Lex Vivendi: The liturgy of life

August 9th, 2023

Many Christian traditions have much to say about the relationship between liturgy and life. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans together have a multitude of liturgical theologians and thus a rich treasury of wisdom from which to draw in describing the liturgy-life relationship. 

Do Wesleyans have insights about how liturgy and life in the world outside the weekly assembly might relate? Surely we have a goodly heritage in this area, beginning with the poetics of Charles Wesley. United Methodism has produced its share of liturgically-minded theologians and theologically-minded liturgists. Their writings are replete with insights into the nature of our tradition and its liturgical developments that might provide starting points for reflection. That they have resourced not only United Methodism, but the whole church is evidence that the catholic spirit lives. That alone tells us much about the nature of Wesleyan contributions on this topic. 

So, United Methodists, let’s not hide our light under a bushel! The following is a brief, preliminary consideration of how Wesleyans might imagine the connection between liturgy and life.

Some liturgical spiritualties rest on a creation-redemption schema, where the liturgy of Word and sacraments (with a specific, laser-sharp focus on instituted means of grace) is contrasted with the “liturgy of life” in nature, the marketplace, work, culture, etc. (where grace is present broadly and generally). Think here of Augustine’s two cities, or Luther’s two kingdoms. These formulations are attractive for their realistic feel: marking the contradiction the church and its means of grace sometimes becomes in relation to nature and society. They have shaped theologies that still impact us, from Paul to Augustine to Luther to Niebuhr.  They become apt ways of thinking about the relationship of worship to everything else.

Wesley offers a different sort of dialectical tension in reference to the workings of grace embedded in time. That is, grace works both gradually and instantaneously, in long stretches of chronos and epiphanic moments of kairos.[1] Thus, time itself is a means of grace as the ordinary workaday world becomes the setting for transformative relationships, practices, and experiences; especially among these is servant ministry with the poor. Growth is the metaphor here, and, as we grow, we participate in what God is doing among and within us. Hence, it is “co-operant” grace that enables us to, as it were, “dance” with a God who takes the lead. This is the shape and rhythm, the liturgy, of ordinary life.[2]   This rhythm, though, is subject to disruptive and renewing moments of instantaneous, “kairotic” grace. Here we do not cooperate; Grace operates upon us as reorienting and renewing gift. This is the Mount of Transfiguration, the Upper Room, and Emmaus. One thinks of Augustine in the garden, Teresa of Avila in ecstasy, Luther in his tower, or Wesley at Aldersgate. These moments disorient/reorient so that we experience the metanoia, the turnaround moment of facing a new direction, often with new commitments, new hope, and the sharper sense that Christian living is not a matter of being on a journey down a linear interstate but on an adventurous path with many twists and turns. Many kairotic moments punctuate the way like commas, semicolons, conjunctions, and sometimes periods written by God’s hand in our lives. 

Worship is kairos. The Word and Table assembly is a moment we can expect God to act in the promised means of grace made present in the speaking of the Word and the baptismal bathing and the eucharistic eating and drinking. We take leave, though, to venture back to the world of chronos (always down the mountain, out through the Emmaus city limits, sometimes to a Gethsemane). Grace to enable us to live what we have seen and heard in the liturgical gathering is available like manna for the long journey until the next kairos. And, who knows, because there is an ordinary kairoswhenever we assemble, we should live expecting extraordinary ones, at any time along the way, while the clock ticks out the moments of an ordinary week. The worshipping assembly is a sign that all time is expectant, and therefore, grace-ful, redeemed for the sake of discipleship and growth. In a word, all time becomes sacrament, liturgical time, in which we offer the work of our discipleship to God for our neighbors, the God who has given us the time in which to do so as sheer gift.

So, perhaps if Wesley had worked out a liturgical theology, he might have conceived of it in this way. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologies gift us with lots of reflection on the role of space, physical place, holy temple, sacramental elements themselves. Lutherans stress salvation’s proper grammar, Word sung and preached, with voice and soundwaves. Maybe Methodism contributes a way to think about time as a means of grace, extended and contracted in the gradual and instantaneous workings of grace. After all, we measure time in terms of the kairos of conference (the institutional church together, for a moment, anticipating its eternal reunion) and the chronos of itineracy and appointment; Methodists mark time in this way, as Russ Ritchey has pointed out.[3]

 Instead of the speculative genius of a systematic liturgical theology, the Wesleys gave us hymns (no surprise here).[4] It’s in their poetry that we see a doxological pattern as a movement through prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace ending finally in the presence of God. Consider the following verse of a hymn:

Lay but Thine hand upon my soul,
And instantaneously made whole
My soul by faith shall rise,
Shall rise by faith and upright stand,
And answer all Thy just command
In all its faculties.[5] 

God’s grace to us sometimes comes in just this way, contracted to a moment, in this case the perfection in love the Wesleys so ardently anticipated. Imagine this instantaneous grace at work as we gather, hear the Word, receive the supper, and move forth to serve. Speaking specifically of the Eucharist, Charles Wesley wrote:

Author of life divine,
Who hast a table spread,
Furnished with mystic wine
And everlasting bread,
Preserve the life thyself hast given,
And feed, and train us up for heaven.  

Our needy souls sustain
With fresh supplies of love,
Till all thy life we gain,
And all thy fulness prove,
And strengthened by thy perfect grace,
Behold without a veil thy face.[6] 

We are nourished while in route, in the eucharistic feast, until the sign—the feast celebrated in time—becomes the thing it signifies, the Lamb’s eternal victory feast. The Christian life of worship and service in the world is not a matter of merely marking time until “that awful day,” but a vibrant expectation already experienced in surprising, instantaneous gifts of grace such as the Triune God’s presence in worship in ways that make time stand still.

Worship feeds and sustains our needy souls “with fresh supplies of love.” Those instantaneous moments fuel the temporal “till” in the third line. In this hymn, preserving, feeding, and sustenance for the journey lead toward the life of grace at full stretch, where we behold God without the veil of time and space (the ultimate kairos). 

 Worship is always eschatological in the Wesleyan tradition, an earthly anticipation, “a little heaven below.” Perhaps worship as instantaneous gift and anticipation of the eternal is best known in these words, a hallmark of Wesleyan liturgical spirituality:

Finish then Thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
perfectly restored in Thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before Thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.[7]

[1] See Wesley’s sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” in Albert Outler, ed., Works of John Wesley Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986):204.

[2] See Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994): 151.

[3] See Ritchey, The Methodist Conference in America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). For a technical look at gradual and instantaneous grace in Wesley, see Maddox, op. cit., and Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007): esp. 15-16, placed among other “axial themes” in Wesley’s theology. See also John R. Tyson, Charles Wesley on Sanctification: A Biographical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1986), esp. pgs. 248-52.

[4] And even poetry relies on meter, a unit of linguistic rhythm, and therefore, of time. 

[5] Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, Vol. IV. p. 381. Tyson, op. cit., 249.

[6] Ibid., No. 40/1-2.

[7] United Methodist Hymnal. No. 384/4.

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