Richard O. Johnson
It is my pleasure and my joy to be with you this evening for this event, and to contribute in some way, I hope, to “refreshing the hearts of the saints” here in the Metropolitan Chicago area. My thanks to Pastor Keith Forni for inviting me, and for being such a splendid host.
Keith asked me months ago to give him a title for what I would share with you tonight, and I was remiss in not doing so in a timely manner. I knew, from our first conversation early last summer, that one thing I was interested in exploring was the relationship between liturgy and social concern. As a historian, it has always intrigued me how often those who have sought liturgical renewal, and especially Eucharistic renewal, in the church have also been particularly concerned for the church’s social ministry.
In Lutheran history, one might think immediately of Wilhelm Löhe, the Bavarian pastor whose multifaceted ministry at Neuendettelsau was a center for liturgical reform but also a missionary training school, a school for deaconesses, and a center for charitable work. But there are many other examples. John Wesley is well-known for his social concern—his ministry among the poor and the laboring class, his staunch opposition to slavery; you may not know, however, that he was also possessed of a deep Eucharistic piety. The Eucharistic hymns written by his brother and co-worker Charles Wesley are as profound as any in the whole corpus of Christian hymnody. Contemporary with Löhe, many leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church combined their Anglo-Catholic ecclesiological and liturgical commitments with a real-life immersion in parish ministry among the roughest and neediest population of 19th century England.
Closer to home—or at least closer to my home—is the connection between the sacraments and life in the world that I found when I was writing Changing World, Changeless Christ, the history of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. Already back in the 1930s and 40s and for several decades thereafter the Bureau’s publications like the American Lutheran magazine and then Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter were publishing articles both about liturgical and sacramental piety and about the Christian’s responsibility with regard to social issues.
I will admit to you that my interest in this is more than simply historical. Some of you may know that I was raised in the United Methodist Church, and originally ordained as a United Methodist pastor. I have now spent more than half my life as a Lutheran pastor, but since retirement I have been worshiping and serving in an Episcopal congregation. So when I find places of congruence between my Wesleyan roots, my Lutheran convictions, and my current Anglican sojourn, I perk up my ears.
As I tried to think this through, the phrase that kept coming to my mind was “holy living.” These words appear prominently in the Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity, of which several of us here tonight are members. We find in chapter 2:
“We will challenge and encourage one another to live in obedience to Jesus, desiring to be examples to the faithful and to adorn with holy living the Ministry entrusted to us.”
I’m not certain about the history of those words or how they came to be in the Society’s Rule, though my assumption is that they were drawn from the ordination liturgies of both the ELCA and the LCMS. In the LCMS agenda, the ordinand is asked, first, if he will “honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life,” while in the ELCA service, the ordinand is asked if she or he will lead God’s people “by your own example in faithful service and holy living.”
I have not done the research to determine whether these words have been common in historic Lutheran ordination liturgies, or whether they also appear in the liturgies of the wider ecumenical community, but the words also echo one of the classics of Anglican spirituality, Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. Bishop Taylor was not speaking specifically of the ordained ministry; he saw “holy living” as the call of every Christian. Of course the Lutheran liturgies also do not see holy living as the purview of pastors only. The ordained minister is to lead by example; her or his “holy living” is intended, at least in part, to serve as an example to the faithful.
Bishop Taylor’s book, the title page tells us, is intended to present the “means and instruments of obtaining every virtue and the remedies against every vice, and considerations serving to the resisting all temptations”—surely a daunting task, and one that may cause shivers among us sanctification-shy Lutherans! But as devoted as we are to justification by grace through faith, this longing for holiness still nags at our hearts, and when we speak of our need for “refreshment,” I suspect that “holiness” is really what we desire.
We know, of course, that “holy living” is a goal we cannot achieve without the grace of God—and yet we also know that God richly and graciously gives us the desire to serve him and he provides the “means and instruments,” as Taylor puts it, that will help us to do so. And, truth be told, I think we often misunderstand Luther here. Luther does not shy away from “holy living.” In the Large Catechism, he comments that if he had to give a title to the Third Article of the Creed, it would be “Being Made Holy.” That, it seems to me, gets it about right: Our aim, our desire, is to be holy, but it isn’t our own work; we are made holy.
So what does “holy living” look like? What I want to argue is that the content of “holy living” is viewed remarkably consistently by a number of these different movements for renewal within the church—by a 17th century Anglican like Jeremy Taylor, by the 18th century Wesleyan movement and the later Oxford movement within Anglicanism, and by the confessional Lutheranism of Löhe and the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. And that content is also very much congruent with what the Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity has in mind when it speaks of “adorning with holy living the Ministry entrusted to us.”
