At long last, here are the notes from which I gave my presentation to the North Texas Free Conference in Plano, Texas (24–25 January 2008), sans any real editing or spit and polish:
Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ; and to have such faith is to live in fellowship with God in Christ (receiving and trusting His gracious good gifts of life).
The preaching of the Word is primary, beginning with the Father’s own speaking of the Son. It is by this Word (His Son) that God creates and gives life to man; by this Word that He breathes His life-giving Holy Spirit into man, in the flesh. It is a divine Word, the speaking of God Himself, by which He reveals and gives Himself to man. In its confrontation with sinful man, it both accuses and forgives (Law and Gospel), and thereby calls to repentance and faith (in Christ, the Word).
This same Word, which is the almighty and eternal Son of God, has become flesh — true Man — part of His own creation — so that, in Him, in His own Person, God and man are perfectly united and in harmony forevermore. It is therefore by and with and in Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, that you live in fellowship with God (by faith), and not at all apart from Him. This is the case, both by His forgiveness of sins and by His gracious giving of Himself in love.
It is in and with Christ that you receive the Holy Spirit (the life-giving Breath of God) through the forgiveness of your sins. For Christ is the true and perfect Man, the new and better Adam, who has been anointed by the Spirit for you. He receives and bears the Spirit in the flesh on your behalf, in order to bestow the Spirit upon you (with the forgiveness of sins).
It is in Baptism that Christ Jesus received the Spirit as your Savior. And in your Holy Baptism, all that He received and accomplished — the Holy Spirit, the Cross and Resurrection, an open heaven, the declaration of divine sonship, and a well-pleased God the Father — all of this has been granted to you by grace. Hence, in St. Matthew 28, the authority that Christ has obtained by His Cross and Resurrection as the Son of Man, is the authority to baptize all the nations (and thereby to forgive their sins).
Paradoxically, this divine life that is yours with the Father, through Christ in His Spirit, is by the way and means of the Cross. In this world, it is shaped and constituted by the daily dying and rising of repentant faith in the forgiveness of the Cross. As such, the character of the entire Christian life is one of repentance. This is true at all times in the heart before God, but it is exercised especially in the hearing of the Law and the Gospel, and perhaps most pointedly in Confession and Absolution.
It is from your Baptism into Christ, in repentance — in faith, by the Word and Spirit of God — that you live before God (instead of dying in your sin).
Thus, Holy Baptism is the front door and the foundation of this divine life, the heart and center of which is communion (or fellowship) with God in Christ Jesus. That communion is concretely located in the preaching of the Word of Christ, specifically the preaching of the Gospel, which is the forgiveness of sins (as also in Holy Absolution); and it is found most intimately in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you in the Sacrament of the Altar (the Holy Communion). It is there at the Altar that the Incarnation and Atonement of the Lamb of God come into sharpest clarity and tangible focus for you, and where you abide in Him, and He in you, both body and soul, most profoundly (a foretaste of heaven itself). Thus, if Holy Baptism is the floor and the door of the building, then the preaching of the Gospel is the structure of the building itself, in which we live, and the Holy Communion is the penthouse suite.
Or, to think of it in different terms, taken directly from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, disciples are made though baptizing and catechizing (St. Matthew 28), and it is to such disciples that the Lord gives His Body and His Blood (St. Matthew 26).
These means of grace and salvation — the Gospel–Word and Sacraments, actually preached and administered — are not simply means to some other end, but are already a very real participation (though hidden under the Cross) in the divine, eternal life of the Holy Triune God.
This manifestation of God in Christ by the means of grace — the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Holy Sacraments — which is the revelation of the Father and the breathing of the Spirit by the Son — this is the divine Liturgy (properly speaking, as defined in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV), by which faith and life are created and sustained in you.
It is this holy handing over of the Son by the Father, in whom the Spirit is also poured out generously upon us, with which we are chiefly concerned, and which we are given to receive, to confess, to share, and to hand over to the disciples who come after us within the Church.
