Cultural engagement requires the Sacrament

Peter Leithhart, a Reformed pastor and theologian, says that what evangelicals need if they are going to respond effectively to our time is to recover Holy Communion:

Evangelicals will be incapable of responding to the specific challenges of our time with any steadiness or effect until the Eucharist becomes the criterion of all Christian cultural thinking and the source from which all genuinely Christian cultural engagement springs.

The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross. . . .

Sharing the Supper forges us into a corporate body that participates in Christ through the Spirit. By the Spirit, we become what we receive: “We are one body because we partake of one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). In practice, Evangelicals don’t partake, and so we aren’t a body. When we do partake, we don’t partake together. We aren’t a body with many members so much as an aggregation of individuals. There’s little point in asking what “message” the “church” needs to proclaim unless we can speak of a church with something resembling a message.

In addition to the ecclesial, the political consequences of our Eucharistic neglect are almost beyond calculation. The great French Catholic Henri de Lubac traced in intricate detail how the sacredness of the table slowly migrated first to consecrate the institutional church and then to sanctify the state. Evangelicals are intensely protective of the “sanctity” of the flag, but many would be puzzled at the classic Eucharistic announcement, “Holy things for holy people.” Lacking a rightly ordered Supper, modern Christians wrap nationalism in a veil of sanctity, with sometimes-horrific results. In the U.S., Christians are frequently urged to give political support to this or that variation of Americanism. There is no genuinely Christian alternative because the church has no defined public shape with the resilience to withstand the political forces that press in on us.

As it is in politics, so is it in economics. Because we don’t take our bearings from the table, the growing debate among Evangelicals about how to constitute a just economy lists awkwardly from hedonism to asceticism and back. The Supper ritualizes a Christian vision of production and distribution as it catches up our economics into the economy of God. By the Spirit, bread and wine, products of human labor, become vehicles for communion with Christ.

As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann pointed out long ago, the Supper discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. Not only this bread, but all bread, all products of human work, can be means of fellowship with God and one another. Further, we receive these products of human labor, with thanks; as a gift of God. Thus the table discloses the mystery of the creature’s participation in the Creator’s creativity, and this participation produces goods that are ours only as gifts received, goods to be shared and enjoyed in communion.

The Supper closes the gap between joy in creation and pious devotion to God. At the table, delight in the taste of bread and the tang of wine is delight in God, though this double delight is not unique to this meal. Every meal and every moment, every encounter and every project burst with the promise of communion with God. This world, Schmemann said, is the matter of God’s kingdom.

Evangelicals move away to Constantinople or Rome at an alarming rate, often because they lose hope of finding even a glimmer of liturgical piety in Evangelical churches. They’re hungry, and they believe they have found where the banquet is happening. Luther and Calvin would be aghast, for in their eyes the Reformation was an effort to restore priestly food to all of God’s priests as well as an effort to recover the gospel of grace.

All the cultural and political challenges that Evangelicals face come back to the Supper. It’s important to do it right, but it’s more important to do it and to do it together. Until we do, most of our cultural chatter will continue to glance harmlessly off our targets. Until we do, Evangelicals will flop and flounder with every cultural wind and wave.

via Do This | First Things.

As a Lutheran, I appreciate this call to recover a spirituality centered in the Sacrament.  (And, I would add, evangelicals looking for this in Rome or Constantinople would do well to first see it closer to home in Wittenberg, where they would find that they wouldn’t have to cease being evangelicals in order to be sacramental.)  I know some Calvinists are being accused in their circle of crypto-Lutheranism.  But is this particular view of the Sacrament, however “high” it seems and for all of its presence talk, all that Lutheran?  Amidst all of the talk of identifying the church and engaging the culture and reforming the economy, where is the “given for you for the remission of all of your sins”?  Or could these other benefits become ancillary effects?

Has Lutheranism caused secularism?

