The 4th Sunday after The Epiphany

I had to laugh at my liturgical faux pas. I didn’t mention it at the time. (It means I can mention it now! 😉 ) But it also gives a glimpse into what is important. Last Sunday I accidentally took the ‘wrong’ (as in colour) vestments to church. I suppose I could have changed the altar paraments to match me but that would challenge what the Church Calendar is about and the discovery was just before the service began – and go online – so up to the altar I went because, deep down, I figured Jesus didn’t mind the mixed colours.  It was simply a mistake on my part with no agenda. I wasn’t being ‘political’ against vestments or colours.  The church’s liturgical traditions didn’t begin with me and they won’t end with me – and if they exist, then by all means, follow them is my view because they can serve many laudable functions. But, as with anything, practices and traditions can have unexpected consequences or can be ‘used’ in ways that belie the ‘good points’. Maybe I am not a liturgical purist at heart – though from my theatre days, I sort of like dressing up and I am definitely a uniform’ person because I think uniforms and badges very much help us with ‘role clarification’ as we live and function in society. 

The Christian Church seems to oscillate between creating all sorts of rules and regulations about things not specifically mentioned in the Bible (eg. church rites, clothing, food at certain times, and so on). Sometimes denominations make them laws with a definite right and wrong attached to them (which might even influence or impact salvation). Alternative denominations might claim or insist that ‘If it isn’t in the Bible, it shouldn’t be in the church’. Lutherans have approached how we live and worship in church from the Gospel and the clarity of Scripture to produce a freedom that says, ‘Where the Bible speaks clearly, we follow, but where things are not commanded or forbidden, we have the freedom to decide what is best in our time and place’. This is the teaching on Adiaphora – which is set out in Article X of the Formula of Concord (and foreshadowed in Articles XV and XVI of the Augsburg Confession). Yes, Lutherans can set up rituals, traditions and practices or continue them from church history for teaching, helpful piety, and good order as long as they keep the Gospel central.

But where a church practice is defined as the ‘only’ way and challenges the Gospel and Scripture then this is no longer one option among many and no longer an adiaphoron – a matter of freedom – and may then have to be challenged. Suddenly the freedom for the sake of the Gospel becomes narrowed to a clear confession for the sake of the Gospel. Lutherans read the Bible to say that the amount of water is not critical for a valid Baptism so we have the freedom to use any amount of water. However when Baptism is defined as only happening by submersion, Lutherans will use other amounts of water and steer away from submersion to make the Gospel point that Baptism’s validity is about God working through his Word and water (with no mention of volume).

The point is that each generation of Christians receives the faith, traditions, and practices from the older generations – which can go back a long way! – which promote and present the Gospel and they still have the freedom to institute new things or respond to new situations but always and only in ways that promote and keep the Gospel central. I think often we pre-
fer to be told the details of what to do – “Jesus tell us what you want and we’ll do it” – where- as Jesus does tell us what he wants – after his “I love you” – he says, “Follow me” – and that means switching our brains on and learning from the past generations of those who followed Jesus while also learning from our here and now, so that we can pass on to those who come
after us one thing – the Gospel. (That Jesus forgives sins – and my liturgical faux pas doesn’t need forgiveness as such but perhaps a gracious ‘tut’ – as we realise that even a colour clash can focus us on Jesus!) GS