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.

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.

Waving to God

There was a recent conversation where someone asked why a pastor elevates the host during the Words of Institution. There are a number of practical reasons for doing this, which are perfectly valid. A pastor may lift it up so that the congregation can see what he’s talking about. He might do it to make sure there’s no doubt it came from the altar. Practical reasons are worth exploring and understanding. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it still accomplishes the goal it was created to do originally.

Those practical reasons have been a part of our worship practices for some time, but practical reasons aren’t usually what drives the church to do what it does. This case is no different.

The elevation of the host is one of those points that demonstrates much of what the church does in worship isn’t really new. The people of God have have had a formal, organized worship life since God gave them a structure for worship back in Leviticus. Even in the era of the church, much of our liturgical theology is built up on what God gave the Israelites in Leviticus. The concepts of holiness and God’s presence, sacrifices and their purpose, the role of the priesthood and more all come from Leviticus.

Here in Communion, we are still offering sacrifices. Not that we are trying to pay for our sins, for that’s already been taken care of. Instead, we offer to the Father the one thing that can pay for our sins: Christ Himself. We also offer food to God in the form of bread and wine. In Leviticus, certain sacrifices would be given to God but not wholly burned on the altar. God delineated parts of the animals be given to the priests to provide for their needs. However, every part of that animal still belonged to God. The priest had no right to take it for himself. It didn’t belong to him. The sacrifice was God’s and God decided what to do with it. To reflect this, God directed the priest to make a “wave offering” of those pieces. He would take the piece of meat and hold it up before God to acknowledge that it was His now and belonged to Him. Whatever it was before, now it was God’s and had to be handled according to His rules. Now that it had been given to God, He chose to give it to His priest

Things haven’t really changed in this regard in New Testament times. We are still offering things to God. The bread and wine on the altar are an offering given by the church to God for Him to use for His purposes. The pastor holds up the bread and wine to show they are given to Him. They are His now. They are holy now and must be used according to His purposes. In this case, He chooses to give them back to His royal priesthood, the people of the church, in order to provide for our needs as well.

The Holy Caretaker

A recent conversation I had was reflecting on the experience of an individual who felt he was being continuously discriminated against and denied Communion without cause. This would happen when he would visit a church while off on business and, when the time came, he would come up for Communion. With some regularity the pastor would pass by without communing him, usually giving him a blessing. The individual thought this was being directed at him due to some sort of animosity or hatred and wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention.

What wasn’t immediately evident in all of this is that this person never talked to the pastor before the service to inform him he was an LCMS member and that he desired to commune, since this was an LCMS church. Given the background, this person had substantial theological training, which meant this should never be a problem in the first place.

Hopefully anyone who is a communicant member in the LCMS understands what it means to commune worthily. Those who approach God without desiring His grace or whose confession of faith is out of step with those around them are not following God’s ordinance and are transgressing against His holy things. If you haven’t really thought about it or have never been present for a pastor’s ordination, you may not realize that a pastor’s first duty is not to the church but to God. That probably sounds obvious, but how we conduct ourselves in church and with our pastors doesn’t always follow that sentiment.

When it comes to Communion, things get a bit convoluted. The pastor’s first duty is still to God and ensuring the holy things of God are cared for and used appropriately. That means Word and sacrament are at the top of his list. What makes that a little more difficult is that everything God does is oriented toward people. That means the pastor has to also carefully minister to the people in his care. Figuring out who should be communing and who shouldn’t in a congregation usually happens pretty quickly and, for the most part, that sorting is pretty standard and routine.

Unfortunately, visitors aren’t a part of the congregation. The pastor hasn’t built a relationship with them and, without talking to the person, has no idea whether this person should commune or not. Hopefully a visitor takes it upon himself to talk to the pastor or an elder before the service to make an introduction and give the pastor a chance to sort out the Communion question. When this doesn’t happen and the person chooses to commune anyway, the pastor is left with three general responses. 1. To commune the person anyway and try and sort out the situation afterward. 2. To engage the person right there at the communion rail and try to determine the person’s worthiness to commune. 3. Withhold the sacrament and offer a blessing instead.