There is no faith and life for us or anyone else apart from this divine Liturgy, which is the Gospel of Christ. (Thus, here we do not have in mind a particular order of Service, far less a particular "style" of service, but rather what is the heart of the matter: the preaching and administration of the Gospel. That is how our Confessions define the term, "Liturgy," as a synonym for the Ministry of the Gospel, and that is also how I deliberately prefer to use the term.)
As far as faith is concerned, in itself, there is nothing else (neither more nor less) to be considered; nothing more that needs to be said or done. Faith receives everything in the divine Liturgy of the Gospel, by which Christ bestows Himself and all His benefits upon His Church. So one might be tempted to suggest or conclude that everything else is either pointless or entirely up for grabs.
Yet, faith does not live all by itself. It is both served and sustained by the neighbor in the Communion of Saints (a double entendre embracing both the Holy Communion and the Holy Christian Church; as St. Paul writes in First Corinthians, that we are all one body in Christ, even as we all partake of the one bread which is His Body, and drink from the Cup of His own Blood). So also does faith, in turn, serve the neighbor in love (like that of Christ Himself for all of us).
Also, it is necessary that faith continue to be "maintenanced" and served by the means of grace; both because these are means of real fellowship with God in Christ, and because the Christian remains a child of Adam in this world, still subject to sin, until his Baptism is finally completed in death (and then comes the final judgment with the resurrection of the body on the last day).
Furthermore, faith does not lead to freedom from God and man, but rejoices to live in the freedom of true fellowship with God and Man, first of all in Christ, but so also with His many brethren. And as the Christian shares, participates in, and lives the divine life in Christ, so does he move in love toward his neighbor (as Christ has come down from heaven for us all): to serve the neighbor in body and soul. Living in Christ by faith, we bear fruits of love after His own kind.
So Christian life is not lived in "splendid isolation," but always in relationship with God and the neighbor. It is lived in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another, as Luther puts it so beautifully and succinctly in his post-Communion Collect. It is lived in the Liturgy of the Gospel, and from that Liturgy into the world within each Christian’s own vocations.
The Christian life is therefore lived "liturgically," that is to say, from Holy Baptism into Christ, and daily back to the significance of Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession and absolution, unto faith and life in the forgiveness of sins. And from Holy Baptism, it is lived to and from the Altar (as Wilhelm Löhe has so nicely described in several different ways). To the Altar in faith, and from the Altar in love: into the various stations in life to which God has called you, in which you live in relationship to particular neighbors in particular contexts. (This is also both the impetus for and the content of genuine evangelical missions, something else that Wilhelm Löhe both understood and put into practice, both at home and far abroad.)
Such is the substance and reality of the matter. But none of this is obvious or transparent, nor at all believable apart from the Word and Spirit of God. Thus, again, everything depends upon the preaching and catechesis of the Word of Christ (by which the Spirit works and is given). If the preaching is gotten right, then everything else will follow. And if the preaching is off, then everything else will languish and may falter altogether. Thankfully, there are liturgical safeguards against bad preaching, such as the lectionary, the established and agreed-upon orders of service, the solid body of good hymnody, all of which "preach" and "confess" the Gospel in their own way. Where those safeguards have been gotten rid of, then bad preaching will be downright fatal.
Good and right preaching is necessarily liturgical; but that needs to be defined and understood correctly. "Liturgical preaching" is the confession of Christ Jesus (see St. Matthew 16 and the exposition of that text in our confessional Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope). It is preaching that speaks as the Father speaks the Son. For if anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracle of God.
Liturgical preaching is (again, as already indicated) always preaching to and from Holy Baptism — which is to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins — which is to preach the Law and the Gospel, not as mere information "about" the Word of God, but as the putting to death of the sinner and the resurrection of the New Man (who is Christ in us). Such preaching is a living and active Word, which does not simply instruct and inform, but has its way with the hearer and does something to him; because it is the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation.
