“A Reformation in Liturgy and Hymnody” (John 8:31-36)

Reformation Day (Observed)
Sunday, October 30, 2022

“A Reformation in Liturgy and Hymnody” (John 8:31-36)

Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Friends, this is really what the Reformation was all about: that people would abide in the living, life-giving word of Christ; that they would know the truth of the gospel, which had been obscured by the errors that had crept into the church; and that this truth would set people free from the slavery they had been laboring under. Luther himself had labored under that slavery, and when he discovered the freeing truth of the gospel, he bent every effort toward wanting others to know the freedom that is theirs in Christ. The whole Reformation was geared toward that end. And it meant reforming every area of church life that had been infected by those enslaving errors. It meant bringing the truth to light in every aspect where it had been clouded over.

Today we are the recipients and beneficiaries of that great Reformation program. And one of the prime ways in which we enjoy that rich heritage is in what we are doing right here in this church service. For today, on this Reformation Sunday, we will see what benefits are ours, precisely because the Lutheran Reformation included, very prominently, “A Reformation in Liturgy and Hymnody.”

First, a reformation in liturgy. By that I mean reforming the church’s regular order of the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, otherwise known as the Mass. And the Mass was in need of reform. For over the centuries, false ideas had become attached to the Mass, that by our doing of it, the priest and the people were offering up a sacrifice to God that contributes to our salvation. In other words, the arrows had been reversed. Instead of the big thing being how God gives us his gifts in the Divine Service, purely out of his grace–which is the big thing–instead, over time the emphasis had switched to our works in the performing of the Mass, in order to gain God’s favor. And this false view was reflected in the practice of the Mass.

In 1523, Luther wrote about the abuses had crept into the service. He said, “God’s Word has been silenced,” that is, that typically there was no preaching of God’s Word in the service. Further, he said, “such divine service was performed as a work whereby God’s grace and salvation might be won.” “The mass became a sacrifice,” said Luther. And that needed to be changed. “Let us, therefore, repudiate everything that smacks of sacrifice . . . and retain only that which is pure and holy, and so order our mass.”

And that is what Luther proceeded to do. He removed from the liturgy the parts that gave the idea that by our work we are offering up to God some atoning sacrifice. Another problem that needed to be addressed was that the Mass was in Latin, a language that most people did not understand. So by 1526, Luther had developed a German mass, so that people could know what was going on and participate in the service.

Luther saw the need to reform the Mass. But he did not reject it. Lest you think Luther was some sort of radical who wanted to junk the liturgy altogether–no, that was not the case. He kept as much of the historic liturgy as could be kept without injury to the gospel. He writes: “It is not now nor has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to point out an evangelical use.” For example, he says, “Let the chants in the Sunday masses and Vespers be retained; they are quite good and are taken from Scripture.”

The historic liturgy had developed over many centuries, from the time of the early church. The Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei–these historic canticles have been integral to the structure of the service from long before Luther. They have served the church well. And so Luther saw the need only to cleanse the Mass from those “wretched accretions” that had crept in, which gave the impression that we are offering up to God our work, rather than God doing the work of giving us his gifts in Word and Sacrament. He kept everything that could be kept.

And so it is, dear friends, that here today we are using the same basic order of service that had developed over many centuries in Christendom and that Luther cleansed and reformed. Our liturgy has stood the test of time and passed with flying colors. We are blessed to have and to use the historic Divine Service as we have it in our hymnal.

And speaking of hymnals, the first Lutheran hymnal was published in 1524. It consisted in eight hymns, in the German language, for the people to sing. But that was just the start. Soon, Luther and his colleagues began producing many hymns that praise God and extol the gospel. Luther himself, who knew the Word of God better than anyone and who was a skilled musician–Luther would write some 41 hymns in his lifetime. Not only is he our chief theologian, he is also our best hymn writer. We have many of his hymns in our hymnal. In fact, all of the hymns we’re singing today in our service were written by Luther.

And what a joy it is to sing them! How the beautiful light of Christ shines through! Take, for example, the first hymn we sang today, 556, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice.” In my opinion, this may be the greatest hymn ever written. The music is an uplifting match for the text. The text is theologically sound; it gets Law and Gospel right. And the imagery is creative and imaginative. Consider stanza 5, wherein the Father speaks to the Son:

God said to His beloved Son:
“It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of My crown,
And bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free;
Slay bitter death for them that they
May live with You forever.”

Brothers and sisters, this is the gospel, isn’t it? It’s putting into singable, poetic, memorable form the wonderful good news of what God has done for us in Christ. God did send forth his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring us salvation. By his atoning death and victorious resurrection, Jesus does set us free from sin and sorrow and death, so that we now will live with him forever. It’s like Jesus himself says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Friends, our liturgy and our hymns proclaim the gospel loud and clear! Prior to Luther’s reforms, the gospel was being obscured and hidden. But now, every Sunday here in church, you are getting the life-giving, liberating gospel of Christ, full blast, in word and song–in your ears, on your tongue, implanted in your heart and mind. Liturgy and hymnody have a way of doing that.

It’s like what it says in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” When the word of Christ dwells in you richly, as it does through our liturgy and hymns, then you will be abiding in Christ’s word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Published in: on October 29, 2022 at 11:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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