Posts tagged ‘Communion’

A Holy Week for Unholy Times

art-cathedral-christ-christian-208216.jpgThis week is the beginning of what is, in the history and tradition of the Christian Church, called Holy Week. It is a commemoration of the final week of Jesus’ life before His death on a cross in anticipation of His victory over death on Easter.

Yesterday, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey while crowds hail His arrival by laying palm fronds at His feet (John 12:13). Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. On Palm Sunday, the crowds are hoping that, just as their Greek oppressors were taken down almost two centuries earlier, Jesus will be the revolutionary who takes down their Roman oppressors.

Then, this Thursday, we will observe Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a derivative of the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” On this night, Jesus gives His disciples two commands. This first command is one of love:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

The second is a command given when Jesus institutes a supper, which we now call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instructs His disciples:

Do this in remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19)

Thus, on Maundy Thursday, Christians across the world will partake in the Lord’s Supper – not just to obey a command, but to receive what Jesus promises in this holy meal: “the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

The day after Maundy Thursday is Good Friday – the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything good about it. Jesus is arrested by His enemies and condemned to die not because He has committed a crime, but because the religious elites of His day hate His popularity among the crowds in Jerusalem. Even the man who condemns Jesus to death on a cross, Pontius Pilate, knows that it is “out of envy that they had delivered Him up” (Matthew 27:18). This is a dark, unholy moment. As Jesus says to His accusers when they arrest Him: “This is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). And yet, even in this dark, unholy moment, holiness cannot and will not be defeated. Righteousness will reign. For even though Jesus’ enemies commit an unholy crime against Him, He is giving His life for them. His sacrifice is what makes Holy Week truly “holy.”

The times in which we are living right now feel dark and unholy. “Stay-at-home” restrictions are getting stricter. The curve of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is rising steeper. For millions of people, life is getting harder. And yet, this week – Holy Week – can remind us that holiness is found in the most unholy of places. After all, an ancient instrument of torture and execution – the cross – has now become a worldwide symbol of consolation and hope. And so, even if this week feels unholy, this week can still be a Holy Week – not because we live in a holy world, but because we have hope in a Holy One.

April 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Finding Our Place: Navigating Unionism and Sectarianism

Marburg ColloquyLast week, I was answering some questions for a friend who is studying to become a pastor. His professor had given him two questions for me to answer as part of assignment. One of the questions really struck me: Where do you think Lutheranism fits within the wider Christian community?

This is an important question. After all, for some, it is not evident that Lutheranism does fit within the wider Christian community – at least in a way that encourages engagement with and learning from that community. Last week, I watched with an aching heart as some of my Lutheran brothers in ministry harshly and sometimes sarcastically criticized some of my other Lutheran brothers for engaging with and learning from people outside of my Lutheran community. These criticisms reminded me of how important questions about where Lutherans fit in the Church with a capital “C” really are.

In order to explore these questions, I think it’s important to note the Lutheran identity at its best is a confessional Lutheran identity. The word “confessional” is rooted in the Greek word homologeo, which means, “to say the same thing.” To be a confessional Lutheran, then, means to say the same thing as Jesus and His Word. It means to be devoted to a clear and accurate declaration and explanation of the gospel and sacred Scripture, which, I should point out, can be found in our community’s confessional documents.

When engaging the Christian community at large, this devotion to the gospel and Scripture means two things. First, it means that Lutherans eschew unionism. Unionists are those who conceal differences between Christian communities and pretend that all – or most all – Christians say the same thing about Jesus and His Word. At the same time confessional Lutheranism guards against unionism, however, it also stands against sectarianism. In other words, though Lutherans do not paper over differences between their confession of faith the confessions of other Christian communities, they also celebrate and affirm areas of agreement. Thus, Lutherans are very much a part of the wider Christian community, for they share many of the same theological commitments.

The most famous historical test case for the kind of confessional Lutheranism that abjures both unionism and sectarianism came in 1529 when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli met at Marburg to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement between their two reforming movements. At Marburg, they discovered they agreed on fourteen articles of faith spanning from the nature of the Trinity to justification by faith to the role of governing authorities. But they could not agree on one point: the character of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The dispute was formally summarized like this:

We all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.[1]

This is a masterful statement. Luther and Zwingli carefully avoid unionism by clearly, winsomely, concernedly, and lovingly explaining where they disagree, but are also in no way sectarian, for they commit themselves to “show Christian love” and “diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding.” In other words, they unreservedly confess their positions while humbly asking the Lord to show them if and where they could be out of step with His Word. Here is confessional Lutheranism at its finest.

