Saturday, January 16, 2010

What I Can Say and What I Cannot

A gazillion people have noted the trend in culture and religion that avoids the clear yes or no for the uncertain realm of feelings or wants. It is nothing new. But it is funny when you think about it (funny as in weird) how uncomfortable we are speaking in direct terms what Jesus has called us to speak directly. We betray either a lack of understanding or confidence in Jesus' words when we feel more comfortable in declaring rather than doing.

Example. Some baptismal formulas have changed from I baptize you... to You are baptized... or, the most common area in which this shows up, in the absolution. We find it uncomfortable to say I forgive you and instead You are forgiven or I declare God's forgiveness to you.

Some insist there isn't a dime's worth of difference between them but if not, why are we so uncomfortable speaking clearly as Christ has bidden us? When in the Gospels Jesus speaks of whatsoever sins you forgive He is speaking not of simply declaring grace but speaking the words that deliver that grace of forgiveness to those weighed down by sin and its guilt.

The words that Christ has given us to speak to His Church and to the world are not passive but powerful. The witness of the Church is not to what we think or feel or even know -- it is to what Christ has done... Christ has promised.

Check out the ways in which we talk about sin without addressing the sinner with the Law. We have turned confession into a lack of something instead of the corruption of our nature, the offense against God that has made us His enemies, and the barriers that wall us off from Him who created us and from the rest of creation. Scripture addresses sin directly -- but not to make sin the subject, rather to make forgiveness the subject. We cannot focus on forgiveness without a clear focus on sin.

Check out the ways in which we forgive without forgiving. When people hurt us and apologize, we say "That's okay." Well it is not okay. If it were okay then there would not be sin. God does not shrug His shoulders to our confession and tell us that "it is okay." God confronts us with the terrible that sin is and then speaks the word of mercy and love that trumps sin's terror -- the cross. You are guilty as hell (literally) but I forgive you because of my Son in whom I am well pleased.

Check out the ways in which we dance around Christ's presence without admitting that it is a presence to be dealt with -- to be reckoned with. Christ is present with or in but not to be adored and not so that the bread or cup is something in and of itself to be treated differently. Either it is the Body and Blood of Christ, by the power of that Word, from the time that Word is spoken, until the use of the Sacrament is complete (in reception) or else Christ's words are merely symbolic of the sign that is pointed to but not present.

The worship wars have told us many things, but one of them is that we have an inward struggle to speak as Jesus spoke or bids His people to speak -- directly, clearly, dynamically... Most of the confessions that are written treat sin as if it were a slight defect of intention or follow through that we should improve upon -- not the damming and life taking sin of Scripture. Most of the absolutions do not not absolve but simply declare God's grace to the sinner as if that is all we can do -- and wait for the sinner to find peace in these words. Most of the practices around the Lord's Table act as if the bread were to Christ no more than the plate is to the bread, the wine to His blood no more than the cup is to the wine. So what we do with it before or after the distribution is of nothing but symbolic consequence.

Do we take His Word at face value? Does the Church simply declare to us what we already know or do for us what Christ does? Is the power to declare or to do Christ's work among His people?

Just a few thoughts on a Saturday morning. . .


Unknown said...

Just a few thoughts for you on the use of the passive vs. the active voice. In the EO, the servant/handmaiden of God "is baptized in the name of..." Even at confession, the priest says that "I, who am a sinner, have no power to forgive sins but only our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ" and then absolution is given, again with the passive voice. however, as we receive the Eucharist, the priest says, "The servant/handmaiden of God receives..." I'm not sure why the passive voice is not used in this case. THere is no question that baptism, eucharist and absolution are gifts from God, hence why the passive is preferred. What is your take on that, fr.?

Unknown said...

Very well said. Your example of absolution is particularly on point. We should not deny the authority that Christ has given us, but should use it in accord with his command and promise.

David Cochrane said...

Pr Peters,

Thank you for this post. Too many times I am hearing the weak passive absolution. I fear it leaves me in doubt so I need read what Jesus mandated to back it up. My ears need to hear: "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus I forgive you all you sins...."

The passive sounds to much like what I used to hear in the reformed church. Better than nothing but not particularly directed at sinners. I suppose the belief in Limited Atonement makes one hold back for you can never be sure if any or none of the people are died for.

Rev. Luke T. Zimmerman said...

Pr. Peters:

Good thoughts.

I had similar thinking expressed to me by one of my parish's new members comparing the Confession & Absolution in LSB Rite 1 and LSB Rite 3. The direct language of the older rite was observed by him as carrying the full weight of Christ's words much more than the language of the newer rite. There was no doubt that he was rightly being called a sinner, and less-than-no doubt that he was rightly declared forgiven.

Your thoughts also seemed to resonate in my mind with Gerhard Forde's critique of preaching among American Lutherans. Preachers became afraid to or unable to "do the text," to actually perform what the words of Christ say. When His Word condemns, it actually does so. When His Word absolves, it actually does so. The one authorized to speak on Christ's behalf must be able to carry the full force of His words and not just talk about them.


Pastor Peters said...

Ah Forde... now there is a name you don't hear as often as you should... good point.. yes, good point.