Saturday, October 18, 2008

Theology of Lutheran Worship

The theology of worship begins and ends in the Divine Service. It is God's service to us in which Jesus Christ is the liturgist. The reading, preaching, and administering of the Lord's body and blood pour forth as seemingly endless gifts. God's action dominates as the sinner is reconciled back to him through his promise, water, body, and blood. Faith receives these eternal gifts with a passive reception that is overcome with joy on account of Christ. The Christ in us responds, giving thanks back to the Father - forever giving praise. Lutheran theology is a reflection of what transpires in our worship. Worship is centered around the Gospel where the Word of God is proclaimed as well as the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Word and Sacrament may sound like folly to neo-protestant folks but it is life, hope, and salvation for those who assume the passive life of faith before these gifts.

Theology must begin with an acknowledgement of original sin and our wretched state apart from our dear Christ. We are all naturally inclined directly against God and his commandments - a horrid corruption of the heart inherited from Adam. Death and eternal damnation are the consequences for our disobedience. Our beautiful Gospel, our "good news," is that God has saved his disobedient creation from sin, death, and the devil through the bitter sufferings and death of Jesus by his holy and precious blood. We receive all that is Christ's, his perfect life free from sin - his beauty and holiness. The righteousness imputed unto us allows to stand blameless before God as a new creation. In worship the Holy Spirit actively works in us through the Word of the Gospel. Faith comes through the ear where we hear His Word - the teachings and gifts given by Jesus. We are sustained, enlivened, and recreated by His Holy Word.

What we confess regarding the Lord's Supper is no doubt a distinguishing mark of our theology of worship. It is evident especially for those attending a Lutheran Divine Service for the first time. For those coming from protestant or reformed religious backgrounds it is clearly evident during the service that something quite important is taking place, even if not immediately understood from a theological standpoint. This writer's first experience with the Divine Service initially offended him (closed communion) and simultaneously aroused a deep curiosity regarding what was taking place in this unfamiliar form of worship. Four years later, I now understand the loving and pastoral practice of closed communion. Furthermore, I can clearly see that my curiosity was sparked at my first encounter due to an awareness that those worshipers around me were communing with a God who was present. Catechesis and study of the scriptures thereafter revealed that the Lord does give himself through body and blood for the remission of sins.

The central distinguishing mark of Lutheran worship is the confession of Christ's bodily presence. This has remarkable consequences upon how a service is conducted. The presence of Christ's body affects and defines how a pastor reads the Word of God, how he preaches, how he moves around the sanctuary, how he bows, sings, prays, and greets his flock when the service has concluded. Likewise, parishioners are guided by the body and blood. There are outward signs of this in their reverence for the cross and corpus, their delight in singing the Sanctus, and a passive posture which delights in receiving the gifts of Christ Jesus. After all, these sinners are being created anew and reconciled before God. They are feasting with their brothers and sisters in Christ, with angels and archangels, and all the company of Heaven with very loud music. The Holy Saints and blessed martyrs are praying and intercessing on their behalf before the throne of God. It is true that there are cosmic events taking place in the Divine Service. Jesus the Creator is remaking the whole world. Our American and enlightenment-infused protestant religious culture would have us believe that faith and even liturgy is a private and personal matter - an arrangement between only yourself and God. It is in fact a cosmic matter, involving all creation, every human soul, throughout all eternity.

These marks of worship and the theology behind them are foreign to those coming from reformed or Calvinistic background. Therefore, the central reality of God's bodily presence in worship entirely defines all that comes to take place. For those who deny the body and blood of Christ it would not seem abhorrent to place a rock band in the sanctuary. If we deny that the gifts of God are not in fact given to us as he has promised we must turn to our own imaginations for worship. If Christ is not continually coming in body and blood, forgiving sins, and strengthening faith we are left with a misguided and awful intuition that we need to produce some kind of reconciliation of our own. The theology of worship articulates that a right relationship with God does not come through our work but through definite means - most assuredly in His Word and Sacrament. In this way, our theology is grounded on firm ground. Kurt Marquart writes, "The church of the "external Word and Sacrament" should be the last to yield to the carnal spiritualizing which is the "source strength, and power of all heresy.”[1]

The theology of worship must place the beginning and end of our incarnational lives in the waters of Holy Baptism - where the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned, and die with all sins and evil lusts. And also it shows that a new man should daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.[2] S. J. Jean Danielou describes the baptismal waters as the "maternal womb in which the children of God are begotten and brought forth."[3] Theology of worship continually returns to this miracle, this rite instituted by God, whereby we are put to death and arise new in Christ. Our worship is given by Christ, for He is our church, our High Priest, and eternal liturgist. We stand under his Lordship receiving his gifts through faith and forever giving praise.
[1] Marquart, Kurt. Lutheran Worship History and Practice. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993.
[2] Martin Luther’s Small Catechism
[3] S.J. Jean Daniulou. The Bible and the Liturgy. Notre Dame: University Press, 2005.

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