A Danish scholar looks at the influence of Protestantism–specifically, Lutheranism–on modern Scandinavian culture.  Some of her conclusions:

Lutheran Protestants are free from religiosity

For centuries, Lutheran Protestant Christianity in Northern Europe and the US taught our ancestors that there was nothing they could do to make God think better of them. Neither good deeds nor giving money to the church was seen as having importance in the eyes of God.

“For Protestants, life can be good just as it is. Life does not have to be lived in any particular ’religious’ way in order to have a good relationship with God,” says [Matias] Dalsgaard.

Protestants are free from obligations to God. They don’t have to live according to strict rules. Instead they have been charged with a rather nebulous task.

“Protestants are commanded to live an ordinary life together with other people. It is a tough task because Protestants are not told specifically how to do this,” says Dalsgaard.

‘Protestant’ countries have a culture of freedom

Throughout history, Protestant Christians have tried to manage their freedom in the best possible way. Over time, this has permeated the culture in countries that subscribe to the Protestant tradition, even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background.

In Denmark, Sweden, the UK and Germany, this freedom meant that around 500 years ago, citizens started to become what is termed ‘modern’. It occurred after the Reformation in Northern Europe in the first half of the 16th century.

In this context, ‘modern’ has nothing to do with fashion, but means that people feel more free to make their own decisions without causing others to react negatively to those decisions.

“One could go as far as to say that the Protestant tradition squeezes out religion, because it rejects the idea that something holy exists here on Earth,” says the researcher.

Kierkegaard furnishes a good example

The author has analysed a large number of the most significant Christian texts. But the most important writer referred to in his book is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

“Kierkegaard is perhaps the sharpest existential analyst in the Lutheran Protestant tradition. He is the one who best presents the existential challenges, conflicts and opportunities. That is why I use him as a starting point,” he says.

You shall not know yourself

Kierkegaard describes the situation in which modern people find themselves today. In his book ‘Either/Or’, Kierkegaard introduces a person whom he calls ’the aesthete’. This is a man who cannot find a way to ‘choose himself’.

Kierkegaard criticises the aesthete for not choosing himself. Instead, he avoids himself by constantly acting out multiple roles.

But although you should ’choose yourself’, there is no prescription for what to choose, because you cannot find a core that is yourself.

“The Delphic Oracle – which existed in Ancient Greece – said ‘know thyself’. But Kierkegaard says ‘choose yourself’ – it is action-oriented. You should actively be the one you are, where you are – and not think so much about who you are. This is a task given to us by God,” says Dalsgaard.

via Protestantism has left us utterly confused | ScienceNordic.

This scholar, of course, misses the distinction between orthodox Lutheranism and the liberal, culturally-conforming state church.  Kierkegaard’s emphasis on “choosing” would not seem to go well with Luther’s “bondage of the will.” And, of course, there is nothing about Christ, much less the Law (which destroys all complacency–I thought guilt and gloominess were part of the Scandinavian legacy!) and the Gospel.  Or the Cross.  The notion that one can have the influence of Christianity without Christianity–  “even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background”–is  ludicrous on the face of it.

And yet, aren’t there some valid observations here?  Lutherans, even orthodox ones, do seem to have less “religiosity.”  And there is quite a bit of the doctrine of vocation here:  “live an ordinary life with other people”; “you should actively be the one you are, where you are–and not think so much about who you are.”

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

I’ve blogged about Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham and the successor to D. James Kennedy as pastor of the influential Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  In the course of some struggles over his ministry, he came to a deeper understanding of the Gospel with the help of some Lutheran writers (e.g., C. F. W. Walther, Bo Giertz, Gerhard Forde, Hal Senkbeil, Rod Rosenbladt).  He has written a book about his experience and his new liberating realization that he does not have to add anything to what Christ has done for him.  The book is entitled Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

No, he doesn’t become a Lutheran.  He remains a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. That’s not the point.  But he demonstrates what I have been contending, that we Lutherans in our theology have some great treasures that other Christians are searching for and yearning for.  We tend to keep to ourselves, though, and mainly just talk to each other, which means that our theological and spiritual heritage is little known in American Christianity, which is split between evangelicals and catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, fundamentalists and mainliners, and other dichotomies which Lutheranism reconciles.  Anyway, Lutherans would do well to see the excitement with which Rev. Tchividjian discovers and seizes upon Biblical insights that are commonplaces among Lutherans, to the point that they sometimes take them for granted.  (The book is resonating with other evangelicals.  Christianity Today named it one of the top books of 2012.)

