At our housewarming party last weekend, I was talking to some friends of ours, J and R. They are a conservative evangelical couple of retirement age, parents of a late friend of ours from university, whose sheer goodness and strength of faith – in a word, their holiness – are both an inspiration and a rebuke, making me feel slightly ashamed that we are no longer within that same conservative evangelical tradition ourselves.
At one point, J asked me what the differences are between the Lutheran approach to worship and that in a typical conservative evangelical church. I blathered for a few moments about liturgy, weekly communion, sermon length and so on, but as the conversation wore on I found the answer to the question becoming clearer.
And it’s this: Lutheran worship is about being addressed by Christ himself, through the pastor. In baptism, it is Jesus who baptises us. In absolution, it is Jesus who says, “I forgive you your sins”. In preaching, it is Jesus who proclaims the law and gospel to us. In the Lord’s Supper… well, let’s come to that.
In conservative evangelical worship, by contrast, the job of the preacher is to tell us about Jesus, but our interaction with Jesus himself is in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, not through Jesus addressing us by an external word. This has an impact on preaching, which tends to be more focused on “teaching the Bible” rather than “proclaiming Jesus”.
(Indeed, the influence of the charismatic movement has, if anything, increased the didactic emphasis in conservative evangelical preaching. The personal encounter with Jesus is associated more with “worship” – that is, the singing of songs – than with preaching. It is not putting it too strongly in many churches to say: we learn about Jesus in the sermon, and we encounter Jesus during “worship”.)
Above all, the difference can be seen in the Lord’s Supper. If you believe that, when the pastor says the words of institution, he is simply repeating what Jesus said at the Last Supper, then – whether you are the “highest” of Calvinists or the “lowest” of sub-Zwinglians in your understanding of the Supper – you are unlikely to accept the assertion that the mere recital of those words can turn the bread into Jesus’ body or the wine into his blood. The Lutheran view will sound like a belief in “magic words”.
However, for Lutherans, when the pastor says those words, it is not simply the pastor repeating what Jesus said about that bread and that wine, way back then. Rather, it is Jesus who is saying those words here and now, in respect of this bread and this wine, right here in front of us.
And when Jesus speaks, reality listens. When he says “I baptise you”, you’re baptised; when he says “I forgive you”, you’re forgiven; and when he says “this is my body”, it is.