It is in this sense, and not simply by token references to the Sacraments, that "liturgical preaching" is sacramental preaching. Similarly, good and right preaching is liturgical, not simply by quoting or referring to the rites of the Liturgy and/or the Propers of the Day (though doing so is often a fine thing to do). Rather, it is properly "liturgical" as an integral part of the Liturgy itself, as it functions to bring the congregation from the lectern to the Altar; from the appointed Holy Gospel of the Day to the Gospel of the Verba; from the Word of the Holy Scriptures to the administration of that Word-made-Flesh in the Holy Communion. There are all sorts of different ways in which any particular sermon may do this, but in one way or another this is the liturgical point and purpose of preaching: to bring the disciples of Jesus to the eating and drinking of His Body and His Blood in the worthiness of repentant faith.
This preaching of the Gospel (from the font and the lectern to the Altar) is the most basic structure and substance of the Divine Service (the Liturgy). True Christian worship consists, principally and primarily, in hearing and receiving this Gospel, the Word and the Word-made-Flesh, which is Christ Jesus. This is the chief activity of faith (hearing and receiving the Gospel), and it is by such faith that God desires to be worshiped (rather than by works of the Law). Faith itself lives from this preaching and hearing, this giving and receiving of the Gospel.
In a very real sense, everything else is "adiaphora" (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). Everything else is entirely free to faith; although it is nevertheless bound by love for the neighbor, not for the sake of any merit or righteousness (which is neither necessary nor possible), but rather for the sake of God’s command and the neighbor’s need. In any event, whatever else is done to adorn and accompany the preaching and administration of the Word of Christ, must serve and support that Word (and Sacrament); otherwise it has no place.
Adiaphorous rites and ceremonies (and any other sort of practices) serve and support the Word (and Sacrament), and thereby serve faith and love, in two main ways: as catechesis, and as confession. For what is done, and how it is done, communicates, and thereby instructs and declares the truth of what is happening (though it is hidden under the Cross). A particular case in point might be the use of precious metals and fine art to adorn the cross and the vessels of the Holy Communion, in order to confess the glory of God that is manifested in the Cross of Christ and in the Body and Blood of Christ (under bread and wine), which is otherwise hidden from our eyes.
Over time, the Church on earth has corporately developed, handed over, and received a variety of outward forms, orders, settings, customs, and adornments, which (may) collectively assist in leading the congregation to and from the Word and the Word-made-Flesh. The traditional order of the Divine Service, for example, does this in a profound and marvelous way. The people of God are thereby guided to and from the means of grace by way of the Word, especially the Psalms; and in receiving and responding to these gifts, on the basis of the Word, the congregation prays and confesses and offers thanksgiving.
The "ordinary" and the "propers’ of the Divine Service, respectively, provide both consistency and movement, the center throughout being Christ and His Gospel of forgiveness. Here, too, everything (or very close to everything) is drawn from the Holy Scriptures, but arranged by the Church collectively over time. Thus we have the lectionary and the Church Year, which are truly a "school of faith," whereby we are annually lead through the life of Christ. Luther’s comments on the Second Article in the Large Catechism are insightful and instructive in this respect, as he remarks that the fullness of that confession is preached in the course of the year, especially at the various festivals of Christ.
Now, within and around this common heritage, there are always going to be local variations, as well as gradual developments and modifications over time, from one place to another. There may be differing translations (or paraphrases) of liturgical texts, and different musical settings, as well as small adjustments to the basic order of things. In some respects, there really is a lot of wiggle room in all of this, though for the sake of love pastors and congregations ought to use caution and act in concert with the whole Church (as much as possible). We remember that faith lives in love with the neighbor, and seeks to serve the neighbor for Jesus’ sake, rather than insisting on personal preference, proclivities, or tastes.
