A friend visiting from New Jersey remarked about how “meaningful” he found the Divine Service at our Lutheran Church. As a non-denominational evangelical, it was nice to hear him say something positive about Mass. Still, I thought it interesting because he too is a Christian who worships God on a weekly basis in his non-Lutheran hometown church. So, I asked him whether he likewise found his church full of meaning, not in a sentimental way, but in terms of content. “Is it weighty and significant?” I asked. “It carries meaning,” he said, “but like an unassembled puzzle, where you are not sure how or even if the parts fit together.” He expressed how the entire Mass cohered through the Gospel in each part of the Divine Service, making a further point that the sermon seemed to express what God was doing through the whole service — like a puzzle’s completed picture placarded on the box.
This exchange brought to mind an ancient Latin maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity, and mission of the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. The phrase literally means, “The law of prayer” (“the way we worship”) and constitutes the law of belief (“what we believe”). In short it means, how we worship determines the content of our belief. It carries the implication that the way we worship reveals what we believe. The sermon plays no small role to substantiate this maxim: It placards the completed picture of what otherwise may seem puzzling.
The sermon properly serves as the linchpin to the two main parts of the Mass (“the Service of the Word” and “the Sacrament of the Altar”) giving expression to the nature of worship (eliciting faith in the real voice and real presence of Christ) but also the content of our holy faith, namely Christ and Him crucified, resurrected, and ascended. Unsurprisingly, the Gospel is the high point of both parts: The reading of the Words of our Lord Jesus recorded by the Evangelists and the receiving of the Lord in the verbum and distribution. Thus, we have the Gospel in Word and the Gospel in Sacrament. Both are poised to declare the peace of the Lord, the good news of God’s forgiveness because of the life, vicarious atonement, and resurrection of Jesus the Son. The sermon assembles it all together. Having confessed our sins in thought, word, and deed, and felt the truthful accusation of the Law perhaps in all the appointed lectionary texts, the sermon explicates the Gospel of Christ’s atonement for sinners and declares the pardoning verdict of King Jesus, extolling them to walk in the Spirit according to the ethic of His Kingdom. In this way, the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi pivots on the sermon but does neither solely consist of nor can be reduced to the sermon.
The idea of lex orandi, lex credendi pivots on the sermon but does neither solely consist of nor can be reduced to the sermon.
The liturgical event gives shape to our beliefs because everything that takes place during the Divine Service (the music, the arrangement of seating, the fixtures, the artwork, the materials, spatial orientation, colors, male representation by the pastor, etc.) bespeaks a theology, either reinforcing themes from Scripture or values from elsewhere (consumerism or pragmatism, for example). But what is implicit by way of accoutrements and ceremonies becomes explicit in the sermon: Beliefs are put to proclamation. So much so that the beliefs of a particular church are on full display, easily discerned by simply looking and listening during their “worship service.” Seeing and hearing alone are usually enough to tell you all you may need to know about the way any given church understands God, humanity, and Christian engagement with the world. Through their worship such communities will externalize their doctrinal commitments, even perhaps a commitment to non-doctrine as a doctrine. Either way, both liturgical accouterments and liturgical content require a kind of literacy, an ability to “read” the theological communication of the art, architecture, and iconography, as well as the employment of Scripture. But the sermon stands as the most naked aspect of the liturgical event, be it never so non-liturgical. It says plainly what subtleties suggest, either clearly revealing Jesus or betraying His trust in the handling of the sermon.
Lex orandi, lex credendi is the shortened form. It is sometimes more fully written as, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. This longer phrase further deepens the implications of the shorter truism: How we worship reflects what we believe and determines how we will live (vivendi) or, in other words, as we worship, so we believe and so we live. This is why teaching, proclaiming, heralding, reading, symbolizing, ceremonializing, and monumentalizing the faith during worship and as our worship is of critical importance within the catholic traditions of the Church. As we worship in the content of the faith, so we become. Again, the sermon is pivotal. Not only is the Gospel properly heralded as the divine antidote to the condemnation of the Law, but the Gospel that justifies carries the implications of being transported into the Kingdom of God. That is, the sermon also communicates the biblically articulated ethical implications of regeneration within the household of faith. Theologians call this: “The Third Use of the Law.” It is life lived under the influence of the Spirit of Christ. As we worship, so we believe, and so we live.
As we worship, so we believe, and so we live.
Thus, a true and faithful proclamation of Christ’s Gospel facilitates a monumental transition within the liturgy to pivot auditors from a posture of hearing Christ to communicants receiving Christ. This serves to not only assure their point-in-time justification but also their ongoing sanctification.
So, if the law of prayer or worship is the law of belief and life, then what takes place in the Divine Service, hinged on the sermon, powerfully shapes both what we think of God’s presence and work through Jesus Christ and His Church, but additionally it shapes who we are as Christians. We worship in the manner we do because we are convinced by Scripture that it is in that context of worship—through God’s Liturgy—that we are being transformed, moved from faith to faith. The whole thing pivots on the Law/Gospel dynamic. We come in with sin, indeed, with our sinful natures, convicted in conscience by the Law of God, and the Lord applies His holy Gospel to save and sanctify us. Paul says the same thing about the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But of Him are you in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ which not only saves us but also sanctifies us. In the Divine Service the Lord Himself is present applying the Gospel to save, sanctify, and transform.
My New Jersey friend was experiencing this very thing and taking note of the difference in the content of meaning between the Divine Service and his worship service and its effect on what he believes and who he is in Christ. He was seeing that worship is a major factor in the shaping of one’s Christian faith and, indeed, may even be said to be the principal thing that transforms us as we journey through life and, further still, the sermon plays a pivotal role that, surprisingly, is not the high point or focus of the Christian assembly. Rather, that privilege is split between the service of the Word and the service of the Sacrament of the Altar. Therefore, with the sermon, they adhere together as one Gospel announcement, one Gospel action of the Lord.