In a culture where truth is often either relegated to relativity or regarded as unimportant, confessional Lutheranism has not only much to say, but a time-tested strategy to offer. The ability to stand up for truth against error while also standing with the truth wherever it can be found is sorely needed not only in the Church, but in our world. So, as a confessional Lutheran, I will continue to be honest about areas of disagreement. But I will also never forget to look for areas of agreement. Finally, I will pray that those areas of agreement would continue to increase among others and myself until we all agree with Jesus. For agreeing with Him is what matters most.

__________________________________

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 38, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 88–89.

September 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Divorce, Remarriage, Communion, and the Catholic Church’s Existential Crisis

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

I have to admit, I’d be in awe if I got the phone call Jaqui Lisbona did.  On a Monday, a couple of weeks ago, Jaqui’s phone rang.  Her husband picked it up and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Father Bergoglio.  You may know him better as Pope Francis.  He asked to speak with Jaqui.  Apparently, several months back, she had written a letter to the pontiff asking him if she could take Communion even though she was divorced.  Apparently, her priest had been refusing her Communion for some time now according to the provisions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions … The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.  If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.  Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists.[1]

In contradistinction to her priest’s ban, The Washington Post reports that the Pope told Jaqui “‘there was no problem’ with her taking Communion, and that he was ‘dealing with the issue’ of remarried divorcees.”[2]  Predictably, this set off a firestorm of controversy with the Vatican ultimately having to respond:

Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.

I like Ross Douthat’s analysis of this response:  “This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in ‘private’ conversation, the Pope is, well, the Pope.”[3]  Exactly.  You can’t claim the Pope is the vicar of Christ on the one hand while having him contradict what other vicars of Christ before him have taught on the other.

With that being said, there is something to be commended in the stance that The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even this woman’s priest, has taken with regard to remarried divorcees and Communion.  In a world that all too readily sanctions divorce and remarriage for reasons as debase and selfish as “I’m in love with someone else and I want to marry them,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps to remind us of the gravity of divorce as a sin in God’s eyes.

Still, it has been interesting to watch Catholics struggle to respond to this situation.  They are struggling with how to make a proper distinction between, oddly enough, the Law and the Gospel!  Consider this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

The question of the divorced-remarried and the sacraments is taking up a lot of our time. How should we look at this?

One of the many confounding things about the Jesus of the Gospels is that He fulfills the law, even strengthens the law, and yet extends mercy to literally anyone who wants it, no matter how deep their transgressions, and adopts a resolutely passionate attitude with sinners. This is encapsulated by His words to the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

As with all aspects of our faith, structured with paradox as it is, the temptation is always to strengthen one side of the “equation” too much at the expense of the other … Jesus says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” One camp will say, “He said ‘I do not condemn you’!!!!!” One camp will say, “He said ‘Go and sin no more’!!!!!” …

It seems to me that the excesses go in these ways. The progressive excess is to use mercy as a (however well-intentioned) pretext to amend the law. The conservative excess is to use the law as a (however well-intentioned pretext) to refuse mercy.

Yes, God lays down the law. But God provides infinite mercy.[4]

It sounds to me like Gobry is having the existential crisis of a Lutheran and he doesn’t even know it!  He is taking seriously the full weight of God’s law against divorce on the one hand while leaning on His sweet mercy for divorcées on the other.

Gobry even seems to suspect that the partaking of Communion to a divorcée’s blessing and benefit is not as simple as a humanly contrived promise to sin no more based squarely in a person’s will:

The juridical Gordian knot here is the necessary “firm resolve” not to commit the sin again. But it is not licentious to note that for all of us this firm resolve will be imperfect. Obviously, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if we search our hearts, do we not find that “firm resolve” is drawn in shades of gray, rather than black or white? …

God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

Gobry knows that rooting anything salvific and divinely beneficial in our actions or will is a fool’s errand.  It’s not just that we aren’t righteous, it’s that we don’t even want to be righteous.  Indeed, any righteous desire in our will is doomed to an infinite regress, rendered impotent because of sin.  We only want to want to be righteous, or even want to want to want to be righteous.  And even this is giving us too much credit.

