Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mark's thoughts: What, no Sacrament?!?

I. Contrasting experiences of life in the Lutheran Church
“What, no Sacrament?!?”  That is the question my thirteen year old son incredulously asked me as the service we were attending on vacation came to a close.  His question, and the setting in which it was asked, has prompted me to reflect on how different our experience in the Lutheran Church has been.  My son has never known anything other than a congregation where the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated every Sunday at every service.  On those rare occasions when we are on vacation and he attends a non-communion Sunday service, his impression is that it is just weird.  He really can’t conceive of how one would go to church on Sunday and not find the Sacrament of the Altar celebrated.

On the other hand, the church where he asked the question was the one I had attended until I was nine years old.  While there I had never known anything except the existence of non-communion Sundays as we used page 5 in The Lutheran Hymnal.  The same thing can be said of the other church that I attended from when I was nine until I went off to college.  There I experienced the introduction of Lutheran Worship when it came out.  But the consistent pattern of a non-communion service basically every other Sunday remained.  In fact, I had never even heard of the possibility of anything else until I went to the seminary.

Now both of the parishes that I attended sought to be solid Lutheran congregations.  In both I was taught the doctrine contained in the Small Catechism.  Yet in both, like so very many other Lutheran congregations, the Sacrament of the Altar was often not celebrated on Sunday.

At the seminary I was very surprised to learn that this had not been the case since the beginning of the Church.  From the time of the New Testament, the Church had celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day – every Sunday.  The book of Acts describes the events of Paul’s preaching to the church at Troas in the following words: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread….”  This practice continued in the early Church.  Justin Martyr, writing around 150 A.D. in Rome, tells us that on Sunday the people gathered, heard readings from the apostles and prophets and then received the Sacrament of the Altar (First Apology, chapter 67).

This practice of every Sunday communion continued throughout the Middle Ages up until the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Luther and the Lutheran reformers retained this practice for two reasons: first, because of a piety that was shaped around the Sacrament; and second, because of their desire to retain the catholic practice of the Church.  They declared in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “At the outset it is again necessary, by way of preface, to point out that we do not abolish the Mass [the medieval term for the Divine Service in which the Sacrament of the Altar was celebrated] but religiously retain and defend it.  Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved (XXIV.1).” As Sasse has written, “No Christian of the Reformation, apart from the followers of the Reformation at Zurich and Geneva, could conceive of a Sunday divine service without the Lord’s Supper, just as already in the church of the New Testament there was no Lord’s Day without the Lord’s Supper.”[1]

Thus in an unbroken line from our Lord’s institution of the Sacrament of the Altar until the time of the first Lutherans, all Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.  The reason for this was very simple: the Church was making use of this great gift by which she had the assurance that her Lord came into her presence each week in His true body and blood, and delivered forgiveness.  The Lord wanted to come into the Church’s midst in this way and the Church joyfully answered with the “Yes!” of faith.  A Lord’s day without the presence of the Lord’s true body and blood in the Sacrament was unimaginable.  This has continued to be the case in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches up until today.

II. How we got here
However, where churches did not value the Sacrament of the Altar as the presence of Christ’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, celebration of the Lord’s Supper diminished.  For those of the Reformed tradition, the Lord’s Supper was only bread and wine that symbolized some greater reality.  It was not the greater reality of the Lord Himself present in His body and blood.  In keeping with the devaluing of the Lord’s Supper there was a decline in the frequency of its celebration. 

A devaluing of the Sacrament of the Altar eventually occurred in the Lutheran Church as well.  The rationalism of the eighteenth century made reason the ultimate judge of all things.  The influence of rationalism on the Church produced a downplaying of the miraculous.  As a result, the Sacrament was emphasized less and celebrated less frequently in Lutheran churches.  In some places the Lord’s Supper was only celebrated four times a year.

