Friday, September 13, 2019
If we only believed. . .
Once we stop preaching this, it will disappear from our radar and our beliefs. The sad truth is that the decline of doctrinal preaching means that most of the folks in the pews are not confronted with what the Church believes, confesses, and teaches as they should be. Catechetical preaching is urgently needed among Christian people whose primary source of information has moved from the catechism and Bible to the internet and whose idea of truth has narrowed down to one person and one moment. Doctrinal preaching is urgently needed and especially among the sacramental churches. Lutherans are no different.
In the move to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, I told my parish I would not simply make the weekly Eucharist happen but would preach and teach it so that they would understand this was not about my preference or theirs but about what we believe, confess, and teach. At one point I was told by a parishioner that it was embarrassing to have me point to the altar as I taught about the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood only to see that nothing was there -- it was not communion Sunday. Another suggested that the preaching and teaching had made them ache to receive it and the ache was almost greater than she could bear when it was not offered. In the end, they learned that this was not adiaphora and was not personal preference but our identity and confession.
Though sometimes these quotes are apocryphal, it is said that Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said something to the effect: If Catholics really believed that God Himself were present in the Eucharist, they would crawl toward the altar on their stomachs. I don't know if he said it or not. I will leave that to others to track down but the sentiment is exactly right. If we believed. Ahhhh, that is the problem. If we actually believed what we say we believe, what a difference there might be in the way we paid attention on Sunday morning, in the shape of our piety, and how we approach the mystery of Christ's presence in the Holy Sacrament.
Lutherans are sacramental Christians. Our piety flows from the means of grace, the center and focus of the Divine Service. Our life together is rooted in our baptismal identity. We hear the Word of God not as some distant word but the familiar voice of our Good Shepherd who calls to us by name and whose voice we recognize. That Word is the life-giving Word through which the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying us and all believers in Christ. It is an active Word, bestowing that of which it speaks. We are absolved by the voice of Christ speaking through the mouthpiece of the pastor and our sins fall away as the Word is spoken into our ears. We meet the crucified and risen Lord where He has promised to be -- in the bread which is His body and in the wine which is His blood. These are not mere symbols but bestow that which they sign. As Flannery O'Connor famously said, if they are just symbols, then to hell with them!
Sadly, it is often hard to see this on Sunday morning. We come to God's House with the same enthusiasm we come to a root canal. We dress to be comfortable but look more like a people headed to a BBQ than to the place where God comes to us as He has promised. We barely mouth the words of the responses and sing with all the vigor of a people ashamed or embarrassed by what we are singing. We come to the Lord's Table as if we were heading to snack on something inconsequential instead of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood. We treat the remains of the Supper as if they were nothing but leftovers (and think how Jesus commanded the disciples to treat what remained after the feeding of the thousands!). And we go home as if nothing particularly special had happened while we were here. So when asked what we believe about the Real Presence, it is probably true that we are either not at all sure what it is that we believe or doubt the reality of the whole thing.
We are our rites. Casual worship makes for casual faith. What did we used to pray? Read, mark and inwardly digest? Try that on Sunday morning with the liturgy. Wisdom! Attend! The Word of God is read! God is here not in some vague and nebulous fashion but the flesh and blood of Christ right here in bread and wine. Pastors need to preach it. People need to hear it. We all need to believe it. And we all should act like we believe it. So many of our problems are related to not actually believing what the Word says and the presence of Christ in holy water, holy bread, and holy wine. From open communion to the abandonment of the hymnal and liturgy to the loss of the great hymns of the faith to a clock watching people who have more important things to do and places to be than God's House right now to regular attendance that has come to mean once a month or so and to the loss of vocation and the fear of generous giving -- are these not all related to the fact that we no longer believe what we confess and confess what Scripture teaches and teach the Word of the Lord that endures forever?