Wednesday, October 29, 2014


So the ELCA wants to have another "conversation".  Sure sign that it wants to institute another change in practice if not theology--although one generally follows the other.  This time, it concerns something euphemistically called "radical hospitality".  I would prefer a conversation over "radical Lutheranism"; but the ELCA's sights are supposedly set a bit lower. 
The trouble with many such conversations within the ELCA is that they follow a set form and (like the 2009 sexuality decision) wind up in the same place:  "Traditionally, Lutherans have believed "X" and many Lutheran still believe.  Meanwhile, other Lutherans in the modern context believe the Scriptures have been misread and thus believe "Y".  Still, others hold a middle ground and believe "M".  Still others take another view and hold "Q"."  There then follows much discussion, much of it employing abstract categories not to be found in classic, historical Christian Scriptural commentary or theology.  In the end, the final "agreement" is slapped on with the appropriate boilerplate of asserting and advocating respect for the spiritual discernment and faithfulness of all parties.  And then, (as with the 2009 sexuality statement) concluding something to the effect:  "Since no consensus exists among us…therefore, we will do what we wanted to do to begin with and change--not that you have to agree with the direction we have chosen to take.  That's OK.  You don't have to agree to belong.  Isn't it wonderful we Christians can be like that!"
As I related several posts ago, I was not born in the Lutheran Church.  I became a Lutheran many of present day Lutherans did:  when my mother was remarried to a Lutheran.  Perhaps because I began as an outsider (originally raised in a fundamentalist church until the age of ten), I still find some attitudes cradle Lutherans have to be a bit…well…odd.  One of those is I am still amused to find how absolutely honked-off many Lutherans get when they are not allowed to take communion in a WELC or LCMS church.  Of course, many don't stop being offended with Wisconsin and Missouri--they also get the noxious vapors when the Catholic Church will not allow them to share the table during mass either. 
"Well. I can go down to the local Baptist (Methodist, Presbyterian or Congregationalist) church and they don't have any problems with me."
Of course, most Protestant Churches do not believe there are such things a sacraments; so their threshold of sensitivity would be quite negligible.   But for the ELCA's champions of hospitality, that is all beside the point.

It always seemed to me that ,instead of being offended, one should give a little deference to the practices of other denominations and congregations out of simple respect.  They have their reasons and they should do what they think is right.  The Orthodox Church practices closed communion in view of the Scriptural reference of the church being the bride of Christ and as in marriage the church must be careful not to let anyone defile the wedding bed.  I myself don't necessarily follow this line of thought; but one has to grant that it is a reasonable one and respect it.  In any case, it doesn't seem our divines see it that way:  hospitality overrules all other concerns.
The bottom line of this practice of "radical hospitality" is to allow the unbaptized to take communion.  This goes against the long standing practice of the church of insisting that only those within the family of God are acceptable at the table and it is through baptism one becomes a child of God.  True hospitality is with the open invitation to baptism into the Lord's kingdom.  As tradition would have it, this practice goes all the way back to the early church.   Thus the burden rests with our would be "reformers" to not just make a persuasive case but a convincing one.  This is especially essential in view of our ecumenical efforts with the Catholic and Orthodox churches.   There is nothing to be gained by throwing another obstacle in our efforts to unify the entire Christian Church--of which the Catholic and Orthodox Churches comprise the lion's share of Christians in the world.
Nevertheless, the move is to remake the practice of the church according to a modern abstraction.  By their lights, the Lord's table is meant for all and is not the possession of the church:  thus they propose to have a fully "open" communion in which even the unbeliever may claim a place at the rail.  It is under the imperative of "hospitality" that this new practice is mandated.
But in Christian practice, is "hospitality" really to be so all encompassing?  Indeed, in New Testament, the word "hospitality" cannot be found outside of Peter and Paul's instructions to the saints in how to treat one another and qualities to be found in choosing a bishop.  As far as communion is concerned, there is even a warning found in 1 Corinthians 11 of ills which will befall those who "eateth and drinketh unworthily" the bread and cup of the Lord.  One could argue that true hospitality would require the faithful to protect those outside the fold from bringing harm upon themselves by taking communion unfaithfully.
But Paul R. Hinlicky in Lutheran Forum (August 18, 2014) explains the issue much better than I ever could:

The Truth about "Radical Hospitality"

by Paul R. Hinlicky — August 18, 2014  

Radical hospitality” is the catchphrase given to movements among mainline American Protestants to invite, as a matter of principle, unbaptized persons to the holy Supper. It is already practiced in some ELCA congregations and is reported to be a topic of conversation among the ELCA Conference of Bishops this fall. What is the theological justification for such a move?...

