Man kneeling and praying in large church
A man prays before worship at Memorial Lutheran Church and School on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Houston. (LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford)

By Sean Daenzer

“The Lutheran Churches are still sunning themselves in the delusion that they have something to expect from the world other than the dear holy cross, which all those must carry who proclaim God’s Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to mankind. But this delusion will soon disappear.


“Our American brethren in the faith will also learn this through painful experiences. Instead of setting up a church office in Washington [D.C.], it would have been better had they equipped some place somewhere in the solitude of their immense country where prayers would be offered day and night for their government and for the peace of the world. For the church of Christ is not a church that is always busy holding conferences, nor is she a church that does business with politicians and the press. She is ecclesia orans. And this is her main calling. Either she is ecclesia orans—as indeed she showed herself to be already in the catacombs—or she is nothing.”[1]


These words of “prophecy” from the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse (writing in 1949) really sting. I leave it to each conscience to say just what mistaken expectations from the world each has held; suffice it to say we are receiving the holy cross (that is, suffering and affliction) in great measure. God grant us faith to embrace it as “dear”!


We have much to preach, much to confess and, of course, plenty to do. But the Son of Man, when He returns, will be looking for faith (Luke 18:8). Faith is living on the receiving end of God’s gifts in Christ. Prayer is the expression and exercise of that — the rising and falling of the chest that indicates breathing is still happening, and life with it.


It should not distress us so much that our breathing be labored. (The dead chest is remarkably calm.) With what difficulty must Christ’s chest have heaved and shuddered to cry out His prayer, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” These are the sort of prayers the church needs on her lips now also. Lament. Litany. Desperation.


Desperation in all circumstances and places — except for in Christ. We are not justified in any respect other than in Christ, in no way but by faith in His blood. We do not settle for “mostly righteous.” We do not settle for “hopeful” in the common usage of the term. Christ is all our hope, and our only. “Take they our lives? Let these all be gone — they yet have nothing won!” For the sake of such a confidence and a faith as this, it is worth spending some time considering the failure of our other hopes and faiths. In other words, it is still acceptable for the Christian to pray the Psalms and to lament that nothing is right enough in the world nor will it be until we see everything in subjection to Christ at the last (Heb. 6:8; Ps. 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:27).


How “prophetic” the Litany has proved this year also! How quickly we’ve progressed from pestilence to bloodshed to sedition and rebellion (LSB, p. 288)! It’s the pastor’s part to name them off one by one. He is not properly the one praying, though. All of the Christians are the ones who utter (annoyingly and incessantly, I might add — more urgently but also more confidently than a widow to an unrighteous judge, Luke 18) the prayer itself: “Have mercy! Spare us! We implore you, hear us! Good Lord! Kyrie eleison!” The Litany (in “performance”) ought to be desperate. It is the church’s labored breathing under the dear holy cross, short and gasping. It is the ecclesia orans, the “church praying,” especially when she is overcome by the fiery trials from this failing world (which ought to be no surprise to her, 1 Peter 4:12). All have forsaken her — except God in Christ. He is the Lamb of God who takes away her sin. He grants peace.


Let us learn how to pray again (or for the first time). Commandments 1–3 come first: “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in His steadfast love” (Ps. 147:11); “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21); “Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:17–18). When the fields are white for the harvest, the Lord of them says, “pray” (Matt. 9:37–38). And in the day of trouble, the Lord says, “call upon Me” (Ps. 50:15). Then, let us expect from the world the criticism they will surely give, which we also are tempted to believe: “Prayer is not enough.” Of course it is not — for those whose hope is to stand justified in and by this world. We are much more desperate than they, and our prayers show it. Likewise, we have a Hope that actually avails, and our prayers show it. We believe and pray precisely because this world and ourselves are not enough. Sasse was right about the alternative: ecclesia orans est, “or she is nothing.”


[1] Hermann Sasse, “Ecclesia Orans,” trans. Ralph Gehrke, in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, vol. 1, edited by Matthew Harrison (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2013), 75­–76.