Monday, September 9, 2013

At least. . .

Richard John Neuhaus' Freedom for Ministry remains my favorite of all his books.  It was written nearly 35 years ago when the cusp of youthful idealism had met the catholic soul of the man and come to some measure both of peace and wisdom.  It was written as I was about to begin my journey as a Lutheran Pastor and I first read it back in 1979 (though I cannot for the life of me recall what I did with that copy of the book).  If Neuhaus found then a certain awkwardness about Christian ministry that seemed not accidental but essential, how much more true it is today.  In a phrase, he spoke of Pastors as ambassadors of a "disputed sovereignty"; I think that statement is even more applicable to the situation in which most clergy find themselves today than it was some 35 years ago.

Neuhaus found worship central both to the pastoral identity and to the pastoral vocation.  Here he as both the worship life of the Pastor and the pastoral calling as priest of Word and Sacraments to the priestly people of God.  He observes that while worship is not the sum total of Christian faith and life, it is at least the minimal discipline of the Christian.  As a Pastor I find myself both in full agreement with RJN and as an apologist for that point of view with even Lutheran people who seem to find worship optional to the exercise of a Christian faith.  How can this be?  Have we become so individualistic in our understanding of faith and so skeptical of the communal nature both of the life we were created for and the life to which we were redeemed?

I hear all the time from the occasionally delinquent as well as the long term lapsed that I should not presume that they have fallen from the faith merely because they have been absent from the gathering of God's baptized people on the Lord's Day in the Lord's House, around the Lord's Word and Table.  No, I am told, this is a false assumption and one which I dare not presume to make.  Yet this is the same Lutheranism in which Dr. Martin's minimum of 4 times a year was considered the least of the koinonia of church life lest we presume they do not believe and despise the Word and Sacrament of the Lord.  What began as a minimal threshold of faithfulness ended up marking generations of Lutherans as the level of participation that was good, right, and salutary.

RJN is absolutely right.  Place in worship does not equate perfectly to living faith but it is the minimal discipline of the Christian.  While it is surely true that failure to be together with the people of the Lord around His Word and Supper may not mean that faith is dead, how can this absence from the communal life of the baptized around the pure preaching of the Gospel and right administration of the sacraments be a marker of Christian vitality and trust?

The abysmal worship statistics of a third of the rolls actually in church on a Sunday morning is due largely to the fact that we do not say it clearly or loudly or often enough.  Worship may not be everything there is to faith but it is the something that marks you as a Christ both from within and without the Church.  There is always the felicitous inconsistency that despite all evidence to the contrary, faith is alive in a person absent from the worship life of God's people but if such faith cannot muster enough faithfulness to be where the Lord has placed His name, His Word, and His flesh and blood, what are we to think of such faith?

The sermon we call the Book of Hebrews says it pointedly.  Do not neglect the meeting together as some do.  In other words, go to church.  Be attentive to the voice of the Word.  Remember the baptism in which you died the old life to rise the new person in Christ.  Repent of your sins and believe the forgiveness mediated through the voice of the Pastor in absolution.  Renew your faith through the blessed food of Christs body and blood.  Return to the world as a witness to the Light and not as one who feels most at home in the shadows of its darkness.  Rejoice in the hope that is within you so that you may give good answer when you are questioned by those who do not yet know Christ.  Endure the struggles in the knowledge that he who has the eternal victory can survive the next few minutes, hours, and days.  Do the good works that proceed from the new heart Christ has placed in you, delighting in the things of God, the work of God, and the will of God for the sake of your neighbor.  Worship is not everything but neither is it nothing.  How can the Christian life flow rich and full within us without having its source in the Word and Sacrament?  How long can faith live in us without the rich and blessed food of the means of grace to sustain it and us?

At least worship.  It is the minimal discipline of the Christian.  Not its sum total but surely its significant beginning.

1 comment:

Dr.D said...

Amen, Amen!!

Worship, regular worship, is essential for any Christian, and doubly so for a priest. If we do not stay close to Christ, we cannot represent Him properly to the world.

Anglican Priest