Talking about the Liturgy
Here's a guest post from Fr. Mark Surburg, a colleague of mine here in the SID, though he serves a bit south of me, firmly in the Baptist Belt a good two hour drive outside of the St. Louis Metro Lutheran Zone. I think his words here are very beneficial - and I'll let them speak for themselves.
I am always interested to see how other pastors summarize the character and value of the liturgy as I look for new and better ways to present it to people. I have attached my own version of doing this in which I have attempted to draw upon what I have seen others done, while adding my own wrinkle here and there. - Fr. Mark Surburg
The Divine Service - God's gifts for us
Every Sunday we gather at church for the Divine Service. As we consider what happens on
Sunday morning, it is important that 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
things 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.
The Liturgy of the Divine Service: God’s Word built around the Means of Grace
In ancient Greece, the word “liturgy” meant “public service.” 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 of the Divine Service 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.
The liturgy teaches the correct faith
What we believe, shapes and forms the way we worship. For example, churches who believe
that Christ gives us His very body and blood in Lord’s Supper place the Sacrament of the Altar
at the center of their worship service every Sunday, while churches who 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.
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.
The Bible done right: again and again
The liturgy of the Divine Service is drawn from the Bible. However, it is possible to
misunderstand the Bible. Because the liturgy reflects the faith of the catholic and apostolic
Church, it is the Bible believed and understood correctly. In the liturgy, Law and Gospel are
properly distinguished as we admit 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.
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 the Bible 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.
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. Lutherans are centered on the Gospel as we share in what
the 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).
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.
In the liturgy we experience the real world: the new creation
We live as Christians 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.
The liturgy is part of the Church’s culture that sets her apart from the world
Christ has called the Church out of the world and made her His own. The Church is present
where the Means of Grace are being administered. 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
The ceremony of the liturgy communicates in many ways
The ceremony of the liturgy – the movements by the pastor, the way the communionware 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