A Personal, Pastoral Critique of the CTCR Response to “Recognizing the Body of Christ”
Editor’s Note: The following document is Pastor Patten’s reply to the LCMS’s CTCR critique of his essay, “Recognizing the Body of Christ.” The Commission on Theology and Church Relations produced its critique in early 2020. A revised version of Pastor Patten’s essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of the Journal, as does the CTCR’s critique of it. (Pastor Patten’s original essay was published in the Journal in September 2019. Since then he has asked that that version be replaced by the newer one, which has been edited for clarity, formatted more consistently, and now contains a few quotations from biblical commentaries. The substance of the essay, however, has remained the same.) Readers of these documents should also examine Pastor Patten’s letter to the LCMS’s Council of Presidents. That letter is also published in this issue of the Daystar Journal, since it, too, relates to Pr. Patten’s dissent against the practice of “close(d) Communion.”
Pastor Howard Patten
I am personally and pastorally humbled by the challenge of critiquing the formal response of our Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations to my little essay on the scriptural and theological fallacies promoted in 2019 synodical Resolution 4-11A and practiced in “close(d) Communion.” I am also personally and pastorally challenged by the institutional compromise of a Lutheran-Christian “theology of the cross” that this synodical practice represents and by the implicit denial of bold mission it creates. I am appropriately humbled, but, for the record, not the least bit intimidated. By the grace of our heavenly Father I have loved and served our church body in pastoral ministry for sixty years. I am confident that no one in our Synod’s history is probably less deserving of this blessing. However, I am equally convinced that I owe “Missouri” and its now-compromised mission the truth and the grace that I believe Christ’s Spirit has given me. Although I am somewhat unsure as to how logic and reason would best address the CTCR’s “response,” as it seems somewhat disorganized, I will try to follow the order in which the CTCR has arranged its arguments.
1. “Patten has chosen to ignore the fraternal covenants of love regarding dissent….”
Response: Simply Untrue! I know these covenants well and have practiced them faithfully. Our circuit, at my request, invested six months at our pastoral conferences studying my paper. Other circuit pastors presented their papers in response. The conversations were lively, loving, and sometimes anxious, but always bathed in prayer and punctuated with healthy experiences and Holy Scripture. The paper was also shared in a variety of ways with over a dozen current and former district presidents. Finally, the paper was also shared with members of a large Bible Study group I teach. All these were presented and processed during many months before the invitation from the editor of the Daystar Journal to publish the essay. If the paper had not received pastoral examination, discussion, and affirmation, I would not have agreed to its distribution.
It does seem of passing interest, however, that if “fraternal covenants” and communication with the brothers is both important and necessary, the CTCR itself has failed to send me its critique of my dissent. If a call to confession and repentance is the purpose, which is certainly a worthy one, then it would seem “good and proper” to have sent a copy to me at the same time or prior to sending the critique to the district presidents. As of today (1 August 2020), I still have not received any communication from the CTCR.
2. “Patten offers no definitions of close or closed or open Communion. He also never indicates exactly how he understands the term ‘Real Presence.’ As a result, he fails to make clear precisely what he is rejecting or advocating.”
Response: Here is a quote from the introduction to the initial exegetical section of my paper addressing the subject of Real Presence:
…the conflict between this retreat into a Lutheran Fundamentalism and the Holy Scriptures is confronted most dramatically in 1 Corinthians 10-12, particularly chapter 11:17-34. Our Lord’s blessed “estin” (New Testament Greek for this “is”) in Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s accounts of the Passover “Verba” (Words of Institution) settles for Lutheran Christians forever the question of our Lord’s “Real Presence” in the Supper. “Take and eat … this is my body … This is my blood of the New Covenant.
This section “indicates exactly how I understand the term” “Real Presence.” Perhaps I should have drawn a picture!
