Derek Johnson Muses

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Why go to Easter Vigil and Long Communion Lines

If you are good Lutheran, you will have been to church three times in four days by the time Easter is up, so why would it hurt if you went four times in four days? I get it: you’re physically spent, and you literally can’t go to church again. But if you live in Seward, here’s the benefit of coming to Easter Vigil at St. John: you will get to watch yours truly play with fire!

Okay, that’s a really lousy reason compared to hearing about God’s grace and reason. But it is ironic that the two major festivals in the church, Christmas (celebration of the Incarnate Word) and Easter (Celebration of Christ’s victory), are both marked by service the night before that involve candles. One is the height of all celebration, the other is an afterthought.

Pastor Will Weedon does a lot better job of explaining Easter Vigil in this podcast, but let me state this from my experience: the service is a lot of readings (not unlike Christmas day), and focuses on how the story of the Bible has culminated in the event we celebrate on Easter, Christ’s resurrection, the promised and testified to hope. If you’re home, going to bed early for 6:30 sunrise service, I understand. But you are missing out.

It’ll look just like this.

Lutherans seem talk about communion a lot, but in one of two ways: one, there are those who talk about what a joy it is to receive Christ’s body and blood, and two, how long it takes. I haven’t met a lot of Lutherans who will talk about both.

Let me just say this, since Easter is tomorrow and you’re probably going to find yourself in a long line: give thanks that it takes so long to go up for communion. You get to sing more hymns, and more time to ponder the mystery of the sacrament. And if you’re church has a lot of old people who sit in front like mine does, it’s going to take them a long time to get up there. I’m on the ushering committee at St. John, I know how long it takes.

I’m guessing there are certain congregations in the LCMS that discontinued weekly communion because it just took so long and so many volunteer hours, which I get. But while it’s up to an individual congregation to decide how often they communion, just remember: you are receiving a gift from God, with your brothers and sisters, for your eternal salvation. Do you really want to complain about how long it takes to set the table and do the dishes?

Let me share from my own personal experience. Since I usher at St. John’s, there are Sundays I don’t get to read the prayer in the front of the hymnal before I go up to take communion. Sometimes, I do feel rushed, since I communion at the end and have to tell Pastor who needs to receive communion in the pew (which is a significant responsibility). I don’t always take communion with the best mindset, but I’m there, and my receiving depends on what God does for me, not what I’m thinking at the time.

So this Sunday, when you’re in a long line headed to an assist who is standing outside the altar, just remember: you’re able to have slice of heaven this because Jesus gave up his God-head and rose from the dead. Even if you’re groggy, you’re getting Christ’s body and blood.

The Dilemma of Closed Communion: Admitting that the Church is Small

Two weeks ago at the ACELC conference, I reached a startlingly epiphany during one of the lectures on closed communions. The presenter was drawing mostly from Walther, and came to this assessment towards the end: with all these standards regarding communion of whom can partake of it, one almost wish there was no Lutheran church. Then it hit me: Communion in an orthodox Lutheran church is kind of frightening.

Close communion is a struggle, mainly because we want to be liked and because it hurts our perception in the minds of our Christian churches. But one thing I’ve learned from the Scriptures and the Confession, being a Christian isn’t about being liked. Being a Christian is about walking in the light, saying what we believe, and when you live in the light, you have acknowledge where you are different from others.

The temptation here is to say that the supper is a burden to our unity with other Christians and come up with a new doctrine of the supper. This was the temptation the ecumenical movement gave into, in an effort to build the visible church on earth, or the second tower of Babel, where everyone believes something different about what they are putting into their mouths. (And in my opinion, this open table is part of why they ended up throwing the scriptures out the window, because ignoring such differences in the interpretation of Scriptures will necessarily causes us to hold it in low regard.)

But such a large communion doesn’t deal with the real problem of close communion: if you believe in it, you have to acknowledge that the church is very small, on some level. As we keep our altars tight, we feel a burden of small unity, but the truth is, that is what we should feel. We need to encourage the others to maintain their own unity while we maintain ours.

