The Liturgical And Sacramental Nature Of St. Paul's Epistles
The Liturgical and Sacramental Nature of St. Paul’s Epistles
by: Rev. Dean Kavouras, Pastor
Christ Lutheran Church
to: CTSFW Theological Symposia
January 17, 2018
Thank you for your interest in my topic, and for you kind attention today.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is: Don’t believe everything you think. With that caveat I am going to tell you what I think, and also what I believe to be the case because, after much study, it makes sense to me. The reason I am here is to determine if it make sense to you.
Why do I speak tenuously? Because what I present here today I have discovered on my own, and I am an autodidact with no formal education beyond the M. Div. I received in 1978. And because very few people see or hear what I think I see and hear in St. Paul’s writings. So I want to proceed carefully.
That said, I do bring something to the table. I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and spent the first 5 years of my life worshiping there. Then my parents converted to Catholicism and our family spent the next 15 years alternating between the Latin and Byzantine rites. I have 8 years of old school Catholic education, and 4 years of High School at Byzantine Catholic HS in Parma, Ohio. What I mean to say by all this is that I have a nose for things liturgical and sacramental.
At the age of 21, after a brief fling with Pentecostalism, I fell under the spell of Lutheranism. It’s amazing what a young man will do for love.
But the Lutheranism I entered was a “Protestantized” version of it. Its sum and substance was doctrine. To be a Lutheran meant to learn, and assent to, a system of doctrinal propositions formulated from Scripture, expressed in the Lutheran Symbols, but most perfectly distilled in Pieper’s Dogmatics.
The job description of the Lutheran pastor was to teach pure doctrine, and conduct theological warfare against opposing systems. His chief activity was: to preach sermons. (And how often do we still hear the term “pulpit supply,” but never “altar supply?”)
And so upon graduating seminary I became the perfect Lutheran Protestant pastor. My mantra was: Give me the pulpit, and the altar can take care of itself.
I understood Scripture, especially St. Paul, to be an encyclopedia of doctrine to be searched and expounded; and as a trusty weapon for demolishing all who were wrong: Roman Catholics first, but also the Reformed though they were more or less our friends Sola Scriptura!
But to make a long story very short a New Reformation took hold of the LCMS sometime in the 1980’s by my reckoning. In the late 1990’s the internet began to connect a lot of liturgically and sacramentally oriented Lutherans who were slowly awakening from their Protestant-induced comas, and as the Canadians say: Bob’s your uncle.
For me, the return to the reservation blossomed in 2012 when I happened upon a book entitled “Turning Towards The Lord” by Uwe Michael Lange. A book on the orientation of Christian worship. It was the first thing I read on worship since the seminary, and I never looked back.
In the course of my studies I came to realize that I was reading Scripture wrongly. I was treating it like a theological jigsaw puzzle, and understood the pastor’s job as pulling together its scattered passages in order to shore up, and more perfectly explain, true doctrine to friend and foe alike.
In a word I had placed dogma before doxology: when properly speaking I think the former proceeds from the latter. This led me to think of Scripture very differently. Not primarily as a dogmatics text, but first as a liturgical one. And the sheer volume of outright liturgy I found in Holy Scripture is astounding, which I hope to demonstrate below.
While I will confine myself to St. Paul, my studies have led me to some fairly sweeping conclusions of which I will mention only two.
I don’t believe that the so-called poetry of the Old Testament (a very large portion of it) is poetry at all, but that it is liturgy plain and simple. Liturgy that was prayed aloud by the Old Testament church in its worship. And that what is not poetry is Lectionary (and possibly Catechism & other items).
Also, that the Gospels were written very soon after Pentecost, and may have served as the liturgy and the lectionary in the apostolic church, before (liturgy) morphed into the forms we know today. Forms which may go back to the 2nd or 3rd century, while 1st century worship is shrouded in mystery. Unless a person considers the New Testament itself to be the form and content of the church’s earliest worship. But this is for another day.
But at this point let me remind you again of today’s title: “The Liturgical and Sacramental Nature of St. Paul’s Epistles” which, for the record, I no longer call epistles, but sermons. Though the term “epistle” has taken on a technical and theological meaning for the church, of itself it denotes only the method of transmission (which has other important implications, also for another day).