However, the rather strong suggestion that I do not understand the terms or the practice of close/closed or close(d) Communion, as offered in this CTCR critique, is close to the truth. In nonscientific research, conducted over a period of almost sixty years, I am reasonably sure that no two persons, pastors, congregations, district presidents, or districts use or understand these terms or pursue the practice(s) in exactly the same way. The manner in which these terms are presented in this CTCR critique would indicate that the author(s) believe there is a kind of common definition and uniform practice because of the triennial promotion of close(d) Communion convention resolutions (and now a 500-page book). If the author(s) of this critique believe this, they are spending way too much time in the office and much too little in the congregations of our Synod.
Case in point: I am blessed to serve as a circuit visitor for about twelve extraordinary border-mission congregations and pastors. This small circuit of about a dozen congregations serves and shares (bilingually) in probably six different Communion settings and practices. We differ with respect to the introductions to worship… information for visitors… recognition of non-LCMS members… Communion announcements (written or verbal)… liturgical settings… distribution process… and follow-up. All these congregations and their pastors are faithful to the Holy Scriptures, faithful to their mission, faithful to one another, and… faithful to the best of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The very fact that the “slippery,” non-biblical designation “close(d),” which is not even a word in Webster’s dictionary, is presented as the authentic Lutheran confession at the altar undermines Paul’s admonition to “discern the body,” sows seeds of confusion and division, may seriously compromise congregational mission, and unnecessarily binds the precious consciences of both pastors and people. (Certainly the best example of this failure to “discern” and the presence of division and confusion it has created, is the necessity of producing a 500-page book in an attempt to define, explain and establish close(d) Communion.)
The rather strong suggestion that I do not understand the terms or the practice of close/closed or close(d) Communion, as offered in this CTCR critique, is close to the truth, close, but no cigar! I do understand the rationale behind the definition(s), but because of the Holy Scriptures, the theology of the cross, the hunger of the lost, and the mission of our Savior, I must reject the “terms”!
We are Lutheran! We live the theology of the cross! …with all the risks, the imperfections, the messiness, the vulnerabilities, the losses, the servant heart, and the utter reliance upon the grace that our faithful heavenly Father promises to those who simply trust, live, and embrace others in the freedom of Jesus beneath his cross. In contrast, a theology of glory—“close(d) Communion”—promotes control, demands obedience, promises worthiness, seeks conformity, guarantees safety, practices exclusion, and ultimately teaches that we are saved by our works… by doing things right… by our righteousness!
The Lutheran-Christian congregation must both recognize and be the Body of Christ immediately. In a twenty-first-century world this “recognition” must be scriptural, intentional, confident, open, warm, inclusive, prayerful, liturgically present, culturally aware, and undertaken always with a spiritually sensitive mission vision. This mission vision or Body-of-Christ recognition in Saint Paul’s Lord’s Supper revelation (1 Corinthians 11:29), as it embraces the hungry, the outsider, the stranger, the visitor, the seeker, and the poor, will always be a less than perfect vision. If we as a Lutheran congregation are truly and deeply engaged in mission to our communities, “they will come”! However, we do not know who will come…. At this critical point we must remember who the Spirit is calling us to be … We are Lutheran! … We are Lutheran bold! We are both shaped and sent by Spirit-breathed FAITH and LOVE!
Lutheran Christians do not practice “open Communion.” This in effect denies the deeply real, the immediate, forgiving and healing presence of Christ in bread and wine. Lutherans cannot practice “close(d) Communion.” This is patently an un-Lutheran “theology of glory.” Lutherans should not practice “close Communion.” The description is artificial and devoid of scriptural origin or content. Lutherans are called to PROCLAIM (“practice”) “CHRIST’S COMMUNION.” This simple, biblical proclamation alone confesses the FAITH that Christ is truly present in his Body and Blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine, and the LOVE that “recognizes (discerns) the Body of Christ” in the community gathered for this Word and the Sacrament.
According to LCMS seminary professor, Gregory Lockwood:
Paul proceeds to issue a solemn warning of the dire consequences of unworthy eating. By unworthy eating he has in mind the type of behavior described in 11:20-22 and 11:29-30. Many of the Corinthians were sinning against faith and love. They were sinning against faith by their failure to discern that in the Sacrament they were receiving the body and blood of Christ (11:20-22). And they were sinning against love in not showing consideration for the poor and needy (11:29-30). What Paul said about the arrogant Christians in 8:12 is equally true here: by sinning against weak and lowly Christians, ‘you are sinning against Christ.’ To eat the bread and drink the cup in this manner is to be unworthy of the food offered in the Supper.
3. “Patten’s selective foray into church history leads him to the false conclusion that closed Communion is an invention of the LCMS. He appears unaware of its practice throughout Christianity from the earliest times (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries). Similarly, he fails to see that it was a Reformation practice that persisted in Lutheranism as a whole well into the early 20th century…. He is offended by anyone who would say, “LCMS altars for LCMS people,” but seems to be unaware that any such statement originated when American Lutherans insisted on “Lutheran altars for Lutherans only.” The fact that all Lutherans (and virtually all Christians!) have always practiced and continue to practice some form of closed communion (regardless of what particular term is used) is ignored. He does not mention the fact that Rome and the Orthodox (representing the vast majority of Christians today) also practice a form of closed communion.”
Response: We are all blessed by the insight of the philosopher Santayana, among others, who observed, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is, however, another quote that might be helpful here, “the past is a guide, not a destination.” (This quote is mine. Please feel free to use it.) The historic Communion practices that are questionably identified as “closed” deserve a brief examination.
I suspect all forays into church history are a bit “selective,” but the CTCR’s choice of Elert is a good one. The reference is from a larger description of early Eucharistic practice as the title suggests, but this reference has a very memorable context…. The early church was faced with developing a teaching liturgy that would both embrace and feed the “seekers”—those growing in their commitment to their Lord and his church, but not yet baptized or fully integrated into his Body, the church (the “Catechumenorum,” the catechumens)—and those who were not only baptized but fully instructed (through a process that took as long as two years), who were faithful communing members of the congregation (the “Fidelium,” the faithful). The creation of this early Christian Body was to develop a Liturgy that both allowed the catechumens to worship and learn with the faithful, but did not yet invite these catechumens to enter into the deep and rich “Mystery of the Mass.” The first part of the Liturgy was designated the “Missa Catechumenorum” (the Mass of the Catechumens), which concluded with a minor benediction and the dismissal of the catechumens. The Liturgy then continued with the “Missa Fidelium” (the Mass of the Faithful), which included the Service of the Sacrament, the Lord’s Prayer, the “Verba,” the Reception, the Celebration, and the Aaronic Benediction. The entire Liturgy was designed so that the integrity of the “Mystery” would be properly kept and celebrated, the spiritual health of the whole growing community maintained, and the faith of both the catechumens and the faithful “discerned.” So concerned were these communities of faith for ecclesiastical integrity, that the “Our Father” itself was unheard and unspoken until it was “whispered” into the ear of the new “communicant” emerging from the baptismal waters.
This deep care for the Sacrament and for mission is historically encouraging and spiritually inspiring, but hardly a “close(d)” model for Communion practice in a twenty-first-century world. Today, 1600 years after the Communion Liturgy and practice described above had developed, we are challenged by the Spirit to study, shape, and share the biblical Gospel in an emerging world where upwards of two billion persons declare some kind of allegiance to Christianity, in a nation where more than 65% of the population is Christian (85% in 1990 – 1/3 worship regularly), and in a disparate church of well over 150 identifiable denominations. This early Christian Liturgy is a wonderful model, however, in that it does seek to embrace both Faith and Love in its mission practice.
Permit me to make two more brief observations about the CTCR citations regarding Communion practice as historically “closed.” According to the CTCR, “Patten fails to see that it (closed Communion) was a Reformation practice that persisted in Lutheranism as a whole well into the early 20th century….”
