13 November 2017

Where Do We Go From Here?

{A presentation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Granger, Indiana, following an earlier presentation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart, Indiana, by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne - South Bend Diocese, on the present day significance of the Reformation for Lutherans and Roman Catholics} 

It was an eye-opening experience, which left a deep and lasting impression upon me, even these 27 years later.  As a young seminary student in Fort Wayne, doing institutional visitations at a local nursing home, I found the little old lady Protestants boasting about all their years of service to the church, all their good works and contributions, whereas the little old lady Catholics spoke of their unworthiness, their faults and failings, and their hope in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ Jesus.  Somehow things were not adding up in the way I would ever have guessed or expected, and I had to ask myself why.  It has seemed to me that those little old lady Catholics, and no doubt many others, too, knew themselves to be sinners, but they had also learned to know Christ Jesus as their Savior through the Holy Gospels, the Creeds of the Church, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And I would suggest that their experience and their faith were not so different from Martin Luther’s.

My own family and growing up years were not divided between different confessions.  We were deeply dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans, so that is something I have always known firsthand.  As an adult, however, my contacts and connections with Roman Catholic Christians have been close to home at times.  One of my own dear sisters married into a Roman Catholic family, and she and her husband are bringing up their children within the Roman Church.  In recent years, several of the young people I have been privileged to care for at Emmaus have since become Roman Catholics.  In these situations, I have known the painful sense of distance and separation that many of you have also experienced within your extended families.  But I have also had the opportunity, then, to see things from their perspective, and to gain a greater understanding of my brothers and sisters in Christ within the Roman Church.  Of course, as a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I spent a number of years working within a Roman Catholic academic environment and gaining a great respect for my professors and classmates across confessional lines.  Ironically, in my course work at Notre Dame I was often viewed as being “too Lutheran,” but as a Lutheran pastor I have more than once been told that I am “too Catholic.”  I’m inclined to wear both labels as compliments.

In considering the Reformation and what it means for us today, I should say that, throughout my twenty-two years as a Lutheran pastor, it has always been my preference to remember and give thanks for the Lutheran reformers and those events of the sixteenth century in close connection with the Feast of All Saints.  That is to understand the Reformation as it was intended, not as a division of the Church on earth, nor as a separation from the Church catholic, but as a call for the Church to be faithful in hearing, receiving, trusting, and confessing the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  In Him we are united as fellow members of one Body, as the children of one God and Father.  And within that holy communion of all saints, we are called to live and work together in faith and love.

Is the Reformation a cause for celebration or sorrow?  Or is it rather both?  A tragic necessity, as some have described it.  As Bishop Rhoades noted this past month, Lutherans have celebrated the Reformation as a recovery of the Gospel, whereas Roman Catholics have mourned the divisions of the Church on earth that developed and increased in the course of the sixteenth century.  Few if any would deny that there were abuses and errors that needed to be addressed and reformed.  It is no surprise that different answers and solutions were offered in response to those concerns, and it is to the credit of our fathers and mothers in the faith that they were passionate in their resolve.  We celebrate their convictions and commitments, while we do indeed grieve the animosities.

We dare not suppose that the only real issues and errors of the sixteenth century Reformation were volatile temperaments and mutual ill treatment of opponents.  It was not just a battle over words and semantic nuances.  There were those things, to be sure, which made it more difficult to address and resolve the real issues and errors.  But real issues and errors there were, which did not go away but solidified and calcified and entrenched themselves in the decades and centuries that followed.  What will help us now to address those real issues and errors is a willingness to speak and listen to one another, especially as we listen carefully (together) to the Word of the Lord and to the historic witness of His Church from the beginning.  We pray and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Let us be honest with ourselves.  The Church on earth is never going to be flawless, infallible, or perfect, though she is indeed the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus.  His Church is a queen, even when she is dressed in the humility of beggar’s rags, because she is clothed and adorned with the righteousness and holiness of Christ, who loved her and gave Himself for her, even unto death.

In this life there will always be divisions, even within the Lord’s Church, just as there have been from the beginning — among the twelve disciples, between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and beyond, and so throughout the centuries.  The East and West were divided centuries before the Reformation.  Nevertheless, we do not resign ourselves to accept these divisions, as though they were of no consequence, but we address them with the Word of God and prayer, in the humility of repentance, in the confidence of faith, and with real charity.

