When we discover an exciting life-changing story we want to hear is again and again. The liturgy of Lutheran worship is designed around the recounting of the greatest story ever told.
The journey into worship begins in the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh. Interpretation and the English language form the first problem in accessing worship which originates from the Old English “Worth-ship” meaning that God is worthy of our praise. Therefore, worship is only directed at God.
Distortions in interpretation occur when Bible translators attempt to make one word fit into the same definition as another word. “Worship the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2 NIV) creates the English interpretation commanding the worship of God. The Hebrew abad (serve) has been translated as worship, creating the idea that worship is not an option—it is an obligation. When anything is turned into a duty, it stands in contradiction to the free grace of God. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
Accordingly, we are commanded by God in the Decalogue (Exodus 20) to remember the Sabbath day without any directives which would make worship mandatory. The basic understanding of the Lutheran faith is grasped in doing everything we do, always in response to God’s grace. We don’t worship to appease God. We don’t worship to win God’s favour. Some people worship to get something from God. But Lutherans don’t worship to receive anything from God because God has already given us more blessings than we need. There are even some people who believe that God needs our worship and our sacrifices! But the Word is clear in that when we come before God, we worship God with empty hands because we have nothing to offer God except our very selves.
Upon returning to the Hebrew Tanakh, one will discover that the first time the Hebrew Shachah (to bend the knee) occurs [in the sacrifice of Isaac] is when Abraham says to his servants “I and the boy will go over there and (shachah) worship” (Genesis 22:5). Bowing down is a sign of humility and reverence (often translated as fear) which are essential in our approach of God in worship. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Christians are humbled by what Christ has done and we can’t help but live in reverence to the one who holds our eternal fate in his nail pierced hands making our worship a response to God and God’s grace as we worship because we want to, not because we have to, which establishes the primary mood as praise and thanksgiving.
It is within the Word of God and the evolving Christian movement where we find the building blocks of worship which we call liturgy. Liturgy describes how we worship. From the story of Abraham and Isaac (previously mentioned) we see how sacrifice was a liturgical component of worship which remained until the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Temple sacrifices could be likened to a liturgy which was done solely by a leader while spectators watched from a distance (like in a theatre). Over time, different liturgical actions were added to worship.
One of the most complete Old Testament liturgical worship services is described as taking place in the square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem after the Exiles had returned from Babylon. From the 8th chapter of Nehemiah, we hear how the people were called and gathered in the square while the priest Ezra spoke from an elevated platform. Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and (Shachah) worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. The people wept as they heard the words of the Law which Ezra read with interpretations from early morning to midday.
The Jewish synagogue (house of religious learning and prayer) evolved afterwards including reading and prayer as liturgy describes what happened and shows how everything happened in an orderly fashion—from beginning to end. In this way everybody has liturgy as everyone simply choses to follow different patterns of what the people make happen in worship. The early Christians formulated their liturgy from the events which Christ defined in the upper room on the eve of his Passion. The pattern established by Christ included teaching, prayer, and meal. When Jesus encounters the two disciples going to Emmaus, he recounts the story of the Messiah, followed by a meal. Acts 2 describes how the fellowship focussed on teaching, prayer, and breaking of bread. The pattern re-appears when Paul (Acts 20), speaking on the first day of the week follows his lengthy storytelling with the meal. The Last Supper, the celebration of the resurrection, became the centerpiece of the liturgy of worship for the next fifteen hundred years as the daily sacrifice of the altar in the Catholic Mass would create a similar separation as had once existed in the Temple.
The early Christian houses of worship included gathering, (Baptism), prayer, reading of the gospel with interpretations, Last Supper, and sending. Worship is our response to God as we continue to offer our praise in joy and thankfulness because we are saved. In worship, the faithful gather in God’s presence, coming together as his Community—the body-of-Christ—in order to receive him in Word and Sacrament, while responding with praise, committing to be his apostles sent in mission to the world. As such, worship is a community effort as everyone participates through the liturgy. In this way liturgy is best defined as “the work of the people.”
Worship is not something we do only on Sunday morning. It a way of life as those holding to a living faith in the crucified Lord respond in faith to worship God without ceasing or as Paul reminds us to “do all [things] to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31) as God also gives us the complete freedom to choose how we allocate the gift of time in our life. We gather to worship because we are also in a living relationship with God and worship (as well as prayer) is a way of keeping that relationship alive and healthy. This relationship was instituted by God when the Lord God made himself known to humanity in the Garden. And while God has promised to always be present when we gather in his name, we can always tell when something is missing in worship when we look around and see those who are missing. The body-of-Christ is incomplete without each and every member of the body of Christ being present and participating together while the essence of Community in Christ is missing when we fail to recognize the real in person complete presence of Christ when we gather.
This is the point where Lutheran worship and belief veers away from all other Christian movements and focusses firmly on Christ and the Word of God. Luther’s intention was always to return to the Catholic church. As such, he never develops a formal ecclesiology although he does make some minor alterations to the Catholic liturgy of worship. Luther begins by including the people in worship by adding music and singing whose words are based in the Word of God and written in the language of the people. Next, Luther adds spoken liturgical phrases. The leader opens with “the Lord be with you” as the people respond, “and also with you.” Finally, Luther highlights how the liturgy of worship is the work of God which leads to and climaxes with the celebration of Last Supper. For Luther, worship was about receiving God who is present in Word and Sacrament.
On Saturday, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther listed a number of theological concerns (95 Theses) on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church (serves as a bulletin board) inviting other theologians to debate the validity of these claims. Prior to this, Luther had been teaching theology at the university. While going through the Psalms and Paul’s epistle to the Romans – he came to the revelation that changed the course of the Church – that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone – it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Luther had no intention of starting a new church, as the debates were intended to reform the Church in accordance to the Word of God. Over time, the German and Swiss reformers would be called Protestants by the Catholic Church.
But it was Luther’s Christology (person of Christ) which would make Lutherans different from Catholic and Reformed as the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God would ultimately shape worship, liturgy and the life and faith of the Lutheran Church. The starting point for the reformers was a return to the original texts—studying the Bible as Christian literature. Luther goes one step further by making his starting point a belief that the complete Word of God is the incarnate real in person presence of God. It is not scripture. It is not the Bible. It is God present in its use in the Christian community. Luther takes the gospel of John literally. “The Logos (Word) was God” (John 1:1) and “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Therefore, this Word is the incarnate, flesh and blood real presence of Christ who reveals the divine self throughout the pages of his Word. This was always Luther’s starting point—what does Christ say to us through his Word.
The next logical step was to take Jesus’s own words at face value. For fifteen hundred years the western Christian movement had generally accepted the real presence of Christ in the Last Supper. For the first time in history, some reformers rejected infant baptism. Others understood the Last Supper as something done in memoriam (having a meal together while Christ is not present). All the reformers broke away from the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation (earthly elements are replaced by the body and blood) because in the incarnation God did not destroy humanity or replace it when Christ entered the world through conception and birth. In short, Luther again accepted the Word of God literally. Taking the promise of presence by Jesus literally, “This is my body” (Mark 14:22) Luther accepted that the fullness of the humanity and divinity of Christ is truly and actually present in person in the meal. There can be no disagreement—as the real body and blood are present with the real bread and wine. Those following a reformed Christology can only proclaim a partial (spiritual) or no presence. Luther countered these views by arguing that the man Jesus must be present if Christ’s complete work of salvation is to benefit humanity. For Luther, the ascended, exalted God-human Christ is present in Word, Sacrament and Community.
It's with Luther’s Christology in mind that we come to the basis for the true description of Lutheran worship which must be understood from the Word of God and not from human wisdom. The essence of worship and its liturgical components must be established in Christ. Jesus says that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23). Up to this point, Jesus has been confirming what he first spoke to the disciples saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) highlighting that all worship must be established in Christ alone. But, up until the reformation, worship and liturgy was something done by a solitary leader, while everybody else watched. And while Luther changed worship such that liturgy became the “work of the people,” he began the process where everyone would become participant and spectator in the great drama of our salvation. And so, Sunday after Sunday, the Lutheran Church uses a common worship formula which tells the story of our brokenness, of God’s forgiving love, and of our thankfulness. We might include or exclude liturgical components, but in the end Lutheran Worship is primarily built on the framework of liturgy which has its foundation in Christ and the story of God’s relationship to us.
When Christ is the focus of worship, which includes Word, Sacrament and Community in Christ, we will begin to see how the meaning of liturgy is now shifted from being the work of the people to being the work of Christ. For you see, Christ is the one and only true liturgy because he undertook this work of salvation, forgiveness, and new life for humanity in his death on the cross which was ultimately the work of sinful humanity. As such, Christ is the liturgy in our worship of God.
Not every Lutheran Church is the same, but most follow a common liturgy, as we are called by God, as we gather as his body (Communion of saints) to hear the Word before we share in his meal which strengthens us for service as Christ sends us out as apostles to make disciples of all nations.
The worship liturgy is like the weekly retelling of a story—the story of our salvation.
We begin by acknowledging the name of the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have been called and gathered together as the body-of-Christ, as Community in Christ by Christ. It is his church—not ours. We are not worthy to enter into his presence as the tax collector cried out in the temple “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13) or the blind beggars who cry out using the liturgical words of the Kyrie eleison – “Lord have mercy” (Matthew 9:27). Worship liturgy begins by acknowledging our brokenness and sinfulness before our God using the Confession of sin, and as we are cleansed and receive God’s absolution, we can joyfully praise God.
Some will join with the angels in the highest praise of Christ using the Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:14) along with songs of thankfulness and praise of God for his mercy and forgiveness shown to us in Christ as the Community in Christ prepares to hear Christ speaking to his saints through the Word of God and through the Preached Word. The creeds of the church are a good way to teach and remind ourselves of our beliefs (and what should not be believed) according to the Word of God. In the same manner as Christianity’s Jewish ancestors expressed their common faith in the one true God using the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), the communion of saints professes together a common faith in the One-God-in-Three as the whole liturgy of worship now crescendos to its climax as the faithful come forth to receive the meal of his presence – given and shed for the forgiveness of sin. Worship is interspersed with the liturgical components in which the Christian can express prayers of thankfulness and intercession, including the prayer Jesus taught his disciples saying, “When you pray …” (Luke 11:2).
Every aspect of the liturgy contained in Lutheran worship is foundational on the Word of God as the worship concludes when the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6) is proclaimed and the faithful are sent back into the world with the promise of God’s blessing, provision, and Christ’s presence. The entire liturgy of Lutheran worship is nothing more or less than the re-telling of the story of how God in Christ has saved us and given us new life. The point of commonality is Christ and God’s grace as the liturgy of Lutheran worship is all about storytelling as we meet with Christ, where he has promised to be found, and we ask him to recount to us again the story of how he saved us.