None of these are good options because all run the risk of causing other problems. Withholding the sacrament from someone who is a worthy communicant means denying that person all of the benefits of Communion for that Sunday. Engaging someone at the rail runs the risk of sparking an argument if there’s a difference of opinion, which then becomes very disruptive to the conduct of the sacrament and the service as a whole. Communing the person anyway may mean communing someone who ought not be communing. None of these things should really be happening.

Your pastor has a lot of responsibility when it comes to administering the sacrament. He doesn’t want to disrespect God and he wants to care for you. Talk to the pastor before you commune at a new church. Let him know who you are, so you aren’t a stranger at the rail. Help him care for you.

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.

The First and the Last

I find the works of Christian artist, Sadao Watanabe, interesting. As a Christian born and raised in Japan, his view of Christ and the Gospel message come from a different perspective. Like the four Gospels themselves, different perspectives don’t necessarily change the message, so much as give us new ways to think about how to apply it to life. Whether he intended it or not, his depictions of Jesus with His disciples always look to me as if the disciples are pestering Jesus, much like a litter of baby kittens are always climbing on mom and demanding attention.

Though Watanabe was a prolific artist, it’s somewhat telling how many different depictions he did of the Last Supper. Though I haven’t found a complete listing of all of his works, a quick search turns up at least seven or eight different instances of the Last Supper. There are many similarities between them. They often depict fish on the table, alongside bottles of sake. Judas is also usually shown holding the money bag behind his back, while the disciple on Jesus’ left hand is usually prodding Him and looking distressed.

Reflecting on the various depictions Watanabe has done made me consider the very nature of what we call, “The Last Supper.” One of the things I was chewing on was the fact that nowhere does the Bible actually call this scene the “Last Supper.” We see from the perspective of the Gospel writers that it is the last supper Jesus celebrates with His disciples before His crucifixion. We also have Jesus’ words that He will not share the fruit of the vine again with them until He drinks new with them in His Father’s kingdom. So, there are reasons why “last” is an appropriate adjective, but it is still something we’ve come to associate with the events of Maundy Thursday. That means calling it the “Last Supper” may not be wrong, but it does mean we should be careful about how we think about it. Calling it the last certainly implies there won’t be any more.

As a pastor, I’m neck deep in the work of Holy Week. From a liturgical perspective, the services of Holy Week are quite unique in the calendar. Every congregation has its own traditions and liturgical elements it is used to, but all of that makes the services at the end of Holy Week distinct. A Good Friday service, regardless of whether you have Communion or whether you have some variety of tenebrae service or something else entirely, probably doesn’t look like any normal Sunday service. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. An Easter Vigil service is very different from other services, with its emphasis on quiet reflection and meditation on the work of our Lord. Maundy Thursday probably follows more or less a standard divine service format, but the feel of the service is still different from what you would be doing on Sunday. Lent has been building up to this moment, but now the moment has arrived and the mix of urgency and somberness we see in Jesus as He celebrates the Passover with His disciples flows over us as well. Easter morning is, of course, what this is all about. The highest of the high feast days. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for and the voices of Christians everywhere shake the rafters as they join together joyfully singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”

Still, for all of that unusualness, there is another liturgical layer that is often overlooked and, in many cases, omitted entirely. The church has long considered the services from Maundy Thursday through Easter to be not 4 separate services, but one extended service. The ancient form of this is called the Triduum or “three days.” In this case the days are not thought of as calendar days but as 24 hour periods from the end of Maundy Thursday service to Easter evening. If your church follows this pattern, you’ll notice there is no benediction at the end of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil. The benediction is given when God is sending you out to carry out your work in the world and declaring that He will be with you. Here we only find the benediction at the end of Easter services. It’s as if all of these services are meant to be one continuous story and it is only when you have heard the conclusion of the story that God sends you out.

The culmination of all of Christ’s work is in His death and resurrection. Not just His death, but His death and resurrection. Going back into the world without hearing Christ has been raised puts in the same position as the disciples huddling in the upper room. We end up being the very people St. Paul preaches about in 1 Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But if everything is about Christ’s death and resurrection, then it seems odd that the Last Supper is included in this story. Jesus doesn’t die on Thursday, nor does He rise from the dead. Why is this service made a part of the whole?