Indeed, we are called to do in our own day what Martin Luther and many others (on all sides) sought to do in the sixteenth century, which is to heal and strengthen the Church on earth in the unity of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  For it is certain that no other unity than that of Christ will do!  Which necessarily means bearing His Cross in faith toward God, and in love for the Lord and for each other in His Name.  We ought to suffer willingly all manner of wrongs against ourselves, to the extent that we can do so without ever compromising the truth of the Gospel.  And in that Truth, we must obey God rather than man, and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.

Certainly, the aims of the Reformation were not the divisions that resulted.  But even those sad and painful divisions can help to clarify the Truth, much as the controversies of the early church served to clarify the confession of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Where, then, do we go from here?  Already it is the case that we Lutherans and Roman Catholics do share a great deal in common, as the recipients of a common heritage.  When I visited St. Pius on a Saturday evening earlier this month, although your musical settings were unfamiliar to me, I was easily able to follow and participate in the Liturgy because we share the same order and ordinary of the Mass.  On any given Sunday, we are likely to hear the same Holy Scriptures.  We confess the same Creeds and pray the same Our Father.  We celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar with the same Words of our Lord, just as we baptize in the Name of the same Holy Triune God.  We have similar architecture and furnishings, similar vestments and other adornments, similar rites and ceremonies.  We look and sound alike.  Where, then, do we differ?  What is it that divides us?

It is clear that we cannot hope to address, even briefly, all of the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in our time together this evening.  The challenge, I suppose, is to identify some of those areas of greatest concern and of the greatest potential for mutual conversation and growth.  So, as a Lutheran pastor and theologian, let me simply point to some of those key areas:

Areas of lingering concern and/or continuing significance

Foundationally, we have differed from each other in the ordering of the Church and Ministry, that is to say, in the way the pastors of the Church relate to each other and to the people.  Lutherans have generally not had the structured hierarchy that the Roman Church does, though there are some exceptions to that observation.  In any case, Lutherans have viewed apostolic succession, the office of the pope, and the magisterium of bishops quite differently than Roman Catholics.  We hold the office of preaching and teaching in high regard, as a divine institution, but we locate the authority and certainty of the Church’s teaching and practice in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures.  We are not able to affirm or confess as an article of faith what is not clearly taught in the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory is a case in point, along with indulgences and prayers for the dead.  These matters clearly touch upon the fundamental matters of faith and justification, which are key to almost all of the differences between our churches.  But in the case of Purgatory, it is not set forth with any clarity from the Scriptures but from the teaching and traditions of the Church.  Lutherans understand the testing and purifying of each man’s work by fire (1 Cor. 3:13), not as a place or a process between death and the final judgment, but as the dying of the old man that is worked in us through Holy Baptism and daily repentance and is finally completed in death.

In other words, the “purging” of our sins, the cleansing of all unrighteousness in us, and the purification of body and soul without which no one will see God, occurs in the course of this life under the Cross, as we are confronted with the fact of our mortality.  And, again, it is completed with the actual dying of our mortal flesh, for the one who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:7).  It is the process of learning to live, not by our own works and efforts, but in faith and love within the household and family of God — within which we already live, and to which we already belong as beloved children of God in Christ Jesus, even now in much frailty and weakness.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus we are justified (Rom. 4:25), and in the resurrection of all flesh on the last day we shall be holy and righteous in body and soul, glorified like unto the glorious Body of Christ Himself (Phil. 3:21).  For now, we do not yet see things as they are, but then we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).  As our bodies shall be made new and perfected, with all sickness, suffering, and death forgotten like a dream that is past, so shall we also be purified, perfected, and made entirely new in heart, mind, soul, and spirit (Rev. 21:5).

Another area of significant concern and disagreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is the sacrifice of the Mass.  That was one of the most volatile points of controversy at the time of the Reformation, and it remains somewhat beclouded and confusing even now.  I am aware of developments in the way the Roman Church describes and teaches this sacrifice, and I applaud those efforts to clarify and correct some of the bold and extravagant assertions of the past.  But in my estimation, the underlying issue has yet to be resolved.  God grant that, by His grace, we might finally arrive at a more consistent and common confession of Christ the Crucified in this area.

