Pentecost 19A - Augsburg Confession Article XV - Colossians 2:16-17

 

Colossians 2:16–17 (NIV)

 

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

 

 

            It’s common knowledge that it is easier to divide a church over the removal of an item of furniture than removing the Gospel from the preaching in the Church. What is it that divides a church?

 

            George Forell reports in his commentary on Article XV of the Augsburg Confession:

 

“…people apparently are willing to put up with some pretty weird preaching without becoming too upset. They tolerate ignorance of the Word of God and hostility to the faith of the Church, but they feel strongly about sacred equipment.”

 

            It can be said that most people are happy for the teachings of the Faith to be changed, so long as you don’t change the furniture, fittings or trappings of the Church.

 

            Article XV of the Augsburg Confession on ‘Church Ceremonies’ helps us to see things as they should be:

 

“Our churches teach that ceremonies ought to be observed that may be observed without sin. Also, ceremonies and other practices that are profitable for tranquility and good order in the Church (in particular, holy days, festivals, and the like) ought to be observed.” McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 39). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

 

The customs and traditions of the church have mostly been established by our forebears in the faith. There are no ‘God-given’ service orders or ‘rubrics’ (that is, detailed directions) for the conduct of the Divine Services of the Church.

 

Neither is the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the Bible (though it is based on Psalm 46).

 

None of our church activities in the form we practice them are Divinely appointed – apart from sharing the Word of God, preaching, administration of Baptism and Holy Communion – nothing else is spelled out step by step for us to perpetuate through the ages. Even the liturgies of the Church, which we use, are not confined to Biblical dictate.

 

Our Sunday morning Divine Service time of 10:00am is not mandated, Shed Men breakfast, movie group, U.F.O. group and home group are not sacrosanct – they are all ministry activities which have grown out of our spiritual experience and need – they are opportunities through which God meets our needs and feeds us.

 

The structure of the liturgy we use most Sunday’s has been established and built by the saints who’ve gone before us.

 

The way we do “church”, liturgical, service opportunities and the ministry we share is neither right nor wrong. We can only rate them according to how they support God’s people in the journey through life to death and ultimately into heaven with the Gospel.

 

In the sixteenth century, those who signed the Augsburg Confession were happy to accept and maintain the customs and traditions of the church, where they were useful to the Gospel.

 

Our spiritual forebears sang old hymns and Gospel songs and wrote new ones – they didn’t limit their spiritual responses to the book of Psalms as though they were the only appropriate songs for God.

 

With the Reformation, many wanted to remove and destroy statues, paintings and other decorations from the churches – but our Lutheran forebears kept these things as long as they, that is the statues, paintings and decorations were not worshipped. As Forell says:

 

“…many of these outward forms and customs helped people to understand the Gospel better. We can learn a lot of theology, singing hymns and songs and even looking at pictures and statues.”

 

            Worship is not just about listening – we learn also from doing and seeing – we can note especially that prior to and during the Reformation not everyone could read, but they could see and interpret images.

 

            The Augsburg Confession makes it very clear that the retention and use of ancient liturgies, hymns, statues and paintings and the use of new ones is a fine idea so long as their relevance was maintained by sound instruction and teaching.

 

      The Augsburg Confession makes this clear, “…consciences are not to be burdened as though observing such things was necessary for salvation …” As our text says:

 

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

 

            Where there is tension between old and new in congregations today there is a need for instruction and teaching. When we change something or introduce something new we need to explain why the change took place so no one becomes confused and resentful.

 

            When we have forgotten why we do things the way we do or introduce new spiritual disciplines we need to have them explained to us.

 

            There are of course many things we do and say in the church that are confusing, done through routine and which we may have never asked, “Why?”

 

Why do we stand and sit so often during the service? Why does the pastor sometimes face the altar and other times face the congregation? Why do we have the common cup for communion? Why do we hold hands at the Communion rail as the dismissal is pronounced?

 

            There are usually good reasons for our customs, traditions, fittings and fixtures in the church, but they need to be understood otherwise our observances and religious ritual “…denigrates into mumbo-jumbo which confuses and mystifies rather than edifies.”

 

            Every church has to wrestle with these questions and others. Whether the church is “high church” with its rituals, vestments and church decorations or “low church” with a somewhat austere worship environment, instruction is needed.

 

            Article XV continues to ask us to reassess what we are doing, what we are using and how we are proclaiming the good news that Jesus suffered and died on  the cross on our behalf so that we can share His love here and now and into eternity in heaven with God.

 

            It’s not just about us either – what about our guests? How do we help our guests cope with and understand the ritual, the language and the worship environment?

 

            We often assume guests will know what to do in the Divine Service – when to stand and when to sit, when to sing or speak and when to remain silent? Note that there are some basic rubrics on our data screen to assist us.

 

            This may be where you are able to help a guest in a practical way to follow and participate in the service.

 

There are tools available to help us understand and help others - like the tract The Service With Communion Explained (https://www.ltm.org.au/product/view/775/the_service_with_communion_explained).

 

            Before we can instruct someone else we need to commit some time and energy to learn about church layout, liturgy, rituals and common practices.

 

            Sometimes we may be doing things simply because that is the way we’ve always done it – without knowing why.

 

            Not only do we need to understand, but it is also good for us to re-assess what we are doing. As we have usually inherited most of what we do – like family traditions - the meaning easily gets lost in transition from one generation to another.

 

Or, in worst case scenario, familiarity breeds contempt and we do it that way just because that’s the way we’ve always done it – without knowing why.

 

            The best question to ask ourselves though is, “How does what we do, what we have, what we say or sing contribute to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”

 

            Or, what is the motive behind what we do? Are we trying to earn favour with God by doing it this way or that? As Forell says,

 

“This question must be asked in every generation, since what was once a useful instrument of the Gospel may become in time merely pious routine.”

 

            We must have the courage to change, not in order to be trendy, but to serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not all changes are good, practical or useful. Again Forell says,

 

“Not everything new serves God better than the old. Monastic vows and tradition concerning distinction of food – rejected by the Augsburg Confession – were once the very latest thing, the wave of the future. But since they were understood to earn favour and grace and make satisfaction for sin, the Augsburg Confession considered them ‘useless and contrary to the Gospel.”

 

            What do we do today which is designed “to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin? Have we not developed practices and systems to appease God and earn grace?

 

            Is it the ‘new morality’, the new ‘political correct’ emphasis or defending the ‘old morality’? Is it ‘love and tolerance’ which calls us to re-interpret Scripture or ignore parts of the Scriptures all together. For example are we to allow ‘love’ to express itself in those things which are an abomination to the Lord?

 

            One thing is sure, whatever we do and however we do it always needs to be submitted to the Word of God, whether it is something old or something new.

 

            As God says in Ezekiel 20:18–19 (NIV),

 

18 …, “Do not follow the statutes of your parents or keep their laws or defile yourselves with their idols. 19 I am the Lord your God; follow My decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

 

            Nothing can be affirmed as God’s will without His Word. In 2nd Thessalonians 2:3–4 (NIV) we read:

 

Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

 

            The man of lawlessness seeks to have us believe that worship of God is primarily what we do to please or placate God. The notes on the “Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XV in Concordia – The Lutheran Confessions (p.214) remind us:

 

“Worship is most essentially gathering to receive, through faith, God’s gifts in Christ, by means of His Gospel and Sacraments. Our praise and thanksgiving for God’s gifts is a response to His grace not a condition for receiving it.”

 

Amen.