Reading some posts about Lutheran sacramental piety, I found one voice from outside Lutheranism presuming that Lutherans are basically Word only people who called the sacraments visible Word and who find nothing distinctive or unique about the means of grace. In effect, it is as if grace were like food value with its nutrients for the spirit and where you got them about as significant as the choice between broccoli and brussels sprouts (both find choices, to be sure). This author's reading of Luther, limited to be sure, suggested to him that Lutherans do not place a high value on the sacrament, specifically upon the Mass, and have a very utilitarian sacramental theology. In addition, it is his presumption that Word here means reading, hearing read, hearing teaching, and hearing preaching as all pretty much the same. Another perhaps understandable but false conclusion about what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.
The grace we receive from the means of grace (the Word and the Sacraments) is Christ and His Spirit, imparting His gifts. So, yes, the grace is Christ -- whether preaching, absolving, baptizing, or communing. But to say that the means of grace are a smorgasbord in which we choose the personally preferred means is to miss Lutheran theology and its distinctives entirely.
Some have described Lutheran piety as a Word piety. Others have said we have a baptismal piety. Still others have called our piety Eucharistic. Not very many have ever suggested we have a piety built upon penance or absolution, though a case could be made when you consider how Lutherans describe the article on which the church stands or falls (justification). While people may have a preference, Lutheran piety is not what we feel or like but what our confessional documents proclaim. Therein we are clear in confessing our great love for and highest esteem for the Word preached and taught and the baptismal gift of regeneration and new life and the Eucharistic gift of eating and drinking the blood of Christ. Lutherans often say where the forgiveness of sins is, there is life and salvation. This forgiveness comes to us in several means and with it life and salvation.
On this day we recall with greatest affection and esteem, the most wonderful gift of the body and blood of Christ in this blessed Sacrament of the Altar. While others may want to pull things apart, we see them all entwined in the Divine Service. The invocation calls us to baptism and to those who wear the name of the Triune God. Apart from God's call and Spirit imparting this baptismal gift and the faith to receive it, there can be no worship at all. The Service of the Word reminds us that the Word is not merely some written record of facts but the living voice of God addressing His Church with the gifts and blessings won by His Son and imparted and received by the ministry of the Spirit. When Lutherans say "Word" we do not think primarily of people at home reading or studying their Bibles but the Word in the midst of the assembly, the Divine Service. Private devotions as well as the formal catechesis of the Church support the ministry of the Word within the Divine Service but neither compete with nor detract from, much less substitute, for the Divine Service. The Sacramental meal imparts to us the flesh of Christ for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin. There is no sense here in which these merely duplicate one another. When we say visible Word we mean that the sacramental means are no less efficacious or effective in bestowing faith and feeding that faith than the Scriptures, the Word of God as preaching or in written form.
Sadly, too many Lutherans in the pew have developed a rather protestant piety in which the Sacraments are less important and less necessary than the Word. No Lutheran should ever be comfortable saying or believing this. We do not pick and chose from Christ's words nor do we pick and choose the means of grace that appeals to us. We receive what Christ gives. We do not disdain any of His gifts (at the risk of disdaining Him as gift and giver). We do not elevate one above the other for the work together by Christ's institution and design.
Tonight when we observe Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), we do so rejoicing in the gracious God who gives us rich and extravagant gifts. He gives us His bread in the Word that proceeds from His mouth and His bread that is Christ's flesh for the life of the world and for our own life. Read John 6, read the Words of Institution, and read the sacramental teaching of St. Paul in Corinthians. If we hear this Word, then we will keep the Sacrament, esteem it with greatest reverence and awe, and rejoice in its blessing and grace by eating and drinking in faith Christ's flesh and blood, as His own words describe and teach.
Lutheran hymnals sing the Eucharistic devotion of Aquinas along with Luther's Eucharistic piety and we see no divide, no contradiction. This is Christ's body and this is His blood, given and shed for you and for me, for the forgiveness of sins, for our life and salvation. For Luther the highest esteem and reverence for the Lord's Table is to come in faith, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, while rejoicing that this gift and blessing and grace is "for you."
I find it sad that many Lutherans "in the pew" are essentially protestant (Baptist). It continues to amaze me that they (Lutherans) who have such wonderful treasures and the heritage of the Church switch to such a low view of the Sacraments.
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