As I have mentioned, all of the differences between us center in the doctrine of justification, in the way we understand the relationship of faith and love.  Though there is probably more agreement in this area than many have supposed over the past five centuries, there do remain key points of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) has demonstrated.  I’ll have more to say about this point momentarily, as it truly is foundational to everything else.

What is probably more obvious to many Lutheran lay people, as they consider the piety of their Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, is the place and importance of St. Mary and the saints in the Christian faith and life.  Honestly, Lutherans have often not given the attention to the saints that our Confessions recommend: that we should remember them with thanksgiving to God, learn from the example of their faith and life, and be encouraged by the mercies of the Lord upon them.  At Emmaus, we celebrate the saints throughout the year to the praise and glory of Christ Jesus, just as we have celebrated the Feast of All Saints on the 1st of November.  But where we differ from Roman Catholics in practice is that we find no command or promise attached to the invocation of the saints.  We acknowledge that the saints in heaven pray and intercede for the Church on earth, but we have no certainty from the Scriptures that we can or should call upon them for assistance.  We are even more cautious and skeptical concerning the appearances and miracles of the saints.  And we object to making the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of St. Mary into articles of faith, on the grounds that neither of these traditions are clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.

Who We Lutherans Are, and What We Lutherans Are About

For the sake of our conversation and discussion, it is important that you know who we Lutherans are and what we are about.  Despite popular impressions, we are defined and identified, not only vis-à-vis the Roman Church, but also vis-à-vis the Protestant churches of various stripes.  Indeed, from their perspective (and ours) we are, in many ways, closer to Rome than we are to them!  As Luther once quipped in his arguments with the Protestant reformers on the Lord’s Supper, “Better to drink Blood with the pope than wine with Zwingli!”  It was a polemical comment, to be sure, but also a positive affirmation of what the Sacrament is, and of what we share with Rome.

The Lutheran Reformation was not simply a “protest” against the errors and excesses in the piety and practices of the Church at that time.  It was very much pro-Gospel and pro-Sacraments.  It was positively for the glory of Christ Jesus, and for the comforting of consciences with His Gospel of forgiveness.  And it was positively for the glorious freedom and the confident certainty that faith receives and finds in the solid, objective Word and promises of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the present day, especially, it is also necessary to distinguish the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (to which Trinity in Elkhart and my congregation, Emmaus in South Bend, both belong) in contrast to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation, with whom we are not in fellowship due to some rather sharp disagreements on many points of doctrine and practice.  Sadly, those disagreement have increased in recent years, rather than declining.

The Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative in both doctrine and practice; in its approach to both the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; in its engagement with other churches; and in its posture and position on such things as abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.

Whereas the ELCA and the LWF have been aggressively involved in ecumenism on numerous fronts, their own more “liberal” and “progressive” attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women have presented a strong impediment to ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics, as Bishop Rhoades indicated in his presentation at Trinity this past month.

Though the Missouri Synod (LCMS) has been more reticent about the ecumenical movement, it is very much a kindred spirit with the Roman Church in the defense of marriage, sexuality, and life.  It has also been eager to cooperate, where possible, in external works of mercy on every level.

The differences between the Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the ELCA/LWF are especially germane in considering the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, as that Declaration was between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Missouri Synod has not endorsed the Joint Declaration, in view of a number of weaknesses and unresolved issues.

The discussion and the desire for unity in the doctrine of justification are commendable, for that doctrine is foundational to the Church and central to the Christian faith and life.  However, it is premature to suggest that the matter has been resolved between us, or that the real issues and concerns of the sixteenth century have been more or less overcome by way of clarifications.

In my estimation, the Joint Declaration has helped to clarify the positions of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, and has helpfully identified areas of agreement and disagreement.  It has done so with a friendly and fraternal spirit, no doubt with the sincerest intentions.  I appreciate all of these contributions, even though I believe that it is overly optimistic in its conclusions.

