Sunday, June 2, 2013

At least in theory. . .

Lutherans have always held to a high view of the sacraments -- at least in theory.  Most of those who are non-sacramental are fringe Lutherans and crack pots.  But it is like God, apple pie, bread and butter, and Chevrolet -- the sacraments are affirmed as part of our culture but not necessarily part of our piety.  That is why I say in theory.  We have not always practiced what we have confessed and preached.  We affirm a high view of the sacraments as one of those sacred cows we must affirm in theory even if we ignore them in practice.  Our sacramental theology, like the very phrase "Word and Sacrament", has become Lutheran cliche.  We are uniformly dedicated to principle, at least in theory, even if our practice contradicts it.

The Lutheran "dark night of the sacramental soul" proceeded from perhaps the eighteenth century into the mid-twentieth century.  Sadly, our awakening was due as much to those who loved the ritual more than they loved the theology.  By this I mean that among those who began to reawaken Lutheranism to its high view of the sacraments of life and worship were those who were hesitant to take the Word of God as it is or confess its infallibility without an asterisk. 

Baptism and the Eucharist, like private confession, have faded into the background of the corporate and individual piety of Lutherans.  We became primarily Word centered and Word oriented.  We fought the battle of the Bible and won the inerrancy of the Scriptures but for what cause?  Our people were reading and being fed at the evangelical buffet table with its silence about the sacraments.  Baptism became an event.  The Eucharist was an add on to the Word service.  The general confession erased the memory of our once vibrant commitment to private confession.  We still honored these but from a distance.  They were held high in theory but became almost invisible or inconsequential to our practice and piety.

Now, more than half a century into a deliberate process of liturgical renewal, the practice is beginning to catch up the theory.  But the piety of the people, the parish, and of the Lutheran Church as a whole remains largely Word oriented.  The proof of this can be found in the libraries of clergy and lay alike.  Evangelical authors dominate our reading material and on the subject of the sacraments they offer little of consequence, and what they do offer is contrary to our Lutheran Confessions.  They have never had a sacramental piety and so they confirm us Lutherans in the irrelevance or katholische leaning nature of such a baptismal or Eucharistic focus.

It is surely true that we have the Sacrament of the Altar more frequently on Sunday morning, that we have baptisms more in the context of the Divine Service and accessible to more people than in the past, that we have more Pastors in Eucharistic vestments, that there is more chanting and more ceremonial than in the 1950s.  However, this has yet to translate into a real sacramental piety -- like the one the under girds the Lutheran Confessions.  What has happened is that our Confessions, with their distinct sacramental perspective, have become as distinct and distant from our piety as the sacraments themselves.  We see them as doctrinal checklists to be affirmed in theory instead of real expressions of what we believe, confess, teach, and practice in the daily life of parishes and people.

The life of the Christian is to flow from and back to the altar of the Lord.  The Eucharist is where the baptized people of God first experience and exercise their priestly vocation born of baptism.  Until this sacramental perspective is fully recovered, Lutherans will find it too tempting to see themselves as some what liturgical Protestants (some of the more liberal or mainline perspective and others of a more conservative and evangelical shape).  One this happens and a sacramental piety is recovered, Lutherans will begin to see and live again the mindset of their Confessions.  Once their piety flows from Word AND sacrament, we will find that our once fruitful shopping trips to the evangelical bookstore are ever less satisfying.  The things we once found satisfying will become more and more inadequate as we discover anew what it means to be Lutheran.

This is the next phase of the liturgical renewal movement within Lutheranism.  We have the forms and they are good ones.  Now we as Pastors and parishes need to draw from the deep well of our sacramental piety to remember anew who we are as Lutheran people, holding up with joy and thanksgiving the evangelical and catholic identity we claim to hold in our Confessions.

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

How many unconvinced life-long Lutherans are apathetic about the Sacraments? It seems to an adult convert that many have become laissez faire.

Has the silence deafened the congregants?