Hastening the end of the Church?

Posted: January 26, 2011 in Christian

The Lord's Supper Blessing

There will be no end to the Church, no matter what happens within the visible Body of Christ. The Church will be presented without spot or blemish at His coming! Praise God! This is still a great article, and not to be understood only from a “Lutheran” perspective, but from the perspective of the total, whole Body of Christ, the Church.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27 (ESV)

For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:29-32 (ESV)

Around the Lord’s Table is gathered the church. At the Table of the Lord the church knows what it most profoundly is: the body of Christ. No doubt of this since the days of the apostles. Where the Table of the Lord is deserted, where the Lord’s Supper is no longer known or celebrated, there the church dies beyond rescue.

Inaccessible to rational explanation is the fact of this connection between the church and the Lord’s Supper, between the body of Christ which we are given at the altar and the body of Christ which is the church. All along their journey through nineteen centuries Christians have been enlivened by this fact. Here we may find a clue why in our days the Sacrament of the Altar has become a matter of such burning urgency. So it was also in the second third of last century, and perhaps not so again since the time of the Reformation.

Where this connection between the church and the Lord’s Supper still holds, then the question of what the church is cannot be faced without the question what is the Lord’s Supper? Whether the church has a future is bound up with whether the Lord’s Supper lives on enliveningly. These are questions which Christians of all churches cannot but face as we move toward the end of the second thousand years. The question of the Lord’s Supper is not something we may just sit and think about; in all churches theology has again earnestly engaged the question of the Lord’s Supper.

When these questions are thus put, then they are surely also put to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. We have indeed ever and again maintained that we have Scriptural dimensions of what the Lord’s Supper is which in other churches have been blurred or forgotten. For us then the question of the Lord’s Supper probes to the bottom of our integrity whether we have held true to the Scriptural Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, faithfully confessing, without admixture, what our Lord has given us to confess. Or have we exchanged this for the mess of potage offered by the Enlightenment in the way of sacramental theorizing.

“You say, ‘I am rich, full up, and have need of nothing,’ and do not know that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” These are the words of him who is the Lord and judge of all Churches. If we do not know ourselves to be struck by them we have ceased to be a Lutheran Church, a church of daily contrition and repentance. Before the judgment of these words we can only confess how poverty-stricken we have become. When first our Church made public confession of the faith, it was bold to say in Article 24 of the Augsburg Confession: “Without boasting it is plain for all to see that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents.” Could we still say such a thing? Has not our Church participated in the grievous decline of the Sacrament which now for two hundred years has been spreading through the world of Protestantism? In many places the Sacrament has already departed.

We are then confronted with the question what has become of the Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Altar? For our fathers inextricably bound up with the Doctrine was the celebration and administration of the Sacrament. Here doctrine is not some theoretical doctrinalizing, but the quickening message given the church to proclaim. Still today there are many pastors in the Evangelical Churches of Germany who confess the Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as Luther did. And there are many Christian people who go to the Lord’s Table confessing the Sixth Chief Part of the Small Catechism. However, we may not deceive ourselves by supposing that this is true of anything more than a minority among our Evangelical people. We recognize this fact without laying any judgment on anybody else.

There is no denying that this situation is the outcome of a long historical development. This observation does not relieve us of responsibility. A generation ago who could have imagined that the question of the Sacrament could again become so fateful a matter for theology and church? If such a change is possible, then a later generation may perhaps marvel at how it was possible at such a time for there still to be even learned theologians who could go on talking about the Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as confessed by Luther in such a shallow and dilettantist way? Still today along the highways and byways of theology you can hear talk of not being bogged down in the exegesis of the sixteenth century. If Luther had the benefit of the last generation’s advances in exegesis, he would certainly no longer teach of the Lord’s Supper as he did back then. When the recognition of what is going on here is joined with the basic respect due to a great man now departed, and so one who can no longer defend himself, there may then be a stirring of effort to take seriously and to understand what he said as he faced the Last Judgement.

If any one shall say after my death, “If Luther were living now, he would teach or hold this or that article differently, for he did not consider it sufficiently,” etc., let me say once and for all that by the grace of God I have most diligently traced all these articles through the Scriptures, have examined them again and again in the light thereof, and have wanted to defend all of them as certainly as I have now defended the sacrament of the altar…I know what I am saying, and I well realize what this will mean for me before the Last Judgment at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. (LW 37, 360f.)

If we grasp the import of these words, it follows that what Luther confesses as the freight of the Words of Institute can no more be relativized as outmoded exegesis than can that which he confesses with the Doctrine of Justification. This recognition carries within it what could bring in the day — God grant it may come before it is too late — the day of repentance, the day when we Evangelical theologians in Germany finally recognize what it is perilous not to recognize: the misuse of freedom in the Gospel. This may be recognized when any one of us claims it as his right to follow his own opinion, and put to the Christian congregation some personal view which has won his approval, which he recently read somewhere or other, and was much impressed by. This instead of proclaiming what we were pledged before God to proclaim in that most solemn hour of our lives at our ordination. Such misuse of “freedom in the Gospel” hastens the end of the Church of the Reformation.

~ Hermann Sasse

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