The Joint Declaration itself indicates differences of understanding, which go beyond differences in emphasis and nuance.  It also notes that other doctrines and practices of real consequence, such as Purgatory, are simply not addressed, though they clearly touch upon the doctrine of justification.  Even in signing the Joint Declaration, the Vatican issued an Addendum of “Clarifications,” which identifies several points of disagreement in decisive aspects of justification.  I can only agree with their assessment, that these several points remain divisive at the very heart of the matter at hand.

What these various points of disagreement come down to is whether or not our righteousness in the presence of God is located in us or in Christ Jesus; whether the new and holy life that we now possess and live in Christ is the cause or the consequence of our justification and righteousness before God; and whether we love God and our neighbor in order to become righteous or because we are accounted righteous by faith in God’s Word and promise of forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

The Righteousness of Faith and the Holiness of Life in Christ

As the Vatican pointed out in its “Clarifications” of the Joint Declaration, the distinctive Lutheran teaching of “Simul iustus et peccator” is a point of significant disagreement, which highlights the fundamental difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the doctrine of justification.

For Lutherans, the notion that we are simultaneously justified and yet still sinful, both saints and sinners at the same time — Simul iustus et peccator — addresses the experiential reality that every Christian faces (along with St. Paul in Romans 7).  It embraces the seemingly contradictory Word of God, which confronts us with the demands, threats, and punishments of the Law, and yet it also comforts and consoles us with the free and full forgiveness of the Gospel.

In response to the arguments of the Roman Church that concupiscence is not truly sin, but simply the temptation to sin and the potential for actual sin, Lutherans would say that such a position fails to account for the serious depths of covetous lust, which St. Paul identifies as idolatry (Col. 3:5).  These arguments go back to the Reformation and demonstrate the real disagreement that remains.

For me, these differences in doctrine are not academic, semantic, or theoretical, but of pastoral and practical concern.  As Christians committed to my pastoral care come to me with their confession of sins and temptations, how shall I comfort and console them?  How shall I strengthen and sustain their faith in Christ?  How shall I instruct them to live?  To what (or whom) shall I point them?  In themselves they find both sin and death, from which they cannot set themselves free.  But in Christ Jesus they find and receive the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of life and salvation.

Saving faith, which is to say, not simply knowledge and assent, but confident trust in the Lord, is called into being and nurtured by the Word and promise of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.  This faith is worked in us by the Word and Spirit of God (Rom. 10:17), as He creates all things out of nothing by His Word, and as He calls the Light out of the darkness with His Word (2 Cor. 4:6).  Such faith lays hold of Christ as it hears and receives Him in the Word of the Gospel and in the Holy Sacraments.  And in Christ it receives and possesses all righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness in the presence of God.  This is the comfort of consciences that glorifies Christ.

Having made this point, it is also the case that saving faith in Christ, which receives all things and possesses all things in Him, is itself the beginning of the new life in Christ.  Such faith is the first and foremost good work, the fulfillment of the first and greatest Commandment.  It is not in virtue of this work, nor by the quality of this good work, that faith justifies; for that is by Christ Himself, whose Righteousness and Holiness are credited to us by grace.  But the same faith that lays hold of Him and trusts Him for all things, also lives in love for Him and in love for others for His sake.

Thus, faith and love, righteousness and holiness can be distinguished and theologically separated, but they do not exist in practice apart from one another.  Faith alone justifies, but such faith is never alone.  It is a living, busy, active embracing of Christ, which is always working in love for God and man in Christ and in the neighbor.  Precisely because it is a fearless confidence in Christ.

When both justification and sanctification, faith and life, forgiveness and renewal, the Law and the Gospel are all located and centered in Christ Jesus, any tensions between these points are resolved in Him, in whom righteousness and peace, mercy and sacrifice kiss each other in perfect harmony.

He is all of these things for us, in the first place.  And He is all of these things in us by His grace through faith in His Word and promise of the Gospel — in and with the Holy Spirit, who lays Christ upon our hearts and brings us to the Father as beloved and well-pleasing children in Him.  The Righteousness of faith in Christ thus becomes the Holiness of life in Christ, as it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).  But as soon as we attempt to begin with ourselves, with what is happening in us, with our believing, living, loving, and working, then we inevitably shift, not only the focal point but the entire center of gravity, from Christ to ourselves. He is and remains ever for us, our merciful and great High Priest at all times and in all places, from beginning to end, unto the life everlasting.  He is not simply the starting point, but the entire story, both the Subject and the Object of our faith and life, the Source and the Summit of our salvation.

