These words describe my own conviction and central concern, which is, I believe, one that I hold in common with my fellow editors. I don't know how I could summarize my intentions any more pointedly and precisely than Löhe did; although, if his great work in Neuendettelsau was a "trifling," then I have not yet begun to contribute anything. I am here by the kind consideration and patient tolerance of my brothers in Christ, who have carried the weight of this blog, and me along with it, for the past several years now. I count it a privilege to be numbered among them, because what we are about is worthwhile; because Christ and His gifts are worthy of reverent attention, and His dear Bride ought to be treated like a lady.
As pastors of the Lord's Church, we are called to preach and administer His Gospel within our own respective congregations, and so to serve and care for His people with His means of grace. That is so much the focus and priority of the pastoral office, and such a consuming responsibility, it is tempting for any pastor to keep his head down, to put his blinders on, and to ignore the rest of the Church. Indeed, it is quite right that we should not intrude upon another man's office, nor interfere with another man's servant. Yet, we are not free agents or independent contractors, and the office that we serve did not originate with any one of us. We are recipients and ministers of a sacred tradition, which has come down to us from the Father through His incarnate Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the way of His Apostles and Prophets, and pastors and teachers before us. So, too, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that we are called to serve within our respective congregations is a holy fellowship in the Gospel across all times and places.
We are heirs of the faithful fathers who have gone before us, and we are all brothers in Christ with those who serve His Church in this generation. That is not incidental but integral to who we are and what we are called to do. We belong to one another, as we belong to one Lord. Not only that, but, as we are entrusted with a stewardship of the Mysteries of God, so are we to hand over the sacred tradition that we have received to faithful men who will come after us.
The heart and center of that sacred tradition is the Sacrament of the Altar. St. Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians 11, but it is already given by our Lord Jesus Christ when He says, "Do This in remembrance of Me." Of course, it isn't handed over on a blog, nor in a journal; no more than it is carried out in the offices of the IC, the stockrooms of CPH, or the classrooms of a seminary. It is not even in the Holy Gospels or Epistles that the Sacrament is handed over and received, but in the life of the Church, in the administration of the Holy Communion. By the grace of God, that is happening all over the world, from the rising of the sun to its going down, on the basis of the Word of Christ, recorded in the apostolic Scriptures. Thence we know the rubrics, rites and ceremonies established by the Lord, the words and actions prescribed by His "Do This." But the actual tradition of the Sacrament itself is at the Altar. We do not presume to hand it over here.
What we are doing here, through a mutual conversation of brethren, is serving and supporting one another in the faithful handing over of the Sacrament with all that it entails. Doing so on a blog doesn't take the place of doing so in person, whether at official gatherings, around tables, or in confession. But this sort of forum is a tremendous blessing. Like any of God's good gifts, it can be misused and abused in evil ways that hurt or destroy the neighbor. It can also be idolized or demonized, thereby either worshiping the creature instead of the Creator, or else despising what ought to be received from the Lord's hand with thanksgiving. But as a means of communication, as a medium of words, it facilitates discussion and debate, whereby we sharpen each other and learn from each other. It broadens the table and furthers the conversation. I am so very grateful for that, and I am convinced that many others are, too.
With this blog, with "Gottesdienst Online," we are chiefly aiming to serve and support what happens not here but in the parish: the right administration of the Sacrament in accordance with the Gospel. As simple as its fundamental basics are — bread and wine, the Words of Christ, a pastor to administer, and communicants to eat and drink — this awe-full Mystery is the most profound thing in all of creation. Not just "a thing" unto itself, but the very beating heart of the Church, on earth as it is in heaven. It belongs to a larger living context, which it also defines. And, because it is the most precious thing of all, it is subject to constant attack by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. We dare not take it lightly or for granted, and we dare not rely upon our own wisdom, ingenuity and competence for the right administration of this Holy Sacrament.
To address the right administration of the Sacrament calls for a lively discussion of weighty and significant matters. The preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and the ongoing catechesis of the Word of Christ, both belong to the right administration of the Sacrament. So it is that Gottesdienst is concerned with liturgical and sacramental preaching; that is to say, not so much a preaching about the Liturgy and Sacraments, but that preaching which is an integral and necessary part of the Liturgy, preaching which is itself a means of grace and forgiveness of sins. And Gottesdienst is concerned with faithful catechesis, which goes beyond academic pedagogy to the way of life in Christ, which is rooted in Holy Baptism. Such catechesis brings sinners to and from the waters of the font, to and from the Body and Blood of Christ, in repentant faith, as Christian disciples.
