Ash Wednesday: "Liturgical"
Week 2: "catholic"
Week 3: "evangelical"
Week 4: "orthodox"
Week 5: "confessional"
Week 6: "apostolic"
Holy Thursday: "Sacramental"
Good Friday: "Cruciform"
Easter Sunday: "The One Holy Church"
In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Luther defined the Church this way: "a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." In other words, the Church is the flock of God with the sheep and lambs listening to and led by the voice of Her Shepherd Jesus Christ. Similarly the Church is the body of Christ with Christ as its head leading it, guiding it, directing it. Thus, in order to be Church and be connected to Jesus Christians must gather together to hear Jesus. That is the Church: Jesus and His bride together.
That’s why you can’t be a Christian in isolation. A Christian is part of the flock. Together with the flock a Christian hears the voice of the Good Shepherd. Together with the rest of the Body Christ serves and makes decisions, like what to feed His Body, for the benefit of His Body. Thus, if you are not hearing and following the Good Shepherd with the flock, for reasons other than your undershepherd in a particular place is speaking falsehood in God’s name and refuses to be admonished and repent, then you are isolating self from the Church. You are not listening to Christ. You are amputating yourself off of Christ. You are sinning. The Church exists to be a refuge from world, hospital for sinners, place to receive medicine of life, to hear saviour, to be surgically reattached to Him.
But with a basic definition of the Church in place I want to talk about the marks of the Church. We start today on Ash Wednesday with the Church is “liturgical”. And there are three common definitions to that word that we need to understand.
It is this way, because we human beings are naturally traditional because our God who made us is not a God of disorder but order. You can’t have a group of people meet in an orderly fashion without having a basic structure that eventually asserts itself week in and week out. But that is the least true definition or usage of the word “liturgy”.
Since God is a God of order one way that Christianity has ordered itself for over a thousand years is by a calendar of festivals and seasons with a set of Bible readings for certain days of year, and certain celebrations throughout the year. This is the second meaning of liturgy: the order of the Church’s year, following the calendar that the Church in her wisdom has developed over the ages. All Christians are liturgical in this sense too to a greater or lesser degree. Not all churches recognize the forty days of Lent or the seven Sundays of Easter, but virtually all celebrate the feast of Our Saviours birth, Christmas; observe and mark His death, Good Friday; and mark His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This liturgical calendar teaches us yearly about our God, about who He is and what He does. And there is great value in such a calendar that appoints readings for each Sunday and other days. One value or strength is that it forces a preacher and the Church to preach and teach and grapple with things they might not want to, things that aren’t popular in a given society, or in a particular place, things that a preacher doesn’t understand fully, or care about and thus would be tempted to never teach about. But the Church in her Wisdom has devised this system so that the whole teaching of God comes up in the readings year by year, forcing you to hear it, and deal with it whether you like it or not. And this saves you from the tyranny of your preacher and his whims and fancies.
If I had to determine what I preached on every Sunday without any guidance from the larger historical Church through time, my sermons would start sounding nearly identical week after week. You may say they do already! But imagine what they would be like if I was left to my whims, desires, and fancies in preaching. You’d probably get to know an awful lot about what I was thinking from week to week, but we would run the danger of only hearing from me and not from God. Instead, the Church in her wisdom devised a check and balance by which God’s Word directs what is preached through the appointed readings.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day appointed by the Church to ponder the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer. Some folks choose to observe this during the forty days of Lent by giving up something in order to pray or meditate on God’s Word a little more each day. For instance, an extra five minutes of Bible reading or prayer each day, or memorizing parts of the Catechism, or certain Bible verses or the Athanasian Creed. Today is a day on the Church’s liturgical calendar. It is much like a wedding anniversary. A man does not need that occasion in order to love his wife. Hopefully he loves her day in and day out. But it is good to have an appointed day every now and then to remind himself and her that he loves her, a day to do something special for His beloved.
But the third and fullest meaning of “liturgy” is something else all together. The word “liturgy” comes out of Greek and refers to great works of service done by a rich person for the people of a city. For instance, a wealthy patron might sponsor a festival or celebration in the city for all to attend. Something grand and merciful that the wealthy and great do for the poor and the insignificant in order to teach and instil civic pride or other values.
This is what liturgy really refers to: God’s divine liturgy; His service that He renders to we poor and lowly ones; we who need His grace and mercy; we who take on a spiritual discipline not to earn His great act of service toward us, but simply because we need a fresh discipline, a fresh zeal, a renewed focus every now and then.
This is what it means when I say the Church is liturgical. I mean that the Church is that thing on earth through which our Lord God serves humanity in His great love. It is the place where He sets His feast of Christ’s Body and Blood before us regularly, where He pours out His mercy on us, where the great and glorious God does something for we who can not do it for ourselves.
The Church is liturgical. It is the site of His gracious action toward humanity. That is a mark of the Church. Not that we do things for God, but that the Church is that place where God comes to earth to serve and give His gifts to humanity. The Church is where Christ’s suffering and death on the cross are given to humanity in Word and Sacrament and through them, life salvation and the forgiveness of sins.
So this liturgical season, whether you give up something or take something on, remember that God is serving you in and through His Church, giving you salvation now and forever.
In +Jesus’ name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON