Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! I hope this newsletter finds you well!
I had a very interesting conversation with a visitor recently that I want to share with you all. A visitor to Christ the Servant Lutheran remarked to me that as they walked into the sanctuary the very first thing they noticed was our beautiful stained-glass window above the altar. The next thing they noticed was the altar and they were struck by the fact that we had an altar. They asked if all Lutheran churches had altars, and I replied that most did. But then they asked why we had an altar when so many churches, especially non-denominational churches, did not have anything like that. To have one seemed to be a very “Catholic thing” to them. “Yes,” I said, “I suppose it is.” I thought about that for a moment then asked, “How long do you suppose the Catholic Church has been around?” They weren’t sure, so I told them that historians know there was a Christian church in Rome within 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion because St. Paul wrote a letter to them in 57 AD, after his second missionary journey. That letter is called the Book of Romans in the New Testament. This means there has been a church in Rome for over 1,900 years. Then I asked my next question, “How long have these non-denominational churches been around?”
It does beg the question, however, as to why Lutheran Churches have altars. We all know the Lutheran Church came out of the Roman Catholic Church because Martin Luther was not only a German Augustinian monk, he was also a catholic priest and a catholic theologian. In fact, he was a faculty professor of theology at Wittenberg University in Germany. His separation from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500’s came as a result of him attempting to reform some abuses and errors in the church of his day. One of the things Luther never disagreed upon, however, was the use of the altar for the Sacrament of the Altar, namely, the Lord’s Supper. But where did it come from?
Our form of worship on Sunday mornings came to us out of the Jewish synagogue, from when Christians used to be part of th Synagogue. It wasn't long after the desturion of the Jewish temple in Jersalem in 70 AD that Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messaih were exoekked from the synagogue. In fact, that process actually began in John 9:22. Jesus had healed a man born bliind, which was something never done in Israel before. When the religious leaders questioned thge previously blind man and his parents. His parents said they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Even though Christians were expelled, coming with those early believers, such as Peter, James, John and all the rest, the form of the liturgy, the hymns, the psalms, and even the layout of the church and furnishings came with them from the synagogue. But there was the issue of the sacraments, which the synagogues did not have.
A sacrament is when God combines His Word with a physical element —such as the water in baptism and the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper — as a means of delivering his grace. As a natural progression, Christians adopted the altar from Jerusalem’s temple worship, but not the brazen altar where the animal sacrifices were performed. Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world fulfilled the ceremonial law of God and abolished any need for further animal sacrifices. Christians adopted the theology of another altar, that is, the altar of incense. Before the temple’s destruction, the altar of incense sat just in front of the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies. In Exodus 30:6, God instructed Moses concerning this altar, “And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.” Incense was used in the temple and is symbolic for prayer, as we read in Revelation 8:4, “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”
The model, or type, of the altar of incense was adopted by Christians and combined with the Lord’s table in worship as the place in the church where God would be most present, in a very special way. It is where the prayers of the people would ascend, and it is where God meets us in the Sacrament, in the bread and wine, as Jesus promised to be present to forgive sin. This is why we confess our sins at the beginning of the service, by the way.
An altar is a place of offering. At Lutheran altars our prayers are offered and ascend, and the Sacrament is offered and given. It is a Sacrament, where Christ has stated, “Take, and eat, this is my body, given for you.” And again, “Take and drink. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” God is present with the physical elements. It is the Lord’s Supper because Jesus himself commanded us to, “Do this in the remembrance of me.” It is the Eucharist because we offer our praise and thanksgiving to God for the sacrament. And it is why we call it Communion, because God is present intimately with us to forgive, renew, feed, and strengthen his people for the spiritual journey of life.
I hope you found this topic interesting and maybe shed the light on why Lutheran Churches still have altars.
God’s blessings to you this month of August!