One of the notable aspects of some of the major political issues today is how clearly their focus is on self-determination. Abortion, trans-genderism, and homosexuality are all driven by the desire for self-determination. One might even argue they are all, ultimately, just different expressions of the same problem. We all want control over our lives. We want the ability to determine our futures and chart our own courses. To some extent, this is natural. We are all unique human beings, each with unique personalities, unique skills and talents, unique dreams and aspirations, and so forth. For each of us to be try and do the same things brings out the kind of totalitarian imagery we see from Nazi Germany or Communist China. Everyone is forced into a prescribed set of standards and no deviation is allowed. This is just simply not how we are made. These God-given and God-created differences are a gift and they should be cherished.
This is all good thus far, but we take it much further. We look at those special gifts we’ve been given and what they allow us to do and then draw the conclusion that these gifts were given to benefit us. These skills and talents are how I gain a measure of control over my life and the world around me. This is how I achieve success and find happiness. This is how I reach out and take hold of my dreams. We draw the further conclusion that, as a self-determining individual, nothing can stand in the way of my quest for happiness/success/control/etc. Any rule that prevents me from having what I want is a barrier to be overcome and nothing more. This is the prevailing thought in Western society. Each individual is an authority unto himself and there is no higher authority.
When looking at how God orders and structures creation, certain things become evident. Marriage and parenthood are the two most basic and fundamental relationships in society. In both cases, God emphasizes a very important point: your relationship to your spouse or to your child isn’t about you. In fact, both relationships put a great deal of constraint on what you can do with your life. Both rob you of your power of self-determination and they are designed to precisely that. St. Paul’s description of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5 tells us the job of the husband is to love his wife and the job of the wife is to love her husband. At no point in his discussion is either person given the power or authority to withhold that love for any reason. The husband is directed to even give up his life for his wife if need be, a command completely opposed to any notion of self-determination.
It isn’t about you. At the risk of being overly simplistic, one could sum up the Gospel message in this way. The gifts God gives you were never intended to be solely for your own benefit, but so that you would have the means to care for others. Whether that be your spouse, your kids, or anyone else, God has given you the skills, talents and resources to share His love in word and deed. God gives you the ability to determine aspects of your own life, but only to a point. You were created to serve others. The minute you walk away from that is when you turn from being a benefit to God’s creation to being a diseased and disordered element within it.
Looking at Christ, we see that the power of self-determination is not found in exercising it, but in giving it up. Christ has all the power in creation and could do anything He wished, but He gives up that power in order to serve others, to let their needs determine His life, and not His own wants and desires. Abortion, trans-genderism, homosexuality, and many other topics being debated in our society are wrong in and of themselves, but their more insidious damage is in how they turn us all into people who care only about ourselves.
The Lutheran theology of worship reorients us. It puts our clay back in the mold and gently heats it so that it may once again look like what it was made to be. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “service,” and is where the name “divine service” comes from. Leitourgia typically meant civil service of some form or another, someone whose job was to care for others in some public way. This word was quickly brought into the church and associated with the Sunday morning gathering. The question that has plagued the church, especially since Reformation days, is, “Who is doing the serving? If it is called a ‘divine service’ is God the one serving or is He being served?” For many churches, the emphasis is on our praise and thanks as we offer God what He due for all He has done for us. It is true that He is due those things, but that’s not what is most important. God asks us to do things. Sometimes He even commands us to do things, but He doesn’t need us to do things. He has no need of our service. We, on the other hand, would perish and be lost for eternity without Him. We need Him and, as Christ did so long ago, He joyfully sets aside His power of self-determination to serve us. He serves us as He cares for our needs of body and soul through the hope and joy found in His grace and the message of the Gospel, through the cleansing of Baptism, and through His body and blood that bring us into His kingdom.
The divine service is counter-cultural because it reorients our thinking. It isn’t about us. It is about God. It is always about God. We were created to be in a relationship with Him. To fully exercise our power of self-determination is to cut ourselves off from the very one who brings us life. We come to worship Him and we look to what He has done for us, not because He has to acquiesce to our demands or respects any rights we think we have before Him, but simply because He chooses to. We focus on Him, and not ourselves, because that’s who we are and what we were meant to do. Anything we have is not something we have of ourselves, but something we have been given. We offer Him our thanks and praise, not because it gets us anything, but because that’s what you do when you give up your power of self-determination and focus your attention entirely on the other person in your relationship.
As with the sacraments and just about everything God has given the church, the divine service is God’s teaching tool. He helps us learn how to live the way we were created to live and to love the way He loves us. He gives us a place to practice and to see the relationship in action so that we can take what we have learned out into the world and love others as we have been loved.