A. Theology of the Divine Service
Every Sunday we gather for worship at church. As we consider what happens on Sunday morning, it is essential that we think about the service in the way of the Gospel. The focus of Sunday morning is not on what we do (Law). Instead, the focus is on what God is doing for us (Gospel). God comes to us with His gifts of the Means of Grace by which He delivers forgiveness and strengthens us in the faith. The first move is from God to us. Then in turn, as we receive God’s gifts, we respond with praise and thanksgiving. As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states: “Thus the service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good thing from God, while the worship of the law is to offer and present our goods to God … The greatest possible comfort comes from this doctrine that the highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive forgiveness of sins, grace, and righteousness” (IV.310). In order to recognize this fact, Lutherans have called the Sunday service Gottesdienst, which means “Divine Service.” This name reminds us that on Sunday, God serves us with His gifts.
B. The Liturgy of the Divine Service: The words of Scripture frame the Means of Grace
In ancient Greece, the word “liturgy” meant “public service” - that is, the service a wealthy individual did for the city. The early church took this word and used it to describe the fixed orders of service in which God comes to us and serves us with His gifts. The liturgy is made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture. The liturgy is made up of Scripture and it has been built around the reading and proclamation of God’s Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these gifts. The liturgy stresses the sacramental ways that God works, and therefore it also emphasizes the incarnation because the sacraments find their origin in the incarnate One, Jesus Christ.
C. The liturgy teaches the correct faith
What we believe shapes and forms the way we worship. For example, churches which believe that Christ gives us His true body and blood in Lord’s Supper place the Sacrament of the Altar at the center of their worship service every Sunday, while churches which believe that it is only a symbol do not usually celebrate the Lord’s Supper very often. The liturgy of the Divine Service reflects exactly the faith of the catholic and apostolic Church that we believe and confess as Lutherans.
At the same time, the opposite is also true. The way we worship shapes and forms what we believe. The things we do, say and hear every Sunday determine what we believe. What a church really believes can be learned from how they worship on Sunday morning. The weekly use of the liturgy helps to form and shape us in the one true, catholic and apostolic faith.
D. Scripture handled correctly: again and again
The liturgy of the Divine Service is drawn from Scripture. However, unfortunately it is possible to misunderstand the Scripture. Because the liturgy reflects the faith of the catholic and apostolic Church, it is Scripture believed and understood correctly. In the liturgy, Law and Gospel are properly distinguished as we confess our sins and receive Christ’s forgiveness in the Means of Grace. The liturgy places Jesus Christ at the center and in doing so teaches it us that the Christian faith is Christocentric – it is focused on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The liturgy repeatedly points us towards the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day (it is eschatological), even as it assures us that we already now begin to experience a foretaste of God’s final salvation.
The liturgy teaches us these things, and it does so by exposing us to these truths every week. There is an old saying that “repetition is the mother of learning.” The repetition of hearing and singing the words of the liturgy each week teaches us the catholic and apostolic faith, and shapes and forms the way we think about the faith. This is a process that begins with the smallest child and continues all throughout our life. It is not a process that ever ends or is finished because the words and phrases, movements and actions invite ever deeper understanding as we grow and mature as Christians.
E. The liturgy: prayers that teach
The liturgy contains prayers that teach. In the liturgy we use the inspired prayers of the Psalms. We also encounter prayers that use the language of Scripture and have been crafted by two thousand years of Christian experience living the faith. These prayers teach us the Christian faith. They also teach us how to pray by leading us beyond those things that we would say and focus upon. They lead us beyond ourselves and support our prayer when don’t want to pray or don’t know what to pray.
F. The liturgy preserves the faith (it keeps us catholic)
The liturgy teaches the correct faith. It also preserves the catholic and apostolic faith as it is handed on from one generation to the next. The eternal and timeless truth of God’s Word is preserved in the liturgy and this helps the Church to resist the spirit of the world in each time period (the tyranny of “today”). As such, the liturgy of the Divine Service unites us with the saints of the centuries before us who have sung and spoken the words of the liturgy (the communion of saints). The liturgy binds us together with one another, and with the Christians who have gone before us.
Lutherans are evangelical catholics. We are centered on the Gospel as we share in what the catholic (universal) church has believed and practiced. The liturgy confesses the truth of the Gospel as it teaches and preserves the catholic faith. For this reason, the Lutheran church is a liturgical church – it uses the liturgy of the Divine Service. As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states: “So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass [the medieval name for the Divine Service], the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days. With a very thankful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline that serves to educate and instruct the people and the inexperienced” (VII/VIII.33-34).
G. The reverence of the liturgy as we stand before God
The liturgy shapes worship with a profound reverence as we stand in God’s presence. The biblical texts used; the use of song and chant; the fixed movements by pastor and congregation (such as standing and bowing) help us to enter into God’s presence with reverence. They remind us that in the Divine Service we stand before the holy God.
H. In the liturgy we experience the real world: the new creation
As Christians we live in the “now and the not yet.” While we look forward to Christ’s return on the Last Day, we already now have received God’s reign in Christ and have received salvation. In the liturgy we experience something different from the rest of the week. Yet as God comes to us in His Means of Grace, what we are experiencing is the world as it really is. We encounter God’s reign that has made us to be a new creation in Christ. We are joined together with all the saints and the heavenly host as we experience heaven on earth. The liturgy emphasizes the “now” of salvation, even as it points us forward to the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day.
I. The liturgy is part of the Church’s culture that sets it apart from the world
Christ has called the Church out of the world and made her His own. We know the Church is present when the Means of Grace are being administered – where “the Gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession VII.1). The Church is most herself when she is in worship, and therefore she looks very different from the world when this is occurring.
The Church has her own culture – her own ways of speaking and acting – that separates the Church from the world and marks her off as God’s people. The liturgy of the Divine Service is a very important part of this culture that marks off the Church as God’s own people who have been called out of the world. As visitors encounter the liturgy, they will often experience something that they find to be different and foreign to them. This is not surprising because they are encountering a different way of doing the world – God’s way. However in this recognition there is an invitation to learn more about God’s way of doing the world and to join the culture of God’s people.
J. The ceremony of the liturgy communicates in many waysThe ceremony of the liturgy – the movements by the pastor, the way the communion ware is handled, the vestments, paraments, candles, etc. – is part of the church’s culture. The ceremony of the liturgy adorns the Means of Grace and sets them before us. It communicates the truth of God’s Word to us in a variety of ways and embraces our bodily, physical existence in this time and place.