So, what is the way out of this morass over who may worthily partake of Communion?  Martin Luther would say, “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”[5]  Our worthiness to partake of Communion is not and cannot be based in our freedom from sin, our reparations for sin, or the fullness and genuineness of a promise not to commit more sin.  With regard to the Catholic Church’s current quandary over divorce and remarriage specifically, worthiness for Communion cannot be the result of trying to fix the sin of divorce by, after remarrying, getting another divorce, for this is also a sin.  No, our worthiness to partake on Communion can only be based on faith in the One who gives us His body and blood to remedy our unworthiness.  Our worthiness must be based in Jesus because our worthiness is Jesus.

Existential crisis…remedied.

______________________________

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1994), § 1650.

[2] Terrence McCoy, “Did Pope Francis just call and say divorced Catholics can take Communion?The Washington Post (4.24.2014).

[3] Ross Douthat, “The Pope’s Phone Call,” The New York Times (4.26.2014).

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “On Divine Mercy Sunday, Some Thoughts On Communion And Divorced-Remarried,” patheos.com (4.27.2014).

[5] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Section 1.

May 5, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

What’s Worship?

Worship is fundamental to the church’s life.  The other day, I came across a paragraph from Ben Witherington III in his book The Indellible Image, where he comments on 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Witherington’s comments on this passage iare helpful in illuminating what is of first importance in worship:

There is no basis in the New Testament for the idea that Christian[s] offer vicarious sacrifices for others or for the world, nor is there any reoffering of Christ to God…One has to import all sorts of Old Testament ideas into the New Testament practice to come up with what some have in “high church” practice.  This is a questionable hermeneutical leap at best.  Nor is the Lord’s Supper seen as a sacrifice; rather, it is like Passover.  It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.  The main sacrifice that believers offer to God in worship or in particular in the Lord’s Supper is what Paul suggests in Romans 12:1:  themselves.  However, we must remember that even this offering in itself is not acceptable; as 1 Peter 2:5b suggests, it is acceptable only through Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice. (356)

There are several aspects of Witherington’s statement worth noting.  First and foremost, biblical worship is primarily about God meeting His people with His gifts rather than people meeting God with their gifts.  The primary direction of worship is from God to man, not from man to God.  This important point is lost in many theologies of worship.  Indeed, Witherington’s opening statement about “reoffering Christ to God” is a reference to Roman Catholic theology, where the worship service, and especially the Eucharist, is conceived of as an event during which the priest reoffers Christ to God in an “unbloody sacrifice.”  The Council of Trent explains:

Forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. (Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Ch. 2)

The Council of Trent could not be clearer.  Worship in Catholicism is believed to be a re-sacrifice of Christ by a priest, albeit in an “unbloody” manner, for the forgiveness of the worshipers’ sins.  This is a patently false view of worship.

Second, it is important to take to heart Withernington’s statement concerning the Lord’s Supper:  “It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.”  In more traditional parlance, we would say that the Lord’s Supper is a “means of grace.”  The great Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper explains thusly: “[The means of grace are] the divine transmission of the grace which Christ has gained for all men [when] it joins immediately to the objective reconciliation or justification of sinful mankind” (Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3, 105).  In other words, the means of grace are the ways in which God’s grace gets “delivered” to His people.  The Lord’s Supper is certainly one of these ways as Christ comes to us with His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Thus, rather than re-sacrificing Christ to God as Roman Catholic theology teaches, the Lutheran Church confesses that Christ is giving His already sacrificed and risen body to us!  Thus, once again, we see that worship is primarily about God meeting us and not about us meeting God.

Finally, it is important to note, along with Witherington, that worship does indeed involve our gifts to God.  But these gifts in no way merit our salvation or gain God’s favor.  Instead, they are only in grateful response to what God has already given us in worship:  His forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Indeed, our gift of ourselves to God would be despicably sinful in His sight were it not for “Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice.”  Christ’s sacrifice of salvation sanctifies our sacrifices to God in worship.

So, the next time you join us for worship, remember, you may have hopped in the car and driven a few miles to come to church, but God has crossed heaven to earth to meet you.  In worship, God is the One coming to you.  God is the One who desires to meet with you.  And God is the one who has His good gifts of grace for you.  And who wouldn’t want to receive those?

July 8, 2010 at 4:45 am 2 comments


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,059 other followers


%d bloggers like this: