Of first importance

A further observation from Pope Benedict’s general audience of 24 September, referenced in my previous post. This time, though, the subject is not justification, but two related topics on which Lutherans and Roman Catholics find a greater degree of affinity (though by no means complete agreement, alas): the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the role of the sacraments in the life of the church.

Pope Benedict observes that St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians includes two passages which clearly have the nature of standard formulations, to be received and passed on faithfully: “central elements of the Christian tradition, a constitutive tradition”.

The first of these is 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, the institution of the Lord’s Supper:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The second is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In each case, the highlighted words are a “formula of fidelity”, emphasising the central importance each of these teachings had for the early church, as teachings which needed to be summarised in a memorable and standardised form so as to be preserved intact as the church grew. As the pope puts it:

These are constitutive elements and concern the Eucharist and the Resurrection; they are passages that were already formulated in the 30s.

These two teachings – of the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord’s Supper) and the Resurrection – are closely linked, as the pope observes. The resurrection of Jesus is what enables us to say (in the words of 1 Corinthians 15) that Jesus’ death was “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”. In the same way, the “for you” of the words instituting the Supper show it to be a means by which we are enabled to say, with Paul, that the death of Christ was “for me” (Galatians 2:20).

As Pope Benedict continues:

The Church is built from and in the Eucharist and recognizes that she is the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), nourished every day by the power of the Spirit of the Risen One.

Indeed, it is striking to observe the similarities between 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Romans 6:1-4. Given how Paul links baptism with the death and resurrection of Jesus in Romans 6, it would not seem too fanciful to see in the formula in 1 Corinthians 15 a baptismal teaching, corresponding to the eucharistic teaching in chapter 11.

Thus we find the following at the heart of the church’s earliest proclamation, of the “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). First, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Second – but still of “first importance”, but be received and passed on in the same way – the Lord’s supper and holy baptism.

All Christians will agree on the centrality of the former. As regards the latter, though, this is an area in which (in contrast to justification) Roman Catholics and Lutherans find themselves closer to one another than to many non-Lutheran evangelicals: the central role in the life of the church and of individual Christians of baptism and the Lord’s supper as the means (along with proclamation) by which the “for-usness” of the gospel events is brought to us and appropriated by us.

This entry was posted in Gospel and Sacrament, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s