Eternal and Temporal

Going through the Small Catechism with my son has had me reflecting a bit on how we view Baptism and Communion. The common perception of Baptism and Communion as sources of forgiveness, grace, and salvation are helpful. They tell us what God does for us on an eternal scale. The whole history of God’s salvation is distilled into what God does for us in the sacraments. So much of what God does for His people is telling them about their future with Him. The Promised Land of Israel, the holy city of Jerusalem, the Temple built by Solomon all foreshadow our eternity in God’s kingdom. This is our future in the resurrection brought by Christ. This is what we look forward to because of the forgiveness won for us by Christ.

What’s interesting is when we start looking at what Luther says about the sacraments. Regarding Baptism, Luther says, “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Through Baptism, God makes a promise to me regarding what will happen to me when I do. Eternal life is mine for death will not hold me any more than it did Christ. A big part of Christian life is looking to the future and the fulfillment of God’s promises. We recognize we have no permanent home here and we await the arrival of God’s kingdom and everything that goes with it.

When we think about the sacraments, that’s usually the sort of thing we emphasize. The sacraments bring grace and forgiveness which grants us eternal life. It’s all good stuff and the fact that the Bible makes clear the sacraments offer these things also means they are integral to what the sacraments are here for. After all, without God’s grace we’re all lost.

At the same time, we shouldn’t over look the other things the sacraments do. Once Christ returns I won’t really have to worry about Satan at all. The Bible also makes pretty clear what’s going to happen to him. However, right now Satan is a rather big concern. There’s a reason Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We wouldn’t pray for these things if we didn’t need them now. God is not just concerned about our eternal destination but also our present situation in the sinful world.

Modern baptisms in the Lutheran church have generally omitted the exorcism that used to be a part of the baptismal rite. Thinking about demons and the idea that I or my children might be under the sway of a demon makes us all rather uncomfortable. Yet, there’s a reason this was emphasized, because that’s part of what Baptism does. Through the sacraments, God is already at work healing us in body and soul in this mortal life. In a world full of division and strife, God creates unity and community as He brings brothers and sisters together around His table. All are equal and all are blessed at His table. Certainly these things have eternal significance, but their effects begin and are felt right here. This is why Luther also notes in his questions preparing one for Communion says, “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need [to take Communion] and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? Answer: To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it in Galatians 5 and Romans 7. Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say in John 15-16 and in 1 John 2 and 5. Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within or without, and the Scriptures picture him in John 8 and 16; 1 Peter 5; Ephesians 6; and 2 Timothy 2.”

All of these things are things I need and all are things that affect me now. The blessings of God are all encompassing. My life in eternity isn’t disconnected from my life now. I am already living my eternal life now. Death already has no hold over me. I am already baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. My life begins here and God’s grace is already at work here. Communion is something I continue to need because the work God does in and through it is needed today.

Standing in the Middle

If your pastor is liturgically minded, watch what he does during the Sunday morning service. Where he goes and what he does, even what direction he is facing, are all communicating something about our relationship to God. That’s one of the main points of the liturgy and a great deal of thought was put into the how’s and why’s of what happens during the divine service.

One of those ideas that the liturgy is trying to communicate is what it means to be a priest. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus is our Great High Priest, the culmination of what the Old Testament priests were trying to be. Everything they did was pointing forward to what Jesus would later do. St. Peter reminds us that we, as the church, are part of the royal priesthood. We are baptized into Christ and through our baptism we take on a priestly role as well.

That’s nice and all, but what does that actually mean? Well, that’s part of what your pastor is trying to show you. The whole nation of Israel was meant to act as priests. The sons of Aaron were thus the “priests to the priests.” Looking at what they did and what Hebrews tells us about Jesus gives us an idea of what the role of the priest is. In this case, they were meant to be the go-betweens, the mediators. They stood between both parties and argued on behalf of either side. The Old Testament sons of Aaron could never do this job perfectly. Not only were they sinners and needing to deal with the fallout of their own sin, but they also couldn’t perfectly represent God’s side of things. Jesus fixes that problem. Not only is He sinless, but he also has a foot in both camps. He has a vested interest in finding an amicable resolution to any dispute that arises between God and man because He is both.