Jesus discussed this with his disciples in Luke 13:23-24 “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’” This passage shows us how we should concern ourselves: while it is good to maintain friendships with Christians in other denominations and to discuss our beliefs together, we need to acknowledge each others differences and respect each others altars. Not that we shouldn’t be encouraged if they are constantly in the scriptures, and we should go there with them. But we have to hold to the Bible’s full doctrine, as Christ has given it to us.

The Lord’s Supper is a declaration of the unity of faith, a unity that only God can give. While we can participate in the Supper, we can’t just bring in a bunch of non-dems, Catholics, Methodists, and every other denomination to our communion table and say, see? We believe the same thing, and this supper unites us. It is a paradox with the supper: it can give us unity, but we can celebrate it in such way that we make a mockery of Christ’s body. If we don’t fully agree with our Christian friends, it is better to acknowledge our disagreement and leave it at that.

Close communion is really just an admission that we are human, and that we disagree. Yes, it sounds harsh, but remember, there are lot of laws that God gives us to limit our own egos and pleasures, most notably about sexual purity. We must trust him in this matter.

More ACELC Wrapup: Close Communion, and How to Teach the Truth in Love

The one subject at the ACELC conference that sparked the biggest response from my brain was Professor John Pless’ assignment that he gave to his students at the seminary of amending a bad communion statement. It read like this “All baptized Christians who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, examine themselves and repent of their sins, and believe that Christ is really present in Holy Communion are invited to receive the Lord’s Supper with us.” The first thing I recognized about this statement was that it put all the onus on the individual who was reading it to make sure that he or she was prepared to receive Communion, and allowed the pastor and congregation to run and hide. Many partially-educated Christians could read it and obliviously take the sacrament; good thing the church washed its hands of the matter.

Close communion can be an iron door in the face of a visitor, a relative or a friend who walks into your standard LCMS church. Non-member walks in and hears he can’t take communion? Visitors always take communion at my church. Professor Pless pointed that, it’s even harder for an ELCA member to understand why he or she can’t take communion in an LCMS church, since both bear the name Lutheran. But this situation doesn’t have to be a negative-in the grander scheme of things, close communion gives a great opportunity for a congregation to one, greet its visitors, and two, explain to them what they believe and, most importantly, listen to them about what kind of background they come from.

Many times, I have visited LCMS churches that use contemporary worship and haven’t been acknowledged; they have that vague closed communion statement in their bulletin. When I go to churches that a point of asking visitors what they believe about the sacrament, there’s always an additional conversation about where I go to church and my beliefs, and I have never left not feeling welcome. Of course, I have always been admitted to communion in those churches, so I don’t know how they would handle the member of another church body.

The responsibility of close communion is one that lies, not just with the pastor, but with the elders and congregations. At this conference, a number of pastors talked about how tough it is to have a conversation with a visitor, three minutes before a service starts, or even at the communion rail.  This is a place where the greeters and elders can be at a door and talk to guests and say, welcome to our church, and ask them about their church background, and direct them to the pastor if they wish to take communion. Granted, the words need to be said with care, and the congregation needs to have members and elders who are mature enough to speak them.

But back to the language of the closed communion statement. First, I would recognize the universal truth: that Holy Communion is God’s gift to the church, and His Church should administer it rightly, as it is a privilege. Because believers are making a statement that they are united in belief at Christ’s altar, only believers of the same confession should come to the same altar, and for that reason, visitors should speak with the pastor about communing.

And LCMS members, let’s consider the conscious of our fellow pastors and congregations, and be proactive when we visit them. Sending an e-mail or other communication to a pastor to let him know that we will be at his church ahead of time lets pastors eliminates surprises for pastors five minutes before a service starts.