He approached me–he liked my book Spirituality of the Cross:  The Way of the First Evangelicals–to write a blurb about his book, which I was glad to do.  Here is what I said about it.   I’ll add some other blurbs that capture the book’s flavor and how it’s being received:

“Many Christians today assume that the gospel just has to do with conversion, for way back when they first came to faith. They have lost the sense, well known to Christians of the past, that the gospel is for every moment of their lives. As a result, they often fall into a moralism that can be, as this book shows, just as idolatrous, self-focused, and godless as immorality. This book shows how the good news of free forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ is the driving energy that makes the Christian life possible. Pastor Tchividjian tells about how he himself discovered the full magnitude of God’s grace in the midst of difficult times in his own ministry. He does so in a way that will bring relief, exhilaration, and freedom to struggling Christians.”
—Gene Edward Veith Jr., provost, professor of Literature, Patrick Henry College; director, Cranach Institute, Concordia Theological Seminary; columnist; author

“Tullian Tchividjian knows, by biblical study and personal experience, that the greatest dangers to the church exist inside the church not outside and the greatest of these dangers is the subtle, deceptive, and seductive self-reliance and self-sufficiency of legalism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book is its page after page plea to the church not to be afraid of the glorious provisions and freedoms of the grace of Jesus.”
—Paul David Tripp, President, Paul Tripp Ministries; author, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage

“In a powerful, concise, and popular style, Tchividjian announces, explicates, defends, and contrasts the gratuitous gospel of Christ’s person and work with the oft-misheld conviction of us sinners that, if we are somehow to be justified, it will have to be a matter of ‘making up for’ our offenses and of inward improvement. Chapter-by-chapter he argues that God’s saving plan is one of grace and not one of improvement. Filled with illustrations from his life as a pastor, this is no unapproachable, academic tome. But neither, thank God, is it today’s ‘Evangelical silly!’ Tchividjian wrestles openly with demons and their central lie in order that we truly ‘get’ what the Bible is really about. From every point on the compass, he contrasts ‘moral renovation’ with a free, one-sided rescue drenched in the blood of Jesus. Good news for everyone—but especially for Christians who are worn out by trying the other way, believing the lie, somehow knowing renovation isn’t working but knowing nowhere else to turn. Tchividjian is out to convince his reader that justification before God really is pure gift, is free, is by grace and through faith in Christ. . . sola!”
—Rod Rosenbladt, professor of theology, Concordia University

“Brace yourself for a gospel tornado! Tullian speaks from the heart to the heart, reclaiming the ‘good’ part of the good news in a bold and liberating fashion. To those suffering under the gravitational pull of internal as well as external legalism (a/k/a everyone), Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything represents the only lifeline there is—the mind-blowing, present-tense freedom of God’s justifying grace. No ‘if’s, ‘and’s or ‘but’s here, just the enlivening and relieving Word in all its profundity, with powerful illustrations to spare. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll read it over and over and over again (of course, you don’t have to)!”
—David Zahl, Director, Mockingbird Ministries; editor of The Mockingbird Blog www.mbird.com

Rev. Harrison on Lent

I am appreciating more and more the ability of Matt Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, to witness to our faith in the public square.  Here are his Lenten greetings:

Wash and be clean

At church last Sunday we had texts on Naaman the Leper (2 Kings 5:1-14) and the leper who begged Jesus for healing (Mark 1:40-45).  The former, thinking to buy healing, came with $400,000 worth of silver and $4 million worth of gold (I appreciated how Pastor Douthwaite translated the ancient weights into their modern equivalence an worth).  The latter came with nothing but desperation.  God ended up healing them both, though not as Naaman expected.  Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon, all of which is worth reading, built up to this:

Sorry, Naaman! Who you are and what you got makes no difference – go, wash, and be clean. And sorry, Joe [the "ordinary Joe" in Mark]! Who you aren’t and what you don’t have makes no difference – I will; be clean. What makes the difference is not anything in these two men – what makes the difference is who our Lord is and what He has come to do. . . .

