Posted on July 5th, 2016
I’m blessed with a singing church. Immanuel gladly tackles any hymn in the book. They sing the hymns well, and can often be heard breaking out into four-part harmony. Singing in this way is an important metaphor for the life of the congregation beyond the liturgy. Harmony—bringing our differently ranged voices together in coordinated song—is also how we live together as Christians.
Harmony is how we live together as Christians.
In discussing the central article of the Christian Faith—justification—our Lutheran Confessions address the importance of harmony, a life together built by not holding sins against our brothers and sisters:
In all families and communities harmony should be nurtured by mutual aid, for it is not possible to preserve tranquility unless men cover and forgive certain mistakes in their midst. In the same way Paul commands that there be love in the church to preserve harmony, to bear, if need be, with the crude behavior of the brethren, to cover up minor mistakes, lest the church disintegrate into various schisms and the hatreds, factions, and heresies that arise from such schisms. (Ap IV.232; Tappert pp139f)
What is this “crude behavior,” but disregard for the feelings and needs of others, along with a lack of love and free acceptance?
I must confess that in my early years as a pastor, I took some slights, real or perceived, personally. One particular discussion regarding church finances I took as a personal attack. Instead of talking to the person, I harbored a grudge. It ate away at me for a long time. One Sunday morning we were praying the Lord’s Prayer, and I realized as I spoke those words, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” that the problem was not the person I had made my enemy; the problem was me. I was the cause of the lack of harmony.
Now, no words were ever exchanged between us about this; I think he’d be surprised I was ever angry. Yet what could be hidden from others was not hidden from God. Nor was I unaffected by my grudge. It was a cancer corrupting my soul. I had not wanted to forgive him, but that day I determined that I needed to make the Fifth Petition a prayer for the desire and strength to forgive. How can I sing in harmony with the divine hymn if I am not in harmony with my brother?
Dissonance destroys the church’s love, but harmony celebrates Christ’s reconciliation.
Profoundly liberating is this notion that I need not look for justice or fairness from my brothers, nor demand they make satisfaction to me for their sins. If Jesus Christ is the propitiation for my sins, then He is likewise the propitiation for those of my brother. Dissonance destroys the church’s love, but harmony celebrates Christ’s reconciliation.
It’s easy to read the quotation above and then extol yourself with doing such a good job of bearing with the crude behavior of others. But the reality is, they have to put up with mine! And I probably cannot even see how I am hurting others. What a blessing, therefore, when my parishioners, my family, and my brother pastors, overlook and bear with my “crude behavior”!
As my church body prepares for its coming convention, I’m reminded of the painful observation that “Many heresies have arisen in the church simply from the hatred of the clergy.” (Ap IV.242; Tappert p141)
How easy it is to become entrenched in positions not because they are true but because we hate to lose the argument, hate to see the “other side” win, culminating in a hatred of those for whom Christ died.
My congregation has its share of different opinions, and a $5 million + building project has certainly revealed some of them. Glory to God, who has kept us united through some of these strong differences by the communion in Christ we share. That communion works love that transcends different perspectives on the work and challenges before us.
The Confessions elaborate this point a few paragraphs later:
In human relations love is not obstinate, harsh, or intractable; instead, it overlooks certain mistakes of its friends and puts the best construction on even the more offensive conduct of others, just as the common proverb admonishes, “Know, but do not hate, the conduct of a friend.” It is not without reason that the apostles speak so often about this responsibility of love, which the philosophers call “fairness.” For this virtue is necessary for preserving public harmony, which cannot last long unless pastors and churches overlook and pardon many things among themselves. (Ap IV.243; Kolb/Wengert pp157)
For harmony in the church to prevail, we must be united around a common confession of faith and bear with each other by love that overlooks the faults of others.
Lord Jesus Christ, where there is dissonance in Your Church’s song, bring harmony!