Let us pray the Word...

...be preached in its purity

By Gracia Grindal (WordAlone board member, Professor of Rhetoric, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

July 17, 2003

Someone remarked to me the other day how interesting it was that there is so much furor about worship styles among Lutherans today, and almost no public fury about preaching.

Why is that, he wondered, when Lutherans understand in their bones that preaching is fundamental to the life of the church? The Augsburg Confession makes clear that the congregation is called together by the Word. Luther, in his essay on the marks of the Church, insists that the preaching of the Word comes first, before the Word in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

We see this clearly in St. Mary's church in Wittenberg where Luther preached most often. An altar painting by Lucas Cranach visually demonstrates this theology. At the base of a triptych [a set of three panels] portraying the sacraments, there is a picture of Luther preaching the crucified Christ to his congregation. Central and fundamental to the balance and structure of the picture is Christ on the cross. Above the picture are three scenes depicting the fundamental acts of the church—baptism, the Lord's Supper and confession and absolution.

Of interest is the baptismal panel, which shows Melancthon, a layman, baptizing a baby. In the larger central panel is a depiction of the Lord's Supper, and to the right is a portrait of Bugenhagen, Luther's chief lieutenant, administering the absolution.

As lay people, faithful members of the congregation, we come to worship eager to hear the good news that Christ Jesus died for us so that we are forgiven and made one with him and the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to hear it over and over again so we can go out and serve our neighbors with glad hearts, forgiven and renewed. We need to be given the faith, which comes through hearing, to make it through the next week. We believe that the Word, in all its forms, produces faith, and this faith needs to be daily renewed, not kept on the shelf like an old vase, in order to flourish.

Some times I wonder if we are praying enough for the church and its pastors.

Someone suggested to me long ago that things have declined in the church ever since we stopped using the general prayer of the church and substituted for it a grocery list of needs. The general prayer of the Church on pages 52-53 of the “Lutheran Book of Worship” has a petition that should be prayed every day: Save and defend your whole church, purchased with the precious blood of Christ. Give it pastors and ministers filled with your Spirit, and strengthen it through the Word and the holy sacraments. Make it perfect in love and in all good works, and establish it in the faith delivered to the saints. Sanctify and unite your people in all the world, that the one holy church may bear witness to you, the creator and redeemer of all.

It, however, is not as crisp as the version found in some older hymnals.

Look in mercy upon thy church. Protect it and sanctify it by thy truth. May thy Word be taught in its purity and thy sacraments be rightly administered. Grant unto thy church faithful pastors who will declare thy truth with power and shall live according to thy will.

The slippage in concerns for the purity of the truth is notable. But we can make it a priority of ours to pray the older prayer and tell our pastors we are praying for them as they prepare their sermons that they might preach the word in its purity.

What would happen in our church today if members would make it a practice every Saturday night and Sunday morning to pray the old prayer of our Lutheran forebears, that the word might be preached in its purity and that their hearts would be open to hear it? Or if they would gird up their loins and visit their pastors and ask to pray with them so that their preaching and ministry would take fire and blaze with the truth of Jesus Christ?

WordAlone has engaged with the ELCA politically for very good reasons. Perhaps we haven't been as prayerful as we might have been along the way. If you can't organize a chapter, and not everyone can, if you can't work the political system of the ELCA to work for reform, you can pray for it and the work of WordAlone as it works to bring this purifying Word to the church.

And some of you, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, can go to your pastor and, in love, state your concerns about his or her preaching. Pastors need to hear from their parishioners about their preaching beyond the "nice sermon, pastor" offered at the door. This small visit could do more than anything to revive the church we love and want to engage.

An awakened laity has been, throughout the history of the church, a major force for revival and reformation.