Saturday, August 09, 2014

Prelude to sacrifice or Sacrament?

One of the truly divine aspects of traditional, orthodox Lutheran liturgy -- and therefore, Biblical, Apostolic worship -- is the proper understanding of what actually occurs during a church service. So many Christians of various stripes look at the service as something we do (sacrifice), but that is completely inconsistent with -- and contrary to -- the Word of God.

Rather, worship is Christ's service to us (sacrament).

I. The Divine Service

Church is not a fitness club where we struggle and strive to improve. We're miserable sinners. What can a dead man do to make himself alive again? What can beggars do before a holy God that He would want it highlighted during His worship?

A better analogy is that church is a hospital in which the Great Physician Himself tends to our sin and sickness. That is what the Divine Service is. Christ comes to us sinners with His mercy through His Word (read, sung, recited, and preached), His "Washing of Rebirth and Renewal" (Baptism), and the feeding of God's people with His own Body and Blood (Communion).

Because we're such wicked sinners, because we're so given to self-aggrandizement, because we so easily lie to ourselves, each other, and God, every word, act, and symbol in worship has special import. So, we must ask ourselves: Does a particular element of the Service focus on Christ, His sacrifice for the life of the world, and His ongoing, unfathomable mercy (and our utter depravity and helplessness, as necessary), or does it focus on what we do to, for, or toward God?

In other words, is it Christ-centered, Christ-on-the-periphery, and Christ in-between, or does it focus on man? Who acts and who receives?

II. The Sacraments

And there's a categorical difference in the Divine Service between a purely-symbolic act and an actual practical function that may or may not have symbolic meaning.

For example, when the offering is brought forward, there is a lot of symbolism. The congregation offers its "firstfruits" for God's work, expresses gratitude for His blessings, and offers itself symbolically to God. But there is also the practical matter of the church needing money to carry on its work.

But what of bringing the elements of the Lord's Supper to the altar during the Offertory?

Thinking it was just a bit of "high church," it was surprising to hear last night that the bringing forward of the bread and wine (with the offering and prayer requests -- completely appropriate, by the way; God invites us graciously to pray on all occasions) during our service is a presentation of our firstfruits, an offering to God.

That's a problem because in the Lord's Supper, the Son of God gives of Himself freely to all. He does the work. We have nothing to contribute to it. Suggesting otherwise resembles strongly the Roman Catholic (mis)understanding of Communion as (in part) our sacrifice.

Considering the less-than-charitable (reductio ad absurdum is not very nice!) and unsatisfactory explanation offered for this practice, I began doing some research. It turns out that out of several pages of search results, all but one or two were links to Roman Catholic sites.

Now, just because something is Roman doesn't mean that it's wrong. But the Church of Rome's understanding of Communion as something in which we play a part (our "sacrifice") is inconsistent with the Gospel. (Don't worry; "evangelicals" deny God's grace also, but they do it by removing Christ and His promises from Communion entirely.)

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in part (emphases mine throughout):
God has first blessed us with the gift of creation. Humans take those gifts given, wheat and grapes, and, using our creativity, make bread and wine. Then, we bring those gifts we have received and labored over to present them at the Altar / Table that they might be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Finally, we receive them back in communion. The procession of the gifts says, in essence, “Behold the gifts God has given us!” The priest says the proper prayers aloud [...] the only prayer that is usually audible at this part of the Mass is the invitation of the presider, “Pray my brothers and sisters…” followed by response of the faithful, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…" The rite closes with the Prayer over the Offerings.
So, what is the Lutheran understanding of bringing forward the Bread and Wine? According to this article, the bread and wine are "your own [God's] gifts," an interpretation consistent with the Lord's Supper as sacrament, not sacrifice:
Remembering, therefore, his salutary command, his life-giving Passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and his promise to come again, we give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, not as we ought, but as we are able; and we implore you mercifully to accept our praise and thanksgiving, and, with your Word and Holy Spirit, to bless us, your servants, and these your own gifts of bread and wine; that we and all who share in the + body and blood of your Son may be filled with heavenly peace and joy, and receiving the forgiveness of sin, may be + sanctified in soul and body, and have our portion with all your saints.
But is that definitive? It is Wikipedia, after all. (Yes, I know.) The official Lutheran (LCMS) explanation of the Liturgy clarifies:
There is, however, an offering that we do make, both now in our worship and one day in heaven itself. It is the sacrifice of thanksgiving as we call on the name of the Lord (Ps. 116:17). In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article 24), this eucharistic sacrifice is carefully distinguished from the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice for sins belongs to him alone. Every time we try to grab that honor for ourselves, we come up short--very short. But when we recognize our rightful place--that we are on the receiving end of God's merciful goodness--then the sacrifice of thanksgiving cannot help but pour forth from our lips as we give our thanks to the One who gave everything for us.

The giving of our firstfruits, whether it is money or possessions, time or talents, is also a part of this sacrifice of thanksgiving. Our mouths cannot remain separated from the rest of our bodies. If the thanksgiving is flowing from our lips, then it will also find expression in the giving of our very selves for the sake of Christ and the neighbor.
So, we do give something to God at this time: Our thanks in the form of our words and our "firstfruits" -- "money or possessions, time or talents." No mention of bread or wine. (Unlike today, the first Christians had to bring bread and wine to worship for the Lord's Supper, or there wouldn't have been any for Communion.)

What, if anything, did Luther have to say on the subject?

Communion has been called, "Holy food for holy people." Because Christ declares us holy, we are. But we are also sinners prone to self-deception. As long as we're on this side of Heaven, it might be better to refer to The Lord's Supper as "Holy food for wicked people."

Perhaps then pastors, Catholics, and Evangelicals will stop thinking of themselves as meritorious enough on their own to either contribute to the Lord's Supper or deny its power.