There are any number of ways that one might approach this, but perhaps the simplest is to say that “holy living” involves our activities both in the church and in the world, and that indeed, these activities lead us back and forth from church to world. Let’s start with the church.
By “activities in the church” I’m not talking about how we as pastors or as lay Christians function in the institutional life of the church, but how the spiritual reality of the church shapes and forms and instructs our “holy living.” Wilhelm Löhe began his important work Three Books About the Church by observing that “in our day all people are talking about the church,” and it must have seemed that way in the mid-19th century. Generally the debate was between those like Schleiermacher and several others who viewed the church in an anthropocentric way—the church and ministry as human constructs, institutions developed by Christians in response to the gospel; and those like Löhe and John Henry Newman and his Oxford movement, who saw both church and ministry more theocentrically, as divinely ordained. For Lutherans, of course, the divinely ordained church is in fact the setting for our sanctification, our “holy living.” The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies” not just me but “the whole Christian church on earth,” and it is precisely “in this Christian church” that God “daily and richly forgives all my sins.” John Wesley came at this in a slightly different way by arguing that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian—by which he meant that our sanctification, our holy living, is never something that exists in us in isolation but always in the fellowship of other Christians, which is to say, in the church. The church, then, is the spiritual school in which we are together trained in and equipped for holy living.
The place this training always must begin is with prayer. The holy life is a life suffused with prayer. In Bishop Taylor’s account, the “first instrument of holy living” is what he calls the “care of our time,” but you can’t read far before you realize that he is really arguing for dedicating more of our time to prayer. The first affirmation in the Preamble to the Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity is that we will “promote an ecclesiastical and pastoral piety shaped by the daily discipline of prayer and meditation on the Holy Scriptures,” and then chapter 1 of the Rule says that the Society will be “bound together in common prayer.”
For me, the Society’s encouragement to prayer has indeed been, in Bishop Taylor’s words, an “instrument of holy living.” I spent many years of ministry where my praying was sporadic, undisciplined and immature. I love the line in Augustine’s Confessions where he speaks of his initial stabs at prayer when he was a child—“by calling upon you I untied the knots of my tongue and begged you, in my little-boy way but with no little earnestness, not to let me be beaten at school.” I love it because it echoes my own earnest little-boy prayers that lasted well into adulthood and ministry—prayers that were self-centered, self-interested, often desperate, always earnest but almost always occasional and situational. But that kind of praying isn’t really a recipe for holy living.
It is the discipline of the daily office that begins to move one, or at least began to move me, toward the goal of holy living. I’ve often asked myself why this should be, and it seems to me that there are at least three factors. The first is simply the realization that I do not pray alone. This should not have come as a surprise to me; in seminary I wrote a paper about St. Cyprian’s treatise on prayer, in which I argued that in the early church prayer was always understood to be corporate, even if one were praying alone, whereas in the modern church generally prayer is understood to be private, even if one is praying with others. I was convinced of that in seminary, but somewhere along the way I forgot it. Being part of a society “bound together in common prayer” helped me to recover that sense.
The second factor is that the discipline of praying the daily office has helped me really to learn that prayer is about listening, not just talking. The Rule speaks of the “Biblical content” of the divine office. It took me some time to realize that reading the lessons and singing the Psalms were, in fact, prayer—that prayer was a conversation, an interaction, between me and God, and not just me presenting God with my little-boy list of wants and needs. That has been an important discovery for me.
The third is simply, well, the discipline of daily prayer. In the first decades of my ministry, I often resolved to pray daily, but that resolution never lasted very long. Too many other things got in the way, some of them important, most of them trivial. But here again is where the encouragement of the Society comes into play. Discipline always seems easier if we are in it with someone else. I’m more likely to go to the gym if my friend is meeting me there and we’ll be working out together. I’m more likely to eat responsibly if my spouse and I are on the same page about it. Call it accountability, I guess; but the point is, knowing that my brothers and sisters in the Society are in this with me encourages me to keep at it, even when it’s hard, even when it seems burdensome.