Response: Of course, the Communion was “closed.” In the U.S. of the “early 20th century” Lutheran Services were conducted almost exclusively in German or Scandinavian; they were “closed” not by intentional practice but by the accidents of immigrant language and culture. However, an even less-convincing argument for a Sacramental practice that is “closed” is presented as “Patten does not even mention the fact that Rome and the Orthodox (representing the vast majority of Christians today) also practice a form of closed communion.”
Without question, the very last place I would turn to defend the practice of “closed communion” would be to the bankrupt Sacramental doctrines and twisted Eucharistic practices of Rome and the Orthodox. This appeal to a practice of closed communion borders on the desperate.
There are certainly a number of other notes in the critique that might be discussed, but finally, I lift up two critical issues I raised in my original essay that the CTCR document fails to address altogether: (1) the power of the Lutheran Liturgy in “discerning the Body,” and (2) the issue of “belonging” in twenty-first-century culture and social psychology.
(1) The power of the Lutheran Liturgy in “discerning the Body.” I was born into and raised in small German-Lutheran churches in Northern Minnesota. We had Communion four times a year. We “got” a new pastor the year I was confirmed, and Communion Service frequency was raised to six times per year. In preparation for these Communion Services, the congregations would often gather in small groups on Saturday afternoon/evening for a brief time with the pastor, when he would “read from the Bible” and lead us in prayer. I remember appreciating these “small group” times with the pastor and my parents.
In my relatively brief life, our Synod has been transformed from a primarily a Word-based ecclesiology (Communion four-to-six times a year) to a deeply Word-and-Sacrament-inspired-and-enriched foundation for mission and ministry. (Our baptismal theology and practices have undergone at least as rich a transformation as that of the Sacrament of the Altar) I was blessed in my seminary experience to “grow up” during the beginnings of the “liturgical renewal,” when I was taught by homiletics profs who focused on liturgical preaching. The sacraments became central to not only our preaching but to the depth and direction in the flow of the entire Liturgy, as we began to make our way from “Word and Preaching” to “Word and Sacrament.” However, I am concerned today that an early-twentieth-century LCMS ecclesiology has failed to embrace or interpret mission and ministry in and for a twenty-first-century culture. There are many, many examples of this, but in my many journeys across our Synod I have found that the hard doctrine of close(d) Communion and the synodical mindset and worldview that it creates are certainly symptomatic of this failure.
Growing up, I received, somewhat sporadically, a fifteen-to-twenty-minute preparation for the Lord’s Supper. When I compare this practice with the liturgical preparations that the congregations I have served experienced, as together we worshiped in our ascent to the Eucharist each Sunday, I am both deeply grateful and a little awed for and by our church’s sacramental maturing. I have discovered however, that many Lutherans either don’t know or have forgotten that our Communion Liturgy leads us, Sunday after Sunday and Service after Service, into and through the beauty and power of the “Jesus Story.” We walk and pray and sing and confess and listen and eat and drink our way with the guidance of the Holy Spirit into and through the life of Christ. If you have been a “visitor” in the Liturgies I lead, and if you have walked with me from the introduction to worship through the “Jesus Story” to the chanting of the “Agnus Dei,” listened faithfully to the sermon, read through the Communion Invitation, and merged with the congregation in hymn, lessons, and prayer, you may not be transformed into a “Missouri Lutheran,” but, through the breath of the Holy Spirit, you are going to be “worthy and well prepared,” according to Luther’s teaching in his Small Catechism.
I don’t know if the auditors of my essay read my introduction to the Liturgy: “A Final Setting of the Lord’s Table – The Divine Service.” This is probably the heart of the paper that the auditors either dismissed or failed to understand. I am including it with this response as an addendum). There was no mention of it in the critique.