And now also for you. Also to you Jesus has said, I will; be clean. To heal you from the leprosy of your sin. For sin is the incurable nightmare that afflicts us. Sin is our death sentence, robbing us of life, separating us one from another. Satan doesn’t want you to think sin is so bad, and so he belittles sin in order to belittle our Saviour. He doesn’t want you to think you sin is so bad, and he wants to convince you that you can cover it up with the good you do. But that’s like putting make up on leprosy – you may look okay on the outside, but the disease is still eating you away. . . .

And so Jesus has provided a water of cleansing for you, that like Naaman, you may go, wash, and be clean; that like Joe, He may touch you and cleanse you. And when you are baptized, that’s exactly what happens. All your uncleanness washed away in the forgiveness of your sins. Not because the water is so great – that was Naaman’s objection, remember? What’s so great about the Jordan? What’s so great about the water in the font of baptism? Well, nothing. It’s not the water, but the Word and promise of God attached to the water, that if Naaman washed in the Jordan, that if you wash here, you will be touched by Jesus and you will be clean.

That’s why infant baptism is such a great thing! Babies bring nothing to the font, they can’t even bring themselves – they have to be carried. But that’s exactly the point. It was all the Lord with Naaman, it was all Jesus with Joe, and it is all Jesus here. All the work of the Lord. It is His touch, His washing, His healing, His giving spiritual life. All the baby, and all we can do, is receive it. For that is why Jesus came. To come to us sinners with His: I will, be clean. . . .

Now, there are plenty of modern-day Naamans, who say water can’t do that; that’s it’s empty; that it’s just water. Many who want something more spectacular and awe-inspiring. But what can be more precious or great than this? That our Saviour puts Himself here for you. That His life is here for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off. As Naaman’s servant said: This is a great word. A simple message, a simple washing, but a great salvation.

So despite how these two men may have been quite different, in the end, what mattered most is what made them the same – they were dying and needed life. And that is what makes all of us the same as well. And for all the same, the Lord of life has come. So that whether you’re a Naaman or a Joe or somewhere in between, you have a merciful Saviour – the Lord of life who came to die, so that the dying have life. The holy one come to become unclean, so that the unclean be holy.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Epiphany 6 Sermon.

French court rules in favor of de-baptism

Using the law to deny that a historical event occurred.  Another example of the government and the law and unbelievers not understanding theology enough even to oppose it:

In France, an elderly man is fighting to make a formal break with the Catholic Church. He’s taken the church to court over its refusal to let him nullify his baptism, in a case that could have far-reaching effects.

Seventy-one-year-old Rene LeBouvier’s parents and his brother are buried in a churchyard in the tiny village of Fleury in northwest France. He himself was baptized in the Romanesque stone church and attended mass here as a boy. . . .

But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn’t believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized. “They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church,” he says.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls “criminal.” Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

Last October, a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor. The diocese has since appealed, and the case is pending.

“One can’t be de-baptized,” says Rev. Robert Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America.

Kaslyn says baptism changes one permanently before the church and God.

 “One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”

 French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

 “If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France,” he says.

Up to now, observers say the de-baptism trend has been marginal, but it’s growing. In neighboring Belgium, the Brussels Federation of Friends of Secular Morality reports that 2,000 people asked to be de-baptized in 2010. The newspaper Le Monde estimated that about 1,000 French people a year ask to have their baptisms annulled.

via Off The Record: A Quest For De-Baptism In France : NPR.

HT:  Mary

 


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