The impact of this period continues to be felt in our own day.  It set a new precedent in which Lutherans no longer celebrated the Sacrament of the Altar every Sunday.  Over time, this new practice came to be viewed as the normal way of doing things.  The hymnal that many of us grew up with, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), contained “The Order of Morning Service without communion” or “Page 5.”  This was the Divine Service but without the celebration of the Sacrament.  Using this service, many Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations only celebrated the Sacrament of the Altar once a month or every other Sunday.  The same option has continued to be present in the succeeding hymnals Lutheran Worship (1982) and Lutheran Service Book (2006).

III. Why not?
However, many in the LCMS have begun to ask why we should only celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar every other Sunday given the nature of the Sacrament itself, the history of the Church’s practice, the statement in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and the reason for the decline in the first place (rationalism and its rejection of the miraculous).  A trend has begun in the LCMS as congregations return to the Lutheran practice of every Sunday communion.  Since the 1990’s the LCMS has passed resolution after resolution encouraging this.

The reasons given for not returning to every Sunday communion vary.  Sometimes it is a practical one: communion services take longer.  Of course, it’s a rather sad commentary on the faith in our congregations if we can’t be bothered with the extra time needed to receive our Lord’s body and blood.  Sometimes people will say that less frequent celebration of the Sacrament makes it seem “more special.”  Yet by that logic we should have non-sermon Sundays as well (indeed, from the perspective of the Lutheran Confessions the notion of a “non-communion Sunday” is just as absurd).  Or what would happen in a marriage if one spouse told the other that they were going to declare some weeks “non-hug weeks” so that hugs would seem “more special”? Frequency doesn’t diminish appreciation of the Sacrament.  Quite the contrary, when people experience the celebration of the Sacrament every Sunday, it becomes something they are not willing to be without.

IV. Living in the time and place where God has placed us
I believe that when you get down to it, there are really two reasons why congregations do not return to the Lutheran practice of celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar every Sunday.  The first is usually expressed in the form:   “We’ve never done it that way.”  Now initially this response is often a conservative and loyal adherence to what those in the congregation consider to be tradition – “what we’ve always done.” However, when the facts I have described above are shared it takes on a related but far more serious form.  The case for a change in practice is heard as a condemnation of those in the congregation, and worse yet, of all those members who have gone before. It is heard as the accusation: “You have been doing it wrong.”

I was very blessed during my years at Concordia, Ann Arbor to be influenced by Dr. Richard Shuta.  He taught me that the desire to be orthodox and confessional, and the willingness to examine one’s own beliefs and practice, are not mutually exclusive.  The Church is healthy when she tests her belief and practice against the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.  She is healthy when she examines the past and learns how the Church has actually done things over the centuries.  Especially when it comes to practice, it often turns out that “what we’ve always done” is not in fact how things have always been done.  Sometimes it turns out that “what we’ve always done” is in fact relatively new and has been shaped and formed by forces that are antithetical to the biblical and confessional faith.

The recognition that this is has occurred is not a condemnation of ourselves or of those who have gone before us.  Each of us can only live in the place and time where God has placed us.  We inherit what the Church is and become part of it.  We naturally take up the practices we have received. This is only natural and most often it is a good thing – something necessary for the life of the tradition … and tradition is not a bad word in the Bible (see 1 Cor 11:23; 15:3).

But when we test what we have received against the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the history of the Church and we find a place where change or adjustment is needed, we should not fear this fact.  We also should not condemn those who went before us.  We assume that they were faithful in the time and place where God placed them. 

God has not placed us in the same place and time, and we must acknowledge this fact.  My grandfather, Dr. Raymond Surburg spent a large chunk of his career fighting the battle to defend in the LCMS the belief that Scripture is the inspired, authoritative Word of God that does not err. He lived at a place and time when such basic issues were at stake that there was little opportunity to consider other matters.  Because of faithful men like him, I was trained in the seminary at a place and time when such issues were not even remotely a problem.  I have been freed to examine and consider other matters that were not possible for him.  The congregation that I attended as a boy was not unfaithful in its practice.  The congregation I attended before I want to college was not unfaithful.  They practiced what they received in the time and place in which God placed them.

