Friday, March 22, 2013

The Bride of Christ Dressed in Culturally Relevant Garb

There is a dangerous tendency in our culture-serving 21st century American Christian world to abandon the sacramental way in which our Lord visits us each Sunday as we gather around His means of grace. This is in part due to sin which manifests itself in fear of a shrinking Church, but it also has to do with another aspect of the Old Adam in us which seeks to fight against the way of our Lord. In his constant need of the drug of self-justification, the Old Adam attempts to hop on the bandwagon of American Evangelicalism just as the wagon is about to plummet headlong into destruction. Not only is the Old Adam seeking to throw out from the bride of Christ her modesty which reflects her bridegroom, but he is also replacing her modesty with clothes fit for prostitutes. Let us rename the reasons in clearer terms. One, we fear the decline of our Church, and this is a first commandment problem. Two, we do not want to acknowledge that God desires to come to serve us with Word and Sacraments, thus not only showing us we are incapable of satisfying the law but also pointing to the redemptive act of Christ crucified for us. Our fear leads us to desperate solutions and our desire for self-justification leads us to hell. Can all of this be the effect of such abandonment from the proper form in which Christ comes to liturgize us with Word and Sacrament? Well if you find this hard to believe take a look at an "evangelical" Church's statement about worship:

Romans 12:1 says that our spiritual worship is "to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God." So big picture, God wants us. Not our songs, not our music, not our hands raised or clapping. He wants our hearts. To be sure this doesn't seem bad so far. God is not interested in people who can merely perform ritualistic ceremonies or utter heartless prayers and songs. He wants the hearts of His people to love Him and give Him everything (third use of the Law). As Jesus says in Mark 7:6-7 when He is quoting Isaiah, "This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me..." (Scripture out of context). So we, above all, want to be a people who love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37), and because of that love, obey His commands (John 14:21). Then from that place we sing songs of praise, lift up holy hands, and celebrate the glory of King Jesus!(More third use here).

It took me all of two minutes to discover this nugget of dung, now you can imagine what other forms of self-justifying ideas concerning worship are out there. This Church says that their style of worship is "modern rock to folk or pop." And they desire to be "culturally relevant," and I wrote "culture-serving 21st century American Christian world" before I read this Church's stance on worship.

Taking a quick look at the the context of Mark we will discover that Christ is addressing certain traditions of the Pharisees, none of which dealt with worship, but rather self-justifying acts, in this case "walking in accordance to the tradition of the elders," when it came to unwashed hands. Applying this verse to worship is a terrible perversion. It fails to recognize what was being addressed and also ignores the very fact that Jesus of Nazareth placed himself under the worship life of the Jews. He followed the laws according to the command of God and he never spoke out against the worship life of the Jews, but rather the superfluous doctrines and traditions.

In this Church's understanding of worship they have in fact set up a tradition not found in the Scriptures, beginning with the notion that the people of God, the body of Christ, the bride of the holy bridegroom, ought to make herself culturally relevant. This notion is in no way found in God's Word. If in fact it were I dare say that John the Baptist would have been committing a grave sin, and the Jews would have done even worse by being faithful to God's Word and observing on the Sabbath as he had prescribed. Not only that but they have turned the Divine Service into a work of their own. They begin with the law, namely "giving God everything." This giving to God everything has now established the right relationship with the Lord. Forget about the sin that separates us from God and the justifying act that our Lord submitted himself to by being crucified for us, for YOU. Forget about God giving YOU EVERYTHING, no give God everything instead. Disregard the fact that he has brought you to faith through the power of his Word, you must first give yourself to Him. After being beaten with this portion of the Law you get exactly what you always wanted. No, not the Gospel of Christ, not the proclamation of free justification, NO. You have much more to do, "So we, above all, want to be a people who love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and because of that love, obey His commands. Then from that place we sing songs of praise, lift up holy hands, and celebrate the glory of King Jesus!" After being beaten blue with the third use of the Law you either walk away in despair or become like the very people that our Lord rebukes in Mark 7.

Take heart. Christ has overcome the world, he has put to death your Old Adam, he has taken the punishment that you rightly deserve for lacking fear, love, and trust in God above all things. He has bore your iniquities for fighting against the operations of our Lord in the search for self-justifying acts of worship. His very gruesome death, a death which places before you not an empty cross but one which his holy body inhabits because of your sin and FOR your sin. This is what Paul calls, "folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1Corinthians 1:18).