I have observed over the years the expressions on the faces of our LCMS families as we return from Communion. Rather than expressions of joy at family gatherings or ear-to-ear smiles at this experience with Jesus, we tend to return from the Communion rail, as if we just found out that the Table had been “close(d).” Based on the apparent expression of those returning from the Altar, the experience seems to be, at best, a mixed blessing. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, once observed of the Christian faith that, “Experience without Doctrine is Blind.” However, “Doctrine without Experience is empty.” (The quote is not original with him, but borrowed with a small change from the philosopher, Immanuel Kant.) Our occasional failure as a church body to breathe life, joy, and energy into our “Sacramental Remembrances,” our “Proclamations of Christ’s Death,” and the “Anticipations of His Return” (1 Corinthians 11:26), may well be concomitant with our dedication to a Table that is close(d). The twin experiences of Faith in the forgiveness and Love for Christ in his gathered family may also be compromised because we have focused so exclusively on pure doctrine and “pure” people that we have failed to lift up the joy-filled experiences of grace, community, peace, and Presence as deep as our theology. “Doctrine without Experience is empty.” (As a church body we continue to “lose” upwards of 50,000 members each year…. Why?)
(2) The issue of “belonging” in twenty-first-century culture, social psychology, and Sacramental practice. The now, almost trite, shibboleth, “I don’t care how much you know unless I know how much you care,” may be somewhat shop-worn, and yet the protests that have burst upon our nation (and world) since the death of George Floyd have shaken society with both the question and the demand, “Does anyone care?” Based upon the extraordinary and deeply diverse responses, the answer is a dramatic and extended, “YES!” Whether the response is “Black Lives Matter” or an almost sudden awakening to the dramatic and crippling inequities of our nation, “CARING” has become both a high priority and a deepening commitment. My expression and explanation regarding the dramatic transition from meeting the emotional/spiritual/personal needs of individuals in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s (where the order was “Believing – Behaving – Belonging”) to addressing the spiritually searching society of young millennials, “Nones,” and their older “Xer” counterparts (who today need and seek the experience of “Belonging – Believing – Behaving”), were not addressed in any way by the CTCR. “Believing” is not unimportant, but if the experience of “Belonging” is not present within the first fifteen to twenty minutes of our worship, the path to believing may never be taken. The absence of and disregard for these past, present, and future cultural “revolutions” and their potential impact upon our Gospel-proclamation is both dangerous and disappointing. There is in this CTCR critique much reference to history: to past documents, ancient translations from the Latin and German, to yesterday(s) past…. But not a word about tomorrow: about the leading, guiding, and urgings of the Holy Spirit into his future. It seems that it is not simply our Communion that is closed but our sacramental “imagination,” our spiritual “discernment,” and our holy conversations toward future mission, as well. “I don’t care what you believe unless I can believe that you care.” It would perhaps be worth asking ourselves whether we, as professional theologians, have become mere “hawkers of the past” in Missouri when we are called in our baptism to become co-creators with our Comforter toward his future.
I remember a sermon preached years ago by then Synod president, Ralph Bohlmann, on the Post-Communion text from our Communion Liturgy, “Thank the Lord and sing His praise. Tell everyone what He has done. Let everyone who seeks the Lord rejoice and proudly bear His Name….” A fine sermon from a fine leader. But I wondered then, as I do today, whether our deep and healthy spiritual nourishment in the Eucharist is almost immediately compromised by a “closed” environment that is systemic to our denomination and reinforced by a Communion practice and environment that may suffocate personal mission.
In the last few years, I have noticed the growth of a particularly noxious practice in our Synod. The statement in the Communion Service folders at major conferences, convocations, conventions, etc. “warning” non-Missouri attendees or attendants that the Communion is open only to members of the Missouri Synod. Do we really believe that the Sacrament at the center of our Lord’s Gathering and Gifts is so vulnerable to corruption and compromise that we must protect Jesus from the seeker, the stray, and our feeble fellowship from the stranger? If this practice, that we seem to be developing as a mark of our corporate public confession—but that in reality borders on a spiritual paranoia—is the face we want to turn toward the world, then our churchly psyche may be infected with something far worse than Covid-19. The Lord Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, have not only mastered every attack for over 2000 years but have thrived in the most hostile of environments. I am confident his Body and Blood can manage… “the intrusion of some backslidden Methodist who senses the possibility of a blessing present somewhere in this pious crowd.” I am equally confident that our Lord will never turn his heart away from one who would simply seek the “crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.” We understand our statement to be a strong public Confession. The public understands this to be arrogance and churchly cowardice. I know “The Kingdom… remaineth!” I am not as confident about “ours.”