So holy living arises out of faithful and regular prayer. It is also nourished and cultivated by the regular reception of the Eucharist. Here again we find a strong commonality among renewal movements in the church: more often than not, such movements are accompanied by a renewed appreciation for the blessings that the Sacrament bestows upon the Christian community. This was true for Bishop Taylor. Holy Living does not spend a lot of time speaking about the Eucharist, but what Taylor says is profound: “All persons should communicate very often, even as often as they can. . . . [Those who are] well grown in grace . . . must needs come, because [they] are excellently disposed to so holy a feast; but [those] in the infancy of piety had need to come, that so [they] may grow in grace. The strong must come lest they become weak; and the weak that they may become strong.” John Wesley, in the Enlightenment age when anything mysterious was denigrated, nonetheless advocated frequent communion. The centrality of the Eucharist was part of the program of the Oxford Tractarians and of Löhe.
The regular celebration of the Eucharist is perhaps taken for granted today among many of our churches, though there are still wide swaths of Lutheranism in America where that is not the case, and it is worth our remembering that the weekly Eucharist was rare even a generation ago. As I worked on the history of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, the ALPB’s advocacy for a stronger Eucharistic piety was a particularly interesting piece of it for me. The ALPB was advocating more frequent reception way back in the 1920s, and that became an increasingly strong note in its publications over the next decades. In 1935 Pastor Fred Lindemann calculated, based on parochial reports, that the average Missouri Synod Lutheran communed only 2.18 times in the previous year. “How far we have drifted from what our Lord had in mind when He instituted [the] Supper on the night before His death!” he exclaimed. “The figures reveal an appalling spiritual coldness.”
Over the next several years, Lindemann continued to beat this drum, both in the pages of the American Lutheran and in a couple of books. He was passionate and convincing:
Our purpose must be to elevate the Sacrament again to that place in the lives of our Christians which the Lord intended for it. . . .
We must begin by preaching so, that Holy Communion becomes to our people the loftiest, sweetest, happiest experience of their lives, as the personal application of the Gospel proclaimed and applied generally in the sermon.. . . .
The task confronting the preacher today is to preach so that a generation with centuries of neglect and indifference behind it again learns to appreciate the Sacrament as the precious gift the Lord Jesus intended it to be. . . . People whose parents and grandparents reserved the blessed experience of Holy Communion only for rare and special occasions and who inherited this attitude, must be taught to look upon the Sacrament as a vital and constant influence in their daily lives.
“A vital and constant influence in their daily lives”—which is to say, the Eucharist is an instrument of holy living. Contemporary Missouri Synod writer Chad Bird has put it this way: “We get more sanctification at the Lord’s Supper than we would from a lifetime of moral striving. Holiness is gift, not achievement.”
But even if the weekly Eucharist has become much more common among us—even if, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, we now truly do not abolish the mass but retain it—one must wonder, first, whether the Augustana’s claim that it is “celebrated with the highest reverence” can be maintained. I do not want to get sidetracked by offering a rant on the state of Lutheran worship today, but “highest reverence” are not the words that immediately spring to mind in many of the services I’ve attended in recent years.
And one must also wonder if Lindemann’s words about the sacrament as “a vital and constant influence in our daily lives” ring true. It seems to me that this is where we still have much to accomplish. It does little for the renewal of Christ’s church if we have restored the Eucharist to its central place in our worship but have not inculcated in our people the understanding that this is not just something that we do on Sunday morning but it is a vital part of “holy living.”
I find it interesting that the Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity itself doesn’t say much about the Eucharist. It assumes that members of the Society will develop a parish practice that offers the Eucharist at least weekly, and it mentions the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at general and chapter retreats; but it says nothing about the importance of the Eucharist for the pastor’s own example of “holy living.” It recalls for me another interesting point made by the American Lutheran seventy years ago. At that time it was considered inappropriate for a Lutheran pastor to commune himself, and it was also inappropriate for a layperson to administer the elements. So for many pastors, the only opportunity they had to receive the Eucharist was either when they were on vacation or when they attended pastoral conferences. A writer in the American Lutheran wondered how pastors could be expected to preach about the importance of frequent reception when they themselves could receive communion only a few times a year.
But for pastors, as for all Christians, the Eucharist is essential to our daily life, to our holy living. Those of us who are serving congregations bear the responsibility to cultivate that truth within our people. There are many ways one might do this, I suppose. I’ve found particularly helpful something that the rector of my congregation does. After the sharing of the peace, right before the offertory, he offers a kind of invitation to the Lord’s Table which most often plays off whatever the theme of his sermon was and ties it directly to the Eucharist. The connections he makes between his preaching—and thus the Scripture for the day—and the sacrament really help the congregation (or at least they help this congregant) to reflect on how what I am about to receive relates to my daily life, my “holy living.”
