By now, things seem to have settled back into regular routines. Summer, broken up by vacation and other activities, is now over (and the weather has confirmed that!). Sunday school has begun, and adult Bible study continues. So this is my short note of encouragement not to neglect the corporate study of God’s Word.
Bad habits are easy to fall into. Good habits require work and cultivation. One good habit is to set aside time not only to hear the proclamation of God’s Law and Gospel during the Divine Service itself, but to set aside that additional hour for going deeper into parts of God’s Word that we might not hear within the lectionary (series of readings).
While in some Christian traditions, the sermon is essentially a verse-by-verse exposition, running straight through a book of the Bible, we most often use that time for the Holy Spirit’s work of killing our sinful nature and raising us up as new creatures in Christ (something that, as Luther points out in the fourth part of the catechism on Holy Baptism, also happens every day as we live in our baptism).
Part V (Offertory through the Prayer of the Church)
What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It?
Starting on September 18, I began a series of sermons preaching from the liturgy, and how the pieces fit together to make a unified whole. (You can find all the parts on bishopandchristian.wordpress.com as they are completed.) The reason I’m doing this is partly out of my own experience, as I mentioned in week one’s sermon. That is, it took me a very long time to understand what I’ve come to understand about the Divine Service and how the pieces fit together. I certainly do not understand it all, and even as I’m writing each week’s sermon, new avenues of thought are being opened up, even since I first did this eight years ago.
On the liturgy, Preparation through Gloria in Excelsis.
[meant to have video; no power cord. meant to press record; forgot.]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think it was Jaroslav Pelikan who said something to the effect that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, while tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is doing something simply because it was always done; tradition is doing what has been handed down to us, because it has become ours. Traditionalism very often leads to the opposite error: doing things simply because they aren’t what we’ve always done, always doing what is new and contemporary. But the fact that something is “contemporary” is not a reason to do anything. All it means is that it is being done now, at the same time that we are alive. What matters is not when something was produced, or when it was made, but what it is and what it does. A high school history teacher of mine once asked a class of sophomores, “What makes something a classic?” I don’t remember all the answers that were given, but I remember one answer: Something that stands the test of time. There are lots of things that are made and done and written and heard, but most are forgotten, most are forgettable, most are not able to stand the brutal test of history as it shifts, changes, and moves through place and time. One thing that has stood the test of time, even as it has developed and moved through very different languages, cultures, and places, is the liturgy of the Church. Granted, the Church has not had only one liturgy in her history, but it is astounding to consider how much the liturgies of the Church have in common across time and space. For the next few weeks, I’m going “preach through the liturgy” as we dig deeper and hear better this great gift as it has been handed down to us for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Sometimes we experience “church” like we’re putting in our time for God. This is because most of the Christians around us view “going to church” as either something that we do for God (we come to church on Sunday to worship Him for what He’s done throughout the week) or as the place we come to learn about God or to learn how to live a better life. While there are elements of these things in what happens on the Lord’s Day, we miss the point if we make those the only, or even the primary, reasons for why we are in the church building with other Christians. If we view going to church in those terms, we will either satisfy our own self-righteousness when we are glad to be there, or we will feel guilty if we are not glad. And then, when there are “more services,” as in Lent and Easter, the burden will only grow.
However, the fact that we are not always “glad when they said, ‘Let us go up to the House of the Lord’” is only evidence that we need to be there. Because (as you’ve no doubt heard me say before) we do not “go to church” primarily to worship God (as that is commonly understood), nor do we go for any of the reasons that put me first as the subject of the verbs. This is why Lutherans prefer “Divine Service” for what is happening in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day. God (“divine”) serves us in Jesus Christ. He is the primary subject of all the verbs; He gives the Gifts; He does the work; He forgives sins and gives life. This is why gathering with the people of God is not optional—not because it is something you have to do to be saved, but because it’s where God delivers to you what He has done for you to be saved. The Divine Service is simply Jesus for you, and you need Him whether you think you do, or not. So do I.
How are your feelings related to your worship? That is a question that is behind many of the arguments in the church related to worship. Talk to enough people from various congregations and it will not be long before you come up against a division between those who, on the one hand, know that they have been to church if they feel good, or different, or forgiven and, on the other hand, those who do not seem to care whether they feel anything at all. The division can be seen most clearly when someone leaves a particular (“stale,” “dead,” “boring”) congregation for another (“refreshing,” “alive,” “exciting”) one in which the Spirit seems to be moving more noticeably. What is striking about those conversations is that the descriptive words are completely tied to individual perception: that is, for worship to be good, everything depends on the feelings of the individual who is participating in the worship experience. If someone does not feel (there’s that word again) that he or she “got anything” from the service, and if this experience goes on long enough, such a person may be inclined to seek out a church where something (the “something” is rather ambiguous) is “gotten.” You may recognize a friend or a family member—or yourself—in that description.