At the risk of just “dribbling off,” as I conclude this “pastoral response,” I would add a simple story of churchly irony. (The CTCR auditors of my essay dismissed the pastoral experiences I shared as little “vignettes.” I would also remind our professional theologians that, “Doctrine without experience is empty.”) Following my retirement as a district president, Marilyn and I moved to the Northern New Mexico mountains in order to serve two small and wonderful congregations in Taos and Angel Fire and enjoy the skiing and other mountain adventures. We discovered, through some interesting conversations with the large Roman Catholic native populations, that Lutherans are neither much known nor highly regarded. We were identified simply—in a word—as “mean.”
Years later I was blessed to serve as pastor to a rather vulnerable, but venerable (122-years-old) urban/inner city congregation on the border in El Paso. In an evening small group Bible Study I was leading, Marilyn asked one of the members—a devout Roman Catholic who was also the husband of one of our members and one of the best trustees I’ve ever known—if he had ever heard that Lutherans were “aggressive or mean spirited”? He answered quickly, “Oh yes!” Marilyn asked “Why?” The answer again was swift, simple, and shocking. “Because German Lutherans helped start two world wars.”
I remembered this exchange as I read through the table of contents in the 2017 CPH volume Closed Communion and noted that roughly half of the articles were translations from the German. In our LCMS community a translation from the German is honored both because of its origin and by the gifts of the translator. In the Southwest, where I have now served for almost seventeen years, however, translations from the German in the minds and memory of many are “drawn from” the same historical and cultural reservoir as two World Wars. The gracious Lord we serve, and the deep values and vision he yet breathes into us, must be understood and translated into the emerging cultures and contexts that we are growing in Christ to recognize, understand, know, honor, challenge, and witness.
We are both blessed and burdened by the bold proclamation of Martin Luther, “Crux sola est nostra theologia.” “The cross alone is our theology.” This is not simply a denominational slogan. It is the heart, the Spirit, the foundation, the purpose to which our Lord calls us, and the baptismal lives of contrition and repentance through which He continues to preserve and send his Lutheran-Christian congregations.
An Addendum to “Recognizing the Body of Christ”
A Final Setting of the Lord’s Table – The Divine Service
Finally, there is at least one more “presence” of the Body of Christ that must be recognized if our discernment is to be somewhat near, clear, and complete: the Body of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy itself. Centuries of piety, practice, art, and drama have provided for our generations a presence of Christ that may be either unknown or unnoticed as the “Story of Jesus” unfolds in the Holy Eucharist’s narrative of the presence of the “Body of Christ.”
The British author, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” legends, creates a conversation between a hobbit and a great tree of the forest. The hobbit, standing all of three feet tall, stands beneath the forest Lord and demands to know his name. As Tolkien imagines it, the tree shakes its massive limbs, looks down upon the little creature, and proclaims softly, “I cannot tell you my name. If you would know my name, you must first know my story. My story is very old, very beautiful and set in a great mystery. If you will be seated and listen, I will begin to tell you my story and perhaps then you will come to know the beauty and wonder of my name.” Tolkien could well be describing the great Communion Liturgy of the Church and the Body of Christ it both reveals and creates, the Liturgy that is “very old, very beautiful, and set in a great mystery.”