V. The real problem
The problem arises when we are able to examine some aspect of our practice and find the need for change, yet that change is rejected or ignored.  The unexamined issue is one thing. It is another matter altogether when change is rejected in full knowledge of the facts.

Now let me immediately be clear that I am not talking about pastors who agree with what I am writing, and yet find themselves in a parish setting where a change to celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday is not possible – where the congregation is simply not ready for it and will not accept it.  In such a situation, forcing change is the action of a pastoral idiot.  I don’t teach at a seminary.  My life is rooted in the parish, and I understand exactly how things work here (see Mark’s thoughts: Brother pastor, I’ve got your back).  In the parish there is sometimes a difference between what is true, and what you can actually do.  In such a situation the pastor can only patiently teach about the blessings of the Sacrament and the practice of the first Lutherans in the hope that one day it is possible to make the change.

Instead, the second reason that the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar at every Sunday Divine Service is rejected or ignored is because when you get right down to it, many who bear the title “Lutherans” do not believe the same thing that is confessed by the Lutheran Confessions.  I recognize that this statement will draw a reaction from many.  There are those who will protest that they too believe exactly what the Book of Concord confesses about the Sacrament of the Altar. They will contend that they are no less Lutheran if they choose to have non-communion Sunday services.

VI. The Lutheran Confessions about liturgy and worship
A basic problem in the discussion of every Sunday communion is that those who reject or ignore the practice believe that the Sacrament can be separated from the liturgy.  The Sacrament can be removed from the service and dropped back in as one wishes. Such decisions are usually relegated to the mere status of “adiaphora.”  We are told that there is no correct or incorrect when it comes to a matter like this.  However, such an approach contradicts the Confessions’ own statements about liturgy and worship.

The Lutheran Confessions declare a catholic approach in the practice of the confessors.  Wherever possible and when it does not contradict the Gospel, they retain the catholic practice of the Church which they have received. This is not expressed in one or two isolated statements, but in a whole series of texts.  They adopt this catholic presupposition for two reasons.  First, they believe that the rites and traditions received from the Church’s practice foster good order and harmony, while avoiding offense:

Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc.  However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation. Moreover, it is taught that all rules and traditions made by human beings for the purpose of appeasing God and of earning grace are contrary to the gospel and the teaching concerning faith in Christ (AC XV.1-2).

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify.  Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline.  We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are (Apology XV.38).

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. (Apology XV.51).

This is a simple rule for interpreting traditions. We should know that they are not required acts of worship, and yet we should observe them in their place and without superstition in order to avoid offense.  This is the way many great and learned men in the church have felt about it (Apology XXVIII. 17-18).

Second, they believe that the rites and tradition received from the Church teach the faith:

But as the different length of day and night doe s not harm the unity of the church, so we believe that the true unity of the church is not harmed by differences in rites instituted by men, although we like it when universal rites are observed for the sake of tranquility.  So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days.  With a very thankful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline that serves to educate and instruct the people and the inexperienced (Apology VII/VIII.33-34).

For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ. (AC XXIV.3).

Ceremonies should be observed both so that people may learn the Scriptures and so that, admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray. For these are the purposes of the ceremonies. (Apology XXIV.3).

Because of the confessors’ catholic presupposition, this is how they describe their own practice:

Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Apology XXIV.1)

Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. (AC XXIV.3)

It will not do to try to pass these statements off as being only descriptive of the confessors' practice, and therefore not prescriptive for later Lutherans.  True, the confessors describe what they believe and also describe their practice on the basis of this belief.  But in doing so they also prescribe the belief and practice for those who wish to join them in confessing the same thing – who wish to be Lutheran.  The confessors believe the catholic presupposition to be true, and so they practice accordingly. They believe this is the way things should be done. Pastors who do not share in the catholic presupposition have a completely different attitude toward the catholic rites and traditions.  Therefore in their practice when they wish to abandon the liturgy of the Sacrament on Sunday, they show that they are not at one with the confessors. In fact, they would not be able to be pastors in the congregations of the confessors’ Lutheran Church.  

