Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Christ's Divine Service to Sinners

The Divine Service is God’s Holy and mysterious gift given for us. The service of Word and Sacrament is how God’s fills us with His Holy presence and restores his creation. Oswald Bayer writes that all theology begins and ends with the Divine Service.[1] This means that God encounters us in the Divine Service through his performative Word. Theology is dead with scholars in ivory towers because the central subject matter of theology must be the lost and condemned sinner and the God who has come to intervene and justify sinners. This subject of theology is continually carried out in God’s Service to us and through the liturgy. On the Lord’s Day He gives His gifts of Word, Water, Body, and Blood which we receive in faith. Together, we his saints praise Him and support one another, singing psalms and hymns and depart into a world filled with death and decay. Yet we depart boldly in the sure promises given through Christ, casting our cares on him, and then turning toward our neighbor in fervent love and charity.

The liturgy entailed in the Divine Service is a wondrous progression of God’s performing Word and tangible gifts. Acknowledging that the liturgy has gone through variations and innovations does not in any way undermine this reality. There is no “Glory Days” of the historic liturgy. The order and specifics of a liturgical order is not law but a gracious invitation to partake in His countless gifts. The Divine Service however, historically has retained its chief components: that of an Entrance Rite, the Service of the Word, and the Service of Holy Communion. Therefore the essence of the Divine Service has held a remarkable continuity for the Church’s martyrs and saints throughout time.

During the Entrance Rite the Introit serves as a processional rite in which the Priest and assisting clergy people enter in. The acolytes and those bearing incense are hopefully following close behind as a psalm is sung. The Gloria Patri would follow. In the Kyrie we ask God for mercy for all his saints are holy beggars. The Gloria in Excelsis is the singing of the Holy Word of God whereby we in faith affirm what God has done for us through his sacrificial lamb. We sing victoriously with angels and all the multitude of Heaven (Luke 2:14). We have full confidence in His Divine mercy. The Salutation has a long history for Christians and in the liturgy establishes a “special relationship between the minister and the congregation.”[2] The Collect of the day follows.

Reading from the Old Testament (not so for Luther’s 1523 Mass), the Epistle, and the Holy Gospel follow. It is suggested that a Gospel procession may be used with crucifer and torch bearers to show the congregation that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus proceeds into the world.[3] It is good to stand for the Holy Gospel reading to hear the living Word of God.

For me, confessing the Creed at Kramer Chapel is an especially powerful expression of worship. Many martyrs have died in and for this Creed and it is our great hope that we all do as well. At this Chapel it would be difficult for even those with the most hardened of hearts not to be affected by this eternal statement of faith in which Christian men and women speak with the boldest of intonation of tenor. I have an immediate appreciation that we in the pews are not alone, but surrounded by an infinitely greater chorus of voices.

For Lutherans the Sermon is of utmost importance where the very Word of God, the Gospel, is spoken and proclaimed to terrified consciences. The pastor stands in the stead of Christ and addresses his people, preaching baptism along with the forgiveness of sins. When we come to the Divine Service we do not come to hear a preacher but to meet with the risen Christ who comes to teach, feed, and nourish us in body and soul. We come as broken vessels with our bones wasting away to hear the living God (Psalm 31:10). When Jesus is preaching we are restored, healed, and released from the brokenness of sin. Through our ears the Kingdom of God comes to us. This is of great need as a seminarian so that I might be constantly reassured of the defense of God who prepares the instruments of death and makes ready his bow against the evil one who assaults those preparing for the Office (Psalm 7:13).

We must however also see the Sermon as a preparation for the Lord’s Supper which is the sum and substance of the Gospel. Lutherans are often wary of the much greater mysteries involved in the Flesh of Christ. Article four finds its expression here. This is the doctrine by which the Church stands, yet taken by itself and partitioned off into an abstract idea, can lead to individualistic conceptions about the Christian life. Being perpetually trapped in the doctrine of forensic justification, as a purely individualistic pursuit, is a mark of a starved and depleted spiritual life. The gavel comes down, the sinner is pronounced innocent, and he leaves church feeling satisfied. Combined with a wholly American philosophy of rigid individualism, it is easy to blow by the greatest command of service to neighbor and a giving of one's self - an organic reincorporation into God's creation.

The riches of Christ are lavishly given in this holy and Divine Service. At the altar the Lord Jesus stands before us. By His gracious invitation we enter into heaven itself through His sacrificial Blood (Hebrews 10:19). As Luther writes, “By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.”[4] In this blessed exchange we receive all that is His – His loveliness, righteousness, and very Body. We do not eat in isolation but recline and feast with the Holy Catholic Church and all Her saints – which we confess in the Creed. Here we are given Christ in the Flesh and heaven on earth with all that he promises as our earthly bodies eventually waste away.

I have never been perfectly at ease with the Santus and likely never will. Yet this is part of the communion liturgy that should not be compromised. With fear and awe we sing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth of full of Thy Glory…Hosanna in the highest.” I see the Lord’s holy armies of angels breaking through the clouds declaring victory with loud trumpets and music. I see the gigantic temple curtain violently ripped open merging this life with the next. The community of heaven is assembled at the banquet before the throne of God feasting on His dear Lamb.

In the Nunc Dimittis, Post-Communion Collect and Benediction the new creature and his “creatureliness” is fully restored as one who walks once again in paradise with his Lord without fear and shame. He departs the tabernacle being clothed in Christ. He finds joy in his neighbor and comfort in only that which the eyes of faith can see.

[1]Bayer, Oswald. Theology the Lutheran Way. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007, page 93.
[2] Lutheran Worship History and Practice, page 411.
[3] Ibid., 413
[4] Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Freedom of a Christian. New York: Double Day and Company, 1961, page 61.

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