So our holy living, our sanctification, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, nurtured and nourished in the church by daily prayer, by the Holy Eucharist, and I would add one more thing: by confession and absolution. I’ve never taken a poll, but I would be willing to wager that for those of us in the Society, Chapter Five of the Rule, “Confession and Absolution,” presented both one of the biggest challenges and one of the greatest rewards in our own growth in holy living. I do not imagine I am alone in admitting that I knew more about private confession in theory than in practice—not that I even knew that much in theory! When I was contemplating subscribing to the Rule, there were some things I felt that I needed to “try out” in my own life before committing myself, and one of those things was private confession. As a pastor I had very occasionally heard a formal confession, but I had never gone to confession. And so before I signed the Rule, that is something that I decided I would do, in order to see whether this would in fact aid me in my own life of faith.
I found it to be a remarkably helpful experience. I completely resonated with the comment made by a young colleague who, about the same time, came to me to make his first confession: “I felt like a snake must feel when he sheds his old skin.” Indeed, for me confession has become one of the most powerful aids to growth in holy living. It does not surprise me that this, too, has been an emphasis of these various movements for renewal that I have been mentioning. Private confession fell into disuse among Anglicans even faster than it did among Lutherans, but even so Bishop Taylor could remind his readers that “the church of God, in all ages, hath commended, and, in most ages, enjoined, that we confess our sins, and discover the state and condition of our souls to such a person, whom we or our superiors judge fit to help us in such needs.” A century later John Wesley urged that his followers confess their sins regularly—though for him, this was not typically to a clergyman but in the context of what he called “bands,” small groups of perhaps half a dozen fellow Christians who met together regularly for the purpose of mutual confession and spiritual encouragement. In his defense, one would have to say that there probably weren’t many Church of England clergy in the 18th century who would know what to do if a penitent came to them for confession. But in the next century, the Oxford movement encouraged a recovery of private confession. Tractarian Edward Pusey, for example, spoke scornfully of “that unearnest modern way in which persons, with some slight acknowledgment of the frailty of their nature, virtually absolve themselves.” That still sounds pretty modern, doesn’t it? The Tractarians recognized the folly in self-absolution, and encouraged regular private confession. Pusey noted that “one who has once tasted ‘the benefits of absolution’” will long to “continue to ‘open his griefs.’” He will find confession “a healthful discipline for his soul, a safeguard often, by God’s grace, against sin.” Confession, in other words, helps one to grow in holy living.
The Society’s Rule provides that there be opportunity for private confession and absolution at our retreats, and many of our members regularly take advantage of this opportunity. The Rule, however, also suggests that each member “seek out a trustworthy pastor who will be willing to serve as a confessor and who will be able to be available for one’s individual confession regularly and frequently.” I wonder how well we do with that? I know that for me it was too easy just to wait until a retreat. Since retiring, I’ve had the great gift of asking the rector of my parish to be my regular confessor—a challenging experience, I will admit. Confessing my sins to an STS colleague whom I may not know well and whom I probably won’t see again for several months is one thing; confessing my sins to my pastor whom I usually see at least twice a week and who knows me well enough that I can’t get away with much is something very different. But it has been good—again, an aid to holy living.
It seems I have spent most of my time this evening talking about how the church, the spiritual disciplines that are part of our life together, form and nurture our holy living, but we must say something as well about the world. “Holy living,” after all, means very little if it is entirely about our spiritual lives. We have to live in the world, where “holy living” may not always be so obvious or so easy.
This is perhaps where Luther’s doctrine of vocation comes into play. Taito Kantonen noted that vocation really belongs in the realm of law, and has to do with how God orders the world. Vocation, perhaps we could say, is how we practice holy living in the world. Chapter 2 of the Society’s Rule, the one which speaks about a life of obedience to Jesus, the one where we are encouraged to adorn our ministry with holy living, has much to say about what this means in the world. It quotes many of the well-known social justice texts and precepts: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” “Defend the poor, the weak, the orphaned the fatherless, the widowed.” “Live simply and wisely as good stewards of personal resources and God’s good earth.” “Speak the truth in love.” It also speaks of more personal matters: “Be chaste and pure, faithful in marriage, celibate in singleness.” “Be temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, . . . no drunkard.”
Some of these things are easy enough to understand, though not so easy to do. Others become very complicated in our modern complex democratic society, as we puzzle about how we exercise “holy living” in the context, say, of citizenship. I was talking about this with a friend the other day, wondering how to approach this, and his advice was, “Just channel your 1960s radical.” Yes, I suppose I could do that. Many pastors today seem to think that the nature and purpose of the church is to be an incubator for social change and political action; this attitude is present at both ends of the political spectrum. My 1960s radical would probably fit right in with that viewpoint.