That’s why our prayers are typically offered in Jesus’ name. He’s the one that will bring our cares and concerns before His Heavenly Father. Still, even though we can’t do the job perfectly, we are still called to do the job. We are all part of the royal priesthood. We are all mediators between God and man, even all of creation. When people are suffering from some ailment, when people want to give thanks, when there is any message to be offered to God, you have the ability and authority to pass it along to Him. On the flip side, you also have the ability and responsibility to share what God has to say about those things to the people. That’s what it means to be a priest.

This is what your pastor is trying to communicate. As part of his call, the pastor acts on behalf of the congregation. That makes him a priest to the priests. Your pastor communicates that role based on what direction he is facing. When your pastor is acting on behalf of the congregation, during prayers for instance, he’ll face the altar. You as the congregation are sharing your concerns and words of praise to him and he, in turn, lifts them up to God. When the pastor is acting on God’s behalf, such as during the benediction or absolution, he’ll face you. Your pastor may even hold his hands out with the palms up during prayer. This is an ancient posture from the early church that shows the pastor lifting up the prayers to God.

If you think about it though, you end up doing the same thing. What you’ve seen from your pastor and from Christ Himself, you are doing as well. When you come to church, you spend the service facing God. When you speak, you are lifting up the prayers, the praise, and thanks of the community around you as well as your own. The rest of the world has quite a lot to say to God and you gather that up and share it with Him when you come to His house. The rest of the week, you are still acting as a priest, but now you face outward. You are acting as God’s representative, sharing what He has given you to pass along. The message you give may be Law or Gospel, depending on the person you’re talking to, but in either case, you are acting as God’s representative.

That makes the priesthood an important role and one that is unique to humanity. This is part of what we were always created to do. The liturgy is there to help you see what that looks like and how it works.

Locating the Sacrament

One of the debates the Lutheran reformers had with the Catholic church back in the days of the Reformation regarded how many sacraments there were. Since the word “sacrament” doesn’t appear in the Bible, the church could more or less define the word however they wanted. The sacraments were always seen as place where God blessed His people with His grace. The problem was that what the word “grace” actually meant began to change as the Catholic church veered further and further off course.

As the Lutheran reformers were going back to Scripture, they saw that the Catholic definition of the word was no longer adequate, because it did not see grace as the free gift of God. When the reformers went back through Scripture with an eye to where God promises forgiveness, then many of the things Catholics thought of as sacraments dropped away. Marriage, for instance, was discarded as a sacrament. The question was never whether God blessed marriage or not. Scripture makes clear marriage is God’s intention for His people and He blesses the marital relationship. Marriage even has a special role to play in outwardly demonstrating the love Christ has for His people. However, that doesn’t mean God forgave people in and through marriage. Since there was no such promise attached to marriage, it was disqualified as a sacrament in the eyes of the Lutheran reformers. The same was true for ordination into the priesthood or last rites for the dying.

When we look through to find the places where God clearly connects His grace to a physical element, the options narrow down to 2 (or arguably 3). In this regard, God works through Baptism, Communion, and Confession and Absolution function just the same as He worked in the Old Testament. Whenever the Israelites wondered where God would be present in mercy, they had only to look at where He promised to be. God’s Word made it happen. For as much as God might approve of all sorts of things, that doesn’t mean He promises to offer His grace through them. Without that promise of grace, there is no assurance. There is no solid foundation to stand on. On the other hand, with God’s promise, we are unshakeable.

The theology of the sacraments is ultimately a theology of God’s Word. This is why Luther rested so confidently on the plain and simple words of Christ, “This is my body.” The question, “How is this possible?” was completely secondary, even irrelevant. Christ promised, and so it was. This is also why Luther, in his baptismal booklet, says not to get overly hung up on all of the peripheral rites that often go along with Baptism. Candles, white gowns, and all of that sort of thing can be very helpful and can add to our understanding of what takes place in Baptism, but they are not, in themselves Baptism. Christ does not promise to work through a candle. He promises we are joined to His death and His resurrection through the water. There, and only there, is His grace found.

