Liturgy: What does it mean? (part 2)


In my last post, I defined what liturgy is: is the office of one person taken on the behalf of a larger group. A politician is a liturgist insofar as he represents the public. Jesus Christ himself is a liturgist, because he, becoming like we are in all things save sin, represents us in his worship before the Father. He is a chosen high priest who offers himself on behalf of the many. He is the Son of God who makes us sons of God by becoming like us in all things. Therefore, liturgy is not first about the worship service, but rather about Jesus Christ. It is he who is chief liturgist.

In this post, I’d like to examine how the meaning of liturgy makes its way into the church’s own liturgy. How do the two interconnect? I would like to explain this by way of an important Christian doctrine: union with Christ.

The Westminster Confession, chapter 26.1, says this:

All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory

Technically, this section is about the communion that saints have with one another. But the foundation of the communion of the saints is what the confession calls fellowship with Christ. Notice the words: by the Spirit, and by faith, we have fellowship with Christ in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. In other words, Christians share in all that is his by being united to Christ. The is the Christian doctrine of union with Christ. It is a mystery, but by the Spirit, Christians are truly and vitally united to Christ.

Calvin called this the mystical union. Here’s how he explains it:

“Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with Him in the gifts with which He has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate Him outside ourselves from afar in order that His righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into His body– in short, because He deigns to make us one with Him.” (Institutes, 3.11.10)

Calvin’s emphasis here is that Christians do not receive the grace of salvation outside of Christ. Rather, we receive the grace of salvation because we are engrafted into his body, and therefore share in his gifts.

In other words, Christians are Christians because they are mapped onto Christ and his story. We share in him, and thus, share in his sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. We don’t contemplate the cross from afar: we participate in it! Paul tells us that if we are in Christ, we have died and we live in Him (Rom 6). We don’t understand the resurrection from below. No, Paul again tells us that we are seated with Christ now in the heavenly places (Colossians 3). Christ’s story becomes our story. This is Christianity.

But what does this have to do with liturgy? What does it have to do with the church service itself?

The answer is this: Jesus is the chief liturgist. He did all he did in our stead, on our behalf. However, we participate in his liturgy because we are grafted into him. Recall Louis Weil’s insight:

Christ’s life and death is in fact the one liturgy; and Christians whose lives are “in Christ”, formed and shaped in his likeness, constitute a liturgy also. It would be even better to say that they constitute a working out and a making present “in all times and in all places” of the one liturgy (Liturgy for the Living, 14-15)

In other words, Jesus’ liturgy is something we make our own. And each Lord’s day, the liturgy we practice is meant to show forth, mirror, dare we say, it makes present Christ’s own liturgy each Lord’s day. Put another way, the church’s liturgy is a mysterious participation in Christ’s own.

This helps us to understand why we structure each church service. There is a logic to it, an order. It is the order of Christ’s liturgy; of his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Here’s how we order the liturgy at our church:

  1. A call to worship with songs of response
  2. A confession of sin with songs of response
  3. A confession of faith with sermon
  4. The Lord’s Supper
  5. Benediction

This simple order narrates the gospel, and therefore enables us to map out our own union with Christ in his death and resurrection. How so? Allow me to give a very simple overview:

The call to worship is God’s own call (not ours) to his people to give him the service and worship he so deserves. A very common call to worship utilizes Psalms, like Psalm 95:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!For the LORD is a great God,and a great King above all gods.

Notice the logic: because God is a God above all other (so called) gods, sing to him; give him praise. This is the call to lift up a service to God because of his worthiness. We then sing songs that exalt God’s supremacy.

The next movement is the confession of sin. During this point, the congregation recognizes their failure to do what God has called them to do. We have not given him the worship he so deserves.

However, this is followed by the assurance of pardon. And this is where the liturgy of Christ comes in: we haven’t given worship, but Jesus has; and as the chief liturgist, he stands in our stead. And we are called to now, in Jesus’ name, by the Spirit’s power, offer up worthy worship. This assurance of pardon is followed by songs which extol Jesus’ liturgy in his cross and resurrection. Suffice to say, this is a pivotal moment in the service! It enables us to make present the death and resurrection of Christ, and our own participation in it. We are dead in sin, but now in Christ we are forgiven and made alive!

After this, the congregation confesses their faith together. This confession is the gospel narrated; historically it is common to recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. These creeds are simply narrated gospels: the Father created, the Son redeemed, the Spirit makes new. This confession reminds us of who we now are: new creatures in Christ.

Finally, we hear the word of Christ spoken to us, and then feast on Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Now that we are dead to sin and alive to God, Jesus speaks to us, and welcomes us to his table, where he feeds us with nothing else then himself. During this simple sermon spoken and meal given, our union with Christ is strengthened, and we are enabled to live out the new life in Christ. Finally, we are sent out with a blessing to be Christ to the world.

The liturgy narrates and invites us to participate in the liturgy of Christ. It invites us into a new heavenly reality, to be one with Jesus Christ!

In the next post, I intend to speak on ritual and habit, and the importance it plays in sanctification.

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