Yet, when I refer to them as sermons it is not to devalue them in any way. For it, too, only suggests how they were first used. It says nothing of the fact that these quickly became fully authoritative Scriptures of the New Testament in Christ’s blood. That they are are towering declarations, confessions and admonitions of theological truth that stimulate the human mind, satiate the human heart, and save the human soul.
Now keeping in mind the adage, “don’t believe everything you think,” let me tell you what I think.
1) I think that in each of his sermons Paul was exercising his apostolic prerogative to insert himself into the assembly of the receiving congregation(s). He did this in order to shore up their faith, and to deal with specific problems brought to his attention.
2) I think that his Sermons were written to be read aloud in the church on the Lord’s Day, by which I mean Sunday. “The Day of Salvation” per 2 Corinthians 6:2. The regularly scheduled Day in which our Lord intervenes in the affairs of men!
I also think that by “church” St. Paul rarely if ever means the body politic, or membership list. But the baptized engaged in Eucharistic worship.
Sidebar: Christian worship is, by definition, Eucharistic. In the Lord’s own words, “THIS CUP “estin” / is the New Testament in my blood.” Or said another way, “THIS CUP” comprises, constitutes and defines the New Testament. Or stated yet another way: THIS CUP is the practice of the holy Christian faith. To celebrate it, is to worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. (John 4:24).
“Do this!” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25)
3) Because St. Paul is consciously writing into the church’s worship his sermons do not begin with mere “introductions,” as we are often taught to call them. But rather with ritual worship, befitting the Great Congregation. (Psalm 22:5 et. al.)
Did you ever wonder about Paul’s “run on sentences”? You should know that they are easily divisible into versicles and responses, and that they make much sense that way. This leads me to believe that St. Paul was either supplying liturgy for their Divine Service, or accessing liturgy with which the receiving congregation was already familiar (which in some cases Paul himself taught them cf. Philippians 4:9).
And so we should understand that Paul’s “introductions” were not simply convention, the kind with which all letters in the Greco-Roman world began (as we were taught). But that they may well be straight up liturgy that, I logic, was antiphonally intoned by the receiving congregation. The “introductions” are, then formal worship of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ. That would be in keeping with the St. Paul we know and love.
4) Not only do his sermons begin with formal worship, and use the patent language of it, but the same liturgico-sacramental language appears throughout his sermons (see below). And as these Sermons begin and proceed – with the Eucharistic assembly in mind – thus they supremely conclude with what I believe to be Proper Prefaces.
Formal, recognizable liturgical Prefaces that serve as a sign and segue to the receiving congregation that the Liturgy of the Word is now ended; and it is time to proceed with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Now, with the caveat repeated, “don’t believer everything you think,” here’s what I think happened.
St. Paul, who is absent in body but present with this assembly in S/spirit (Colossians 2:5), hands control of the Divine Service back to the local congregation following his sermon. Which congregation / Bride then proceeds to engage in marital union with her Holy Groom.
And though I will come back to it later, I suggest we should presuppose that at the same time Paul is being heard in a distant church via his missive, he himself is celebrating the same Eucharist in his own locale be it in a house church, synagogue or prison cell.
Let’s look more closely.
Liturgical Openings / “Introductions”
What I am about to do with this opening chapter of Philippians is but one example of what I can do with all of Paul’s sermons.
Below is my own translation of verses 1 through 7 with commentary.
1. Paul and Timothy ministers of Christ Jesus to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi with their bishops and deacons.
Commentary: The sermon come from Paul (and Timothy) who are not simply “duloi” / “servants” ( per ESV) but Ministers of the Gospel. Men who hold formal ecclesiastical Office in the structured church that is now 30 years old. Men who stand before God’s people in persona christi.
The sermon is addressed to the "hagioi” / "holy ones” in Christ Jesus.” The words "in" and “holy” point us to baptism. For to be "in Christ" (used some 90 times by Paul) is not simply a talking point! But a factual reality. (John 17:21 & Colossians 3:3-4). In his sermon Paul is preaching to the assembly of the baptized (which is by definition Eucharistic).
It is baptism that renders us "hagioi" / "holy ones”. And because we are "in" Christ Jesus we also thereby participate in the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In the Holy Trinity! That is where we are located, and will always be located by virtue of the church’s primary sacrament.
