An Excerpt from On Any Given Sunday

Reading Time: 5 mins

This is an excerpt from the prologue of “On Any Given Sunday: The Story of Christ in the Divine Service” by Mike Berg (1517 Publishing, 2023).

On any given Sunday, the story of Christ is retold with poetry and prose, music and lyrics. This narrative of Christ’s life is called the “Divine Service.” It is such a beautiful expression of the faith that countless Christians from across the globe, of every culture, from every class, and in every era, sing, chant, listen to, and read some of the same words every week. How mind boggling it is that Jesus said some of the same words we sing on Sunday, that Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom read some of the same readings, that Augustine prayed some of the same prayers, and that Martin Luther chanted some of the same chants! How astounding it is that a man in Beijing, a woman in Moscow, a boy in Nairobi, and a girl in Buenos Aries can share such an intimate connection through the Divine Service in an otherwise contentious world? This involves much more than conservative traditions clinging to old rituals or a repristination of some imaginary golden age; it is a special bond between Christ and his body. It is the story of Christ. It is Christ in Word and Sacrament. To understand the Divine Service is to understand how Christ encounters us in this world. I hope this book helps you understand this beautiful treasure.

It is amazing that many of the words remain unchanged and the basic form of the service has kept its shape. This is not because the church was so humble that it did not change much over the centuries. The itching ears of the first century (2 Tim. 4:3) are the same today and were the same in the Imperial, the Medieval, and the Reformation eras of the church. The Service has remained intact due to something far more potent than either stubbornness or conformist attitudes. It remains a static entity because it has its roots in the Jewish synagogues, its woody substance from the Scriptures, its strong trunk from the creeds precisely crafted during the controversies of the early church, its reaching branches from the musical talents of the laity, and its colorful leaves from every culture and language of the world. In short, it is a summary of Holy Writ checked and rechecked by generation after generation of the faithful to make sure all is accurate, all is beneficial, and all is beautiful. It is the path Paul marked out for us, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). [1]

This “democracy of the dead” [2]  humbles us as we think about the history of our spiritual mothers and fathers and how they worshipped. The Divine Service has weathered the storms of National Socialism and Communism. It has outlasted times of illiteracy and renaissances of human talent. It has persevered through persecution and poverty. It has stayed strong through movements like secularism and rationalism. And it will survive modernism, post‐modernism, and whatever else comes next. It has anchored the church when falsity and corruption infected her. It has welcomed the talents of God’s creatures and honed them to reflect the heavenly worship of the Lamb as best as humanity possibly can. There is nothing the Divine Service has not seen. So, when trouble arises, we can look back to the past to see what our forefathers have done. We learn from their mistakes, and we weigh their wisdom. More often than not, we find a question we are wrestling with has already been asked and answered. The Divine Service protects us from the wolves in sheep’s clothing and from ourselves. It lifts us from depression and enlightens our souls. It curbs our enthusiasm for ourselves and nurtures our abilities at the same time. Above all, it gives us Christ for it is Christ, the eternal Word and the Sacrament of his body and blood.

The Divine Service has been attacked and criticized, chopped up and added to for millennia. The debate over its place and purpose in the church is a never‐ending scrum. The discussion is a complicated conversation that has involved cultural, sociological, theological, and even political considerations. What is often missing in this necessary but sometimes ugly scrum is the sheer beauty of the Divine Service. I think of it as a symphony. Many parts come together not to recite a dry and tedious tale of a man named Jesus, but a polyphonic presentation of grace that engages all the senses (God’s modes of operation were way ahead of the educators who promote the audio, visual, and kinesthetic categories of learning). He knows his creation and how he wants to interact with it. The Divine Service is more than a recital of doctrinal facts that occurs on Sunday morning. The Divine Service is not cognitive teaching about grace as much as it is grace. It does not just describe grace; it gives grace. It is here that the church encounters a theological consideration when trying to decide what worship is and what to actually do on Sunday mornings.

To put it another way, if we must reach God through our own spiritual enlightenment, mystical climbing, or decision for Christ, then yes, Sunday morning is about how to get there, how to reach into the heavens, how to bring the divine into us, and how to become better people. But if he is really present in tangible ways, then Sunday morning has a different feel to it.

If our God is an aloof god who remains detached from this physical world, then it makes perfect sense that our time together might be described only as “worship,” which would suggest that the purpose of Sunday is primarily our expressions of praise to an all‐powerful deity. If our God comes to us in physical ways to hand us salvation, however, then this truly is his divine service to us. To put it another way, if we must reach God through our own spiritual enlightenment, mystical climbing, or decision for Christ, then yes, Sunday morning is about how to get there, how to reach into the heavens, how to bring the divine into us, and how to become better people. But if he is really present in tangible ways, then Sunday morning has a different feel to it. Things look and sound different, and we perform rituals in specific ways because we are in the presence of the Almighty. He invades our space as he did in Bethlehem during Augustus’ reign. He comes and shakes things up in our lives with his thundering law and his healing gospel. The words “Lord, have mercy” and “Glory to God in the high‐ est” come to mind. Surely, we thank and praise him, how could we not? But Sunday is about receiving more than giving, from a human perspective. Our giving plays a bigger role during the week, and even then, it is still all about “God for us” as he loves our world through our various vocations. The debate over liturgics is a theological one, whether the combatants admit it or not. It has to do with the way God comes to us and deals with us. It’s about the incarnation, the means of grace, the cross, salvation, vocation—really every doctrine is present someway, somehow in the classic Divine Service…

…So it goes with the Divine Service. An evaluation of the Divine Service isn’t about our likes and dislikes; it is about understanding the church’s reason for doing what she has done for so long. Herein lies the problem. Most do not know why the Kyrie is sung or what the word Sanctus means or why the Gospel Reading is the third reading from Scripture. Most have never been taught. I know I wasn’t! The result of liturgical illiteracy is either a mindless slavery to tradition or an addiction to incessant change. The debate over what should be done on any given Sunday will continue and that’s okay; it is even a good thing. However, in the midst of the melee, this beautiful symphony that accompanies Christ’s saving actions is begging to be appreciated.

Before the cry of impracticality drowns out the sweet song of the liturgy, there are very practical reasons to learn about our Sunday morning heritage. For the vast majority of people, this hour on Sunday morning is the most contact they will have with their congregation, their pastor, and even the Word of God. This fact alone is enough to demand a thorough understanding of the nuts and bolts of the Divine Service. As mentioned above, a fuller comprehension leads to at least appreciation and even love. The Service is never boring; the sermon may be, but the Service cannot be. Heaven and earth are crashing together! Law is bellowed loudly, and gospel is spoken sweetly! There is nothing boring about it ... so long as people understand what is happening. So there is nothing more practical than to learn about our Christian liturgy of Word and Meal. Understanding makes Sunday meaningful. As we dive into the Service, we also discover a plethora of doctrines taught in a practical way, from original sin to the atone‐ ment. We also see the life of Christ laid out before us. It is a treasure trove ready to be explored.

This is an excerpt from the prologue of On Any Given Sunday: The Story of Christ in the Divine Service by Mike Berg (1517 Publishing, 2023), pgs ix-xiii.

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[1] NIV 2011.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 43.

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