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 Third Sacrament

Depending on what you’re reading from Luther, you will find him stating at some points that there are two sacraments and sometimes three. The Lutheran reformers wanted to move away from the Catholic definition of the term “sacrament” and bring it more in line with the things God stood behind. That led them to define the sacraments as those rites or acts that can satisfy three requirements: 1. They must be commanded by God. 2. They must confer God’s grace. 3. They must have some physical element.

Baptism and Communion both satisfy all three quite handily. They are both commanded by Christ. They both bring grace, and they both have a physical element to which God’s promise of grace is connected. Every so often though, you’ll find Luther referring to a third sacrament: Absolution. We Lutherans don’t talk about a third sacrament very often, because Luther more or less settled on Baptism and Communion. But, Absolution is also worth considering because of its importance to Christian life.

At first it might not look like Absolution fits the bill. Sure, it has God’s command. John 20 tells us how Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the “Keys to the Kingdom,” or the authority to pronounce God’s forgiveness to the repentant and God’s condemnation to the unrepentant. Obviously, absolution conveys God’s grace. The physical element is where Luther wavers. When he calls Absolution a sacrament it is because he considers the pastor to be that physical element.

That fits with the doctrine we call the Office of the Keys, we acknowledges that the pastor is the one who administers those keys publicly on behalf of the church. Every Christian is authorized to speak God’s forgiveness on a personal level, but the pastor speaks for the whole congregation. This, it is him you will up at the front and it is his voice you will hear when you have confessed your sins.

In terms of function, Absolution is every bit as important as the two, more usual sacraments. Each has their own purpose and they all work together to build up the Christian through God’s free gift of grace. In terms of order, Absolution is the one we hear first. It is the distilled Gospel message. “On account of Christ, your sins are forgiven.” Thia is what God says to all who confess their sins to Him and Confession is the first and most basic act of faith. It is on Confession and Absolution that the whole rest of Christian life is based, and that includes both Baptism and Communion.

The next time you are in worship or meeting with your pastor privately, consider why God set up the church the way He did. In His wisdom He has ensured every member of the congregation would have someone to tell them specifically that God forgives them. When your pastor speaks those words of Absolution, He speaks with the full backing of God Himself because he has been authorized to do so. The pastor is the physical assurance that God means that message to go right to you and has sent your pastor to convey it personally.

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.

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.

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.

The Holy Things

I was recently talking to some people about how the church as a whole handled COVID. Given that COVID is far from over and some places in our country and around the world are moving back to lockdowns, the question of how the church should function in the midst of these circumstances is still very relevant.

There’s the natural understanding that we, as the church, should be gathering together. St. Paul says as much. This act of gathering together is an essential part of what it means to be God’s people. We are the people who have God in their midst and our identity and most important function is to be where God is.

This necessity ends up getting a little more convoluted when the physical safety of the members becomes a question. While I won’t wade into the debate of meeting vs. not meeting right now, I will acknowledge that even those who did not meet understood the importance of receiving God’s grace through Word and sacrament. Hearing God’s Word even when at home is not a great difficulty. Many churches were able to record or stream their services so they could be watched at home. Something is certainly lost when the people are not gathering, but, nevertheless, the Word is preached and proclaimed.

That gets a bit more difficult when talking about the sacraments. Following the Lutheran definition of the sacraments, they must have a physical element. That makes the sacraments a lot more difficult to sort out, since they necessitate some amount of physical interaction. To that end, it is commendable that we as the church were earnestly trying to dig into that problem and tried to address it. It’s unfortunate that in some cases, those with differing viewpoints on the matter were dismissive or confrontational toward those they didn’t agree with.

What is also unfortunate was the overriding principle that drove the discussions was usually, “How do we get the sacraments to the people under these circumstances?” While it is true that the sacraments are there for the people, the first duty and responsibility of pastors, and the church as a whole, is not to the church, but to God. Sadly, in circumstances of this nature that distinction gets rather muddied.

That isn’t to say we as pastors or all of us together as the church should not bother caring for others. Far from it. What it does mean is that caring for others comes, first and foremost, from attending to God’s commands. No one is helped when God’s work is undermined, even when the motivation is to help others. This is why the list of duties on thecall documents given to an LCMS pastor begin:

“To administer to us the Word of God in its full truth and purity as contained in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as set forth in the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as found in the Book of Concord;

To administer the holy sacraments in accordance with their divine institution;”

This is where all pastoral work and all Christian life begin, with Word and sacrament. Both Word and sacrament are intended for God’s people, but they are not for us to do with as we please. Leviticus 22 says:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the LORD. Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.'”

No one is helped when the sacraments are used improperly. In fact, there are serious consequences to misusing them. God has bound His promise to these things. His name is placed on them and how they are used and what they are used for will reflect back on Him. This responsibility is just as important in the New Testament era as it was in the Old Testament, for St. Paul tells the Corinthian church their practice of communion does not follow God’s direction. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:29-30).

I cannot possibly get into all of the various ways in which the sacraments might be improperly used. What I can say is that our job is always to hold up God as holy and distinct from all other powers and authorities in creation. With that in mind, it is better to refrain from the sacraments altogether rather that use them in a manner that is not in keeping with God’s command. The God who gave them to us and who promises to provide for us will by no means punish His people for following His command.

This mindset should be how we as the church approach everything that we do. We do need to care for people and for the rest of creation, but we are firstly called to honor God. Starting with that mindset will do far more to bring grace to God’s people and care for the world around us than any other approach we might take.

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