Singing the Faith in Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs

My own dear congregation, Emmaus in South Bend, is celebrating the culmination of its 100th Anniversary with a hymn festival this coming Sunday afternoon. Emmaus is a singing church and loves its hymnody, and we have marked and celebrated many occasions over the years in this way. The hymn festival this weekend will make use of a new hymnal supplement that we have worked on over the past decade, featuring “100 Hymns for 100 Years” of God’s grace.

I won’t be able to attend and participate in the hymn festival myself, because I’ll have the joy and privilege of preaching at a couple of Reformation Festivals in the southern region of our District – one in Georgetown, Indiana, and the other in Seymour, Indiana. I’m looking forward to those opportunities as we rejoice and give thanks for the blessed heritage of the Reformation and the ongoing mission and ministry of the Gospel in our own day. Of course there will be good hymns involved in those festivals as well, as hymnody has always been a significant aspect of the Lutheran Church, almost from the very outset, beginning with Dr. Luther himself.

On this very topic, I highly recommend Christopher Boyd Brown’s excellent book, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2005). Brown makes a compelling case for the role of hymnody in the progress and staying power of the evangelical doctrine and confession of the faith. This was a distinctive characteristic and contribution of Dr. Luther’s efforts, thereafter emulated and continued among his successors. And the growing body of rich Lutheran hymns, along with the ancient hymns of the Church, carried and conveyed the Word of God solidly into the hearts and minds of Lutheran people.

Several significant examples of that Lutheran Reformation heritage are found this week in the commemoration of three Lutheran pastors who were also among the most outstanding Lutheran hymnwriters: Philipp Nicolai, Paul Gerhardt, and Johann Heerman, who are remembered with thanksgiving on the 26th of October. The fact that two of my sons are named after two of these men is indicative of the great esteem in which I hold these gifted servants of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the hymns of the Church – as well as those who write the texts and compose the music of those hymns – are among the Lord’s most precious gifts.

My visits to Seymour always bring back many memories of my grandparents, who spent their lives there as members of Immanuel Lutheran Church. In the final years of her life, my Grandma Stuckwisch was a resident at the Lutheran Home in Seymour, and, on the occasions when I was able to visit her – when dementia had robbed her of so much, and she often mistook me for my Dad (her eldest son, for whom I am named) – I would mostly just sing hymns with her and for her, because those texts and tunes tapped into deep memories that could not be taken from her. Invariably, those hymns not only served my grandma in a way that I could not otherwise, but they also gathered a circle of other residents around us, many of them singing along with us.

St. Paul himself, in his Epistles to the Church at Ephesus (5:18-20) and Colossae (3:15-17), points to the Spiritual power, benefit, and blessing of hymnody, that is, “Psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs,” for the building up and edifying of the Body of Christ. Not only does such singing of the faith offer a pleasing sacrifice of thanks and praise to the Father in the Spirit through Jesus Christ, our Lord, it also conveys and carries His Word and the Holy Spirit from our lips into the hearts and minds, bodies, souls, and spirits of our brothers and sisters. To echo St. Augustine of Hippo, “He who sings prays twice” – and confesses twice-over, as well.