What is the theological justification for such a move? Something that can fairly be characterized as “radical hospitality” is a special emphasis of the Gospel of Luke. Disciples are to “go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (14:23). “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” Jesus admonishes, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12–14). The latter reference to the resurrection in Jesus’ statement is the key to the interpretation of radical hospitality as a strictly theological possibility—that is, a reality created by God’s promise, not by human efforts. This new way in generosity for disciples who follow their Lord is grounded in the gift of God: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

As Luke also makes clear, this gift of God brings with it a corresponding repentance: a transformation of human subjectivity and a reorientation of human activity. John the Baptist declares, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!” (3:8). Receiving the radical hospitality of the heavenly Father by the calling of His Son entails transformation by the Spirit: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). As in a climax, it is to the penitent thief, who has identified with the dying Jesus, that He promises in turn, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). That is radical hospitality, according to the Gospel of Luke.

Radical hospitality is forgiveness for the sinner—only the sinner. It is food for the hungry—only the hungry. It is life for the dead—only the dead. It is only our doing insofar as it is first of all and primarily our being transformed as recipients of the Lord’s radical grace: radical (from Latin radix, “root”) like the axe cutting to the root in Luke 3:9.

It would be a very selective and highly distorted reading of Luke to turn penetrating, life-transforming, change-in-direction, divine hospitality into the characteristic cheap grace and sanctified permissiveness of North American liberal Protestantism. But, sadly, that is what is now being proposed under the name of Luke’s radical hospitality, which proposes to revoke the rule of faith from the earliest days of the church: namely, that the Lord’s Supper is for the baptized. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is for those who in principle and often in power know that they are the sinner, the hungry, the dead and the dying, because they have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.

This kind of thing has been tried before. I recall a story that Richard John Neuhaus once told me of the heady days of the late 1960s when “radical” Lutheran pastors went in their vestments onto the New York City subways, offering the body and blood to total strangers. He didn’t quite make it clear whether he was one of them. It is not utterly wrong, to be sure, that idealistic young pastors experiment by pushing the envelope in the direction of outreaching grace. But there is a lot wrong with failing to take note of failed experiments, and with failing to push toward a deeper diagnosis of the presenting problem in the church’s administration of the means of grace.

Repentance in the sense of dying to sin with Christ in order to rise with Christ is not a precondition of grace. It is rather the form grace takes in repossessing a person who has belonged, mind and body, to the sinful world of violence and injustice. Accordingly, our teacher in the faith, Martin Luther, composed the programmatic declaration of the Ninety-Five Theses (the five hundredth anniversary of which we will celebrate in a few short years): “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he meant for the entire life of the Christian to be one of repentance.”

As generations have since learned from Luther’s Small Catechism, this lifelong gift and practice of repentance by faith in Jesus Christ consists in dying daily to sin in order that “I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.” The gift of a new life is grounded in our baptism into Christ and is nurtured along the way by the communion of the baptized in the holy Supper of the Lord.

Proposals in the air to alter the ELCA’s understanding of the radical hospitality of God would suspend baptism as the necessary preparation for reception of the Lord’s Supper, in contradiction to the document, “The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament,” adopted by the fifth biennial assembly of the ELCA in 1997. These proposals reflect a genuinely felt pastoral need to welcome and include visitors at the eucharistic worship of the baptized, and this need is not to be dismissed lightly. However, there are better—indeed, far more “radical”—ways to clarify and address the need.