A case in point may be found in certain ceremonial practices, or even with some vestments, which can sometimes (in some places) evoke a visceral or volatile reaction. Chasubles, chanting, incense, kneeling and bowing, etc., all can be defended as meet, right and salutary in honor and support of the Word of God, but may sometimes occasion a distraction from that Word of God, depending on the context and the manner in which they are introduced and practiced. The issue is not so much a matter of simplicity vs. complexity. The goal is to serve and support the Word of God to the glory of Christ’s holy Name and for the benefit of His dear people. Thus, again, whatever is done ought to be serving primarily as confession and catechesis of the divine Word. In this both faith and love are exercised. Practically speaking, that amounts to reverence toward God and courtesy toward one another.
With that in mind, once more, there are always going to be local variations; not only from one locale to the next, but in the course of the year (and over time) in each place. Particularities come into play, such as architecture, the composition and character of the congregation, the language and history of the people in that place, cultural tensions and considerations, musical resources, etc. In addition to all of these factors, the Church is a living, corporate body, always growing in faith and love, and in maturity seeking to love and serve the neighbor in the name of Christ: with evangelical integrity rather than self-righteous legalism.
In short, it is not a question of minimalism, nor of what we can "get away with," but of how best to honor and serve the Gospel in loving service to one another in the world. The answer, and the form it will take, will differ from time to time, from place to place. We dare not lose sight of that, nor lose our bearings (in the Gospel) — lest what is free for all be turned into a "free-for-all"!
What God has given is a given, but what about the rest? Here time will not suffice to go into any great detail, but a few brief comments may be made. Adiaphora are neither commanded nor forbidden; thus, they are free, but not insignificant. They are gifts to be freely received (in faith) and used in love (or not used, also in love). There is an important place in this for honoring the traditions and the catholicity of the Church. Genuine Christian traditions are a handing over of Christ from one age to the next, from one generation to the next, by various ways and means. In a related way, catholicity refers to the unity of the Church in all times and places — in Christ. Sharing a common heritage enables us to make a clear and consistent common confession of the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all. This consistency and continuity enable both the very young and the very old, the illiterate and the sensory impaired, to participate in the Church’s corporate life of prayer, praise and thanksgiving. And there is a solid stability in all of this, which is conducive to finding peace and Sabbath Rest in the Liturgy of Christ.
The administration of the Liturgy in the actual life of the Church on earth (comprised of sinners in an always-shifting context of multiple variables) necessitates pastoral discernment and discretion for the sake of genuine pastoral care. That requires a recognition of pastoral authority, which is defined by responsibility and self-sacrificing love after the example of Christ. Pastors are stewards of the Mysteries of God, and they shall be held accountable for their stewardship; it is not for the sake of personal glory, but for the benefit and salvation of those for whom the very Son of God gave His life and shed His holy, precious blood upon the Cross.
It is incumbent upon all of us as Christians, both pastors and parishioners — as well as brother pastors and sister congregations — that we bear with one another in love, and bear each others burdens with compassion and patience. True love (which proceeds from faith in Christ) covers a multitude of sins (with free and full forgiveness, for Christ Jesus’ sake). There is much that can be tolerated in love, in the freedom of the Gospel, even if this or that is not preferable or ideal; even though it may not be historically sound or aesthetically pleasing. The Church is constituted and defined liturgically, that is to say, by the Liturgy of the Gospel, but not ceremonially (though ceremony can help to identify and describe what is actually going on in the Liturgy of the Gospel).
Love can finally tolerate a rather wide variation and diversity in ceremonies. What love will not tolerate is a false Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel in its truth and purity must be given free course among us, for the edification of the Church and the salvation of sinners, to the glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Both faith and love depend entirely upon that Gospel.
The Gospel therefore ought to permeate and define our conduct of the Divine Service, as well as our conversation concerning the Divine Service. Where the Law is spoken, as it must be, this too is to be done for the sake of love and put into the service of the Gospel.
It is finally the Gospel of forgiveness — which we hear and receive in the Divine Service, and which we speak to one another — that alone serves faith unto the life everlasting. It is this life which God, in love for us, bestows upon us by His Liturgy; and we, in faith and love, will insist upon it for ourselves and for our neighbors in the world.