards, which, when left in place and allowed to serve the Word of Christ as catechesis and confession, do much to stem the devastation of poor preaching (and to bolster the occasional sermon that misses the mark and falls short). Yet, where the preaching is not what it should be, than nothing else will be able to save the Church forever: neither "high church" nor "low church," neither moderate nor maniacal, neither simplicity nor complexity. The Church is defined and constituted liturgically, but not ceremonially. At its best, the ceremony confesses the Liturgy; it cannot, of itself, comprise the Liturgy.
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. So it is necessary that repentance be preached for the forgiveness of sins, even to the ends of the earth, even to the end of the age. If nothing else is gotten right, that much at least must be done. Which is why our faithful Lord and great Good Shepherd has never failed to raise up preachers for the feeding of His flock, whether with golden-mouthed rhetorical eloquence or under much frailty, infirmity, weakness and sorrow. Only that the Gospel be preached (and the Law also, in the service of the Gospel). Heaven and earth will pass away, while the Word of Christ endures forever; and that is the Word that is preached to His Church, unto faith in the forgiveness of sins, unto life and salvation.
The preaching of the Word of Christ begins and continues with, and always depends upon, the Father's speaking of His Son. It is by this preaching of Christ, the only-begotten, beloved and well-pleasing Son, in the flesh, that the Holy Spirit is breathed into man; and it is only by this Word and Spirit of God that man lives (now and forever).
This preaching, as it sounds forth in the Church, is the confession of Jesus the Christ. Pastors are called, ordained and sent to speak the same thing that God the Father speaks. It is upon this Rock, that is, upon this Ministry of the Confession of Christ Crucified, that His Church is built and sustained against sin, death, the devil and hell. It is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is preaching to and from Holy Baptism, which is the death of the old man and the resurrection of the New Man. It is the preaching of the Law that kills and the Gospel that gives life through the forgiveness of sins. The Law commands what God has ordered and prohibits what God has forbidden (no more nor less), and thereby always accuses the sinner, condemns and crucifies him. The Gospel forgives the sinner and raises him with Christ unto life everlasting.
The preaching of Christ is always to and from Baptism, to and from Confession & Absolution, to and from the Holy Communion. This is what I mean by liturgical preaching. This is God's Word and His work, whereby the Father hands over Christ, the incarnate Son, to and for His Church, in and with His Holy Spirit. From the long view, it is preaching from the font to the altar. More immediately, it is preaching from the lectern to the altar, from the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh.
This preaching from the lectern to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion is the divine Liturgy, the most basic and essential structure and substance of the Divine Service. It is this Liturgy, this preaching of the Word to bring the disciples of Jesus to His Supper, that brings His Church into being on earth and constitutes her very life in fellowship with the one true God. Where this liturgical preaching is happening faithfully, then the adiaphorous rites and ceremonies of the Church are received and used in the freedom of faith, in loving service to the neighbor.
This is the point at which I would have liked to have more time to speak at the conference this weekend, identifying the way in which tradition serves the Christian faith and life in love, and even discussing the blessing and benefits of particular traditions across the gamut of liturgical practice. It will not be the same in every time and place, though the catholicity of the Church lends itself more to continuity than diversity. The fact that so much is free, in faith before God, does not at all mean that all things are equal, right or salutary. What we do, and how we do it, communicates what we believe and what we are about; it catechizes and confesses. If it is to serve and support the Christian faith and life, it must be in harmony with the Word of the Lord; it must say (in its own way) the same thing that the Father has spoken to us by His Son.
Faith comes by hearing that Word of the Father, which is Christ, the divine Word-made-Flesh. It is the solemn task and sacred responsibility of preaching to speak that Word of Christ to His people (and to those who would believe in Him by such preaching). Where He is preached, there also will the congregation be enabled to receive and practice the salutary traditions of the Church catholic with discernment, faith and love, reverence and courtesy. Where the preaching is right, everything else will follow as it should. Love will not tolerate false preaching (in word or deed), but it can and will abide all else, because the true preaching really does cover a multitude of sins.