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.

Trampling Down Death by Death

The Easter hymn known as the “Paschal troparion” is one of the central features of the Easter service in the Orthodox church. The short hymn says, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling death, and to those in the tombs granting life!” This concept is echoed in other hymns as well, reflecting how Christ accomplished His victory.

Thinking on this reminds me again of the purpose for the season of Lent. Lent is considered to be 40 days when you take out Sundays. The connection to other events in the Bible is intentional and it is through our meditation on those events that one of the themes of Lent emerges.

The earliest “40” we have in the Bible is that of the 40 days and nights of rain God sent in the days of Noah. God sees the violence in the world and how everyone in the world had set their hearts to evil except for Noah and his family. God sends rain to wipe out the unrighteousness of the world and bring it back from darkness. God sends rain that destroys every living thing in the world except for those on the ark Noah built.

The other notable 40 day period we find is when Jesus is in the wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus fasts 40 days and then Satan tempts Him to give up worshipping His Father in return for earthly glory. Jesus sends Satan scurrying by the power of His Word and heads off to call His first disciples.

There is a common theme in both of these cases. The world is full of unrighteousness and, after 40 days of rain, all that remains are some animals, Noah, and his family. Righteous, trusting, faithful Noah rides out the storm to see a bright new day, free from the unrighteousness of the faithless that filled the world around him. Jesus is weak, hungry, and beset by Satan after 40 days. Satan comes on strong and doesn’t hold back. He offers it all. But, his gambit doesn’t succeed. In the battle of words, Jesus is triumphant.

In both cases, despite everything arrayed against God, He still triumphs. God triumphs against a world full of sin in the days of Noah. God triumphs against Satan in the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Now, here in Lent, we look forward to God triumphing over death as well. This becomes one of the themes of Lent. No matter how bleak things look, or how powerful the evil is, God will triumph. God always triumphs. Lent encourages us to take this message and apply it to our own lives. Whether we are beset by sin, Satan, or death, God will triumph. Good Friday comes, but after that we find Easter morning, where everything that has come before is just a memory and we look forward, with Christ, to the everlasting light of day.

Becoming More Like Christ

I recently met the priest at the one Orthodox church in town. I’m somewhat conversant with Orthodox theology, so I’m interested to talk with him more. I find talking with those of other church bodies enlightening because they come with different perspectives. Often their perspectives will highlight flaws in your own way of thinking or action.

In this case, the framework for Orthodox theology is very different from how we Lutherans typically view things. The main idea is that God is working to make us more like Him. That’s not in the sense that we will ever be gods, for that was the very thing Satan promised. No, in this case the goal is to become more like Christ, not in His divinity, but in His humanity.

The Orthodox church uses all of the same sacraments as the Catholic church: baptism, chrismation, confession, holy orders, anointing of the sick (this can also be Last Rites), marriage, and communion. However, the Orthodox aren’t looking at them in terms of where God is offering blessings but in terms of things that are making us more like Christ. All of these sacraments connect to Christ in one way or another, either by associating us with His love, bringing us into the roles He carries out before His Father, or by cultivating godly virtues in us. In their way of thinking, Christ becomes a man, a perfect man, in order to restore us to perfect humanity.

It’s a helpful way of thinking. We Lutherans will tend to think in terms of justification and sanctification, and the Orthodox view gives some shape to what sanctification looks like. God is continuously at work in you to make you more like Christ. If Christ is a perfect man, and He is, then we have an idea what sort of people we ought to be because we have the perfect role model.

There’s a lot more to say, since this is the framework they use for their understanding of God’s work. Lutherans will more likely use justification and sanctification, or Law and Gospel. Law and Gospel answer how it is we are able to be made more like Christ, as the Law makes us mindful of our shortfalls and the Gospel forgives them and works to make us better. The two views are aimed at slightly different questions. The Orthodox view is more directed at discussing what God intends to do with us. Law and Gospel tells you what you are receiving and becoming like Christ tells you what God is doing with what you have been given.

In the end, the two views are not incompatible. The Gospel grace given to us through Word and Sacrament make us more like Christ. This work cannot be achieved, or even begun, on your own. It must entirely come from God. Still, even becoming like Christ is not the ultimate goal. God’s grace, supplied through Word and Sacrament, restores us to God’s image (another way of saying we become like Christ). The true goal is to once again be in God’s presence and live with Him as His people. These theological frameworks are ways of looking at how God achieves that goal.

Though I find much value in the Orthodox way of looking at things, I continue to hold to the Lutheran view. Luther is very good at keeping first things first. God’s grace is where everything begins and it must be there through everything we do, or all is lost. Sin must continuously be addressed through the free forgiveness of God. It is only once that has been established, through faith, that my growing process can begin. I only improve and become more like Christ because I am continuously driven to the Gospel by the Law where I may once again find forgiveness.

In the end, I will be like Christ. God’s Word tells me so. God’s sacraments help me to find a bit of that here in the world today.

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