Luther’s sacramental theology draws on this over and over. What does God promise? Whatever God said, that’s what the sacrament is doing. There is no need to question or debate it. God is always truthful and reliable. If He said it, then it must be.

Look to God’s Word in all things. Look especially to where He promises to be. Anything extra, nice as it may be, is not what God promises. It is only there in His Word of promise that you find salvation.

Living in God’s Presence

Despite our many differences, we Missouri Synod Lutherans consider ourselves closer theologically to the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Church than we do to any of our other Protestant brothers and sisters. We disagree with the Catholic Church over matters such as the Office of the Papacy, the role of repentance, the function of God’s grace, the existence of Purgatory, the role of the saints, and many other issues. All of these issues are points we are generally in agreement with other Protestants, who will, almost across the board, reject everything the Catholic Church teaches on these topics, just like we do.

That makes the areas where we are in agreement that much more noteworthy. “Where are we in agreement?” you ask. The primary place is in the sacraments. We don’t even agree as to the purpose and function of the sacraments, but even that is secondary. We Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox, will all agree God is truly present and active in and through the sacraments and that He carries out this work in the life of the Church.

That’s how important this one point is and why our discussions with other Protestants is so fraught with difficulty. The sacraments speak to God’s gracious and merciful work. They tell us what it means to be both disciple and an apostle. They help us understand evangelism, both in why we do it and how to do it. They help us visualize the promises God makes to us. They define what it means to be God’s people.

As Moses says when speaking to God in Exodus 33, it is His presence among us that sets us apart from all other people in the world. This is the heart of Communion, God’s presence among His people. When the sacraments are discarded or turned into memorials and such that we do for our own benefit, the essence of God’s gift is lost. The very things that make the church separate, unique, and holy are lost.

There is the principle from the early church, “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which roughly means “how you worship will define what you believe.” This can be taken too far sometimes and some of what Luther was doing in the Reformation was applying Scripture to correct false worship practices. Nevertheless, the statement does prove true. If my worship practices show that God is truly present with His people in grace and mercy, my theology will flow out of that. If God is not truly present, then my theology will reflect that as well.

The gracious presence of God in the sacraments was something Luther found he could not budge on in his debates with Zwingli, Calvin, and others. Losing the presence of God and His grace in the sacraments changes everything about who the church is and what we do. It changes the goal of our evangelism and what our service consists of. It changes our identity in this world and how we relate to the world around us. It changes what makes us different from everyone else. This is why Missouri Synod Lutherans take the sacraments so seriously and consider them non-negotiable. This is why our dialogue with Catholics and Orthodox is so different from that of Protestants. If someone asks whether God is truly here in this place, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox need only point to the sacraments as proof that God is truly present and active.

General vs. Specific Love

I was reading a discussion recently about how many church bodies these days talk about love.  Love is described as this desire we have to care for humanity and, in particular, the less fortunate.  On its face this can be a helpful force driving works of compassion in communities everywhere. In practical application, this movement shows very little in the way of love. I don’t mean to say all of the food drives, homeless shelters, and other fundraisers and such are unhelpful. Many of these projects are life changing.

When we think about love in our daily lives, this sort of activity doesn’t mesh with how we think about love, because one of the most fundamental aspects of love is the relationship. Husbands and wives have a love built on their relationship. The same is true of parents and children, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and any other relationship you might think of. Sending donations to a charity may be helpful and may make a big difference, but does little to build that relationship. They may be good things and helpful things, but there is no personal connection and no way to build a relationship on that alone.