As editors, we are not simply discussing and dispensing whatever wisdom we may already have gained along the way, but we are truly searching to become more faithful preachers and catechists, ourselves. For the preaching of the Gospel and the catechesis of Christ Jesus are the glory of His holy Name and the most beautiful adornment of His Church.
The right administration of the Sacrament in accordance with the Gospel is the height of pastoral care, which also requires and calls for an ongoing context of pastoral care. That is what faithful preaching and catechesis properly are, but the care of souls proceeds from there, from the font, the pulpit, and the Altar, into the lives of the people. It searches out the lost and wandering sheep, in order to rescue and bring it home rejoicing, to the Feast at the Good Shepherd's Table. So Gottesdienst is concerned with pastoral care in all of the various ways and means by which it is exercised, each of which is catechesis and a preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It includes the practice of closed Communion and church discipline, and especially the teaching and practice of Individual Confession & Holy Absolution. It means that even the little children are catechized, cared for, and communed as Christian disciples of Jesus. It means that hymns are carefully chosen with the same consideration that accompanies the writing of faithful sermons.
Ceremonies, too, are a means of pastoral care in the administration of the Sacrament, especially because they are such a powerful means of catechesis. Ceremonies teach, as our Confessions indicate. They confess with the body what we believe with the heart and profess with our lips. Although our hearts are never as faithful and sincere as they ought to be, godly ceremonies, like orthodox words, remain objectively and outwardly true. As a kiss, a hug, a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates express a man's love for his wife, so do the sign of the cross, beautiful vestments, and bending the knee confess our love for Christ and His Gospel. Necessary? No. Beneficial? Yes. For ceremonies like these embody our faith, in such a way that little children and adults are able to recognize and grasp the significance of what is happening.
In any case, it is impossible to administer the Sacrament of the Altar without ceremonies of some kind, because we are bodily creatures living in space and time, and because the Sacrament itself is an external ceremony. Therefore, it isn't a question of whether or not to have ceremonies, but only a question of which ceremonies will best confess the truth of the Sacrament.
Consequently, Gottesdienst is concerned with advocating ceremonies that are worthy of the Gospel. We cannot add anything to the Gospel, but surely we should honor it with our actions as we administer and receive the Sacrament. To bend the knee at the Name of Jesus, for example, confesses that He is our Lord, and that our bodies are in the presence of His Body.
For myself, I find that the deliberate use of ceremonies helps to curb the frailties of my own fallen flesh, and to focus my heart and mind on what I am given to do. On any given Lord's Day, whether I am weary or worried, depressed or distracted, this discipline of my flesh in the conduct of the Divine Service pulls me back to the Mysteries of God. It reminds me, and it demonstrates for the congregation, the seriousness of what we are gathered for.
There's frankly a lot to consider and manage in the administration of the Sacrament, which is easier to grasp theoretically than it is to practice in the cut and thrust of parish life. The pastor is a finite mortal creature with temptations and sins of his own, with heartaches and hurts to contend with. He is sent with the Gospel of Christ to love and serve people who may or may not appreciate his efforts. Introducing a better practice in the conduct of the Liturgy may be met with apathy, resistance, or outright hostility.
Where does one begin? How does one proceed? These are not easy questions, and the answers are often not easy, either. Many a pastor has been left feeling very much alone, beleaguered, confused, discouraged, and utterly at a loss.
I still remember how it was for me, as a new and relatively young pastor, well equipped with lots of knowledge but with very little experience. My seminary training had taught me how to think theologically, how to approach the Scriptures, and how to prepare and preach a faithful sermon. My professors had given me a working knowledge, understanding and appreciation of church history, of the ancient Creeds and the Lutheran Confessions, the "what" and the "why" of the Holy Sacraments, the Office of the Holy Ministry, and the Divine Liturgy. I would not trade those tremendous gifts for anything, for I do not know how I could function as a pastor without them. But translating all of that knowledge into pastoral practice was another matter altogether, and, even now, after sixteen years of trial and error, I am still growing into this office and vocation.