As it stands, this proposal to remedy a supposed feeling of exclusion tells us more about its proponents than about any imagined visitors. As such, it reflects a legalistic misunderstanding of the alleged “requirement” of baptism. It is as if going through the hoops of baptismal preparation and ceremony were a meritorious precondition, rather than the Spirit’s own gracious preparation by the gospel and through the pastoral ministry of visitation, evangelization, and catechesis.

The elephant in the room, if this diagnosis is right, is the utter lack of such ministry between Sundays and its invisibility in the practice of the Supper among those who are baptized. Under these conditions, of course the invitation to the Lord’s Table still “limited” to all the baptized cannot but feel exclusionary.

Yet this feeling is projected upon the visitor. Would I as a Christian feel “excluded” when visiting a synagogue service or a Muslim call to prayer or for that matter a Masonic Lodge or the Kiwanis, if I possessed the minimal self-awareness that I came as a visitor to see, not a believing member to participate? I think not. The feeling of exclusion wells up in those contemporary Christians whose gospel has become pure, abstract inclusivism. It is they who feel awkward and uncomfortable with the non-negotiable presupposition that the gospel’s gift consists in our personal transformation, signed and sealed by holy baptism.

If anything, this so-called radical hospitality at the communion table indicates how empty the theology and practice of baptism have become. Baptism itself is the true radical hospitality: as the Book of Acts illustrates and the Pauline Epistles declare, the washing in the triune name is a relinquishment of every “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) that exists between human communities, whether they are Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, our actual congregations may not reflect this baptismal theology very well at all. But the solution is hardly to be found in shelving the intent of the Supper, too.

The logical alternative is not, as some would suppose or accuse, to police the communion table. It has been a step in the right understanding of holy communion to invite all who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to participate in the Supper, rather than to restrict participation to those in our denominational corner. Rather, a two-part response is called for: a truly evangelistic invitation to the unbaptized to the radical hospitality of the gospel that is the repentant life of baptism itself, and a truly catechetical ministry among the baptized to live out their vocations as the radically hospitable and reconciling presence of Christ in the world.

By contrast, the proposal to invite the unbaptized to the table reflects and perpetuates the legalistic misunderstanding of the rule of faith. According to the true rule of faith, holy communion is for those baptized into Christ’s death, gospel forgiveness is for sinners, gospel food is for the hungry, and gospel life is for the dying. We who are in the tradition of Luther’s pro me should know how grace transforms our self-understanding: I am the sinner for whom Christ lived, I am the dying one for whom He died and rose, I am the hungry one whom He feeds.

How else could the reception of this Lord’s body and blood have any meaning whatsoever? Paul emphasizes that this Supper is not any old supper; it is to be eaten with the whole community that shares in the same repentance and faith of receiving the Lord Himself; it is not to be consumed in an unworthy manner (I Corinthians 11). How unworthy and deceitful it is on the part of Christians to invite the unbaptized to partake of this meal, without first teaching them to which Lord they are thereby binding themselves, whose holy cross they therewith take upon themselves!

The proposal to suspend the rule of faith in the name of radical hospitality wishes, even if unintentionally, to bypass the arduous way of personal transformation by conformation to Jesus Christ in His cross and resurrection. Indeed, it functionally replaces engagement with the person of Jesus Christ and His calling daily to take up the cross with the abstract idea of “radical hospitality” or “unconditional grace,” which then takes on a life of its own. It proposes to market the eucharist as a no-fuss, no-bother, no-cost way of belonging without believing.

Ironically, this is but a new legalism and the sanctimoniousness of the “more-inclusive-than-thou” crowd. After the destructive tumult of the past five years, such proposals are particularly perilous to the fragile unity, not to mention ecumenical responsibilities, of the ELCA.

What is needed to address the pastoral and missiological needs of today is a serious commitment to and training in evangelism, apologetics, and catechesis. It is an abuse of the Supper—not to mention an abuse of the unbaptized—to make the sacrament into a tool of proselytism, taking advantage of visitors with no understanding of these holy things, least of all that their reception entails taking up the cross. It undermines the foundational unity of the church in one baptism. It confuses the radical hospitality of God in the gospel with religiously sanctioned permissiveness in a decaying culture. The proposal to suspend the rule of faith in this case would take the ELCA another huge and fatal step in the wrong direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment