Thursday, April 13, 2017

High sacramentalism. . .

On another blog a Calvinist defended himself against the charge that his sacramentalism is too high.  His defense against the charge raises the question of whether or not conversion has not replaced baptism as the secure ground of Christian identity for those within the greater evangelical community.  The blog post acknowledges the uneasiness with which the evangelical community embraces Luther.  They seek to define his "tower experience" as a conversion and yet, when fighting the devil, Luther himself never points to that moment but rather to his baptism.  He does, for example, acknowledge that he agrees with Luther about baptizing infants but not with him on the reasons for doing so.  So he admits to a high sacramentalism that he believes is consistent with Calvin even if it is not natural or easy for the greater evangelical community.

Now, as we make our way to Maundy or Holy Thursday, the whole issue of Luther's high sacramentalism raises its head again.  We Lutherans insist in the Augustana that we have not abolished the Mass but keep it with greater devotion than our opponents, offering the Blessed Eucharist every Lord's day and every other day there are those who desire to receive it.  Yet what does it mean?  Does it mean that this is merely descriptive of the current practice of Lutheran Christians in the day of Luther and shortly thereafter?  Or, does it prescribe what Lutheran practice is to be for the future, an identifying feature of Lutheranism and not an incidental description of that slice of time?

We search in vain for a mandate other than "do this often."  What "often" means has been fiercely debated even within Lutheranism itself.  In my youngest years I knew the Lord's Supper as a quarterly event.  People got up and left before the Lord's Supper -- if they were not planning to commune.  The Lutheran Hymnal that was normative was The Morning Service and the Eucharist was an add on to what was ordinary to the folks in my neck of the woods.  Often for that period of Lutheran history tended to mean once quarterly at the most.

At the same time we have seen the liturgical renewal movement bear great fruit in advancing the frequency with which the Lord's Supper is offered (though it is not necessarily true that we have regained the expectation of our Confession that the chief service of the Lord's Day is Word AND Sacrament).  More than this, we have not recovered the piety that expects the body and blood of our Lord to be set apart by His Word and distributed and received by the faithful.  For many Lutherans, the Morning Service still sees the Sacrament as an add on and not part of the essential character of Lutheran worship.

Even Lutherans have been so heavily influenced by Protestantism in America and evangelicalism in particular that almost wish we had a somewhat dramatic conversion experience to point to instead of a baptismal moment we cannot recall and a sacramental supper we are never quite sure why we have it so often.  We tend to value the remembering part of the meal more than receiving.  We find ourselves drawing more from the mental association of this bread and wine with our Lord's suffering and death than we do from the actual eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Jesus.  It is a wonderful sacrament, as the collect for this day says, but it does not have to be observed every Sunday and the chief service of Sunday morning is more associated with preaching than eating and drinking.

Maundy or Holy Thursday we come face to face not with what we might think but with the words of our Lord and the practice of early Christianity.  We may not have enough of what was said to settle the discussion but we have a great of evidence to point to what they did -- from Acts 2:42 on.  They met together for the sacred meal that was our Lord's testament and legacy to His Church.  They met in this eating and drinking not a mental image but the real and substantial flesh of Christ and His blood.  This may or may not be high sacrmentalism but it is Biblical and it reflects what the earliest Christians did as well as what they said.

Strangely, we come tonight with odd thoughts.  Some of us Lutherans wonder why we have it so often (perhaps even too often) and others wonder what is the big deal when the sermon is clearly the highest point of the Divine Drama.  Some of us almost regret our infant baptism and wish that we could remember that day and the experience of that washing (as if this is what gives the water its power).  And others, even though we practice reverence, are not really sure what is the big deal about bread that seems less than bread and wine (too often replaced with grape juice or even apple juice by those who think they have to make Jesus all things to all people) that is not the kind of wine you would purchase to drink with some brie and some good toasted focaccia bread.

Maybe it is just too scary to take the Lord at His Word.  Maybe it is just to much to commend our salvation to His promise and not to our comprehension or consent to that promise.  Maybe we are still embarrassed to be Lutheran.  On this night, we come face to face with the promise placed in bread and wine.  Some say Luther had a high sacramentalism.  I wonder what other kind of faith and piety there is?  Would that we did not fight over whether the Augustana prescribes or describes but simply take the Lord at His Word and delight to meet Him where He bids us come, eat, and live.

1 comment:

Kirk Skeptic said...

Evangelicals are all Paul and no Timothy, and require special meetings and camps in order to create a "conversion experience" cum melodrama. Been there, done that, glad to be back home.