Preparation: As the Service begins the liturgist steps before the congregation to introduce the story that the Body of Christ will celebrate and share this Lord’s Day: setting the Table for the Sacrament. He will welcome the visitors “in the Name of Jesus” and then very briefly, but very clearly, present the theme(s) of Scripture, sermon, song and Sacrament for this Day. The liturgist may also invite the congregation to pray with him a Mission Prayer written out in the worship folder. The Mission Prayer reminds the “members” and assures the guests that we are gathered not simply for personal blessings or benefits, but to pray and prepare for the mission the Spirit gives us again in this new week. The prayer will ordinarily be “church year” in orientation. Following is a simple model for the season of Pentecost:
MISSION PRAYER: Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You invite us in this Season of Your Holy Spirit’s Pentecost to celebrate Your gift of life in Christ and to pray for Your Church and world. We offer You new this day our lives, our thanks, and also the heartaches and hopes of the world; we bring before You the names and needs of our families and friends, our neighborhoods and our nation, our city and our world, Pour out Your Holy Spirit upon Your Church and upon us as Your people of Zion that we boldly live the joy and healing power of Your Son’s resurrection. In the precious Name of Jesus. Amen.
The Invocation: As the Processional Hymn closes, the congregation enters into the Liturgy and re-enters as a scattered, broken body into the Body of Christ in Whose Death and Resurrection we are baptized. As the Sign of the Cross is signed on head and heart we proclaim together: “In the Name of the Father… and of the Son… and of the Holy Spirit….”
The Confession and Absolution: The congregation is now invited to “recognize” (discern) the Body in all of its personal and corporal brokenness and divisiveness as together we confess our sins against God, our neighbor, all creation and finally even ourselves; together we seek His forgiveness. The words of the Confession are scarcely out of our mouths when the broken body becomes One Body in the greater Word of Absolution and reconciliation in Jesus … “I forgive you all your sins….”
The Kyrie: Immediately, the “Body’s” sacred Narrative begins in earnest as the once separate voices now sing together in reconciliation, recognition and celebration for our Lord strides, bearing peace and power, down the main streets of history and the main aisle of our sanctuary; We shout and sing in jubilation, “Kyrie Eleison!”, “Lord have mercy!”
The Gloria in Excelsis: “Glory to God in the highest!” The Body of Christ together now finds its way home as the “hymn of the angels” leads us in the Christmas, “Gloria in Excelsis” and into the birth narrative of our Lord Jesus.
The Collect: This ancient prayer of the Church that follows our brief Christmas celebration gathers not simply the Body of Christ’s petition in the moment, but gathers the Collects of congregations over the ages teaching the Body to continue in prayer through these precious prayerful “hand-me-downs.”
The Scripture Lessons: As the Body has joined together in prayer and praise, the promise of growing deeper into the story now continues to gather the hearts of the worshipers as the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament are read and heard, pondered and embraced. Suddenly the exciting narrative of the earliest days of an infant church are opened through the Letters” of Peter, Paul, and other first-century Body-of-Christ witnesses. As the Liturgy leads us through the Epistle into the continuing Jesus story of the early church’s mission, we now prepare for the heightened presence of Christ Himself in the Holy Gospel. The Body of Christ rises at the bidding of the Holy Spirit and inhales into itself the very Word that gives it identity and life.
The Creed: The gathered saints pause for a moment as they prepare to gather the “faith” of centuries into their corporate mind and spirit – the faith of thousands of years, millions of saints and hundreds of Body of Christ declarations – In high confidence the Body confesses“ Jesus Christ is Lord!” In the pause, the common declaration of the “I believe…” begins. And if our hearts and eyes are open in this moment we are blessed to discern, to recognize, that in this common profession the Body of Christ confesses its unity in the great “Credo” of Christianity.
