Neighborhood Sacramentology: When to Baptize?

28 June 2019

In the church we have the tendency to take certain truths about the sacraments and make applications in directions that we shouldn’t, but God has a much different view of the sacraments than we do. We’ve made the Lord’s Table something to be protected, lest some heathen get away with a wafer. No; it is the body of Jesus, and Jesus gave His body to and for the world. Of course it’s blasphemy, but it’s God’s blasphemy. Our job is to submit to what God is doing. 

Likewise, we recognize the importance of baptism, and therefore delay it in order to get all the logistical ducks in a row to make a big to-do. We want to do it in church on a Sunday morning. We want the person to invite all his unbelieving friends and relatives to the baptism so we don’t miss a recruiting opportunity. It somehow escapes our notice that there is no biblical example of delaying baptism for these reasons. A new convert is baptized in the first available body of water by whatever Christian is on hand to do it. 


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Fencing the Table?

25 June 2019

If it is the church’s responsibility to fence the Table, to keep people away from it who aren’t going to partake in a worthy manner, then  that implies a whole authority structure to make that happen. Only certain authorized people can serve communion, only at appointed places and times, and so on.  The Roman and Eastern churches certainly took that position, and speaking broadly, so did the fathers of the Reformation. The marks of a true church, our Reformed fathers said, were word, sacrament, and discipline, and part of the function of discipline was to fence the Table. It was therefore possible in a Reformation church for a member of the church to be encouraged to come to church, but suspended from the Table as a disciplinary measure. At a commonsense level, it’s not hard to see how they got there — it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of sending a child to bed without his supper.

The New Testament knows nothing of such a practice. There are no appointed places and times. When did the NT church gather that was *not* church? They didn’t have a church building; it was all houses. They didn’t have Sunday mornings off from work. They gathered where and when they could, and when they gathered, the church was gathering. There are no authorized servers, no one appointed to fence the table. Is it ok to serve the Lord’s Table in a private residence to a bunch of your close friends on a Thursday night? Well, WWJD? That’s how the first one happened…. The church’s role is to celebrate early and often, and invite the world to come.

There is, of course, a warning that the one who partakes in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. (In the immediate context, the unworthy partaking is a matter of the rich shaming the poor.) But there is no suggestion that the elders should stop someone from partaking because he might be doing it unworthily. The only examination Paul commands is self-examination. Nobody else is responsible to do it for you, and God has not delegated that authority to anyone. 

An egregiously sinning, unrepentant believer may be expelled from the community entirely until he repents, but there’s no concept of allowing him to remain in the community without coming to the Table. If he is spiritually weak, then he needs strength; why would you withhold spiritual food from him?

The Table is pure grace. You want Jesus? Then come to the Table. Is it blasphemy for some spiritual tourist to come and partake of the body and blood of Christ as an act of curiosity, with no regard for what he’s really doing? Yes, of course.

But it’s not my blasphemy; it’s God’s. Jesus incarnated in the world and gave His body to and for the world; He gave His body to be abused and crucified by sinners. Some heathen getting away with a wafer is the very least of the blasphemy going on here; why would that be where we draw the line? You don’t have the right to fence the Lord’s Table because it’s not your table; it’s His.

Shamrocks and Crankypants

17 March 2019

Is it appropriate for a minister [in our tradition] to wear green in the pulpit on St. Patrick’s Day?

The question came up in a theology discussion group I happen to be part of, and quickly became a fairly sharp discussion. Of course there were cranky fundamentalists denouncing the whole affair as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk and start fights. (Presumably a minister should either preach against that, or just move on with whatever series he’s preaching at the moment.)

Other, more historically informed, folks made the usual observations about green being the Roman Catholic color, and orange being the Protestant color (which is historically true). Then the usual counter-observations were made that the orange-wearing (English invader) principals to the conflict in Ireland aren’t the sort of people we’d want to identify with, so we oughtn’t to wear orange, either.