I have had the closed communion conversation with a friend before we attended an LCMS church; this friend is an evangelical, and he understood. I simply said that our church respected other church bodies, but that kept our rails closed because we didn’t want to judge others. Thankfully, we have built an understanding over the years, and that made it easier.

But still, that leaves the ELCA question, and there really isn’t a good answer for it, in spite of the fact that now days, the ELCA has more in common with the Presbyterians and Methodists. Over the course of a relationship, this can be an opportunity to show how the ELCA and LCMS have gone their separate ways (espescially on women’s ordination and gay marriage), but ultimately, this leads to the reality that closed communion simply is a hard teaching. But maybe it’s supposed to be hard. Maybe God gave us this gift of closed communion so that we would know how precious His forgiveness is, and treasure it in our hearts. Thanks be to God.

ACELC Conference-Day 1

The ACELC Conference is throwing a lot of over my head yesterday, but I’m trying my best to keep it in perspective and not loose sight of why I’m there. I had to leave early yesterday, but here are my thoughts from the first day.

First of all, I am reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of a church body that hears Christ’s words on His Supper and carries them out-this meal that we share together, it is a sign of our heavenly inheritance. While other church bodies open up there tables as if they were free-for-all and probably would let a Muslim come to the sacrament, our church hears Christ’s word that this is his body and blood for forgiveness (and damnation to the sinner who partakes) and calls us to through examination before we eat the sacrament. Thanks be to God.

Dr. Detlev Schluz brought up a point that I (and our church body) often forget in our individual-centered culture: the fellowship we partake in at the Lord’s Supper is a communal fellowship that expresses the unity among believers. Having been a member of a congregation that was known for its in-fighting (much of it surrounding a principal who was abusing children), this is something that is more difficult for me to process. Just this Sunday, there was a person in Bible study who proposed an idea that I am completely opposed to, and I didn’t say anything to her, but now I am wondering if I should have found a way to speak the truth in love.

Second interesting point from Pastor Clint Poppe, whose presentation was drawn mostly from Walther’s works: the open question, which in Walther’s time was how the church dealt with some of their disputes. When a theological question arose that wasn’t dealt with the Scriptures or Confessions directly, it was declared an “open question”, free to debate until a council could rule on it. Walther stood up to this practice, and in essence said, “Listen, this practice of ‘open question’ is being abused to perpetuate false teaching and let error run wild. You can’t abuse to let your opinion run unchecked.” Thus, Walther said there were no open questions in regards to faith.

Hearing this, the first thing I thought of was the Facebook group Ordain Women Now (in the LCMS, OWN for short), a group that insists on open debate and bans people whose opinions they can’t refute (like two respected LCMS, one who has his own radio show and the other who works for Concordia Publishing House). I just marvel that these people in OWN think they can push women’s ordination for open debate, when all their opponents have to do is point to the scriptures first, past CTCR studies second, and most importantly, to the liberal denominations who ordained women forty years ago and have since ordained homosexuals, even in some cases admitting the connections, and also abandoned scripture in favor of a message of univeraslism and social gospel. If you ordain women, you can’t do it without saying the scriptures are wrong and opening padora’s box.

But back to conference. The odd thing about these Lutheran conferences is that all these pastors start their papers with a statement that their doctrine is God’s doctrine. Yes, it is God’s doctrine, but since it is such a mighty sword, don’t we have an obligation to use it with the mind that we can destroy relationships, and should only do so when absolutely necessary? I know that Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword, but this a part I struggle with: proclaiming God’s word and sharing doctrine, in a way that others can understand.

During the panel discussion in the afternoon, a pastor raised the question of how to deal with couples who were living together without marriage, a tough subject for the truth in our culture. I was talking about this with a friend who is the same age as me last year, and he said that this was a difference he sees in teenagers today (we graduated from high school ten years), where when we were  in high school, half the students thought living together without marriage was okay, as opposed nearly seventy or eighty percent now. This is a hard topic for pastors to deal with, and they need our prayer.

Very excited for today’s time at the conference, which includes Divine Service tonight.

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