Note "with their bishops and deacons." These are ecclesiastical, which is to say, ecclesial-liturgico-sacramental Offices. These are the formally ordained men who lead God's people in worship, teach the Gospel, consecrate the elements and distribute the Body and Blood of Christ to his Bride in the “marriage bed” of the church. (Hebrews 13:4) This is the chief duty and job description of the pastoral Office then and now.
2. Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and (our) Lord Jesus Christ.
Commentary: Many think of this and similar Pauline sentences to be nothing more than pious greetings for churchy people. But I think it is much more. I think it is a the formal liturgical greeting of the Eucharistic assembly to which Paul writes. He taught them how to worship, and now uses these same liturgical elements, as he inserts himself into their Mass as its "virtual" preacher. We should hear the congregation answering, “Amen” when this is read aloud.
3. I offer eucharistia to my God upon every remembrance of you 4 always in every prayer of mine on your behalf, making my prayer with joy 5 because of your communion / koinonia in the gospel from the very first until now.
Commentary: Notice the freighted Eucharistic language: offer eucharistia, remembrance, communion, joy. From earliest times, prayers for the church, the world, and individual needs were offered in closest proximity to the Consecration. This is meet and right because properly speaking all prayer is Eucharistic, even our private prayers, because they proceed from the Eucharist, from which all blessings flow.
Sidebar: Thus to “pray in Jesus’ name” is not a tag line, but the church’s Baptismal / Eucharistic prayer, and all prayer which derives from it.
Paul was not only an apostle, and minister of the Gospel himself. (2 Corinthians 4:1, 5:18, 6:3) But he ordained ministers, taught them how to lead God's people in worship, and how to pray. It seems obvious to me that prayer connected to the Eucharist is the way the church has prayed from the beginning. Indeed I feel very strongly that John chapter 17 may be the Lord’s own Eucharistic Prayer. (Also cf. Hebrews chapter 11ff.)
Because of this I can't accept the ESV translation of v. 5 "partnership" in the gospel, when the Greek has "koinonia." "Communion". That is, the Lord’s Supper. Paul has factual, and not just notional, Communion with the Philippians in the Gospel at the Altar each Sunday.
How is this possible since he was far away? Keep in mind that as his sermon was being read on a Sunday morning in Philippi that Paul was in all liklihood, in his locale, participating in Eucharistic worship at the same time. And so they are fellow communicants. Not just notionally, but factually via “the communion of saints”.
6. I am certain of this, that he who began a good work among you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ.
Commentary: The “Day of Christ” should not be heard as the Second Coming – at least not at first. But as "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:3). The Day when Christ appears in glory in his church, intervening in the affairs of men with both judgment and salvation.
Every Eucharist is an installment of the Parousia / 2nd Coming. Every Eucharist is the glorious and visible coming of Christ in judgment and salvation. Judgment against sin, death and the devil, which he destroys. And salvation for the sinner purged from these in baptism and now “full of grace and truth.” Full of him, that is, who is Grace and Truth.
7. It is right for me to think this way about you all because I hold you all in my heart; for you are all fellow communicants of grace with me in my chains, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
Commentary: Note "fellow communicants" in my translation here also, instead of the ESV's lackluster, "partakers." Also think of what the word "Gospel" means. The Gospel is not just a chain of events, or a story. But an incarnational kerygma / proclamation. Divine words combined with sacramental actions, liturgical speech, gestures, movements and intents. In a word: everything we do when we say, “I’m going to church.”
Worship is not simply, or principally a mental exercise! It is not the odorless, colorless, tasteless affair that liturgical minimalists would have us think. Something that exists chiefly between our ears, or in our emotions. But it is, instead, incarnational, palpable, visible, kinesthetic and pleasing to all of the senses. If it's not that, it is deficient.
This is but a sample of the liturgical and sacramental reading of St. Paul whose constellation is Baptism, Eucharist, Liturgy, Suffering, and New Life in Christ.
As Paul begins his sermon, so he continues. To site a few examples we should think of the following portions as liturgy that comprised Divine Service in Philippi in the 1st century:
Most obvious is 2:5-11 which many call “an early Christian hymn.” I don’t know why. Maybe it is a hymn, but it could just as well be liturgy. Whatever one calls it, however, it is not narrative, but doxology (from which dogma can also be drawn). There are others in Philippians and throughout Paul’s sermons. And we must not disregard what Paul is doing here if we want to read him rightly.
