If you’ve been paying attention to this whole “Liturgy Series” then you’ll notice that there was not an installment last week. Things just didn’t really pan out for me to write this post last week so I hope you’ll be understanding with the delay.
Having said that, this week's post brings us to “Part 5” in the series. Thus far we’ve discussed liturgy in general in Part 1, the concept of the liturgical (or church) calendar in Part 2, the “call to worship” in Part 3, and singing and music in Part 4.
Today, Part 5, will look at a part of the church liturgy that, by some, is called “The Law”. As I’ve stated in the previous parts of this series, I am relying heaving on the work Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith throughout this “Liturgy Series” and I will continue to do so in this post. That said, let’s let Smith introduce the concept of “The Law” in the liturgy of the Christian church. In doing so we will see that he succinctly summarizes some other concepts we’ve covered thus far in this series:
Now that we’ve gathered in response to God’s call and been welcomed by God and one another, the dialogical principle of Christian worship continues in the reading of the law: in some traditions this will be a regular reading of the Ten Commandments; in many other traditions, the moment of law in worship will draw on a range of God’s commands from across Scripture, including the Sermon on the Mount and other injunctions throughout the New Testament, such as the one Jesus called the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39, echoing Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18). Thus in some forms of Christian worship, this moment in the liturgy might not be named law; it might instead be articulated as that moment in the service where we hear “God’s Will for Our Lives.” (pg. 174)
Put shortly, “The Law” portion of the liturgy is the time when we are told how we are supposed to live.
Unfortunately, this is quite an unpopular sentiment in our current religious and cultural milieu. When the word “law” comes up in the context of the Christian faith one is more likely to hear something along the lines of “Jesus freed us from the law” or “We are justified by faith not by the law” in response. I’m not here telling you that either of these statements are wrong (in fact I agree with both of them). Instead, I want to point out why this is an unfortunately truncated view of God’s law that, when overcome, gives way to a glorious reality that many modern Christians are simply missing out on.
Many modern Christians have (rightfully) been so taught the notion that we are not saved by our works that they (wrongly) believe that the only use of the law in the Bible is salvific. Yet the law has many uses that have nothing to do with earning favor with God. Rather, as Smith will soon point out, the law serves as a gracious guide to our rebellious hearts. The law, particularly in it’s liturgical application, helps direct the people of God toward the way of life that God has for them in Jesus. Here’s Smith:
God’s law is not a stern restriction of our will but an invitation to find peace and rest in what Augustine would call the “right ordering” of our will. In this respect the giving of commandments is an expression of love; the commandments are given as guardrails that encourage us to act in ways that are consistent with the “grain of the universe,” so to speak. (pg. 174-75)
Smith points out the fact that the law, like all parts of the liturgy has a way of shaping, guiding, and growing the people of God toward the goal of godliness. The law, as Smith points out, is gracious. It is gracious because in it God communicates to his people the way he intends the world to operate. As the creator, God desires (and plans) for the world to operate in a certain manner. It would be foolish to believe that that 1) God’s law would be contrary to His created order or 2) that God would want His people to live in a way contrary to His ordering of the cosmos (namely to find its zenith in Jesus).
This concept (as stated earlier) really grinds against many of our modern sensibilities. The reason is do our modern obsession with “autonomy.” Smith points the concept out conveniently in the footnotes of pg. 175 in DtK: “The modern notion of autonomy indicates a sense that one gives oneself (autos) the law (nomos). Such a picture rejects “heteronomy,” that is, the idea that the law comes from an other (heteros)." The classroom of the world (quite literally) teaches the importance of autonomy. Take any psychology 101 course at the closest community college to where you live and this will most certainly be taught.
Yet, over and against this modern concept of autonomy is the Biblical notion of the giving of the law. When we receive the law in the liturgy of the church we are openhandedly rejecting the concept of “autonomy.” The church states in the law that we are not a law unto ourselves, instead we receive a law from another, from God. Smith brings wonderful insight:
The announcement of the law and the articulation of God’s will for our lives signals that our good is not something that we determine or choose for ourselves. The secular liturgies of late modern culture are bent on forming in us a notion of autonomy—a sense that we are a law unto ourselves and that we are only properly “free” when we can choose our own ends, determine our own telos. (pg. 175)
Smith makes the fine point that the use of the law in the liturgy of the church serves as a counter-formation to the powerful and formative forces of the “secular liturgies” that are constantly impressing upon us the ideal of “autonomy.” The secular liturgies tell us that we will find fulfillment only when we are able to determine for ourselves what we will live for. The law in Christian liturgy teaches us an entirely contrary vision of human life. Rather than creating our own meaning, we look to God, who is the creator of all, for our meaning.
In this vein of thought I would like to conclude our fifth installment of the liturgy series with a rather lengthy quote from Smith. Not to worry, it’s excellent!
The reading of the law is a displacement of our own wants and desires, reminding us that we find ourselves in a world not of our own making—which is why all our attempts to remake it as we want are not only doomed to failure; they are also doomed to exacerbate suffering. The announcement of the law reminds us that we inhabit not “nature,” but creation, fashioned by a creator, and that there is a certain grain to the universe—grooves and tracks and norms that are part of the fabric of the world. And all of creation flourishes best when our communities and relationships run with the grain of those grooves. Indeed, the biblical vision of human flourishing implicit in worship means that we are only properly free when our desires are rightly ordered, when they are bounded and directed to the end that constitutes our good. That is why the law, though it comes as a scandalous challenge to the modern desire for autonomy, is actually an invitation to be freed from a-teleological [end-less] wandering. It is an invitation to find the good life by welcoming the boundaries of law that guide us into the grooves that constitute the grain of the universe and are conductive to flourishing. (pg. 176)
Food for thought.
Michael lives with his wife (Caroline) and dog (Beau) in Athens, GA where he teaches history and economics to high schoolers. Michael enjoys reading, watching soccer, drinking bourbon, and taking walks with his wife and dog.