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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Heart of the Matter

It seems simple enough in retrospect, but it was one of those light-bulb moments this past week, which has made something rather obvious to me now.

I had the opportunity to share a pleasant and productive conversation with an older colleague for a couple hours, which dealt generally with worship matters and managed to meander here and there. Personal conversations that actually take place in person have a way of doing that, and it's great. It means that one has the chance to discover things he wasn't even looking for. That was sure enough the case for me on this recent occasion.

I've insisted for years now that the so-called "worship wars" are missing the mark in the way they usually focus on differences in style or form. That misses the mark, not because style and form are unimportant or inconsequential, but because those outward practices express and embody something deeper and more fundamental. The differences in worship practice, including notable differences in style and form, derive from a different impetus and spirit; they are driven by a different engine, running on a different sort of fuel. So I'm always attempting to begin the conversation at that underlying point, in the hopes of running from the heart of the matter to the life of the body.

So, then, in trying to distinguish what I understand by the adjective, "liturgical," I had in mind two primary examples: Liturgical "worship" is founded and formed, structured and styled, guided and governed by (a) the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to and from Holy Baptism, to and from the Holy Communion; and (b) the centrality of the Holy Communion as the beating heart of the Church's life. These two key poles are not simply checkpoints to be included in the course of what otherwise goes on, but they are actually the definitive givens of Christ, upon which everything else depends and hinges. Preaching may be biblically conservative, but if it isn't preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to and from the font, to and from the altar, then it isn't "liturgical." And that, I warrant, is unfortunate. Likewise, talking about the "Word and Sacrament," and referencing "Word and Sacrament ministry and missions," without the regular celebration of the Lord's Supper as the norm, is a slogan and a cliché, but it is not yet liturgical.

Anyway, those are the two points that I was aiming at in the course of conversation, when a slightly different (though related) second point emerged; which then proved quite enlightening.

My colleague mentioned such practices as the elevation of the Sacrament, and genuflecting, and in particular the use of a tabernacle, as examples of question and concern. I'm not a big fan of tabernacles, with due respect for my friend and colleague, Father Eckardt, but I do genuflect and elevate the Sacrament. I've had discussions of these several ceremonies often enough, and I would not have expected to plow any new ground on these points. But I wonder if those frequent conversations haven't been missing the real point at hand; a point which Father Eckardt has noted in the past.

Here is what made the discussion so significant: My colleague noted that these practices imply or suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ are actually present prior to and apart from the eating and drinking of the Sacrament. Yes, I know, the Gottesdienst Editors have had this discussion before. But this observation brought things precisely to a head. When I affirmed that, indeed, it is my belief, my teaching, and my confession that the Body and Blood of Christ are present with the speaking of the Verba Domini, there was then a clarity to our conversation that was both refreshing and helpful. I believe that was the case for both of us.

It seems to me that, when it comes right down to it, everything the Gottesdienst Editors contend for, and all of our objections to other sorts of practice, are aimed at reverence and respect for the Body and Blood of Christ. If "the Word comes to the element, and it is a Sacrament," and if the Sacrament "is the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ," then that is going to affect the way we act, the way we conduct ourselves, the way that we handle such sacred elements, before, during and after the distribution of the Holy Communion.

If that true heart of the matter is not realized or comprehended, then it is finally not possible to understand Gottesdienst; and by that I mean, not only the editors and their enterprises, but, more importantly, the Liturgy of the Divine Service. The Sacrament is the beating heart and center that unites us in our common confession and fellowship, and the very thing in which we are agreed even where and when we sometimes disagree amongst ourselves when it comes to the particulars of practice. We are bound together in the Body of Christ, by the Body of Christ; that is what enlivens us, nourishes us, and moves us to contend for whatever serves the worship of Christ in both soul and body.

Christ is not present in the Sacrament to be served by us, but to serve us Christians with His Body and His Blood. Nevertheless, wherever Christ is present, the Christian longs to serve Him in love, to wash His feet and dry them, to worship Him who is the Glory of God enfleshed and in Person. Our Lord would have His disciples eat His Body and drink His Blood, and the Ministry of the Gospel serves that holy purpose. But, again, the conduct of that Service cannot help but be affected by the very fact of the matter, that it is the Body and Blood of Christ that are being handled, given, received and consumed. When we object to irreverence and a lack of decorum, it is not because we are prudes, but because we fear, love and trust in Christ our God. When we contend for ceremonies that may seem extravagant, it is not ostentation, but for the worship of Christ in His Body with our bodies; not out of necessity, but out of fear, love and trust in Him.

It has probably been obvious to my fellow editors all along, but this observation has given me a clarity of understanding that I did not previously have. It gets to the heart of the matter, and, in doing so, it gets to the heart of the so-called "worship wars." There may be skirmishes over style, and battles over form, but the war is about the Body of Christ. Call it consecrationism vs. receptionism, but don't let any labels distract from what is really under discussion. Were we able to reach agreement in our confession of the Body of Christ, at His Word, than I believe that many of our differences in practice would be readily resolved in one way or another. But apart from that conversation and confession, no amount of uniformity in outward practice will yet amount to the inner unity of genuine fellowship.