Trigger Warning: Liturgical purists may be offended by what follows.
I cherish the liturgical heritage of the Church. At my congregation, we worship using the settings of the Divine Service from the hymnal each and every week. Like the music of Michael Bolton, I celebrate the whole catalog. I find the received hymns and settings of the Service Book to be beautiful and reverent expressions of our faith, which are also formative for God's people, especially children. In most cases, my definition of “creative worship” is to sing “This Is the Feast.”
All of which is to say, I am a little sheepish to share with you what I am about to write, because it involves (deep breath) tweaking the Absolution. But despite my reservations, I do feel compelled to tell you about it, not only because it has been one of the most well-received additions in my entire ministry, but also because I think it genuinely reflects the spirit and emphases of solid Reformation theology.
The Homiletic Micro-Machine
Here is what I do. Each Sunday, the assembly recites the Confession as printed; whether it be that we are “poor, miserable sinners” or “we have sinned in thought, word, and deed.” It is there every week, and surely most of us know it by heart, which is a good thing. Those words can sink into your soul, and you can (and should) own them for yourself.
Then I tweak things. At first, I just removed the text of the Absolution from the bulletin; then, at least, folks would be more inclined to listen to the present-tense announcement of grace, rather than merely reading it from the page. But I still felt as though an opportunity was being missed. At the Absolution, like few other moments in the service, people are keyed in. Here is a chance to bring the Gospel to bear in their hearing in a way which can be lost even in the midst of the sermon. How could I not seize it?
So, I began to augment the standard Absolution with specific words pertinent to the Sunday. I would tailor the forgiveness to the theme of the day, and then conclude with the traditional formula. In effect, I would preach a tiny, condensed sermon, which had the basic Law and Gospel elements in nuce, like a homiletic micro-machine.
In effect, I would preach a tiny, condensed sermon, which had the basic Law and Gospel elements in nuce, like a homiletic micro-machine.
At this point, the liturgical laissez faire are laughing at me. “Dude, this is what we have been saying all along! You gotta keep it fresh, man!” They are not wrong, entirely. As I say, I am ride or die when it comes to singing the Sanctus and professing the Proper Preface, to say nothing of reciting the Creed and the Verba. Also, by no means am I advocating endless futzing with the liturgy. As C.S. Lewis once wrote about overly “creative” pastors: “I wish they would remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dog’s new tricks.” Duly noted.
So, what is different here? Unlike other parts of the liturgy, the Absolution truly is a moment of direct gospel proclamation from the Lord to His people, similar to the sermon. As Gerhard Forde writes, “The primary paradigm for ministry is Absolution; concrete, present-tense, I-to-you declaration in Word and Sacrament authorized by the triune God.” This “primary paradigm” is an opportunity not only for a recitation, but a proclamation.
Serving Up a Prime Cut
Practically speaking, then, how is this done? It is very simple. Essentially, I am using the same Problem/Solution structure every time. It works like this:
- Sinful condition
- Cost/consequence of that condition
- Redemptive solution in Christ
- Result of that solution
- Proclamation of forgiveness
Each part is *at most* a sentence, and often times only a clause. Part of what makes it potent is that it is pithy. You have got their rapt attention for thirty seconds, serve up a prime cut of proclamation.
You have got their rapt attention for thirty seconds, serve up a prime cut of proclamation.
Let me give you an example. On a recent Sunday I preached my sermon on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and Jesus’ words, “The first shall be last and the last first.” For the Absolution, I said something like this:
“In our sinful nature, you and I too often are not grateful for what God has given, but grumbling for what He has not. You play the comparison game, looking at your neighbor rather than your Lord. But the ground at the foot of the cross is level. There, our Lord Jesus has loved you and me without comparison. He takes away your sins and invites you to see others not as competitors but as fellow forgiven sinners. So, in the stead...”
It is simple, and perhaps for some of you overly simple. That is fine, it is just my practice. You can adapt or ignore it as you wish. But I will tell you that this thirty-second addition to the service has at times brought parishioners to tears. The reason I have often heard is, “It is so personal.” Of course, it is not especially. They need to come to Private Absolution (which I also gladly practice) for it to be really personal.
What I think they are putting a finger on, though, is how the Absolution is a time for a tender word from the Savior. We are arguably at our most vulnerable at this point in the service. We have just confessed our sins, spilled our guts, owned our failures. When that is followed by a perfunctory proclamation, the moment is cheapened. It would be as if you shared your heart with your spouse, and she responded by reading from a Hallmark card. Thanks.
Speaking a specific message of grace in the Absolution is a chance to bring the healing balm of the Gospel not just to generic ills, but to the particular pain point exposed by the Law on this day. We lovers of the liturgy have to admit this opens up space for a fresh word of forgiveness, perhaps in a way the script does not or cannot.
That said, go easy on the drum kits and Hawaiian shirts, dude.
Write to Ryan at email@example.com
 Latin for “in a nut/nutshell.”