It sounds like there’s a pretty good case for abstaining, if you’re in Northern Ireland. Wearing one color or the other might be a bit like choosing to wear red (or blue) in Compton. Maybe. I’ve never been to Northern Ireland; couldn’t say for sure.

But perhaps we’re missing the point. We’re not in Northern Ireland, and whatever the historical links between that culture and ours, the question that confronts us is not what either color meant there, then.

The question is what the culture means in our context, now.

Here and now, St. Patrick’s at its best is a celebration of a Christian missionary notable for both his effectiveness and his (deeply Pauline) methodology. A man who had been kidnapped and enslaved, escaped, and freely chose to obey God’s call to return as a missionary to the people that enslaved him. He obeyed God’s call at tremendous personal cost; a thoroughly admirable man.

At its worst–as already noted by the cranky fundies– St. Patrick’s is an excuse for amateurs to drink too much as a prelude to bad decisions about fighting, fornication, and karaoke.

But we are Christians. So as a pastor, I celebrate the best—whatsoever things are pure, true, noble, and all that. Of course I wear green and talk about the life of St. Patrick. (And not just on St. Paddy’s, actually. Good history never goes out of season.)

I’d encourage the crankypants among us to actually read the extant writings of St. Patrick. He was quite a follower of Jesus, and I look forward to meeting him one day.

A Collect Against Despair

20 December 2013

God of all comfort, who sent Your Son to be for us a man of sorrows and to bear our grief even to death: Grant that we may keep our eyes fixed on You in hope, and hoping in You, that we may live as agents of Your blessing in the world, through Jesus our Lord and brother, who having passed before us through shame, despair and death and triumphed over them now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Prayers from the Pilgrimage: Rest is Transformation; Worship is Warfare

27 November 2011

The below is an excerpt from my (God willing) forthcoming book, Prayers from the Pilgrimage.  May it be a blessing to you.

Like Moses and Aaron Your priests, and like Samuel who called upon Your name, so we have called upon You, and You have answered us.  You have been to us God-Who-Forgives, and we have kept the ordinances which You delivered to us.  Having obediently joined in the good works which You prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them, we who believe now enter into Your rest with thanksgiving.

On the sixth day You made man and brought his bride to him, thus completing all Your work which You had made, and on the seventh You rested.  In so doing, You made the Sabbath for man, that Your image might enter into Your rest, and thus refreshed, might labor as You also labor in the world.  And so the Sabbath became chief among the holy convocations of Israel, a day of celebration, rest and worship according to Your command.

On the sixth day the Last Adam completed His work, and on the seventh He rested in the tomb.  On the first day of the week, the New Man walked in the garden, but His Bride could not cleave to Him, because His victory was not yet complete, and she was not yet prepared for Him.  He ascended and sat at Your right hand, exalted above every name and given all authority in heaven and on earth.  On the Lord’s Day, the Bride enters Your throne room, there to be prepared by Him for the day when He returns.

May our worship on this Lord’s Day be a pleasing offering to You, and may Your will, done in heaven through our worship, flow out from the sanctuary and be done on earth, that we may disciple the nations and the kings of the earth may kiss the Son.

Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives bread to strengthen our hearts.  As we have eaten at Your Table in heaven, so we will eat on earth, that we might soon eat with Your Son in Your Kingdom.

Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives wine to gladden our hearts.  As we have drunk at Your table in heaven, so we will drink on earth, that we might soon drink with Your Son in Your Kingdom.

A Liturgy Or Two

21 December 2009

I know there are several of you who read this site because I post on liturgy from time to time, and I owe you folks an update.  I haven’t posted on liturgy in a while, and it’s not because I’ve been dormant.  We had reached the stage in the life of the church where our discussions of liturgy were becoming very particular to our own individual concerns.  It didn’t seem appropriate to share all of that with the world, so I haven’t.