The Sermon: At this moment only one voice speaks for the Body. It might at first appear that the Body has become merely an audience somewhat detached from Communion unity. However, the appearance is deceiving, for now the Spirit’s Word breathed through the homily, calls to an even deeper unity in the Body of Christ. The Word of Law calls us out from our sin-filled separation and crushes the self, the self-sufficient, the self-important, the self-centered, the self-satisfied. The Gospel of the cross and Resurrection calls us to Christ, who in his embrace of the whole church and his mission to the whole world prays again and anew that in His Body, the church, “they may be one as we are one, Father – I in them and You in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
If the sermon is not the Spirit’s preparation of the Body gathered this day beneath the cross for our common recognition, remembrance, praise, and proclamation at the Lord’s Table, then that preacher has no business in a Lutheran Christian pulpit! “Unum Predica Sapientiam Crucis!” “Preach only the wisdom of the Cross!” (Martin Luther)
The Body’s Prayers: Following the congregation’s prayers for all sorts and conditions of humanity, we remember and pray also for the members of the Body of Christ who cannot be present and include in our prayers preparation for their reception of the Sacrament in home, hospital, hospice, retirement community, or other extended center of the congregation’s care.
The Sanctus and Great Thanksgiving – Palm Sunday: Almost suddenly, following the Prayer of the Church, the Liturgy sweeps the congregation in Spirit from the life narrative of our Lord in general to experience the events of the Holy Week in particular. Following the invitation to Thanksgiving and the specific praise in the Preface the Body joins the Jerusalem crowds in the “Holy’s” and “Hosanna’s” of Palm Sunday.
“Lord, teach us to pray….” The plea of the apostles becomes the prayer of the Body as we “say grace” before the meal. In the infant church the grace and mystery of the “Our Father” was once revealed only to and prayed only by the baptized. Today the prayer has become, for better or for worse “public property”. However, in this sacred space, the Body of Christ is taught new and drawn together once again not only in the words of the prayer but by him who in the Sacrament is the Word present in our prayer.
The Words of Institution – Maundy Thursday: The Palm Sunday praise and the Family Prayer must now give way to silence as we gather with the Maundy-Thursday disciples in the Upper Room to hear and to ponder Words, “very old, very beautiful, and set in mystery”: “Take and eat… This is my body… Drink of this… All of you… This is my blood of the New Covenant….” In these words and in this moment of Christ’s “Invocation,” if the Lord’s Table was ever claimed as a denominational property, the claim crumbles before the infinitely greater reality. In these Words of Institution… the Celebrant is Jesus! Lord of the Universe! Lord of the Kingdom! Lord of the Sacrament! Truly, Eternally Present! The pastor(s) now steps quietly down into his rightful place, together with the other Communion assistants, as blessed acolyte, faithful to their Lord and to his Body, the church.
The Agnus Dei – Good Friday: Perhaps all too quickly for our guests and perhaps also too quickly even for the regularly gathered Body, we remember together beneath the cross the suffering and death of our Lord for us as the whole Body intones the ancient words, “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us….” There is a temptation at this point in the Body of Christ narrative for ushers, elders, acolytes, and other assistants to become busy preparing for the procession to the altar. This, however, is deep, holy time; a time for no worship, no movement other than the Body’s deep and quiet remembrance of her Lord’s suffering and death in this ancient prayer… chanted by the “unworthy.” We are deep into the theology of the cross awaiting our Savior’s invitation to his Wedding Feast. The time for quiet reverence and devotion is clear.
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Easter: The only possible response to the Gift of Resurrection is to rise as one Body, hungry and thirsty for the presence of Christ in His Bread and Wine. From His own hand and heart, we receive love, grace, peace, and promise… His Body and His Blood. This is the last place on earth for anyone to be rejected! We have all joined as the Body of Christ in the Invocation, the Confession and Absolution; in the historic Kyrie and Gloria; in the ancient Word of the Scriptures; in the common baptismal promise of the Creed; in the proclamation of the sermon; in the shared experience of Holy Week, and now in the invitation of our Savior, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest….” The story in the Sacred Liturgy has not been merely re-told by the gathered Body of Christ this Sabbath, but reclaimed, re-experienced, re-lived, and renewed for the future Body of Christ.