Monday, May 06, 2013

Do Lutherans Celebrate the Mass? Yes! (Part 16, The Augsburg Confession)

We’ve been looking at what it means to be Lutheran Christians by considering the Biblical underpinnings for one of the Lutheran movement’s basic confessional documents, The Augsburg Confession. Since all Lutheran bodies claim to accept the Confession’s understanding of Christian faith, it’s a good place to go to for guidance. Today, we come to Article 24 of the Confession, titled The Mass.

For some of you, hearing a Lutheran worship service called the Mass may seem strange. But that’s what we celebrate together when we receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. The word mass comes from a Latin word for dismissal which appeared at the end of an ancient Roman Catholic liturgy for Holy Communion. “Ite missa est,” the presiding minister would say: “Go, it is the dismissal.”

We often have something similar in our own Lutheran Communion liturgy when we sing a musical setting of the words of Simeon after he had seen the eight-day-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. We call it the Nunc Dimittis, another Latin phrase that means, “Now dismiss,” as in: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace...”

In the Mass, God gathers us together to literally taste and see the goodness of the Lord in Holy Communion, as well as to hear His Word receptively, allowing the gift of faith to take root and grow within us, then God sends us into the world to make disciples. Fortified by Christ’s body and blood and the forgiveness He brings to us through Holy Communion, God dismisses us to tell our neighbors that they too can have eternal life through repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.

So, yes, we Lutherans celebrate the Mass. But someone else might ask, “Didn’t we already talk about Holy Communion in this series?”

Yes, we did, back on March 3, when we looked Article 10, The Lord’s Supper. But The Augsburg Confession is divided into two sections. The first twenty-one articles deal with subjects that Philipp Melanchthon, the colleague and friend of Martin Luther who wrote the Confession, felt for certain that none of the Roman Catholic theologians he was to dialog and debate with at Augsburg, Germany in 1530, could possibly disagree with. (That turned out not to be true.)

The last seven articles dealt with subjects over which Melanchthon expected to receive more pushback. So, in Article 24, which you can find starting on page 25 in the buff and brown editions of The Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon deals with Lutheran understandings of the Mass he knew would be controversial.

They still are. But like Martin Luther, we insist that unless we can be shown by Scripture and plain reason based on Scripture where we have erred, we must stand with Christ and with His Word as we understand them.

Article 24 is long. So, I want to hone in on four main points it makes.

The first is this: Anyone who receives the Sacrament should do so with the deepest reverence, love, awe, respect, and fear of God.

Starting in the second sentence of the article, we read that: “The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence.”

I don’t need to belabor this point. Lutherans take Jesus literally when He says, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.”

We may not be feeling it on the days His body and blood are offered to us.

We may not be able to understand His promise to be present “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine in the Sacrament.

It doesn’t matter!

Jesus, the One Who died for us and then rose for us, can be counted on to keep His promises.

If Jesus says that His body and blood are in the bread and the wine, you can bank on it.

This means that every time you receive the Sacrament, even on the days my sermons are off, even when the kids are restless, even when the choir or Cyndy hit a rare sour note, even if you’re tired, whatever your circumstance, you’re coming to the altar to meet the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of the universe. He deserves our reverence.

A second and related point the Confession makes is this: Holy Communion should only be shared after we have made confession of our sins.

Slide down to the last half-sentence at the bottom of page 25. It says: “No one is admitted to the Sacrament without first being examined...”

This is stated well in Paul’s words about Holy Communion, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this wine in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the LORD. But let a man examine himself [or a woman examine herself], and so let [them] eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 
This is why our liturgy offers us the opportunity to confess our sins every time we receive the Sacrament.

Confessing our sins lets us, like King David in Psalm 139, pray to God:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting. 
When God shows us our sins, we can confess them and lay them at the foot of Jesus’ cross, confident that they are lost forever in what some call God’s “sea of forgetfulness” and we can welcome the body and blood of Jesus as a sign and seal of God’s gracious forgiveness of our sin!