What I can share are the results.  Some potential points of interest, in no particular order:

  • We are using the 5-C covenant renewal pattern cribbed from Jeff Myers’ excellent The Lord’s Service.  This is not the result of a solid theological commitment on our part, but we have to do everything in some order.  We picked this order on the principle that it makes sense, and given the choice between a sensible order that we might not have to change much and a cobbled-together pastiche that we know we’ll have to fix, we prefer the former.  We’ll examine it more closely as time permits, and of course it’s all up for grabs at that point, but ya gotta start somewhere…
  • Page numbers for songs are from Cantus Christi, unless otherwise noted.  (Note that verse numbers will also be different from one hymnal to the next.  Particularly in Cantus, where the editors have a definite antiquarian streak.)
  • The opening prayer is inspired by the Book of Common Prayer, and edited as seemed appropriate.
  • The confession and petition prayers were drafted corporately, the former based on Nehemiah’s confession for the nation and the latter based on a grocery list of things we should pray for. We know there are going to be problems here.  Be interesting to find out what they will be.
  • The fact that everybody is reading a scripted prayer together is not one of the problems.  More about this later, but here’s the short version: (1) teamwork requires coordination; (2) nobody complains about this when corporately singing to the Lord; (3) why is it a problem when corporately speaking to Him?
  • We left the “c-word” in the Creed, with no apologies.  We mean it when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, and we also mean the unspoken “and they don’t!” that comes with it.  In this we stand with the Reformed and Anglican portions of the Protestant heritage, as over against the Lutheran tradition, which chickened out.
  • Weekly communion, yes.  Grape juice thus far.

So, without further ado, here is our very first attempt at formal liturgy.

We knew we were going to need to tweak it, but we weren’t sure how.  A few things became clear once we’d actually done it once, and here are a few of them:

  • The petition prayer was composed without any regard for cadence or ease of corporate reading.  This is entirely my fault, because getting it into final shape was my job.  The content, if I do say so myself, is pretty good.  But it’s ugly, and it shouldn’t be.  Although I have no doubt that I can fix it, this is not a kind of writing I’ve done before, so it’s going to be a process.
  • That prayer is also really, really long.  We may shorten it a bit.
  • There is such a thing as too fast.  In my zeal to keep the corporate portions from dragging–come on, you know what I’m talking about–I led us through at a breakneck pace.  This is a Bad Thing, because if people can barely get the words out of their mouth in time, then they have little chance of absorbing them.  Must slow down.  Happily, we have the time to do this.
  • Four songs in a row is too many, especially in a congregation that’s not accustomed to a lot of singing.  Need to break this up into more manageable chunks.
  • My local Stater Brothers doesn’t sell matzoh, or anything else much in the way of unleavened bread.  This may not sound relevant, but when you’re out shopping for a communion bread that you can actually break instead of those awful little square white things, it matters.  Must find a local source.

We went back to the drawing board and tweaked a bit.  Here’s the second version.

Comments and critiques are of course welcome.

Liturgical Theology

22 March 2009

Liturgy is one of those unavoidable issues.  If you gather in church, you’re going to do something.  The word for that something is liturgy.

To my considerable detriment, and the great shame of my tradition, I managed to get through 4 years of Bible college and 4 more years of seminary, graduate from both, and be ordained as a minister of the gospel, all without receiving any training in liturgical theology.  Not one course; not one recommended book; not so much as a casual conversation over coffee.

If you paid close attention to my first paragraph, you’re probably wondering, “What? First you say it’s unavoidable to have liturgy, and then you say you got no training in liturgy?  How’s that possible?”

It’s not.  Everyone gets training in liturgy every time they go to church.  I was no exception.  I even got a little formal training in liturgy.  Not much, but enough to get me through my first church service, first communion service, first wedding, etc., without disaster.  What I didn’t get was training in liturgical theology — being conscious of what the liturgy communicates, understanding the underlying theology of it.  I had lots of training in the theology of what I say in church, but none at all in the theology of what we do in church.