It is in Christ Jesus, and especially by way of our Baptism into Him, that we have received the gracious adoption of sons (Galatians 4:4–7).  In Him, we are beloved and well-pleasing children of God, named with His Name and anointed with His Spirit.  We are members of His household and family, of the One who knows how to give good gifts to His children, by whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.  And I have found this to be a particularly helpful way in which to understand the relationship of justification and sanctification, to speak in Lutheran terms.

As a child of God in Christ Jesus, you already belong to the Father; you already have a place in His home, at His Table, a place of Peace and Sabbath Rest which the Lord Jesus has prepared for you.  Within that place, as a member of the family, you are disciplined by the Father who loves you, as you are taught to live in love for Him and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But your growth in wisdom and stature, in faith, hope, and charity, in righteousness and holiness of life, is growth within the place that is already yours within the household and family of God.  You’re not earning the right to become a child of God, but learning to live as the child of God that you already are.  Your place in the family is your justification.  Your life within the household is your sanctification.

Areas of mutual concern in the faith and life of the Church on earth

Now, as the children of one God and Father in Christ Jesus, we are also the children of one holy Mother, the Church, conceived and born of her by the grace of God through His Word and Spirit.

We are thus called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to live in communion with the one Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven.  In practice, therefore, now as in the sixteenth century, we are called to nurture an evangelical catholicity, which is to find the fellowship of the Church in the exercise of the Gospel.  That is a fellowship of pastoral care, encompassing catechesis and Holy Baptism, the consistent preaching and teaching of Christ, mutual accountability and assistance, confession of faith, confession and absolution of sins, and the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper with reverence and thanksgiving in the unity of a common confession of Christ Jesus.

Though we are not yet able to do many of these things together, we nevertheless share a unity in Christ in these ways and means of the Gospel.  The same communion that is ours in Holy Baptism is also strengthened as we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ within our own respective churches.  As the sparrow has found her home and made her nest in the altars of the Lord, and as the faithful departed now rest under His Altar in heaven, awaiting the consummation of all things, so do we shelter in the Lord’s Altar on earth, even as we pray, “How long, O Lord, how long?”  That very point at which our divisions are most painfully obvious is nevertheless the place where we are united in the one Body of Christ with each other and all His saints in heaven and on earth.

Within the life of the Church on earth, across confessional lines, there is a need for a reformation of reverence in the celebration and conduct of the Liturgy.  That includes a reverence for the Holy Scriptures in teaching and practice, and a reverence for the Sacrament in teaching and practice.  These sacred things are not in competition with each other; on the contrary, they belong intimately to each other.  The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Sacrament stand and fall together (in practice).

On that note, I must commend Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy and his three little volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, which are so beautifully written and so helpful to the faith and life of the Church.  His writing is thoroughly scriptural, consistently Christocentric, and deeply evangelical.  His witness to the Gospel has more than once given me pause and a degree of optimism for the future, that Lutherans and Roman Catholics might find greater unity in our confession of Christ.

If we are to have that kind of unity as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we must by all means resist the temptation to substitute politics, programs, or pop culture paradigms for genuine pastoral care and eucharistic life.  Where it has declined or been lost altogether, we must recover and nurture a sacramental piety and practice.  To do so is not an intellectual exercise, an academic achievement, or an emotional experience, but an active passivity, one might say, which receives, lays hold of, clings to, and trusts the Word-made-Flesh in the Liturgy of His Gospel.  It is in the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacrament that we enter into the eucharistic sacrifice of faith and love, not only in the celebration of the Liturgy, but throughout our life in the world.

