Saturday, May 14, 2011

Once for all delivered to the saints

The previous column spoke of the "ownership" of hymns and songs used in worship.  This post explores the further understanding of this concept but not in terms of music, rather, in terms of the very faith itself.  I saw a clip of a movie in which a father hands to his daughter her mother's wedding dress as she now makes her journey to the altar.  Her mother long ago died and the father passes on what is most precious to him -- the very wedding dress in which he was joined to her as husband to wife.  The daughter rejoiced at the gift but later decides the dress does not really fit her.  So she takes her mother's dress and has it tailored to her own liking.  It uses the same fabric, although much of it was removed, bits and pieces of it were recognizable but the dress certainly did not look the same, in the end it was hurtful to the family and to the memory of her mother.  She was not given the dress to own or change but simply to wear.  The same goes for us as the Church.

The faith that was bequeathed to us by Jesus Christ, working through the apostles, and passing on the sacred deposit to the saints in every generation is not finally our possession.  It is only ours to use.  We are not free to tailor it to the circumstances or reshape it for modern sensibilities.  We must speak its truth to people today that but truth and belief is not different from the past.  We are not merely conservators who preserve but distribute the news of this Gospel and extend the borders of the Church by its proclamation.  This is also part of the essential conservation task which lies before us.

The great temptation is to redefine the faith until it ends up being unrecognizable or familiar only in bits and pieces to that which was one and for all delivered to the saints.  We have seen church after church body default upon its sacred task and take the faith and reshape it, re-order it, even redefine it until it bears a faint family resemblance to what was passed to them but has become, for all intents and purposes, a new faith.  We have seen churches even glory in this disconnect, believing that God is doing a new thing and so crediting Him for their detour from the once for all path they inherited.  We have seen some churches glory in their distinctness so as to disown their present identity from their past.  This same thing can happen when, for example, Lutherans become so identified with their LUTHERan identity that they confuse this with orthodoxy and catholicity.  Which era of history you raise up as THE time of glory does not matter -- we are a people with a past as well as a present, and a future contingent upon faithfully living out and carrying forth what was the sacred deposit, once delivered to the saints.  We have also seen churches who live in the past and who are oblivious to their call and purpose to proclaim the Good News with vigor and enthusiasm and to welcome new people into the community of the faithful.  These congregations are inward focused to the point that they sit as fortresses against the world instead of a church for the life of the world.

I think it is good for us to keep within the tension of proclaiming and reaching out cheerfully yet offering what was established in Christ, delivered to the saints, and passed on to us -- nothing less than the unchanging Gospel for a changing world.  We are not called to reinvent or even add on to the faith as if it were merely an outline.  What Jesus disclosed from Scripture to the Emmaus Road disciples was their sacred deposit and this they rejoiced to proclaim even as they committed themselves to nothing less than the fullness of the apostles doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and prayer.  The Church will not die by being faithful to this heritage and deposit once delivered to the saints but she will die as soon as she departs from this eternal truth and its faithful practice.  Her structures may indeed remain but she will be an empty shell with nothing to offer a world in dying need for what was once delivered to her.


Anonymous said...

Christ told us the gates of hell
cannot prevail against the church.
So human beings can teach false
doctrine but they cannot destroy the
church itself.

Our challenge to preach and teach
the truth of Holy Scripture and live
according to God's will is what we do
until the Last Day.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Pr. Peters, how do you distinguish Lutheran from orthodox and catholic?

I thought those three words were coterminus, if not, help me understand how you make a distinction here.

Anonymous said...

To focus exclusively on LUTHER to
the exclusion of our heritage of
confessing I believe in the one
holy Christian (catholic) and
apostolic Church is unorthodox.

The Nicene Creed nails it for the
Lutheran who is an orthodox and
catholic Christian.

Pastor Peters said...

I would say that there are those who misuse Lutheran to distinguish themselves from catholic and evangelical. These are the folks who say "That's not how they did it in my home church" with a clear eye toward an American and sectarian kind of Lutheranism and not the Lutheranism of the Confessions...