I can’t say that my politics have changed all that much since then, but my attitude has changed. I follow a couple of different ELCA clergy Facebook pages, and I am appalled by what I read—the anger, the vitriol, the self-righteousness—and that’s often coming from people with whom I sympathize politically! I can often see it as well in the words of those on the other side. I read these things and wonder how they can possibly be the fruits of holy living. Love, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—all seem to get swallowed up in well-intended passion which can lead only to spiritual destruction.
It is not that a concern for “holy living” necessarily leads one to quietism or disengagement from the world; quite the opposite. John Wesley was adamantly opposed to the slave trade and spoke freely of “social holiness,” and many of the later British abolitionists were influenced by the Oxford movement. A century later, the American Lutheran’s devotion to liturgical reform went hand in glove with chastising the church for its support of segregation. One of the most moving photos I found in browsing through old issues of that magazine was a picture taken in a New York congregation with black and white parishioners kneeling together at the communion rail, drinking from the common cup. That was a pretty bold image in the early 1950s. An editorial in that same issue concluded with the prayer, “God speed the day when the last vestige of rebellious racial pride in the Church will have been conquered by the love with which God has loved us all!”
I do not think there is an easily described program for how Christians should engage with the world, and we will come to different conclusions about how that works in our own context; but perhaps the most helpful thing we can do is to recognize and remember that “holy living” in the world always grows out of, and returns to, the means and instruments of our own sanctification in the church. In a moving sermon on the importance of intercessory prayer, Cardinal Newman suggested that changing the world begins precisely there. “By words and works,” he wrote, “we can but teach or influence a few; by our prayers we may benefit the whole world, and every individual of it, high and low, friend, stranger and enemy.” “How can we complain of difficulties,” he asked, “national or personal, how can we justly blame evil-minded and powerful men, if we have but lightly used the intercessions offered up in the Litany, the Psalms, and in the Holy Communion?” I find that very convicting, for I confess to you that in our hyper-partisan environment, I find it difficult to pray for those whom I think are evil-minded and powerful. I say that I confess it to you, but what I really need is to take it to my confessor. Because again, “holy living” in the world grows out of the instruments and means of our sanctification—we pray, as one of the Anglican collects puts it, “for all sorts and conditions of men, that thou wouldst be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations.” And then our “holy living” in the world returns to those same instruments and means, as we confess that we have sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by things done and left undone, and that we not loved God with our whole heart, or our neighbors as ourselves. Then we hear the words of absolution, and we are nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, and sent out again into the world, to love and serve the Lord.
Let me close with another collect written, I believe, by William Temple—a collect which, for me, embodies what “holy living” is all about.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN
 Wilhelm Löhe, Three Books about the Church, trans. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 43.
 Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (M. P. Dutton, 1876), 4ff.
 Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions; trans. Maria Boulding, O. S. B. (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 12.
 Taylor, 390-391
 Fred H. Lindemann, “At the Lord’s Table,” American Lutheran 19, no. 9 (Sept. 1936), 7.
 Fred H. Lindemann, “Evangelical Striving for Frequent Communion,” American Lutheran 21, no. 11 (Nov. 1938), 10-11.
 Chad Bird, Facebook post, 10 Oct. 2018, accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
 Taylor, 369.
 Edward Pusey, Entire Absolution of the Penitent. Sermon II . . . (Oxford, 1857), 8, 19.
 Taito Kantonen, A Theology of Christian Stewardship, quoted in Frederick J. Schumacher, ed., For All the Saints (Delhi, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1995), 2:1087.
 “The Church’s Report Card on Integration,” American Lutheran 38, no. 12 (Dec. 1955), 4.
 John Henry Newman, “Intercession,” Parochial and Plain Sermons 3:364-365, quote in John Hulsman, ed., The Rule of Our Warfare: John Henry Newman and the true Christian Life (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2003), 65-66.
 Book of Common Prayer 1979, 832.
Richard O. Johnson is a retired ELCA Pastor and adjunct professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is probably best known as the editor of the ALPB monthly Forum Letter. He has also written a 500+ page history, Changing World, Changeless Christ: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1914-2014 (Delhi, NY: ALPB Books, 2018). Since the ALPB has been an independent inter-Lutheran publishing ministry, it reads like a history of American Lutheranism over the course of a century .
Note: The image above this article is of the four volumes of For All the Saints, the popular breviary or prayer book published by ALPB in 1995. It is being printed in a slightly updated edition in 2020.