Last night's guest was a former United Methodist Church pastor. As I listened to him tell his story, it was easy to discern the main reason for his conversion to Rome, namely that he was drawn by the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. There were other reasons, to be sure, but this was the clincher for him. He had come to learn, through his study of Church History, that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has always believed, taught, and confessed that Jesus was really present in His true Body and Blood when the faithful gathered in His Name. This changed everything for him. His practice as a Methodist pastor seemed empty now. The worship he led was directed toward an absent Jesus, who was "up there" in heaven, and his preaching was focused on leading people to live godly lives that they might be good enough to meet Jesus when they die. Having been given this new revelation that Jesus is present in the Holy Eucharist, he could no longer, in good conscience, serve as a Methodist pastor, so he resigned his call, began catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually joined that fellowship.
One of the frustrating things about this interview, and all the interviews I have watched on this show over the years, is that the impression was given that Roman Catholics are the only ones who believe Jesus is present in the Mass (Divine Service). Eastern Orthodox are sometimes acknowledged as believing this, too, but they are said not to have the "fullness" of the Eucharist, since they're not fully part of Holy Mother Church. What about Lutherans? We are lumped together with all other Protestants on this show. To be fair, every once in a while, Grodi and his guests will acknowledge that we Lutherans have "some sense" of Christ's Real Presence, but we are never given full credit for what we believe, teach, and confess.
The way we Lutherans are falsely caricatured on the show used to anger me, but no more, since I think I understand why we are not taken seriously about our beliefs, especially in relation to our belief concerning Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. This came to me a little over a year ago when I watched the show and two former Lutheran pastors were Grodi's guests. Both former Lutheran pastors expressed our Lutheran belief in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist very well. They made it vividly clear that Lutherans believe Jesus is present with His true Body and Blood in the Holy Meal. They even corrected Grodi a couple of times during the interview, since he was trying to interject the idea that Lutherans don't really believe in the same Real Presence as Rome. The reason both former Lutheran pastors left Lutheranism and went "home" to Rome was not because Rome had the Real Presence and Lutherans didn't, but rather because, in their estimation and experience, Rome took the Real Presence seriously and Lutherans didn't. They had become dissatisfied with the flippancy they witnessed among many Lutherans surrounding the Holy Meal. They pointed to the use of plastic, disposal, individual cups during the Distribution and how those cups were thrown in the trash after the Service, and to the growing trend within their Lutheran denominations toward contemporary worship formats which, in their estimation, contradicted what Lutherans claim to believe, teach, and confess.
I have to admit that I listened to these two former Lutherans with a sympathetic ear, as I share the frustrations they communicated during the interview. The truth is that one could walk into a great many Lutheran congregations today and have no idea that they believe Jesus is Really Present. Why should Lutherans be taken seriously about their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist when their practice doesn't match that belief? Why do many Lutherans, including many of the leaders in our own Missouri Synod, believe that we can worship like those who do not believe in Christ's Real Presence, but still somehow maintain the substance of our confession? I can totally understand the frustration these two former Lutheran pastors felt. Not only is it frustrating to witness Lutherans practicing contrary to what they believe, but, as they also shared, it is frustrating to be mocked and ridiculed by these new-age Lutherans when we stand fast upon our beliefs and put into practice what we believe. False accusations of being "closet Roman Catholics" or "ultra-confessionals" or "purists" are hurled our direction because we are adamant about our belief that Lutherans should celebrate the Mass (Divine Service) as though we actually believed Jesus was Present, rather than like those who don't.
With that said, my sympathy for these two former Lutherans ends at the point of their leaving Lutheranism for Rome. That is no solution to the frustrations they experienced. I have never understood how Lutherans could abandon their confession of the faith in order to join Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. I understand their frustrations, but I will never be able to understand their willingness to give up some of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, the chief of which being the doctrine of justification, in order to ease those frustrations. Of course, those who have left would argue that they haven't abandoned their confession, but have rather learned the fullness of their confession in these historic fellowships. Sorry, I don't buy it. Not even for a moment. The doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Rome (and the East) are essential and vast. But, that's not what I want to focus upon here.
What I want to highlight is the fact that we Lutherans do believe, teach, and confess, with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all time, that Christ IS PRESENT in the Holy Eucharist, and how that belief must inform and shape our practice in worship. At the end of the day, this is really the crux of the silly, ongoing debate among Lutherans regarding worship practices. If we believe that Christ is Present among us, we will practice accordingly.
This is what our Lutheran forefathers were getting at when they confessed:
Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, except that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns. These have been added to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed for this reason alone, that the uneducated be taught what they need to know about Christ (AC XXIV:1-3).Our Lutheran forefathers were being accused by Rome of abolishing the Mass and doing a new thing. Their response was clear. They had not abolished the Mass, but continued to celebrate it with the highest reverence. They retained the usual ceremonies. The only thing they added were German hymns for the purpose of further teaching the people what they believed, taught, and confessed about Christ, even as their retention of the usual ceremonies taught the same. They go on to point out some of the abuses within the Mass that they had corrected, for the sake of the Gospel. But, they are adamant in their defense that they have not changed the theology of worship, which is centered on the Real Presence of Christ among them during the Mass.
After Rome responded to the Augsburg Confession with their Confutation, our Lutheran forefathers again made their confession clear:
At the outset, we must again make this preliminary statement: we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord's Day and on the other festivals. The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other such things (AP XXIV:1).Again, they are clear. Rome's accusations against them are false. They go on to explain very clearly that the only changes they've made to the Mass are for the sake of more clearly teaching people about Christ and His Presence among them in the Mass, including the use of the vernacular. They admit that they have discontinued some things, like "private Masses," and that they have corrected some abuses, like consecrating bread and wine for the sole purpose of adoration, rather than for the purpose of distribution, per our Lord's clear institution. There is much more discussed in this article, but the main point that comes through loud and clear is that Lutherans continued to confess the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass and that their celebration of the Mass, including the ceremonies they employed, most definitely matched this belief.
Can the same be said today by those Lutherans who take their cue from Protestants who do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ and turn the Divine Service into an entertaining "worship experience"? Is the Mass (Divine Service) being celebrated "with the highest reverence" when the altar is eliminated or moved to the side to make room for the "praise band"? Are Lutherans "religiously defending and keeping the Mass" when they employ "contemporary praise songs" which focus on an absent Jesus, at best, or a generic god, at worst?
It is no wonder that we Lutherans are not taken very seriously when it comes to our confession that Christ is Present in the Holy Eucharist. How can we be taken seriously when many among us do not act like they believe this?
I really believe, as I said above, that this is the crux of the debate among Lutherans. It is not about "style" or "taste"; it is not about holding on to the past merely for tradition's sake. It is about what we believe and, specifically, what we believe about Christ in relation to the Divine Service. Is He Present or not? If He is, then our practice should confess as much. It is not enough to confess on paper that we believe He is Present; our practice better confess the same. For our Lutheran forefathers are most certainly correct: Our ceremonies teach; our practice informs. People learn every bit as much about our doctrines from our practices as they do from our words. In fact, I think it is safe to say that if our practice does not jive with our words, practice will win out. We can say "Real Presence, Real Presence, Real Presence" till the cows come home, but if we practice like we don't believe Jesus is Really Present, people won't believe it.
We do not need to return "home" to Rome or flee to the East. We need only to practice what we believe, teach, and confess. If we did that, then those dissatisfied Protestants who are brought to the realization that Christ Is Present in the Holy Eucharist might actually consider taking the journey home to confessional Lutheranism, where the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is truly confessed.