When we look at the life of God’s people in the Old Testament, we find times when God calls to people as a group, instructing them to follow Him and trust Him. If that were all He did, there would be a danger of God having the same kind of love we are content to show. However, but even with those broad and generalized calls, God is doing things for His people on a personal and individual level. God calls to the Israelites in Egypt to follow Him out of Egypt, but everything God does for the Israelites on the covenant He made with Abraham. God makes a promise to each son of Abraham through circumcision, and through those me, to the whole nation. If ever any man wondered if God loved him as His treasured possession, he had only to remember the sign of the covenant He bore in his flesh.

This is one of the reasons Christ’s incarnation is so profound. It is God showing love to His people personally, forgiving them and healing them on an individual basis. He makes sure each person He interacts with knows He loves them specifically. Generalized love leads to specific love.

In the age of the church, we continue the precedent set by God. We do some acts of love and compassion that care for people in general ways. But this kind of love is not the goal, the end unto itself. The goal is to bring those people to where they can hear God speak to them specifically. This why the sacraments are so critical. Baptism and Communion are carried out at God’s specific and personal invitation. Luther remarks with some regularity how his baptism was his constant assurance of God’s forgiveness and love. It was a statement that, while God loves all humanity, God also specifically loved Martin Luther.

This is part of the joy and wonder if the sacraments. God comes to us personally, invites us personally, loves us personally. Christ dies for the sins of the whole world, and, at the same time, He dies for you.

The Art of Typology

I’ve talked a little bit here and there about typology, but I thought I’d take some to discuss it more directly. Typology is a tool for anyone who reads the Bible to use. Using typology, we use parts of the Bible to help interpret and understand other parts of the Bible so that we gain information we might never have gotten by just reading the original passage.

Using the Bible to help interpret the Bible isn’t really a new idea. Hopefully if you’re spending any amount of time reading the Bible, you’re doing this already. There are a lot ways we might use the Bible to help interpret itself. A word study is probably the most common way to do this. If you’re curious what St. Paul means in Romans when he’s talking about “flesh” and “Spirit,” you’d first look at other places he uses those words and see if you can get a little from the context in those other passages. You might also do a broad study. A word like “sacrifice” shows up in many places. Understanding what it means for Jesus to be a sacrifice probably has you looking back at how the word is used back in the Old Testament. Numbers are often also used this way. We see 12 disciples and remember that we’ve seen the number 12 before with the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps that means those two things are connected. Thankfully, the book of Revelation tells us pretty explicitly they are connected, but the number 12 is not the only number we see showing up repeatedly in the Bible.

Typology works something like this as well. We see something written and go looking for information somewhere else in the Bible. It’s there that things start to diverge. Typology doesn’t work so much with the literal words on the page, so much as the images, the events, and the actions going on. The one place we find this language explicitly used is in Romans 5:12-14, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.  Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” Adam is a “type” and Jesus is the “antitype.” Adam is pointing the way to Jesus and helping us to understand Him better.

So what does that mean? Well, that tells us there are some things Adam says or does that Jesus will later do as well. In this case, we know Adam was a perfect man who died on account of sin. The fact that Adam deserved the penalty for sin and Jesus didn’t means it isn’t 100% match, but it isn’t supposed to be. We are meant to look at Jesus through the lens of Adam. If Jesus isn’t doing Adam type things, then He must not be the promised one. Thankfully, He does.

We see this sort of thing happen in many other places as well. Moses, for example, toward the end of his life says in Deuteronomy 18, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” Moses is telling us something about what it means to be a prophet and the future prophets God sends will be ones that do Moses-type things. He speaks God’s Word to everyone, particularly when that means confronting those in authority with the warnings God has given him to speak. A prophet also acts as a spiritual leader of God’s people, teaching them everything God wants them to know. This sort of thing will be pretty standard work for the prophets God actually sent. The false prophets found throughout the Old Testament don’t do these kinds of things, which tells us pretty clearly God didn’t send them. That also means Jesus will have to do Moses-type things if He truly is by God as a prophet, or perhaps as the epitome of all prophets. Here again, Jesus is doing exactly that as He speaks God’s Word to His people, even to the point of confronting the religious authorities with it. He teaches and leads God’s people according to righteousness.