I knew what I did know about being a pastor, to begin with, from my field work with Pastor Ledic and my vicarage with Pastor Briel. I observed in them the actual practice of what I had been learning in the classroom, and I am forever grateful to have had such excellent supervisors. Pastor Briel was a most excellent mentor in the study of the Holy Scriptures, in the preaching and teaching of the Word. And Pastor Ledic was like having a modern-day Wilhelm Löhe as my own personal example of liturgical practice and pastoral care. So they had given me a good lead on what to do when I was ordained; and not only what to do, but how to go about doing it.
The challenge is that every congregation is different, and every pastor is different, each with his own personality, his own strengths and weaknesses. Pastor Ledic and Pastor Briel are both wonderful pastors, but they are quite different from each other, and I am neither one of them. Even if I had been able to emulate one or the other of them exactly, Emmaus was a different place with different people than either Immanuel, Decatur, or St. John, Maple Grove. There is no one example, model or strategy that covers all the bases and answers all the questions. I had been given a good starting point, but it wasn't long before the path ahead included twists and turns and obstacles I'd never seen or considered before. So, what then?
Seminary training is mainly a matter of learning how to think and speak theologically. In a similar way, growing into the pastoral office is really a matter of learning how to think and act pastorally — and of learning how to think and act liturgically. No one else can learn that for you, but neither should a pastor go it alone. He needs a father confessor, for one thing, to absolve him and care for him with the Word of Christ. But he likewise needs brothers in arms, lest he simply stew in his own juices and breathe only his own air. He needs to give and receive, with his fellow pastors, the wisdom that comes through the experience of shepherding the flock of Christ with the means of grace. Gottesdienst cannot take the place of such conversation within circuits and between the pastors of neighboring congregations, but it aims to contribute along the same lines.
The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren is necessary, not only for navigating the unique challenges that each pastor faces, but for the fostering of unity and harmony in the midst of so many differences across the congregations of the Church. For there is but one Christ, one Gospel, one Holy Baptism, and one Sacrament of the Altar. As there is one orthodox catholic faith, which is the worship of the Holy Trinity, so there is a common confession of that one faith. Pastoral practice and parish life cannot be identical in every time and place, nor should they be forced into a one-size-fits-all container. Yet, we are the children of one God and Father, and we bear the same divine Name, the same Holy Spirit. We live and move within the one Body of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we all eat of His one Body and drink from the New Testament of His Blood. As such, our words and actions — our rites and ceremonies — derive their content and character from these sacred Mysteries, even as we ourselves derive our life and every blessing from them. And as they proceed from that which the Lord has said and done and given, so are they always returning to that fountain and source of Life and Light and Love. Therein resides our true unity, from which resounds our common confession of Christ and His Gospel.
Traditional rubrics, rites and ceremonies belong to that common confession. They deliver to us the collective wisdom of those who have gone before us, and they guide us on the way forward. As the Creeds and Confessions emerged as testimonies of the truth in response to questions and challenges, so have rubrics, rites and ceremonies developed in the course of the Church's life, in order to clarify and confess the glory of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Other options and practices, other words and actions, when measured against the apostolic doctrine and fellowship, must be ruled out and removed. Even within the broad range of adiaphora, there are those things which are better, and those things which are worse, for the clarity and free course of the Gospel.
It is the Gospel that Gottesdienst is contending for; because the Gospel is the Glory of God in Christ, and the Gospel alone brings comfort and consolation to distressed hearts and troubled consciences. We do not presume to mandate what God has left free, but we dare to oppose and speak out against those practices that contradict, compete with, distract from, or undermine the Gospel. We advocate practices that confess the Gospel in its truth and purity. We do so, not as the first or final authorities, but as heirs and ministers of the sacred tradition of Christ Jesus. We challenge and contend with one another, in order to serve each other, in order to be sharpened in our consideration and conduct of the pastoral office to which we have been called. We invite the questions and comments of others, as well, that we might learn from them, and continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and serve our neighbor with a confession of the faith once delivered to the saints, as it has now been handed down to us in our day.