Thursday, April 28, 2011

What is left to pass on?

In First Corinthians we hear a solemn and serious St. Paul describe the chain of custody with respect to the Lord's Supper.  "That which I received from the Lord, I passed on to you..."  This is legal language which brings with it the idea that what St. Paul received was not his to own or change but only His to use and bequeath to those who are planted in faith by the Spirit.  Now St. Paul also speaks somberly about departing from the sacred deposit.  2 Thes. 3:6 (ESV)  Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  Twice he charges the young Pastor Timothy about guarding and protecting this sacred tradition. 1 Tim. 6:20 (ESV)  O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called "knowledge,"  . . . 2 Tim. 1:14 (ESV)  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

It is clear from both of these that this tradition or sacred deposit is both doctrinal and liturgical.  On on hand it refers to the teaching of Jesus, contained within the Scriptures and including the Scriptures that point to Christ (Old Testament).  This is the "apostles teaching" of Acts 2 and yet, like Acts 2, it is not propositional truth but efficacious Word that calls into being the fellowship, empowers the prayerful assembly, and provides the context for the liturgical expression of this doctrinal content in the Eucharist (the Breaking of the Bread).  We have spent a good deal of time in modern Christianity, and among many in Lutheranism, trying to separate the doctrinal truth from its liturgical expression (the so-called style vs substance debate).  You find no hint of this in St. Paul or in the practice of the Church (both in Scripture and in the evidence of early church history).

So, fast forward to 2011, and let us survey the situation among us.  What is it that St. Paul would have us pass on?  What is the sacred deposit or tradition that we must guard from the irreverent babble of modern spirituality?  If we separate style from substance, we pass only part of what St. Paul speaks of.  If we would divorce doctrinal truth from its liturgical expression, when we pass on intellectual content that has no recognizable practice (speaking one thing and doing another).

I have become more and more concerned that the way we treat the outward expression of the doctrinal truth is handicapping the future generations of Lutheran Christians.  They end up not really knowing who they are, or, knowing in theory what they believe but without a clear and consistent idea of how that truth calls into being or is expression by the assembly that is the Church.  It seems to me that when we divorce the two from their divinely intended marriage, we end up with much less than half the equation that St. Paul seems to think is the God intended fullness -- both mandated and essential to the faith and life of the Church and those within her gates.

What do we have to pass on if the creeds cease to be part of the vocabulary, memory, and liturgical language of the Church?  This is the crisis of catechesis in which personal authority determines truth vs the Spirit who teaches us to believe, teach, and confess that teaching of Jesus and Scripture.  What do we have to pass on if the Confessions are merely truth statements and not the language which both defines and guides us as a Church both in witness and in worship?  I am more and more of the opinion that the Reformation was both a liturgical movement as well as a reform movement seeking to restore the Gospel to its primacy within the Church.  I am amazed that the more I read the Lutheran Confessions, the more I see in them liturgical identity, liturgical formulation, and concern for how the practice of the Church is defined by her doctrine and faith.

What do we have to pass on if the liturgy has become a free for all of change, contradiction, and personal whim or taste?  When we fail to teach the church's song to those who come after us, we give them a present without a past and we distort what they have to pass on to those who come after them.  When their faith lacks a common liturgical expression, they are left victims or orphans amid the pendulum swings of piety and the sweep of liturgical and non-liturgical worship settings and forms.  It would be like leaving our children with an idea of Christmas but without the familiar rituals and practices that shape the celebration of this holy day and holiday.  It would be like passing down grandma's jewelry boxes but without the actual pearls and precious gems to wear.  It would be like talking about fireworks but never looking up into the night sky and seeing them explode on the Fourth of July.  The Christian faith is not an idea or even an ideology.  It is doctrine and its liturgical expression in which and through which Christ is present to bestow the gifts of His promise and the graces won by His suffering and death and rising again.

It seems to me that St. Paul's words about the tradition and sacred deposit received and passed on require us to connect both doctrine and its liturgical expression (style and substance) or else we have failed to pass on anything remotely resembling what the Lord gave to His Church.  It is our responsibility to both guard against losing the truth and the means of grace AND to be faithful in our witness to Christ and it is no less than St. Paul who connects the two:  As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes...

1 comment:

Paul said...

Have just finished Biship Bo Giertz' wonderful book on the Church. He discusses your concerns as well, from the context of mid 1930's Sweden, I believe. The early, undivided Church never separated things as we do today. Bible study with out "the prayers" can be just as dangerous to our spiritual health and identity as a regularly Sunday service without Communion, imho.