Monday, May 4, 2009

Why It Really Does Matter, Actually

Faith lives by and from the Word of God. Faith loves the Word, delights in it and clings to it. And faith follows the Word, where it leads, to the Body of the Word-made-Flesh, to His Breaking of the Bread, to the fellowship of His Altar in His Church. If faith is prevented from that Table on earth, it will yet hope in the resurrection of the body, even as it is looks forward with eager expectation to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end. For as faith is never without the Word of God, so the Word, having become flesh, is nevermore without His Body.

The risen Lord Jesus is patient and persistent in demonstrating that He has risen bodily; that He is not a ghost or a disembodied spirit, but a man of flesh and blood, of bones and sinew. Not only that, but He catechizes His disciples on the way that leads to His Table, to eating and drinking with Him there. It is in His Sacrament that they see Him, according to faith in His Word, and know Him and love Him. For that is where He knows and loves them, and gives Himself to them, and pours Himself out for them, and feeds them with Himself, His Body and His Blood for their flesh as well as their souls, for the resurrection of their bodies to the life everlasting with God.

The goodness of the body is already established by the Creation of God; it is clarified and fulfilled in the Incarnation of God the Son; and it is gloriously perfected for us by His bodily death upon the Cross and His bodily resurrection from the dead. The giving of His Body, and the pouring out of His Blood, for us Christians bodily to eat and to drink in the Sacrament of the Altar, is not simply a further affirmation of these facts. It is the very living of the body in that goodness which is Christ, and thus to live, both body and soul, precisely that good divine life which the Holy Triune God intended when He created man in His own Image, after His own likeness.

Tertullian had it right when he said that the soul has no life or salvation apart from the body, as God Himself demonstrated when He breathed His life-giving Spirit into man through his nostrils. The soul hears and receives the Word of the Gospel through the ears of the body. The soul is cleansed before God in righteousness and purity by the washing of the body with water and the Word of Christ. And the soul is brought into the intimate fellowship of the Father with the Son in the Holy Spirit, by the bodily eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ. So then does the soul confess the faith, pray, praise and give thanks to God, with the same mouth of the same body. And the soul loves and serves the neighbor in his or her body and life, with the hands and feet of the body, which are redeemed and sanctified for the resurrection and the life.

To be a human being, a man or woman, is to be both body and soul. Thus, with our bodies, we occupy space and time. We are in a place, and we have movement even when we are at rest. It is not possible for us to be otherwise; nor is it simply an accident or coincidence that we are this way, for it is the way that God has created us to be, to live and move and have our being in Him.

So, too, it is no accident or coincidence that the Sacrament of the Altar is a ceremony. Indeed, it is the fundamental ceremony of the Christian faith and life, of the Divine Liturgy and Christian worship. Ceremony is nothing else but life in the body. There is no question of whether or not we shall have ceremonies, but whether or not they will be ordered rightly by the Word of God in faith and love. Every godly ceremony will be a movement to or from the Ceremony of the Altar. All the freedom in the world is used rightly and well, when it finds its center in that eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ at His Word.

Freedom there is, to be sure, and faith shall not relinquish it; for it is the glorious freedom of the risen Christ Jesus, the divine and blessed gift of His Gospel. But it is no more a freedom from ceremony than it is a freedom from Christ Himself. It is a freedom for such ceremony as lives in the Body of Christ. To be free of that would not be life but death. Since the children of man partake of flesh and blood, the Lord also partakes of the same, that man might partake of Him in flesh and blood; not to be saved from the body, but for life in the body (in the Body).

In our wonderful group conversation at Redeemer in Fort Wayne this past January, Pastor Petersen offered the comment that simplicity, or the absence of traditional ceremonies, is its own kind of ceremony. I understood what he said, and I agreed with him at the time, but I did not fully comprehend what a profound point he was making. I wonder if it went past others who were there, too.

There is no division between those who are ceremonial and those who are not. To live in the body is to be engaged in ceremony, even if we do not normally speak in such terms. If we should prefer to limit "ceremony" to the conduct of the Divine Service, that would be well and good; but whether it is simple or elaborate, elegant or ludicrous, reverent or a farce, there will be ceremony. The ceremony need not be the same from place to place, nor can it be, but it can be measured and evaluated as to whether or how it serves and supports the preaching of the Word of God, and as to whether or how it approaches the Ceremony of the Lord's Supper.

To take bread and wine and set them apart; to consecrate these earthly elements with the spoken Word of Christ our Lord; to distribute the Body and Blood Christ to His disciples, gathered together in His Name; and for those Christians to receive, to eat and drink the Holy Communion, it is all ceremony. Collectively, it is the Ceremony, as it is the Divine Liturgy, and it is most certainly not an adiaphoron. Nor is it possible for the Ministers of Christ and the members of His Church on earth to be so gathered in His Name, to give and receive His gifts with His Word, apart from other ceremonies that bring them to and from that place and that time.

The point being, again, that there is no division between those who are ceremonial and those who are not, but only between those ceremonies that freely approach the Ceremony of the Altar in faith and love, and those ceremonies that distract, detract, divert or drive away the disciples of Jesus from that central Ceremony. There are numerous varieties of particular ceremonies within each of these categories, and perhaps there are some ceremonies that may belong to both categories, depending on the temporal circumstances; for love may discern that what is helpful in one place is hurtful in another. By and large, however, any given ceremony will either be in harmony with the Ceremony of the Sacrament, or it will clash and compete with that Ceremony.

Let there be no argument over whether or not to have ceremonies. But let us reason together in faith and love, and consider how those ceremonies that we undertake in the conduct of the Divine Service, especially as stewards of the Mysteries of God, serve the faithful in their bodies and souls with the Body of the Word-made-Flesh. It does finally come down to this: The Lord Jesus desires to feed His Christians with His Body, and to give them drink of His Blood; so there needs to be a way to get those Holy Things into their mouths. Let us do so in such wise manner as confesses with our bodies what we believe in our heart and confess with our lips.

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