Theme: The right use of ceremony
Luke 7:37-38 (ESV) Behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that (Jesus) was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
This might be the most excessive display of devotion in all of Holy Scripture. A woman, who was a sinner, to which Simon, in his thoughts, adds that she is a certain “sort of woman,” which is to say that she is not the sort that you want to touch you in public, comes to a Pharisee’s house. There is the suggestion here, fair or not, that in Simon’s mind she was sexually impure, a prostitute or an adulteress. Whatever the reality is, the woman knows that she will be judged and humiliated by the Pharisee. She might be welcomed at the back door – and maybe she had been, for Simon knows her, but she isn’t going to be welcomed at the front. And, yet, she comes anyway. She endures it because that is where Jesus is.
Then, in His gracious presence, she forgets everything and everyone else except Jesus. So she doesn’t hang out in the back and try to be inconspicuous. She has to touch Him, stroke Him even, while He is talking to other people. It is an excessive, intimate, and somewhat obnoxious display. With the whole world watching, she anoints the Lord’s feet with perfume and tears and kisses.
This is what happens when you invite Jesus to dinner. You don’t know who He will bring with Him. If that happens when you invite Jesus to dinner, it is even worse when He invites you. And, of course, that is why we’re here now: to come to the Lord’s Supper at the invitation of Jesus.
The Church is a fellowship of sinners and sinners sin. That is not to say that the Church is a fellowship of hardened, impenitent, intentional sinners. It is not. But it is, nonetheless, a fellowship of sinners. Some of us, inevitably, misbehave. We fail to love one another as we love ourselves. We’re rude or unfriendly or even insulting.
Will you love us even if we don’t love you back? What if we don’t vote the way you do or dress nicely enough or make you feel good about yourself? What if you don’t always like us or we simply aren’t worth it? The fact is when we come to the Lord’s Supper we aren’t coming to a dinner party of our best friends. We are coming to a family reunion. You don’t get to choose your family, and they don’t always make you proud or happy, but you don’t get to disown them either.
That is the first obstacle. The woman was a sinner. Will you accept her nonetheless?
The second is that she behaves in a crude way. Will you reject and condemn her for it?
Besides our difference in sins, and how we fail one another, we also differ in our ceremonies and in our displays of devotion. The Lord accepts the woman’s ceremony, even praises her for it, as He identifies that it comes from her great love and gratitude at having been forgiven so much.
This is an example for us. The point is not that we should start groping one another in Church. The point is that some of us will engage in more elaborate ceremonies than others, while others might remain more stoic, and we should not judge one another according to them.
The Augsburg Confession makes this point by saying that it
is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that . . . the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere.
Besides tolerable differences, a lack of uniformity in ceremonies, it is possible to misunderstand ceremonies. They are powerful and important. That makes them susceptible to abuses of all sorts. What this woman was doing with her kisses, tears, and perfume, with her touching and her hair, was an outward expression of her heart’s worship. She did it because she had been forgiven much. Her love was much. She responded in an outward way that was natural for her and perfectly appropriate. If it had not been then Jesus would not have endorsed it. Simon was wrong to judge her.
We aren’t particularly prone to judging her because we know that she is the heroine of the story, but we are prone to judging one another, to thinking that our own personal ceremonies, or lack of ceremonies sometimes, are superior to others. There is something broken in us that desires to bend the church to our own personal tastes and opinions. That is sinful and dangerous to faith. All ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching what we need to know about Christ and confessing Him. There is, however, bound to be disagreement over which ceremony is the best for that in each case. What feels best to one of us, such as kissing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with our hair, might feel over the top to another. We do not want to be like Simon in this – even we don’t want to do what the woman did, let us not condemn her for it.
We should restrain from judging one another. But we should, at the same time, be most careful and thoughtful with ceremonies. In our congregation, for example, we need to be careful that we do not give the false impression that we worship God through images even though we use in images in worship. We use images, like crucifixes, or even the stations of the cross, to remind us of the historic events of the Passion. We do the same thing with Christian symbols, like goldfinches and pelicans, but we do not worship God through them.
The same is true of the furniture we use in worship. We do not use the altar or the pulpit or the stained glass to worship God, but simply as an aid to worship. As a matter of short-hand we might say to the acolytes that “we bow to the altar,” but, technically we aren’t bowing to the altar in worship. We are bowing to God, our Savior, who comes to us in His risen Body and Blood according to His promise which we are most accustomed to receiving from the altar. So when we bow toward the altar we are using the altar to remind us of Christ and His sacrifice and of His promise in the Holy Communion. That is different than when we bow before the Sacrament itself. There we are adoring Christ Himself, not by way of a reminder, but in the Sacrament because He is in the Sacrament as He has promised to be. Again, though, the actual ceremony, the bowing, is only an outward expression of faith, and it can be different from one person to the next. So we should not judge one another for bowing or not bowing nor should bind consciences.
The point is that we worship God in spirit and in truth. He speaks to us through His Word. He is present for us in the Sacrament of the Altar, in Holy Baptism, and in the preaching of His Word. The images and furniture and space aren’t special conduits of grace. They aren’t means of grace. They are only reminders. As such, as reminders, they are most useful and good, but they are limited.
Compared to the woman’s ceremony in Simon’s house, most of our ceremonies seem lackluster and maybe even insufficient. In a sense they are. For how can we express our gratitude and joy sufficiently for what Christ has done for us? But the thing to be imitated in the woman isn’t her ceremony. It is not even her zeal and emotion. What we should imitate is her love, that is her faith, and her desire to be in the presence of Jesus no matter the opinion of men. We, too, have been forgiven much, maybe more than she has.
Our worship in spirit and truth will have outward, physical expressions. It has to. In this, let there be freedom and also care. Let us not be like Simon, who thought he’d been forgiven little and thought he was better than others. Let us be like her, and know that we are sinners, but that we have been forgiven much, and let us then love and rejoice much.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 42.