By Ross Engel –
Sometimes we just don’t get it. No matter how many times we hear it, we either just don’t get it, or maybe we hear it so much that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.
As much as it gets said around Lutheran circles, I can’t help but wonder how much it is sinking in. I wonder, too, if the definition of the words has changed.
“Preach the Word. Faithfully administer the Sacraments.”
Or shorten it down to:
“Word and Sacrament Ministry”
It seems so simple doesn’t it? It’s what every Lutheran Pastor promises to do in his ordination/installation vows.
But in the conversations I’ve had recently, it just doesn’t seem like “Preach” and “Administer” and “Word” and “Sacrament” mean what I was taught that they mean.
When I hear the word “Preach,” I immediately think of sermons and the proclamation of the Gospel, where Jesus and the forgiveness of sins is delivered. It takes place in the context of the Divine Service, where God is at work in the Liturgy and the hymns and the sermon and the Sacraments, forgiving sinners and nourishing His people.
When I hear the term, “God’s Word,” I know that we’re talking about the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments in their fullness. Law and Gospel. Without error. Breathed by God.
When I hear the word “Sacrament,” I know that we’re talking about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Where God is at work, connecting Himself and His promises of life, salvation and the forgiveness of sins to tangible, touchable, taste-able earthly things like water, bread and wine.
And then when you throw the word “church” into the mix, I envision the place where God’s people are gathered to receive the gifts of God. The place where sinner/saints, regular people like you and me, who are wearied by the changes and worries of life are gathered for the preaching of the Gospel, the teaching of the Word, to receive the forgiveness of sins, life, salvation, God’s Word and the Holy Sacrament. A beacon in the midst of a chaotic sinful world that draws in God’s people to the place where God is at work through His called and ordained servants.
Recently though, I’ve come to wonder if folks within the church are talking past each other. Sure we’re all using the same words, but the definitions don’t seem to be the same. Every Lutheran, pastor, teacher, and layperson can get on board with the phrase “Word and Sacrament,” but have we said it so much that we’ve forgotten what it means? Is it just another theological buzzword that can mean whatever the user and the listener can make it mean?
Not long ago I was part of a discussion where everyone was using the phrase “Word and Sacrament” ministry, but had vastly differing definitions of the word. I think what gave it away was that we were talking about how we might challenge each other to strengthen our ministries of Word and Sacrament. Some were focused on how we might hone the preaching craft and it was suggested that we could critique each other’s sermons so that we might become better preachers. Also considered was the benefit to pastors and congregations if all the pastors in a circuit gathered to translate the Scriptures together regularly so that they could wrestle together with the texts and how they might apply the Law and Gospel, so that faithful proclamation of God’s Word would result.
And then there were some “other” ideas. Those ideas were a bit more focused on which programs would raise more money or increase attendance. There were suggestions to increase advertising budgets so that congregations could increase their visibility to the community. There was even the suggestion that congregations either offer the Lord’s Supper less often so that visitors aren’t scared away or at the least, relax some of the communion practices.
It is too easy to get focused on the numbers game. To be distracted from Word and Sacrament ministry and getting caught up in trying to figure out how to pull in more dollars and cents or squeeze more butts into the pews. I’ve written about gimmicks before, but the reality of it all is, as one brother pastor put it so eloquently, “we spend so much time inviting people to come listen to the orchestra, that we don’t bother practicing our instruments or learning the music.”
Maybe the best way to strengthen the ministry of Word and Sacrament has nothing to do with programs and number crunching. It is faithfulness to the Word, proclaiming it in its Law and Gospel fullness and administering the Sacraments regularly, often, and for the reasons which it was instituted in the first place.
We can’t just invite people to “listen to the orchestra” if we’re not going to “learn the music or practice our instruments.” I think the metaphor works. Pastors can’t be lazy in their preaching or teaching. We all need to practice and hone the craft of preaching, and our preaching has to deliver Christ! Not a feel good message or a self-help motivational speech, the proclamation of the Word has to deliver the Law and Gospel, the forgiveness of sins that we have in Christ!
Preaching in the church needs to be faithful and it needs to be solid. Pastors, we need to be willing to pick up a homiletics text book or a rhetoric book from time to time so that we can hone the preaching craft that encompasses so much of our visible Word and Sacrament ministry.
For years, I hadn’t picked up or read a homiletics or rhetoric book, seminary had been the last time that I had. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But then I met some serious brother pastors who lamented what qualified as “good preaching” in our churches today. These guys wanted to make a difference in the preaching task, I was challenged to become a better preacher. It wasn’t long before my shelves started getting a homiletical facelift. Maybe your shelves could use a facelift too.
Here are just a few that I would highly recommend to you: Gustaf Wingren’s, “The Living Word.” Johann Michael Reu’s “Homiletics: A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Preaching.” If you don’t have it already, get your hands on a collection of Luther’s sermons and “Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel.” Pick up a rhetoric book like Sam Leith’s, “Words Like Loaded Pistols,” or Jay Heinrichs’, “Thank You for Arguing.” Read them with a brother. Discuss them in a Winkle. Sharpen each other in the craft of preaching. Strengthen the art proclamation!
Find a few brothers that you can translate the Scriptures with each week. And build a trust with each other so that you can share your sermons with one another for the purpose of strengthening each other. Critique each other’s sermons, sharpen your brothers and in doing so you strengthen their ministry and yours!
“Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17
And while you’re at it, help sharpen me! If you’ve got a resource that has helped you in honing the preaching craft or strengthened your delivery of Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament ministry, share it in the comments below.