Our life as Christians, as individuals belonging to the communion of the Body of Christ, is to be offered up as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (Rom. 12:1–2).  At work, at school, at home, in the community, up in the stands or out on the field: How we speak and how we live is determined and shaped by the Liturgy, in which the Lord gives Himself to us in love, His Body and His Blood, that we might live unto God in Him, in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

That life in Christ is what governs (or ought to govern) our thinking and example in the arenas of marriage, sexuality, procreation, and family.  Within those arenas, it seems to me that Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to be talking and listening to each other in addressing such rampant challenges as divorce and the reigning birth control mentality that has become so entrenched within our culture, and which permeates the thinking of many Christians, as well.  Here is where John Paul’s Theology of the Body has made such a profound contribution to the benefit of us all.

These are but a couple examples of where we ought to be working together, learning together, and confessing together.  No doubt there are many other such places where we ought to stand together in common cause, to give witness to the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3–6).  But it is easier said than done.  Not only because of the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but also because of the diversity and disunity that exist within our respective communions in teaching and practice.  And as we have too often found it difficult to speak to one another, it is all the more challenging to speak together with one voice.  Not only because of the differences in the way our churches are structured and ordered, but also because of the distance between official positions and statements, the academic teachers of the church, the preaching and practice of parish pastors, and the piety, understanding, faith, and life of the laity at home and in the world.

The Roman Church has some advantages over the diversity of Lutheran churches, in that there is a clearly defined hierarchy of teaching authority, although it seems to me that a great deal of latitude is permitted among Roman Catholic theologians.  Among Lutherans, it has increasingly been the case that every parish pastor perceives himself to be a pope unto himself in his own parish.  There is not the kind of mutual accountability and responsibility between our pastors that would serve to strengthen and support our common confession of the faith in preaching and practice.  That concerns me deeply, and it is an area where I believe the Lutheran Church is in need of reformation in our own day.  If only the answers and solutions were as obvious as the critique.

Compounding these challenges, there is also the tension that exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics with respect to the relationship and the relative authority of the Holy Scriptures and the teachers and traditions of the Church.  Caricatures are not helpful, but there are differences between us here.  It is clear that Roman Catholics hold the Scriptures sacred and, especially since Vatican II, they have increased their emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Holy Scriptures in the Liturgy.  It is likewise clear that Lutherans have historically held the teachers and traditions of the Church in high esteem, and have desired to honor them and to hold fast to that heritage in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.  But as we do not perceive or regard the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the same way, it often hinders our ability to speak together in response to the present day challenges we face in the world.  The conversation concerning Purgatory in the Q&A with Bishop Rhoades at Trinity this past month was a case in point.  All the more reason that we must continue to engage one another in honest debate and fraternal dialogue, so that we might be taught by God to confess the Word of Christ with one voice, in one Spirit.

Lutheran contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

It is my belief that we can and should be listening to and learning from each other.  For example, the Lutheran Reformation and the Lutheran Church have contributed to a greater appreciation of Holy Baptism and its ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  Luther’s clarion call, already on the Eve of All Saints in 1517, that the entire Christian life is to be one of daily repentance, was really a call to remember and return to the dying and rising of repentance and faith in Holy Baptism.  That was not to abolish the practice of penance, but to encourage Confession and Absolution as an exercise of faith in the Gospel.  Luther himself heard and received the Gospel from his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, and he knew well the pastoral care of the confessional.  (We commemorated Johannes von Staupitz with thanksgiving this past week, on November the 8th).

Luther also contributed a passion for the Lord’s Supper at the heart of the Church’s life, as the very embodiment of the Gospel.  His zeal in opposing the sacrifice of the Mass, on the one hand, and in defending the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, on the other hand, seemed odd and over the top to many of his opponents.  But for Luther it was a matter of clinging to the Word of Christ and not allowing anything within or without to dissuade him from the profound simplicity of what the Lord has spoken.  He understood that faith and the Sacraments go together, hand in glove, as do the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church.  And it all depends upon the Word of Christ.  Hence the strong Lutheran emphasis, from the start and to the present day, on the necessity and value of preaching and teaching, on the importance of thorough catechesis, and on the writing and singing of sturdy hymns that praise God, proclaim the Gospel, and clearly confess Christ Jesus.  No one could doubt the Lutheran contribution to the musical heritage of the Church catholic.