A third point the article makes is this: Everyone who is able to receive Holy Communion in public worship should do so.

Except in the cases of shut-ins, the ill, their families, or others in emergency circumstances, the term private communion should be an oxymoron. Holy Communion is meant to be a community meal partaken by all who have repented for sin, who believe that Christ is truly coming to them in the Sacrament, and trust Jesus’ promise that this Sacrament is “for you.”

There was a practice in the Church back in the days when the Confession was written of paying priests, often handsomely, to celebrate private masses. Melanchthon cites 1 Timothy 3:3 as condemning any practice designed to make money from the ministry of Word and Sacrament. There we’re told that anyone who wants to be an overseer of this ministry should not be “greedy for money.”

But greed for money on the part of clergy isn't the only wrong motive for the celebration of private Communions. I once heard of a man who wanted a pastor he liked to bring Holy Communion to him because he didn’t like the pastor of his congregation. But the pastor he contacted explained to him that as flattered as he was by the man’s admiration, the effectiveness of the Sacrament didn’t depend on which called pastor handed him the bread or the wine, but on the Word and promise of God meeting the bread and the wine. He explained: “In a way, for me to bring private Communion to you would be showing contempt for Christ and the Sacrament.” That pastor was right. But after that, the man disliked two pastors. 

The fourth and most important point the Confession makes here is this: Jesus is not sacrificed again every time we celebrate Holy Communion.

The theology of the majority Church of the sixteenth century held that Jesus’ death on the cross only covered up humanity’s original sin and that in order to cover the sins people commit each day, Jesus had to be sacrificed over and over again.

That, it was held--and is still held by Roman Catholic theology today--was what Holy Communion--the Mass--was: in essence, putting Jesus back on the cross and crucifying Him again every time the Sacrament is offered.

For Lutherans, this teaching doesn’t ring true for two reasons.

First: It drains Jesus’ crucifixion of its power, making it seem like a half-measure. Please turn to Hebrews 10:11-12. Contrasting the sacrifices the Jewish priests made constantly for people’s sins to Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross, Hebrews says:
...every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man [Jesus, God and human, Priest and sacrifice] after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God... 
Slip down to verse 14:
For by one offering [Jesus] has perfected forever those who are being sanctified [that is, being made holy, set apart for God]. 
1 Peter 3:18 affirms this same truth:
For Christ also suffered once for our sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God...
Second: To see Holy Communion as a sacrifice makes something less than a sacrament of it. Splitting hairs? I don’t think so.

A sacrifice, one scholar has written, “is a ceremony or act which we render to God to honor him.” But “a sacrament is a ceremony or act in which God offers us...the promise joined to the ceremony.” In sacrifices, human beings are the actors. In sacraments, God acts and we are called to receive in faith what God promises.

For example, Jesus says this about Holy Baptism in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe is condemned.” We can’t understand how Holy Communion (or Holy Baptism, for that matter) may work. We know only that we can receive it in faith, trusting Jesus at His Word to be present in the Sacrament and to give us life and forgiveness through it. He’s already done all the work to set us free from sin, death, and the devil. He’s already done all the work to set us free from the sins we confess, known and unknown to us, that we bring to Him. He’s already died on a cross as the atoning sacrifice for all our sins. He’s already risen from death to give new lives to us. We simply receive His body and blood with a desire to be clean and a desire to trust in Him. Jesus will do the rest!

The Mass in which God calls His people in Christ together to receive His body and blood is a great gift.

It’s a gift to be received with reverence.

It assures the repentant that Christ Who died and rose for them gives them forgiveness of sin.

It’s a gift Christians should be eager to receive as often as it’s offered.

And, it’s something God does for us, not something we do for God.

There’s nothing we have to do to be worthy of this gift but to turn from sin, to turn to Christ, and trust Him when He says, “This is My body; This is My blood.” Amen

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