VII. The confessors’ practice
Confirmation of this fact is found in the Kirchenordnungen (Church Orders) which were authored by the confessors and prescribed practice in their region.  President Matthew Harrison has marshaled important data for us in his article, “Liturgical Uniformity and Church Polity in the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord: the Church Orders as Hermeneutical Key.”[2]  He notes that, “The very people who authored the Confessions had no problem with mandating a host of liturgical directives, with careful provisos.  They were convinced that they were acting in absolute accord with the Confessions.”[3] 

On pages 9-12 of his article, Harrison provides a representative sample of statements about uniformity of practice from the Church Orders by notable confessors such as Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Jonas, Chemnitz, and Andraea.  To quote just one example (the reader is encouraged to use the link above to look at all of them), The Constitution and Articles of the Consistory at Wittenberg 1542 which involved Jonas, Cruciger, Bugenhagen, Melanchthon and Luther prescribes:

It is the cause of much incorrectness … when the external church ordinances, divine service and ceremonies are not held with reverence, or in orderly fashion, or in like manner.  Also certain pastors purpose to act in these matters without uniformity.  They shall carefully see to it that the ceremonies which have to do with hymns, clothing of the priests, administration of the sacrament … as well as the festivals, be maintained in an orderly and uniform fashion, at one place as at another, uniform and in accord with such as occur at Wittenberg and Torgau, in accord with the Holy Scriptures….[4]

What was the practice at Wittenberg and Torgau?  It was the very thing described in previous section of this post: VI. Lutheran Confessions about liturgy and worship.

VIII. Let’s be honest
The real reason that pastors and congregations reject or ignore every Sunday celebration of the Sacrament is because they don’t believe the same thing about liturgy and worship as the Lutheran Confessions.  They do not share in the catholic presupposition of the Confessions and therefore they believe they are free to celebrate or not celebrate the Sacrament on Sunday as they choose. They are certainly free to take such a position, but intellectual honestly demands they acknowledge that in doing so they are contradicting the belief and practice of the Lutheran Confessions. To do this is, at the very least, to be “less Lutheran.” 

Or to put it in a stronger form, these statement are Lutheran: 
So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days.  (Apology VII/VIII.33).

Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Apology XXIV.1)

These statements are not Lutheran:
So in our church we choose to omit the Service of the Sacrament every other Sunday.

So in our church the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated every other Lord’s day.

[1] Herman Sasse, “The Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran Church” in We Confess The Sacraments (trans. Norman Nagel; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 98-112, 99.

[2] Matthew C. Harrison, “Liturgical Uniformity and Church Polity in the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord: the Church Orders as Hermeneutical Key” Lutheran Theological Journal 36/2 (2002): 71-83.

[3] Harrison, “Liturgical Uniformity and Church Polity,” 2.

[4] Harrison, “Liturgical Uniformity and Church Polity,” 10.


  1. Patiently teach, teach, teach. For a decade I taught the blessings of every Sunday communion in my youth and adult catechism classes. Then - unexpectedly - at one of our semi-annual voters meeting, one of my newer members asked, "Why don't we have communion every Sunday?" The church leadership had no response. It was like a novel concept. The elders asked me, "Why don't we, Pastor?" The groundwork was laid. We studied it. And have been enjoying every Sunday communion for the past 8 years or so.