If you look around throughout the rest of my blog, you’ll find a lot of typology. The early church used typology for a lot of things. These days, it only really comes up when we’re talking about Jesus. That means we’re missing out on a lot the Bible has to tell us about the God’s work of salvation, particularly with the sacraments. St. Peter even connects the Flood to Baptism. That means we should be looking at Baptism and seeing what sort of Flood-type things it is doing in order to better understand Baptism. There are many things in the Bible that are types, pointing the way to the sacraments. Without an understanding of these events and why they are connected, we are cutting ourselves off from much of the richness of what God has done.

Things Neither Commanded Nor Forbidden

Last time I talked about some of the different practices associated with Communion and Baptism. I talked about where God’s promise lies and how that’s where we put our confidence and trust. God connects His promise to a physical element and presents it to us through it. This is the central point of the sacraments and without the grace that comes to us through that physical element, the primary purpose of the sacraments is lost.

If we assume the sacraments will be performed with God’s promise connected to the physical element, then there are a number of other questions we can turn our attention to. Surrounding the sacrament are all of the variations in practice that bear examination. For the most part, these fall into what Luther and others termed “adiaphora.” It’s a fancy word meaning “things God has not commanded nor forbidden.” It covers quite a lot of things. All of them are secondary to the sacraments but that does mean they are entirely unimportant. Neither does it mean they are entirely neutral.

The question last week arose because of a concern over intinction. Since someone communing through intinction is still receiving both bread and wine, we can’t say this method is forbidden. God certainly doesn’t command we commune this way either. The sacraments and liturgy are designed to strengthen our faith and help us grow as disciples and apostles. They help us learn how to be more Christ-like. God’s Word has many things to communicate to us, different themes of salvation and God’s work in the world. Many of these are connected to the sacraments. Distributing the sacraments without an awareness of all of the different ideas attached to them may be doing a disservice to those who receive it. When looking at intinction, for example, one of the ideas God expresses regarding Communion is that of unity. We are brought together and made one through God’s grace. We are made into the body of Christ through His body. We share one cup at His table. To that end, drinking from the common cup helps make this idea much more visible. The same can be said from sharing a common loaf of bread, rather than the use of wafer. (Some will argue that wafer are all cut from a common “loaf” when made, but the congregation does not see that happen. The visual is part of the teaching tool and without people being able to see that first hand the visible reinforcement is lost.)

I also talked last time about immersion versus sprinkling as a baptismal practice. The same holds true here. St. Paul and Luther equate Baptism with death. In Baptism your sin is drowned and dies. In this case, immersion visualizes this baptismal theme much better than sprinkling and might be preferred for that reason. On the other hand, another baptismal theme is that of washing and cleansing. If talked about in those terms, sprinkling or pouring may actually communicate those ideas better, particularly if more than a little bit of water and make an effort to do more than just pat the forehead.

Regarding these kinds of adiaphora, Luther makes a valuable point in his baptismal booklet. The sacraments can have all of these practices and all sorts of flourishes that are used to help emphasize different sacramental themes, such as candles or white robes for Baptism. However, only the sacrament is the sacrament. Everything else is extra. There is only one thing that actually carries the promise. Everything else is designed to reinforce and reveal what God is doing through that sacrament. All of those extras are adiaphora. If the adiaphora isn’t helping, then it isn’t serving the purpose and may actually be harmful. Some adiaphora may work better with a certain congregation than another. Some may not be possible at all, such as trying to do an immersion baptism in an emergency. We take comfort and strength in the promise and know that, in the absence of adiaphora, God is still at work. His promise is sure and certain.

How Much is Enough?

I was recently weighing in in a conversation about the practice of intinction. If you you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to dipping the Communion host into the chalice to get the wine rather than drinking directly from the cup. The question was, is this a valid practice?

The answer is a little more nuanced than you might expect because there are a couple of issues going on the same time. The first is: how much wine (or bread) do you need to constitute receiving the sacrament? The other is: is this in keeping with the Lord’s command regarding the sacrament?