The Lutheran Reformation did bring comfort and peace to many troubled consciences through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.  That is the Church’s greatest treasure, and still is ours today.  And far from discouraging good works, it is by faith in the free and full forgiveness of sins that the Commandments are kept and callings are fulfilled in loving service for the neighbor.  For it is in the certainty of the Word and promises of God that faith lives and abides in hope; and it is in the freedom of the Gospel that faith abounds in thanksgiving to God and in charity for all people.

These are Lutheran contributions which nobody can deny.  But so do these very treasures of the Reformation call for an ongoing self-critique on the part of Lutherans in our own day.  Where and how have we become a caricature of ourselves, emphasizing clichés at the expense of the Truth?  And in what ways have we jettisoned the evangelical catholicity of historic Lutheran theology and practice in favor of formulaic slogans and idiosyncratic sectarian “Protestantism”?

In the centuries since the Reformation, the actual practice of Confession & Absolution among Lutherans has languished and fallen by the wayside.  It has been largely unknown in many places, to such an extent that many Lutherans go to their graves without ever going to Confession; and where it is recommended or encouraged, it is resisted and decried as “too Catholic.”  Such attitudes and neglect are contrary to our Lutheran teaching and detrimental to the Christian faith and life.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper has likewise suffered in a variety of ways.  The frequency of celebration has at times been dismal.  Thankfully, that has improved in recent decades, but it is still not understood that the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day is to be the norm.  Even where it may be celebrated more frequently, there is a lack of reverence for the Sacrament in many of our congregations, in which a casual and careless handling of the Body and Blood of Christ denies the very Word we claim to confess.  There is also a widespread practice of open communion, even in the Missouri Synod (LCMS), despite the consistent teaching and official position of our church.

I’ve already touched upon another area in which we Lutherans are in need of reformation in our own day, that is, with respect to the ordering of the Holy Ministry, the relationship of pastors to one another and to the Church at large.  I would be very glad to see our “bishops” able to function as pastors, rather than bogged down and consumed with administrative duties.  And I would like to see our congregations demonstrate and exercise a greater sense of fellowship and love, a real connection to one another in the common confession of Christ and in the Holy Communion, instead of living as islands unto themselves and acting as though they were in competition.

It is certain that the Christian faith is not a do-it-yourself or go-it-alone religion, and none of us should live as though it were, neither as individual Christians, nor as pastors and congregations.  Nor as church bodies, as Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  Though we are separated by differences in doctrine and practice, we are brothers and sisters in the washing of the water with the Word and in the confessing of the Holy Trinity in the baptismal and eucharistic Creeds of the Church.

Roman Catholic contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

From the Roman Catholic Church, to cite just a few examples, I believe that we Lutherans have much to learn, as well, as disciples of Christ Jesus called to carry the Cross in faith and love.

Though we have done somewhat better in recent years, we still have much to learn in the giving of alms and in works of mercy for our neighbors in the world.  In our emphasis on the Gospel, and in our distinction of faith and love with respect to our justification before God, we have at times been too slow to encourage, facilitate, and teach the activities, works, and sacrifices of love that our Lord Himself and His Apostles both taught and exemplified.  That is not a matter of doctrine but of our own sinfulness, laziness, and neglect, for which we need to repent and do better.

It is similar in the case of the other cardinal disciplines of fasting and prayer.  Lutherans have not neglected to pray — though none of us prays as he should — but we have generally not been as good about coming together for the daily prayer of the Church as such.  Perhaps that is a place in which both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have allowed the pace of the world to pull us away from the Body of Christ.  But my sense is that Roman Catholics have been more consistent and persistent in maintaining the daily rhythms of the Church’s liturgical life.  We can learn from that.  And all the more so when it comes to fasting, to which many Lutherans seem to be allergic.  Our Catechism affirms that fasting is fine outward training, but we have generally not encouraged or practiced it.  We have feared that fasting may become legalistic or contribute to self-righteousness, without realizing the dangers to be found in never fasting, in never denying our own selfishness.

Roman Catholics also have something to teach us about the place of penance in the Christian life.  First of all in actually going to confession, as (again) our Catechism clearly teaches us to do.  And then also in bearing the fruits of repentance and exercising the discipline of the Christian life.  These are matters of pastoral care which too many Lutherans do not receive because they do not rely on their pastors or confide in them as father confessors.

