We install officers on New Year’s Day in my congregation. It only makes sense. Congregational officers serve terms based on calendar year, so it is appropriate to install these men as soon as possible. Here we notice how rites such as the Installation of Congregational Officers instruct the people. When we take the time to install officers every year, we are reminded of what our duties are as pastors, officers, and congregation members. We have duties towards one another, firmly based in Scripture, which we need to be reminded of on a regular basis. It might be that the Installation of Congregational Officers rite is the only time this happens during a given year.
Certain words of the installation rite have stuck with me over the past month, especially in the wake of the events of last year. The rite reads, “You are to see that the services of God’s house are held at the proper times, that the Word of God is purely preached and taught according to the Lutheran Confessions, that the Sacraments of Christ are administered according to His institution, that provision is made for the Christian instruction of the young and old, that the erring are admonished, and that disciplined is maintained.” All of these are so pivotal to a congregation’s well-being. We may not take these things lightly.
What has stuck with me is this – that congregational officers are to see to it that the Sacraments of Christ are administered “according to his institution.” That is language which most Lutherans are not used to speaking, but it is language which we must recover. We do not administer the Sacraments haphazardly, in ways which are only convenient, or in ways which simply make us feel most comfortable. We administer the Sacraments according to his institution. That is, we administer the Sacraments not only with the elements and the words, but in the very manners which our Lord Jesus Christ set down for us.
Why do we make a big deal of this? We confess in article thirteen of the Augsburg Confession,
“Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Therefore, we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith, which believes the promises offered and set forth in through the Sacraments, is increased [2 Thessalonians 1:3]. Therefore, they condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify simply by the act of doing them” (AC XIII 1-3).
In other words, we do not administer the Sacraments in our churches simply to get the job done, or even simply to make people feel good temporarily. Our confessions state that we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith is increased. We do this by following Jesus’ institutions, knowing that his Sacraments increase faith. We do this especially at a time when the unbelieving world would insist that the Sacraments are dangerous.
The year 2020 exposed weaknesses in this regard. I know that I saw pictures of Baptisms done with squirt guns and a myriad of novel practices with the Lord’s Supper, all across Christian denominations. We could maybe say there were Sacraments, but Jesus’ institutions were not followed. By altering Jesus’ institutions, can you increase faith? I have a hard time finding how this is so. When Jesus’ institutions are not followed, it gives the impression that the Sacraments are inherently dangerous, something we must be suspicious of. This contradicts our confession. We believe that salvation is given through the Sacraments, which is the ultimate safety. Is it possible that we can improve on what Jesus himself gives?
I don’t think so. As for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they are very safe practices, even from a worldly perspective. Modern convenience allows for pastors to sanitize their hands well before administering the Sacraments, and we should put the best construction on our pastors, knowing they are doing their imperfect best. Marcus Zill’s valuable essay from nearly twenty years ago in particular establishes the safety of the chalice from both theological and scientific perspectives. There are countless more dangerous activities we could be doing than receiving the Sacraments, which bestow the grace of God himself. We should not be afraid of what Christ himself gives, nor be afraid of his servants who administer these things.
When Jesus’ institutions are not followed, during a pandemic we are only increasing the fear which is prevalent, which is not a Christian thing to do. It is pointless then to debate whether or not the body and blood of Jesus is present in something like a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Perfect love casts out fear. It does not increase it by following the frenzied spirit of our age. In instituting the Sacraments our Lord Jesus meant to calm our fears. Therefore we keep his institutions without knee-jerk measures which we have never known.
So in this new year, congregational officers have a special duty towards their congregations. They don’t merely see to it that the Sacraments are present, but we keep them in accord with Christ’s institutions, that we observe them in a way in which faith is increased. I am thankful that our rites spell this out so clearly. May we as pastors and congregations keep our vows to one another faithfully, for the edification of our people and the glory of God.