  2. As a confessional layman, I take issue with your contention that forcing positive change in a reluctant congregation's sacramental practice amounts to "pastoral idiocy." As I understand it, the pastor's primary responsibility is to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. Therefore, it does not matter at all whether a congregation is "ready" or not for weekly communion. The pastor is called to administer the Sacrament, so he administers it—end of story. If a pastor does not administer Communion on a weekly basis, he is not doing his job. I see this as a hill to die on. (Of course, as I am not a pastor, I suppose I speak from the rather comfortable position of not having to worry about my current or future employment situation if I foist Communion upon an unwilling congregation—but wouldn't that be standing up for the faith in the face of severe adversity, and therefore count as "a cross to bear?" For what it's worth, I also speak from the perspective of one whose employment situation precludes him from attending the Divine Service except on very rare occasions, and as a result I become extremely upset if a pastor decides not to celebrate Communion—for whatever reason—on the one Sunday in perhaps six months or more that I am able to attend. Then again, perhaps this is my cross to bear.)

    Please do not misread my comments as inflammatory; they are not meant to be so—I simply see this issue as very "cut-and-dry." I am interested in your insight as to how a pastor can in good conscience neglect an extremely important part of his duties and call it "pastoral." (If I have failed to frame the issue properly, please correct me.)

  3. Jonathan, In such a setting, if the pastor forces every Sunday communion on the congregation it will often poison the relationship between pastor and congregation in a way that precludes ongoing ministry. Actions that destroy the ability of the pastor to minister are, generally speaking, not sound pastoral practice. In addition, in many settings it will cause elements in a congregation to seek get rid of a pastor through a variety of means. Luther's practice at Wittenberg in teaching and slowly bringing about changes has usually been held up in Lutheran circles as an example to be emulated.

    1. "Luther's practice at Wittenberg in teaching and slowly bringing about changes has usually been held up in Lutheran circles as an example to be emulated."

      Aesop's warnings aside, Dr. Luther waved adieu to the Wartburg ... so as to deal with the rascally teachings of Andrew Bodenstein ... in a manner more akin to the hare than to the tortoise.

      There are no easy answers as to strategy, with a Scripture whish insists that now is the day of salvation., and speaks of a Last Day accountability of the under-shepherd, to the Lord Shepherd. The procrastination of the foolish virgins resulted in a door being shut in their faces; but it is a behavior easily emulated and prompted by fear, sloth, avarice ("let's keep the membership roles up"), a protection of self (a posture derived from vainglory) and a whole bunch of other sordid things.

      So, it takes a very wise and incredibly honest man indeed, to reach the conclusion that he's really reigning things in, and plodding along, simply because it's all for the congregation's spiritual benefit. Self-delusion is an ugly thing.

      Perhaps you die, say (you're only mortal, after all), and the next man to assume the position of under-shepherd is less of an adherent of what the Confessions assert to be THE Lutheran position. He'll emphasize the mite-box, or maybe the fancy birth-cakes for Jesus, at the Adventide Children's Sermon series. Impossible you say, in this our era? Nay, sir: you've become implicated in saddling your congregation-bride with yet another generation or two of non-Lutheran behavior.

      It's tough, isn't it?

      Your (unworthy) servant,
      Herr Doktor

  4. "This practice of every Sunday communion continued throughout the Middle Ages up until the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Luther and the Lutheran reformers retained this practice for two reasons: first, because of a piety that was shaped around the Sacrament; and second, because of their desire to retain the catholic practice of the Church."

    Of course, the third reason for its retention is the benefits derived therefrom ... viz., the forgiveness of sins, thus salvation, and a very real if incomprehensible incorporation and mystical communion with the living Christ, who deigns to be very Present with His flock, at the Lutheran Divine Service.

    Forget about what I feel during such time ... whether high, low or even apathetic; I know, with all my heart, that Christ 's Body and Blood are in me (so clearly attest St. John, in his first epistle), empowering me against the devil, the world and my otherwise lethally weakened flesh, for the coming week.

    I need to stand firm, in a dangerous, unraveling and groaning environment. This Resource of the blessed Sacrament is, from many perspectives, my all. And something that I can't dismiss, with all my created senses engaged! By such means, echoing the faith of St. Patrick, I know: Christ before me, behind me, besides me and yes, by God, Christ in me.

    I believe that covers it. Christ certainly covers and coats me, outside and in.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor