Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mark's thoughts: The Sacrament in the sermon?

In a few moments, we are invited to approach the Lord’s altar with the same faith.  We go to receive a sip of wine and a crumb – a bite of dry bread.  Yet we go because of who Jesus is and what he has promised about it.  We go in faith because we know that there we receive the true body and blood of the risen Lord.  And through this body and blood given and shed for you, Jesus Christ gives you forgiveness and strength to continue in faith. Through this divine food the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes the new man within you so that you can walk in faith. Crumbs from the table? It may not look like all that much.  But the Canaanite woman in our text is right.  Because they are crumbs from this Lord they provide everything that we need.    

This is the last paragraph of the sermon that I preached on Matthew 15:21-28, the Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere, which deals with Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  It is rather typical of the kind of homiletical move that occurs in my sermons on a regular basis when the text includes elements such as bread, food, eating, Christ’s touch in healing, and God’s presence with his people.  I find that such elements naturally invite references to the Sacrament of the Altar and the manner in which Christ is present in his true body and blood, giving forgiveness and sustaining us in the faith. These homiletical techniques find their place alongside more direct references to the Sacrament in sermons which point to this gift as a central and key means by which we receive forgiveness and live our life as Christians.

What is striking to me is how very different this is from the preaching that I heard when growing up in the Lutheran Church.  During those years I heard what I would consider to be very solid, typical Lutheran preaching.  Yet I do not remember in this preaching any kind of consistent reference to the Sacrament of the Altar.  The Sixth Part of the Small Catechism was taught in Confirmation class.   A staunch defense of “the real presence” would always be offered.  This was certainly held up as an essential part of being “Lutheran.”  Yet there was very rarely any connection between the Sacrament and preaching.  We learned the “right” things about the Sacrament.  We celebrated the Sacrament every other Sunday using the liturgy of The Lutheran Hymnal and then Lutheran Worship.  Yet beyond these basic factors, the Sacrament of the Altar was largely absent from the piety formed in the congregation.  My impression is that what I experienced was rather typical.  It was of a piece with “non-communion Sundays,” a liturgy that was done but never explained, and a liturgy done in a very minimalist and perfunctory manner.

Where the Sacrament of the Altar has ceased to hold a central position in the piety of a congregation, the step that abandons the liturgy is a very small one, even though it is giant in its implications.  Certainly, the liturgy is made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture.  Yet just as important is the fact that the liturgy has been built around the reading and proclamation of God’s Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these gifts.  Remove the Sacrament of the Altar from the Divine Service and all that has been built around it in order to extol the gift such as the Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus and Agnus Dei collapses.

Where the Sacrament is not celebrated every other Sunday, people are being taught that the worship life of the Church does not need it.  It is non-essential – it can appear and disappear.  In such a setting, it is only natural that preaching does not emphasize the Sacrament of the Altar.  After all when the Sacrament is absent half of the time, a reference to the Sacrament on a Sunday when the Sacrament is not being celebrated is jarring. In many settings (such as the one in which I grew up) this is every Sunday for the pastor whose congregation alternates celebration of the Sacrament between early and late services.

 It was at the seminary that I discovered that there is another way of doing things.   I learned that purely from a matter of practice, it had not been this way in the history of the catholic Church as a whole, and Lutheran Church in particular.  Instead, a Sunday Divine Service without the Sacrament of the Altar was unheard of until the influence of rationalism impacted the Lutheran Church during the eighteenth century. I learned that the Lutheran Confessions talk about the Sacrament of the Altar and what it means for the Church, even when the topic is not the Sacrament of the Altar.  I learned that Luther wrote about the Sacrament of the Altar in deeply meaningful terms, even when the topic was not the Sacrament of the Altar. 

This is a piety that not only confesses the truth about the gift, but also places it in a central position in life of the Church.  Because this is so, and in making it so, the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated every Sunday.  The Sacrament is the jewel in the setting of the liturgy – a setting that focuses attention on the gift and extols it at every turn.  The liturgy is celebrated in a rich and full way, because to do so is to enable the liturgy to do this in the greatest way possible.  And preaching cannot help but mention the Sacrament of the Altar because to speak about the Sacrament is to speak about Jesus Christ present every week with his Church, giving forgiveness and strength for life in the faith.


  1. "a liturgy that was done but never explained"
    this is why only seminary students(past and present) understand or appreciate the liturgy. Everyone else can set their watch by what they hear in the liturgy and mentally sleep through the whole service.

    1. Jim, I cannot agree with your statement. Where pastors take the time to teach about the liturgy, the congregation appreciates it more deeply. That has been my experience as a parish pastor.