Life Together Under the Cross (Part 3)

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We have to trust that there is value in these conversations. They are not valuable only when they can be counted as a program. And what are most programs but attempts to get us to “act like” Christians at some future point of time?

Or, alternately, "Mutual Conversation and Consolation of the Brethren III — The Third Sacrament."I’ve heard jokes in Lutheran circles about coffee being the third sacrament of the Lutheran church. Or sometimes beer. (The latter is usually just called “Lutheran beverage.”) For our purposes, I want to talk about why coffee makes sense.

In the Smalcald Articles, there is a discussion of the ways forgiveness of sins comes to us:

First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached [He commands to be preached] in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc.

We often speak of Word and Sacrament, and under Sacrament mean both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But we have this other means of grace as well. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.

A sacrament has often been defined as something instituted by Christ, with the forgiveness of sins attached, and also an outward sign. All the means of grace have the first two. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren has the first two, and we could rightly say that it often has an outward element as well. How often do these conversations take place with food or drink?

While I present this in somewhat 'jokey' fashion, the connection is not altogether accidental. If it were too tight, we might be stuck saying “no coffee, no forgiveness.” So thankfully it is not so tight. But I have been surprised to see people miss the connection.

We had a period of time in the life of our church when our Fellowship Committee, which had done an amazing job, had gotten burned out. The head of the committee took a well-needed break. We had been used to not just coffee, but special treats regularly showing up, beyond just simple doughnut level. (My favorite is how at Christmas, pulla, a Finnish Christmas bread would show up. This was an aspect of my heritage I had never experienced growing up.) A new volunteer came in and “streamlined” everything. This volunteer was efficient and talented. But I saw a shift in approach that I wondered about for the long haul.

Sometime later, after more turnover, the coffee stopped being served after the late service. And do you know what? Nobody stayed after service to talk. I suggested that the presence of coffee and snacks signaled to people that they were welcome to stay around. Even expected to. And when that space is created, even those who don’t partake of the snacks tend to stay around longer. This was met with some skepticism by the council, but they decided whether or not this was a cause and effect relationship, it would be worth resuming our old practice. The results were immediate. When snacks were offered, people stayed. Conversation resumed.

I think this is an important point, and in ways that go beyond any “church growth” discussions. If we don’t make space for it, or discuss its necessity, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren is less likely to happen. I’m thankful that Luther listed this under the means of grace. If he hadn’t, it would likely be less common than it now is.

But we can also err in not fostering the conditions under which it flourishes. There have to be opportunities for people to talk. Some of the talk will just be small talk. But some of it won’t. People have to be relaxed enough to trust another with a burden. I know I had after church conversations with burdened friends on more than one occasion and spoke words of forgiveness.

We have to trust that there is value in these conversations. They are not valuable only when they can be counted as a program. And what are most programs but attempts to get us to “act like” Christians at some future point of time? Much better to trust that God’s Word does its work of making us priests to each other, and then provide opportunities for the priesthood to function naturally, as it surely will.

I hope all your congregations provide space for these conversations to happen. If leadership ever seems to have forgotten the value of such space, it might be good to explain to them why this is important, even on confessional grounds. They usually know that “Word and Sacrament” are priorities. What I am discussing now might have a slot in their minds under the heading “Fellowship,” which sounds like some happy but unnecessary extra.

But this is another of the main courses. It needs to be valued as such.