By Paul Koch –
Ever since my first foray into the study of theology proper, I have heard professors and pastors alike say that the church’s liturgy can operate as a sort of safety net for Gospel. After all, the liturgy contains confession and absolution, leads through the reading of the Word, and culminates in the Sacrament of the Altar. Therefore, if everything else is a complete wreck—if the hymns that are sung are weak and repetitive nonsense meant only to pull at the heart strings; if the people sitting around you are bothersome and annoying little twits; if the sermon preached misses the mark, wandering off into a pointless Bible study or self-help pep talk; you would still have the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the Gospel, so you would be okay.
Certainly, this line of thinking was a comfort for the hearers who went off in search of a church on Sunday morning. Those who longed to receive the gifts of Christ could have some confidence of finding it, if the liturgy was used. I suppose it also served as a sort of covert warning to those who tried to do church without the church’s liturgy. While they were able to explore things more creatively, they risked making wreak of the whole affair. Through it all, the Sacrament of the Altar became the focal point, like a light shining in as dark place.
If the words of institution were there, if you had the bread and the wine, you could be sure of what you were getting into. You would know, as the Catechism teaches, “that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us.” This was your safety net sparing you from a fellowship void of the Gospel.
However, lately I have wondered if this understanding of things hasn’t operated as a sort of a crutch—not a crutch for the hearers of the word but for the proclaimers of it. That is, instead of being a focal point for the believer longing to receive the gifts, it becomes an escape for a poorly prepared pastor. Here the preacher of the Word begins to do something he should never do, as he pits his own sermon against the Sacrament.
If a preacher compares his sermon to the Sacrament of the Altar, he will most certainly find his sermon lacking. Compared to the totality of the gift of the Sacrament, his wavering words and tentative conclusions will seem shallow, so he will lean on the Sacrament as a crutch. Now this may all be well and good, but I can’t help but think that it seems to foster an unhealthy way to view the task of preaching. Instead of dedicating the time and energy to sharpen the craft of preaching, the preacher can limp along on this glorious crutch. Perhaps even worse, instead of the Sacrament providing the daring and boldness required for preaching, it is used as a careless catch all.
This, I think, demeans both the proclamation of the Word in the sermon and the glorious gift of the Sacrament. Not to mention it reduces the pastoral office to a purely functional duty. Just speak a few rambling words about a given text, tell a few funny stories, etc., then get out of the way so that the Sacrament can do its work.
While we can, and even should, continue to encourage people to seek out the Sacrament as that sure assurance of receiving the gifts of Christ at a given church, perhaps it isn’t helpful for the preacher of that church to default to the same thing.