God has two messages. He speaks Law and he speaks Gospel. The Law is God’s message of judgment against my sin. The Gospel is God’s word of forgiveness in Christ. It is his gracious response to my guilt.
The Law differentiates. It distinguishes. It says that I have failed God and I have failed you, my brothers and sisters. You might have something against me, as well. The Law forces me to measure myself against the standard of the Ten Commandments. And the Law has the nasty ability of making me better or worse than you.
The Gospel makes us all the same. When I am serving my neighbor then I am different and unique. But when I am being served by the Gospel, then I am just like every other sinner. I am equally as sinful as you. And I am equally as forgiven as you. We are the same. We are identical. Of course my sins might be more profound, more heinous, and more creative than yours. But in Christ both you and I are declared righteous, clothed and covered in the righteousness of the heavenly Bridegroom and cleansed in the blood of the Lamb. Sin, which makes us different and which divides, is forgiven. Good works, which distinguish and divide us, are irrelevant when it comes to salvation. So we are the same. The Divine Service reflects this.
If we are all the same, the services we attend should be pretty much the same. And if all the Christians in the world are the same, if the church is really “catholic,” then the worship services throughout the world should be pretty close to the same. If the saints from age to age are the same, and they are, then the worship services from age to age reflect our oneness and sameness in Christ.
But, if worship is primarily me serving God, then my worship will be different than yours because we are different in our good works. Worship will then be far from uniform. If we get the direction of the communication right in worship then we will also understand that uniformity in worship is good.
Paul addressed the problem of divisions in the church in his letter to the Ephesians. The Christians of Jewish descent felt that they were closer to God than the Gentile Christians. They thought they were more advanced in the law and where therefore better Christians. What a divisive attitude. Christian people have always had the same temptations toward disunity. Today we hear the same. Some Christians are considered more advanced, more dynamic, more mature, more committed, more engaged, more vital, more something. How did God create unity according to the apostle Paul?
For He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in his body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-18)
The Law makes us competitive and divisive. It makes us watch to see who is doing the best job. The Law is like a toy in the playroom full of little kids. They all want it and fight over it. They make each other frustrated and angry because each kid wants to monopolize the toy. The law also makes us angry and frustrated. What do parents do when kids fight over a certain toy? They take the toy away from all the kids. So, when groups of people were fighting over the law, God made peace by “abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
The Divine Service is God’s Word of peace. The way to avoid disunity and to reflect our unity in the Gospel is for the whole church to be uniform in her liturgy.
Luther is instructive, “As far as possible we should observe the same rites and ceremonies, just as all Christians have the same baptism and the same Sacrament and no one has received a special one of his own from God” (LW 53:21). The reformer understood that we are all the same when it comes to the forgiveness of sins. So we need to receive God’s gracious blessings through the same liturgy – the same service of God.
The Divine Service both reflects and promotes our oneness. When Luther published his “German Mass” in 1526 he was responding to a situation that had developed in the Lutheran churches. The old Roman order of service was an “abominable concoction drawn from everyone’s sewer and cesspool” because it contained the sacrifice of the mass, the eucharistic prayer, prayers to the saints and all sorts of other bad things. The Lutherans understood the need for a gospel-centered service. Furthermore there was no Divine Service in the language of the people since the Roman Church had insisted on doing the Liturgy in Latin. If the liturgy was to teach Germans it had to be in the German language. Many had tried their hand at writing new liturgies. Luther, in his preface to his Lutheran Order of Service acknowledged as much.
I would kindly and for God’s sake request all those who see this order of service or desire to follow it: Do not make it a rigid law to bind or entangle any one’s conscience. But use it in Christian liberty…For this is being published not as though we meant to lord it over anyone else or to legislate for them, but because of the widespread demand for German masses and service and the general dissatisfaction and offense that has caused by the variety of new masses. For everyone makes his own order of service. Some have the best intentions, but others have no more than an itch to produce something novel…Where the people are perplexed and offended by these differences in liturgical usage, however, we are certainly bound to forgo our freedom and seek, if possible, to improve rather than to offend them by what we do or leave undone.
Luther would have been alarmed at what we see in many of the churches today with each pastor doing his own thing and producing his own service. In fact, he was alarmed when he saw exactly that type of diversity in his own day. He knew that the minute you make a law out of the proper dispensing of Word and Sacrament then you have defeated the purpose of Christ. That is why elsewhere Luther asked for people voluntarily to “let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder – one thing being done here and another there” (LW 53:47)
I have heard many pastors say that they write different worship services because Luther did. “If Luther did it, then why can’t we?” Luther wrote his German Mass precisely because everyone else was doing it poorly. When he saw what others produced he complained because they “didn’t sound polished or well done.” The consistency between “text and notes, accent, melody, and manner of rendering” was lacking and “all of it becomes an imitation in the manner of the apes.”
Luther hesitated in producing a Divine Service initially because he knew that to compose a decent Liturgy requires more than a couple of afternoons in front of the word-processor. When he finally did endeavor to write an order of service in the language of the people he did so as painstaking and deliberate reform of the historic liturgy of the church, not as something new and different. Even though he was an accomplished musician (he wrote the tunes to many of his own hymns including “A Mighty Fortress”), Luther used up a couple of political favors and procured the services of the two leading musicians of the region as consultants in his composing of the chants for the ancient texts of the service. Luther changed only those aspects of the service that were contrary to the Gospel. And he never intended a different liturgy to be used each Sunday. The result of his labors was a service so beautiful and lasting that it is sung to this very day. The immediate effect of his German Mass was that it provided a single order of service for the German people. In effect, the high quality of his revision of the historic liturgy called the German Mass pretty much ended the liturgical experimentation of his day.
Martin Luther knew and lived what seems often to be forgotten: practice teaches, the liturgy teaches. And what our liturgy teaches is the catholic faith. More often than not when the liturgy is forsaken, when someone sets out to change the liturgy it is for doctrinal reasons. The historic liturgy proclaims the Gospel and unites us. Those who would change the liturgy have created disention. And we must ask, “Why’?