In speaking of the corrupt practices of his day Melanchthon writes: "Thus in our own time the wise men are reasoning: what is wrong with the idea that Christ is offered by many and by individuals? Or that we offer prayers for the living and the dead? Or that a part of the Sacrament is carried out? The prayers of the people are increased and the Sacrament given more honor" (Christian Freedom p. 178). These questions could just as easily be "What is wrong with the idea that we believe and practice like worship is our work to God? Or that we ignore that the main reason we are here is to receive God's service? Or that we play culturally satisfying music? The attendance in the congregation is up and God is being given more praise."

Melanchthon continues: "But these lovely rationalizations and specious arguments lead people away from the Word of God. Indeed, games of this kind are forbidden by God. For with the same audacity they dream up their heretical errors--some, one kind, and others, other kinds. Indeed, despite their conscience struggling over the remission of sins and the will of God in times of great calamities, they become so accustomed to following these rationalizations and opinions that they lose the true consolations which have been given to us by God" (178). I would argue that "these lovely rationalizations" given to us by our liturgy-abandoning brothers are leading people away from the Word of God. And it seems that Melancthon is connecting worship with doctrine when he says that "with the same audacity they dream up their heretical errors." Doctrine and practice are intimately intertwined and so one cannot justify "culturally relevant practice" by the misuse of the Augsburg Confession Article XV, even if he is a Pastor. When we embrace practices littered with "evangelical" Christianity's false notions about worship we endanger the pure doctrine that we should rather be fighting for.

Finally Melanchthon writes, "Men in civil life tell us that conflicts which are destructive for inexperienced people are often caused by very simple things. Discords hang on and increase by reason of zeal and hatreds of factions. Men do not disagree with moderation. Therefore, they say, why do you stir up such sad tragedies about things like milk, eggs, and the eating of meat? Why do you not put the public peace and tranquillity ahead of these minute things?" Today we might be asked "Why do you stir up such sad tragedies about things like praise bands, culturally relevant music etc.?" Melanchthon's answer to this, "The answer is true and SOLID. We are not contending about unimportant matters, but about many very important things, namely, the true knowledge and worship of God, which must be put ahead of our very life, all our physical comforts, governments, and the public concord, so that we do not look for opinions about God and His will outside of the Word which he has given us, as the Gentiles have done and all fanatic spirits" (178-79). Whether you agree with how I'm applying Melanchthon or not there is no denying that he valued correct worship so we should at least be discussing these "very important things" instead of hardening our hearts against the historic practice of the Church, the Lutheran Confessions, and above all the Holy Scriptures which proclaim a sacramental and God-serving Divine Service.

"Faith is the divine service that receives the benefits offered by God. The righteousness of the Law is the divine service that offers to God our merits. God wants to be worshipped through faith so that we receive from Him those things he promises and offers" ( Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article IV line 49).
So let us not be blinded by the fact that "happy-clappy" styles of worship demand "the righteousness of the Law which is the divine service that offers to God our merits," and have our eyes opened to the grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, and justification given through Jesus Christ and him crucified through "the divine service that receives the benefits offered by God," namely faith.

"There is a common assumption today that the liturgy must reflect the language and the ethos of the current culture. If this is true, then liturgies will veer toward the pop culture in which we live. These culturally devised liturgies are at times exciting and entertaining, but are not transcultural. At most, they will give only immediate satisfaction. These liturgies then become just another expression of the culture's malaise, a feel-good, shallow, artificially uplifting sentimentality" (Heaven on Earth The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service, Rev. Arthur A. Just Jr., p. 28-29) And let us extinguish our desire for a theology of glory, a theology that seeks God in ourselves, a theology that tells us to search for God outside of the cross. We cannot continue to concern ourselves with what our culture deems as relevant otherwise the LCMS will be the lamp placed under a table and not a lamp that shines in the darkness. Christ has shed his blood for us, for you, he has won the victory that we could never hope to win, he has attached this victory to you in the waters of Holy Baptism and he feeds you with his body and blood each weak. He will not allow the pure confession of faith to fail and even though we, yes you and I, fail to "fear, love and trust in God above all things," Christ continually had "fear, love and trust in God above all things," for you. And when your flesh fights against the Words and will of our Lord, Christ submitted himself perfectly. He has collected us as his body and will not let the gates of hell prevail against us. God bless.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.