Often, when theologians start digging into questions like these it is out of a desire to nail down all aspects of the sacraments and how they work. Sometimes questions like this come from a desire to find out just how little I can do and still be considered a worthy recipient of the sacrament, but not always. From a pastoral perspective, the question of whether a bed-ridden person who can only handle a tiny bit of food can receive the sacrament might be of vital importance. Seen from that perspective, it’s worth discussing how the Bible describes the sacraments.

Both of these questions are answered by answering a slightly different question: where is the grace of God found? Luther takes a similar view to St. Augustine and even quotes him by saying, “when the Word is added to the element or natural substance, it becomes a sacrament.” The physical element is a major part of the sacrament, whether you’re looking at the water for Baptism or the bread and wine for Communion, these are the things God has bound His grace to. This is why we call the sacraments the means of grace. So, when we try to answer this question the issue is really just, “did you receive the physical element and was God’s promise attached to it?” If you heard Christ’s promise that this is His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in connection to the bread and wine, and you received that bread and wine, then you have received the grace that comes with them. In that sense, intinction works just as well as receiving the wine from the chalice. The quantity I receive does not reflect the quality of God’s grace, for His full and complete grace is present in any amount I receive.

This issue also plays into our understanding of baptismal practices. Some church bodies will argue that the only proper form of Baptism is immersion. The Biblical depictions of Christ’s own Baptism are not even clear as to whether He was immersed, but leaving that aside, the same questions are relevant. What is His promise attached to? The water. Did you receive the water with the promise attached? If so, then you received the sacrament. In this case, the promise comes through the Triune name of God, marking you as His own. Whether you are immersed or whether you are sprinkled, the power of God’s grace comes through any amount of water and it is sufficient for all of our needs.

Next week I’ll explore a bit more of these different ways of conducting the sacraments.

Thy Strong Word

The sacraments took center stage in the discussion Luther had with the other reformers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin and Zwingli denied Christ’s presence in Communion in particular and disagreed about the value of the sacraments in general. For Luther, the sacraments were absolutely essential to Christian life and the center of all we do in this world.

The descendants of Calvin and Zwingli, such as the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth, will typically say the sacraments have some value. It’s just that they are not “means of grace” as the Lutheran reformers would say. They are not vehicles for transporting God’s forgiveness to us. Luther vehemently disagreed with the arguments presented by Calvin and Zwingli and, since the sacraments were so central to Luther’s theology, the church fractured further to create all of the Reformed church bodies we have today.

Despite how we Lutherans are sometimes portrayed, we very much like talking with our brothers and sisters from the Reformed traditions. Unfortunately, the sacraments are still one of the major points of disagreement and that isn’t likely to turn around anytime soon. I’ve talked before about how the other traditions’ views of the sacraments have some truth to them and how we Lutherans often have trouble acknowledging that. However, what Luther excelled at throughout his theological work is in going back to the beginning and seeing how everything unfolds and, for Luther, that always meant going back to God’s Word.

“What does God say?” would be at the forefront of his mind from very early on as his posting of the 95 Theses was coming into view. “What does God promise? I’ll stand firmly on that,” would be his constant assurance. Whatever participation we might have in the sacraments, it is the power and promise of God that ultimately makes them worth anything at all. It is God’s promise that drives the sacraments. It is God’s Word that drives everything in creation. Luther would always go back to this idea and look at what God is saying and examine what God is doing through what He says. God creates through His Word. He judges or forgives through His Word. Our relationship with God is both begun in and founded on His Word.

That then means the sacraments are also primarily about His Word and what God is doing through them. “What does God say?” God says, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” If we want to know what God is doing through the sacraments, we must first begin, as Luther did, by looking at what God Himself says about them. What does God actually promise? This is where we, too, must take our stand. The sacraments may have more going on, as our Reformed brothers and sisters often correctly state, but without God’s Word of promise there is no guarantee that God is using anything for our benefit.

For Luther, everything begins with God. That includes even the things we try and offer to Him. Anything that seeks its beginning somewhere else cannot stand.

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