God be praised, He maneuvered me into a pastoral situation where a couple of very divergent liturgical traditions were coming together, and this forced me to confront these issues.  If I’d taken a pastorate in a normal church in my tradition, I could have gone to my grave having never thought these things through.

But it was not to be.  The only way we could have church at all without fighting about what to do was to agree that nobody, including the pastor, was allowed to import traditions into our church without a discussion of the issues and a biblical grounding in why we were doing that particular thing.  The resulting ground-up examination of every last facet of the service has been excruciating for me, very slow going for everyone, and generally a difficult process, but very, very rewarding.

Why excruciating?  Not through any fault of my congregation, I can assure you.  They’ve been unfailingly loving, patient, and helpful throughout the process.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellow believers to hash through these things with, and I couldn’t possibly have gotten where I am without them.  I thank God for them constantly.  In spite of that, this process has been very painful for me because I had thought of myself as pretty well prepared for the ministry.  Oh, I knew I had a lot of experiential learning to do, just like every young pastorling does, but I though I was pretty solid in terms of what I knew.  Liturgical reform forced me to confront my abysmal ignorance in a very basic area of church practice.  Worse yet, about half of the little I thought I knew has turned out to be, not just wrong, but utterly indefensible.  So far.  I’m not making any bets about the reliability of the rest of my tiny fund of knowledge, either.

Unfortunately, I am far from alone in my benighted ignorance.  I recently heard a former Presbyterian minister bewailing the fact that there’s not a Reformed seminary on this continent where a student can get a course in liturgical theology.

Why is that?

I suspect because it would force us to confront areas of weakness and sin that make us very, very uncomfortable.  The implicit theology of a church service from my tradition is heartily gnostic.  The focus of the service is on delivery of information from pastor to people.  The hymns are screened for doctrinal content (and little else), the Lord’s Table is an occasion for a sermonette on the cross and resurrection, and the baptismal services are used as occasions to preach the gospel to unsaved loved ones who are invited to the service.  Everything is a sermon — spoken, set to music, or presented as an object lesson.  In some subsets of my tradition, even the word “service” has been replaced with the term “Bible class” — because that’s all it is.

It’s all about the ideas, disconnected from historical, experiential reality.

Now someone will justly complain that of course, the preaching — musical, spoken, and object lessons — hammers unceasingly on the need for the ideas to be applied into daily life.  Sad to say, there are occasional exceptions to this, but for the most part, this is true.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  While what we say certainly passes all the tests of orthodoxy, what we do in the church service pictures a different theology entirely.  The entire service is delivery of intellectual content from pastor (or choir) to people.  It pictures a theology in which pleasing God is all about knowing things, and the more content you know, the more pleased God will be with you.

That’s gnosticism.

And it leads to believers who have heavy notebooks bursting with information, and unholy lives empty of meaning.  And as much as we might decry the results from the pulpit in the next week’s ‘Bible class’, those very problems we so despise are results of our bankrupt worship.

As opposed to what?

Thought you’d never ask.

As opposed to the Church gathering consciously as the Cabinet of the New Jerusalem (temporarily in exile), in order that we, as royal priests ordained through baptism into Christ’s one body, might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to confess our sins, receive grace to help us in need, offer up the new covenant sacrifices of praise, hear His Word to us, and be fed by Him at His Table.  Gathering as royal priests to bring the world before God in prayer, that God will bring HImself to the world through us, and gathering as royal priests that we might wage war in the heavenly places against the ruling powers of that same world, secure in the knowledge that its many kingdoms will become the single Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

In other words, an actual, Christian worship service,  a time in which we serve God through worship rather than just downloading some content from the pastor’s head.

Now what does the liturgy look like when that is the implicit theology behind it?

I don’t know.  (I have no training in this, remember?)

But by God’s providence, through study and prayer and lots of trial and error, we’re going to find out together.