The Central Message of the Gospel?

Asked about the election of a new pope, Pres. Obama said this:

“I don’t know if you have checked lately but the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States don’t seem to be taking orders from me,” said Obama. “My hope is, based on what I know about the Catholic Church and the terrific work that they’ve done around the world and certainly in this country, you know, helping those who are less fortunate, is that you have a pope who sustains and maintains what I consider the central message of the Gospel that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”

Here, the president is a typical American Evangelical and, at the same time, ironically, a typical Roman Catholic.  That is, however, not the central message of the Gospel, which has always been and always will be: Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for you, a sinner.  Otherwise, it’s simply not good news.

On the other hand, Luther:

In the voice of the Gospel God is glorified and preached in Christ…This is what will take place in preaching.  Nor shall anything else be heard in the church but the voice of praise and proclamation of God’s blessings which we have received.  This song is in conflict with all human wisdom and righteousness, which are our works and in which we seek our own glory rather than give thanks to God.  Hence, to be pleasing to God is simply to acknowledge that we are the recipients of His blessings, not the donors.  A Christian confesses that he was condemned and lost and that he has received from Christ everything that belongs to salvation and righteousness; all his own merits [even love!] he considers worth nothing.  This is the fullest and most perfect sacrifice, and it embraces everything in the Old Testament.  There animals and cattle were slaughtered; here our own wisdom and righteousness, our endeavors and works. [Commentary on Isaiah 12:1, LW 16:128]


Of Lords and Servants

Often, we hear how pastors (and others) ought to exercise “servant leadership.”  On the other hand, we hear criticism of how pastors are “lording it over” their congregations.  I don’t know anyone who would say that the latter is better than the first, or more accurately represents the Christ who is Lord of His Church.  After all, He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

But let’s take a test case to determine whether we really want pastors to be lords over or servants to their congregations: closed Communion, or maybe we could simply talk about all the practices surrounding the Lord’s Supper.  For example, the pastor who receives the Body and Blood from his own hand, and wishes to proclaim the Gospel to each communicant.  To a random observer (who may, however, find exactly what he is looking for in any given pastor’s practice and piety), it may appear that the pastor is exercising an arrogant lordship by receiving the elements from his own hand, and by reserving to himself the proclamation of the words, “Given for you, shed for you.”  It is quite the contrary.  The pastor who is truly a servant knows his duty.  He knows that it is his responsibility to oversee a reverent distribution (a distribution, let’s not forget, of Christ’s actual Body and Blood), as well as to proclaim the Gospel (of which Christ’s Words at the Supper are the epitome) in that place.  He knows that Jesus’ words apply to him: who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves?  Is it not the one who reclines at table?  Jesus says, but I am among you as one who serves.  So also the pastor; even, at the Supper, to his own sinful flesh.

And what about the practice of the ancient, universal Church to celebrate the Supper in the true unity of agreement in Christ’s words (doctrine)?  Again, to the random (though rarely disinterested) observer, it may appear that the pastor who invites some to the altar and tells others to wait until unity in confession is acknowledged is acting as lord over his congregation (and others), while the one who invites all to the altar is acting as servant of those who have gathered to hear God’s Word.

I suggest it is exactly the reverse.  The pastor who invites some and turns others away knows he is the servant of One greater than himself, that he did not create the practice of closed Communion, and that it is not his to change (arbitrarily, according to his own opinion of those who come) the practice of the Church.  He serves Christ before he serves people; better, he serves the people by serving Christ.  He does not ask people to reveal what is in their hearts (what they believe)–which he cannot see, anyway–but only what they confess publicly (where they regularly commune, and from the hand of which pastor).

On the other hand, the pastor who tries to search out what is in people’s hearts (by asking them what they believe), or who invites all because he does not want to appear unloving or arrogant is actually the one who lords it over people’s hearts and consciences.  He is the one who arrogates to himself the ability to change the ancient, Scriptural practice of closed Communion (1 Corinthians 10, 11) and decides to base his decision not on their public confession but on his own fallible opinion of what a given person says he or she believes.  Those who want to share in the unity of a particular altar often say, “You can’t see my heart!  You’re judging my faith!”  But then they want to reveal their hearts, and try to prove that they are really Christians.  The pastor who wants to hear what is in a person’s heart and base a decision about communing on that revelation is acting as judge over whether that person is worthy.  This is Christ’s role alone.

It is the pastor who refuses to judge a person’s heart, but rather will only acknowledge a person’s public confession who is, in fact, acting as servant both to Christ and to the individual’s own conscience.  He does not want that person to be a hypocrite, or to make one confession by mouth and another by action.  He desires both integrity and unity.

As a Christian, as a pastor, in my pastoral care and in my preaching, I absolutely do want you to trust only in Christ’s fully sufficient death and resurrection for your salvation and forgiveness.  But for the purpose of the Sacrament of the Altar (and only for that purpose) it is not my concern what you believe.  I cannot know it or judge it.  I leave that to Christ.  He alone sees your heart and mine.  What I want to know is whether you intend to confess the unity of this altar, or of some other altar?  If you intend to participate (commune) in the unity of another altar, with which we are not in fellowship, then you cannot, at the same time, participate in the unity of this altar.  To do so is inherently self-contradictory, because it claims to hold two contrary confessions at the same time.  At the same time, I’d love to discuss with you whether what you say you believe fits better with our altar or theirs, but it is up to you to recognize which altar you are in fellowship with.  And I refuse to lord it over your conscience by demanding you commune at our altar when you believe something else, or that you commune at another altar when you say you believe what we teach.

Whom would you rather have me serve?  Christ, or your demand to commune at an altar with which you are not in agreement?  Or might I actually be serving you more faithfully by asking you to consider the temporal and eternal consequences of both your belief and your confession (which should coincide)?