If it is not too daring, I suggest that we might also learn from Roman Catholics to appreciate and support the vocation of celibacy for those who are so gifted, for the sake of serving the Church and the neighbor, as St. Paul describes.  Not to disparage the goodness and holiness of marriage and family, but to encourage and assist the unmarried in the goodness and holiness of their callings.

The Need for ongoing Repentance and Reformation

For all of us, in every case, we are in a precarious position when doctrine and practice, faith and life are pitted against each other, or when any one of these are valued at the expense of any other.  But I fear that too many Christians, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, are not only ignorant of their own history and theology, but are rather ambivalent and cavalier about it all.  They have been taught by the world to prize and follow their own thoughts and feelings, their own opinions and experiences, over against the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine.  That should not be.

Perhaps it is true, as we Lutherans have suspected, that Roman Catholics are tempted to go through the motions, relying on a mechanical administration of the Sacraments.  But Lutherans, for their part, have sometimes marginalized the Ministry of the Gospel and the means of grace as though they were incidental to the Christian faith and life, perhaps even irrelevant, or simply supplemental “vitamins,” as it were, instead of the real meat and potatoes of the Meal.  The Gospel calls forth faith, and faith clings to the Gospel, and maintaining that connection requires constant vigilance.

The fact is that the Church on earth, her ministers and all her members, are constantly being called to repentance, to faith, and to newness of life in Christ — both individually and collectively — on the basis of the Holy Scriptures.  We are called back to the foundation of the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and Evangelists, to the faith fulfilled in Christ Jesus and once delivered to the saints.  And that faith and life are found in the Font and at the Altar of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, in His Body given and His Blood poured out.  The Church lives in and from the Liturgy, defined and constituted by her Lord in and with His Word and Flesh.  This Divine Liturgy is appropriately adorned and confessed with a cornucopia of beautiful traditions from across the ages and from around the globe.  But the Liturgy itself is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

In thinking about the past, and in approaching each other now and in the future, let us do so in the humility of mutual repentance and forgiveness, with the confidence of faith in Christ Jesus, and with a gentleness and peace that are born of God.  Let us be instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Word and within the liturgical life of the Body and Bride of Christ, which is indeed, by His grace alone, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

To engage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, charity of heart and clarity of thought require the consistent definition and use of key theological terms, such as grace, faith, forgiveness of sins, justification and sanctification, holiness and righteousness, love, works, and salvation.  Agreeing to disagree on such fundamental matters would be untenable as a basis for fellowship.  But it is no less untenable to be so intent on our disagreements that we refuse to agree on anything.  God grant that we not fall back into those tired old patterns of animosity.

I have been encouraged by an example I have recently discovered in the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  I’m in the process of reading the statements they have drafted over the past twenty-some years (since forming in 1994). What I’ve encountered so far has been very positive and instructive, and I would be very glad to see some Lutheran pastors and theologians involved in that effort, or in similar ventures with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

While speaking of encouraging and positive examples, I would be quite remiss if I did not express my delight in learning something of Pope St. Pius X, for whom this parish is named.  I find it quite interesting, even exciting, to discover that he was a truly pastoral reformer of the Church in his day.  And in particular, the areas in which he focused his attention and energies coincide with my own foremost concerns, as he emphasized catechesis, pastoral care, and the holy Eucharist.

Indeed, Pope St. Pius X is reminiscent of one of my personal Lutheran heroes of the faith, Wilhelm Löhe (a 19th century German Lutheran pastor), who emphasized preaching and the Sacrament, missions and works of mercy, the training of pastors and teachers for the Church, and the reverent celebration of the Liturgy.  He also saw the need for ongoing reformation in the life of the Church.

So, where do we go from here?  As I have said, the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformation was about glorifying Christ and comforting consciences with the Gospel.  And to be sure, to glorify Christ by caring for His people with His Word is what the Church is always about.  To those ends, I suggest that we take our cues from Pastor Wilhelm Löhe and Pope St. Pius X in focusing on the pastoral care and catechesis of the Church, on Holy Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, and on the Life that is given and received in the Liturgy of the Gospel.  For therein do the people of God find Peace and Sabbath Rest in the Lamb upon His Throne, to the praise and glory of His Holy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever.

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