Bishop and Christian*, May 2010

From the Pastor 

On Ceremony in the Church

            Everyone has ceremony.  Every congregation of every tradition has ceremony.  Some may be more elaborate, some may be plainer, but every service of every congregation includes some form of ceremony.  (I am defining ceremony here as anything that Christians do during worship that is not commanded or forbidden by God.)  Normally the question of the appropriateness of some particular ceremony does not arise unless a long-practiced ceremony is changed or removed.  We all take for granted the ceremonies with which we are comfortable.  But occasionally it is good for us to ask ourselves why we have and practice the ceremonies that we do.

            The Lutheran Confessions (found in the Book of Concord) say, first of all, “Concerning church rites they [the Lutherans] teach that those rites should be observed that can be observed without sin and that contribute to peace and good order in the church, for example, certain holy days, festivals, and the like.  However, people are reminded not to burden consciences, as if such worship were necessary for salvation.  They are also reminded that human traditions that are instituted to win God’s favor, merit grace, and make satisfaction for sins are opposed to the gospel and the teaching of faith” (Augsburg Confession [AC], XV:1-3 [Kolb/Wengert Edition, 49]).  And in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon writes, “Furthermore, we gladly keep the ancient traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility…” (XV:38 [Kolb/Wengert, 229]).  Whatever ceremonies are good for teaching people and useful for promoting the true Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins by God for Christ’s sake can and should be used.  Other ceremonies can be changed (see the “Epitome” of the Formula of the Concord, X:4 (Kolb/Wengert, 515).  “Nevertheless, we teach that liberty in these matters should be exercised moderately, so that the inexperienced may not take offense and, on account of an abuse of liberty, become more hostile to the true

teaching of the gospel.  Nothing in the customary rites may be changed without good reason.  Instead, in order to foster harmony, those ancient customs should be observed that can be observed without sin or without proving to be a great burden…” (Apol. XV:51 [Kolb/Wengert, 230]). 

            Two things, then, determine our external ceremonies: they cannot be forced, as if one needed to keep them in order to be saved; and, they can be freely used or not used to the extent that they teach people and are useful for promoting reverence.  “For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ” (AC XXIV:3 [Kolb/Wenger 68]).  The primary worship of the Christian is to receive joyfully the gifts of God in Christ.  As the Apology puts it, “The [sinful] woman [of Luke 7] came with this conviction about Christ: that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from him.  This is the highest way to worship Christ” (Apol. IV:154 [Kolb/ Wengert 144]).  This happens on the Lord’s Day as we hear His Word and receive His Supper.  Everything we do in the Divine Service is meant to highlight, emphasize, point to, and reinforce that worship.  We should ask ourselves if the ceremonies that we have emphasize God’s gifts to us or something else.  And if we want to change particular ceremonies, we should ask whether the new ceremony does those things better or worse than the old.  These are the discussions Christians should have as we examine our ceremonies, and, hopefully, we will be drawn deeper into the glorious gifts of God for us in His Divine Service.

            We all have ceremonies, and they are not worship in themselves.  The question we have to ask is not whether we prefer them, but whether they highlight what Christ is doing in our midst, freely forgiving our sins on account of His death and resurrection.  I believe that the more we think about and meditate on the ceremonies that have been handed down to us from the Lutherans who have gone before us, we will see that they do indeed increase our joy and thanksgiving for the forgiveness Christ brings, as well as our desire for those gifts.

Pr. Winterstein

*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”

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