It is a poor joke to say or think that Lutheranism is in danger due to those seeking to restore ceremonies and rituals that long ago have dropped out of common usage. It is a poor joke to suggest that Lutherans are in danger of violating the Lord's words in Matthew 6 against practicing your piety before men. Honestly, how can people in good conscience speak or think this way?
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven," said our Lord against those who had ONLY an external piety. But this is from the same Jesus who said not one word against the ceremonies or rituals themselves nor who ever countenanced abandoning the worship of the synagogue or temple. This is from the same Jesus who insisted that it was not the outward piety that was the problem but the lack of inward piety, namely faith. For our Lord was not advocating a choice but both faith in the heart and the heart of faith that shapes the way one lives.
I am so very tired of the memes on Facebook and all the other social media that suggest that God is more pleased by people who love their neighbors than by people who go to church. Really? Is God really offering you a choice? It is a ridiculous statement to say that how you treat people is what really matters -- unless you believe in works righteousness and have a hierarchy of works to make that judgment.
Ash Wednesday brings out the predictable complaints of those who think ashes on the forehead endangers your faith and the faith by promoting an external piety. Add this to those who think that in general church is optional but not essential to being a good Christian and you have makings of some of the goofiest stuff parading as Christian thought.
Our Lord never offers us a choice between a deeply private and individual religion and a public and communal one. He does not encourage the competition between external and internal piety. He does not offer by word or example any support for those who see the church as something unnecessary to the practice of the faith. He does not ever diminish the requirements of worship mandated by God in the Old Testament. He does not ever suggest that the worship of the new covenant should eschew the ceremonies and rituals that were so prominent in the Old Testament. In fact, some Christians make God out to be schizophrenic -- at one moment in time requiring ceremonial and ritualistic worship right down to the smallest detail and at another time insisting that none of this matters but only the sincerity of the heart.
The shape of faithful Christianity and true Lutheranism is not a choice between public and private, individual and congregation, plain or ceremonial piety and worship but about both. Our Lord has endowed us with a rich legacy of symbolism, ceremonies, rituals, and external piety for our benefit and the same Lord continues to call us to faith that trusts in the saving work of Christ alone. Only the foolish try to pit one against the other. In fact, every complaint the Lord has about piety is directed against those who make it a choice. There is something inherently wrong about a piety so deeply personal and interior that it is not visible to others and something inherently wrong about a piety that is only external and not deeply personal and interior as well. The very gift of sacraments is itself a contradiction of those who think that private and invisible piety is what our Lord has in mind.
But this goofiness persists. And so it must be answered from time to time. Even so, it is a tiresome debate that seems to make personal preference the primary criteria for what pleases God and private faith the only true faith. So much for good works, huh. So, here is my suggestion. Read the Old and New Testament and tell me where God tells you to make the choice and to choose a private religion for a public one, an individual piety for a communal life together around the Word and Table of the Lord. Then explain to me why the Lord at one point could be so specific in the details of what was worship pleasing to Him and then later on leave it up to what feels good to the individual. The law was fulfilled, not abolished, after all. Jesus does not abolish the Temple but becomes the Temple. And so also is the goofiness that pits Spirit and Truth against external ceremony and ritual. If that is truth, the Israel was worshiping shallowly and yet this seems to be pleasing to God -- at least until Jesus when God went 180 and changed His mind. . . again.
The liturgy of Revelation that we anticipate on earth is symbolically rich as well as vividly offering the fullness of what is being signed. It is the Temple cleansed, Christ the Temple and the Lamb, priest and victim. Are we simply supposed to imagine this in our minds but worship like Amish on Sunday mornings? Yet that is exactly how some people think. This is not purely or even essentially preference at all but the richest of ceremonial traditions wedded to the faithful preached Word. Let's not choose. Let's have it all!!!
Our rich Lutheran legacy of symbolism, ceremonies, rituals, and external piety are there to strengthen and edify. The sacraments and the liturgy are there to strengthen and preserve us in body and soul unto life everlasting, refreshing us unto good works serving our neighbor. Why any Christian would want to deny the nexus between internal and external piety is beyond me. I think James chapter 2 cuts both ways. Beware of measuring Christian bonafides by your love for neighbor alone. Some of the most loving people belong to the Universal Unitarian Church and the ELCA. Bill Gates is also concerned with serving his fellow man and wants to eradicate malaria as his legacy to the world. There is a lot of altruism going on in the church and the world but if it is not the natural outpouring of repentant faith in Christ it will not be rewarded and will soon be forgotten where it matters most - in the eyes of God.
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