Here is a tiny sampling of others: Romans 5:1-8; Romans 8:28-39; Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 3:14-21; 4:4-16; 5:21-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:1; Timothy 3:16ff.)
One of the clearest signals that something is liturgy, and not narrative, is that it is easily divisible into Versicles and Responses. If it is, it probably is. (e.g. Beatitudes, Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis, Pater Noster, Prologue of St. John)
Conclusions / Proper Prefaces
I have identified Proper Prefaces or Preface-like pieces in all of Paul’s sermons, most are obvious, a few less so.
In Philippians the Proper Preface begins at 4:4, continues to 4:8 is interspersed with prayer and more of Paul’s concerns, and then continues in 4:21.
Here is how I interpret it.
The double rejoicing Paul calls for is the Eucharist. It is the sum and substance of gladness because it is Communion with the Holy. It is the pinnacle of joy! It is life with God as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow or Death. This verse might be interpreted: Commune with the Lord always, and again I say Commune!
Commentators are divided on interpreting “epieikes” in v. 5 which they translate: reasonableness, moderation, good sense, forbearance etc. But no one actually knows what to make of it once they do. Unless we read it Eucharistically. Then forbearance, i.e. forgiving one another his sins as we “bring our gifts to the altar,” becomes an easy solution.
“The Lord is at hand” (v. 5) should not be heard as the Parousia / Second Coming, but as Christ coming to his church in the Bread and Cup!
Verse 6 “don’t be anxious” should not be read in the abstract as it usually is. The St. John Chrysostom Liturgy admonishes its communicants in the Cherubic Hymn, “let us now lay aside all earthly care.” This, I think, is what Paul is saying here, but he is saying much more besides.
I submit that the “prayers and supplications” Paul exhorts here is the Eucharistic Prayer from which all other prayer proceeds. The clue is “meta eucharistias” / with thanksgiving. This is not the “formula for successful prayer” that Evangelicals suggest in their devotionals. But it is the a mighty indicator that “Eucharistia” was never made in the church without patent Eucharistic Prayers be they extemporaneous (Didache 10; Justin, First Apology 67.4), or fixed as they became in time.
Nor should we read verse 7 “the peace of God that surpasses … “ abstractly as we tend to do, but as one of the earliest Pax Domini’s on record! A performative Eucharistic Word that imparts what it states. “Peace that scorns rational explanation.”
Nor must we read past the word “brothers” in verse 8. Brothers must never be heard as an abstract collegial term in St. Paul, but specifically as Eucharistic. It bespeaks baptism by which we become brothers to Christ, and sons of the same heavenly Father; and made manifest at the altar.
Nor should we think of verse 8 “Whatsoever things are good … think on these things,” as Christian “positive thinking.” Instead Paul calls on the baptismally-cleansed Bride, now assembled to engage in marital union with her Groom, to give herself over to all that has been, and is to be experienced in Divine Liturgy. The formulations, prayers, lections, creeds, doctrines, admonitions, the body and the blood. In short every word, motion, gesture, taste and smell from beginning to blessed end. For all these lead to, and proceed from, the pinnacle of baptismal life: union with our God in the flesh of Christ.
Like “brothers,” I deem that “greet” (aspodzomai) is also a technical term in St. Paul that has a double function. To “greet” means to welcome those who are properly vetted to the Table, and the “holy kiss” (2 Cor. 13:12 et. al.) indicates that those who are one with Christ in the Holiest Communion of all, are also one with each other. That they are at peace. All is forgiven both vertically and horizontally – for what is marital intimacy in its purest form but the forgiveness of sins?
And finally note in verse 23 the same words as the Proper Preface we use today. When Paul says: The (grace of our) Lord (Jesus Christ) be with you, we might hear the Philippians church answering: And with your spirit.
Such Salutation, however, is not an imaginary “with-ness”, but the Lord himself will make these words true for each worshiper as he: confesses the Lord Jesus Christ at the altar, with mouth wide open, to receive the body and blood of Christ, in whom he believes with his heart, and is saved.” (Romans 10:9ff)
In closing, what I have demonstrated here, I can demonstrate in all of Paul’s epistle’s, and in Hebrews, Jude and Revelation as well.
Thank you for your attention.