The answer comes in what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is already telling the disciples that this is the last time this will happen…”until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” This may be the last time for the moment, but it will happen again. That means it isn’t really the last at all. It’s at this point I recall Jesus’ words, “So the last will be first and the first last.” Granted, Jesus is addressing a different issue there, however, the idea that God upends our notions of what is first and what is last is very much valid. Of course, we have Jesus’ words in Revelation to go with it, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Jesus encompasses the first and the last and everything in between and commands that those things that have been seen be written. Words just as appropriate for John and the other Gospel writers as they were for John at that moment.

If we think about the story told by the Triduum about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the main events are certainly His death and resurrection. But, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already alluding to the future, to a “Next Supper.” The Last Supper becomes the introduction that helps us to understand what the rest of the story is all about. Jesus will die, but He won’t stay dead. He’ll rise again, but He won’t just rise for His own gain. In His life, we find our own life. Jesus will share this supper with us again.

That means, while it is perfectly reasonable to refer to the meal Jesus shares with His disciples as the Last Supper, we might very well call it the “First Supper.” For every time we come to the Lord’s table, we share it with Him as we celebrate with the bread and the wine in His presence. This is not a mere commemoration, but continuation of what Christ began as He share the Lord’s Supper with His disciples for the first time. Everything that happened over those three days carries on-going, eternal significance. We share the meal with Christ and in sharing His table we are brought into that story too. His death is ours and so is His life.

Question – Does seeing Maundy Thursday as a beginning instead of an end change how you view Good Friday and Easter?

Mystery Revealed

Last time I talked about the sacraments as God’s artwork, as God’s visible revelation of grace and truth. The sacraments reveal God’s grace in ways we have difficulty grabbing ahold of strictly through the spoken word. The sacraments are God’s grace in action and we learn as observe God at work.

At the same time, the sacraments don’t appear in a vacuum. The sacraments are ensconced in the liturgy, the gilded setting that surrounds and supports the diamond. I’ve mentioned before that the sacraments are always properly found within the liturgy because the liturgy is what gives them their proper context. Thinking further in terms of artwork and the further revealing of God’s mysteries helps us see how that continues to be true.

When looking at the different aspects of Communion, much of what we know to be taking place in Communion is spelled out for us in the ritual activities that surround it. Collecting the offering and the declaration that we are lifting our hearts to God tells us how we become part of the offering that is given to God in and through Christ as He acts on our behalf as high priest. The Lord’s Prayer identifies many of the things God will grant us through our participation in the sacrament. The prayer of thanksgiving carries out the primary duty of all creation as we give thanks to God in response to what He has given us. The Nunc Dimittis expresses our joy at seeing God’s salvation and our acknowledgement that we take that experience with us as God to tell others what we have seen and heard. The Aaronic Benediction declares that we have truly been in the presence of God and that He approves of us and continues to bless us until that time when we return to see Him again.

All of this and more surrounds Communion to build on what Communion does and give us the opportunity to meditate and reflect on the gracious work God carries out through the sacrament in new and different ways. The sacraments are not built for the liturgy, instead the liturgy is built around the sacraments. Each liturgical rite gives us a new window to view what God is doing on our behalf in a new and deeper way. Can the sacraments be divorced from the liturgy? Yes, and sometimes, such as in the case of emergency baptism, it is necessary. However, every rite surrounding the sacraments that is stripped away is another window peering into the Sacred Mysteries that gets boarded up.

As we walk through the liturgy, and the divine service in particular, the hope is that we take the time to reflect on what we are saying and doing, for all of it is meant for our edification, to learn who we are because of what God does for us through the sacraments and then learn to put that new life into action. Even in fringe cases, such as emergency baptism, every effort is made to bring that work back into the liturgy through an affirmation of baptism, to put the diamond into its proper setting so that its brilliance is further enhanced. The liturgy does not add to what God does in the sacraments and it was never intended to do so. The liturgy simply gives us more visual, auditory, and even kinesthetic ways of learning about God. When churches start throwing away different aspects of the liturgy because they are outmodded, unexciting, or deemed unimportant, it merely robs the congregation of a means God has provided us with to understand Him better.

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