Reformation Sunday happens this weekend. It is the time when Lutherans tend to wear red and celebrate what a wild and outspoken monk named Martin did 501 years ago in Germany. He was willing to speak truth to power and face the consequences of doing so.
We are in the midst of our series A Deep Life and the third topic: A Deep Life of Worship. So, it only makes sense that we would explore the question, “What is Lutheran Worship, anyway?”
I am not preaching this weekend. Actually, I’m preaching three times, but at the Confirmation services on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, on a different topic. So, I thought I would write this post to think about Lutheran worship.
I didn’t grow up Lutheran. I was formed by the worship style of Calvary Baptist Church in Hazel Park, MI from fourth grade into my sophomore year of high school. We had around 2,000 people in worship on Sundays. There was a massive choir, lots of orchestral instruments, soloists, special music groups, and good, old-fashioned hymns. We had music for half an hour, with some prayers mixed in. Then Pastor Allen would stand up into the pulpit, crack open the Bible, and preach word by word through whatever book we were studying. He would often preach for forty-five minutes. Every sermon ended with an altar call. We all bowed our heads and Pastor Allen would ask if anyone was ready to come forward to receive Jesus and be saved. “I see that hand,” he would say, “and another, and way in the back.” I would mentally click off all the new converts behind my tightly closed eyes, feeling good that we were doing the work of the Gospel. Then he would have us stand and sing “Just as I am” while all the penitent souls walked forward to be led in the Sinner’s Prayer and find assurance in their eternal salvation.
Communion only happened once per quarter and it was an additional 15-minute service tacked on to the end of the normal service described above.
No robes. No liturgy. No confession and absolution. No sacraments. Just singing and preaching and saving souls.
I have a confession to make. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life was to put on a robe and stand in front of a congregation for the first time. I could feel my grandfather turning in his grave as I donned the garb of “those” kind of pastors (he wasn’t very fond of Catholics and Lutherans).
So, why am I here? What brought me from Baptist land to Lutherville? It isn’t the robes or the liturgy or the hymns or the organ. Honestly, I wouldn’t shed a tear if I never had to wear a robe and stole again.
Here’s what I love about the theology of Lutheran worship. It is four words.
A worship service is not a music concert and lecture series designed to convince you to convert. Worship is an embodied act that invites us to walk through the rhythm of God’s grace that is at work in the world.
God gathers us together. It is like God inhales and draws us in to God’s chest, to God’s heart.
The Word of God is proclaimed through song, scripture, preaching, prayer, and silence. We are given space to confess our sin and be reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Word of God is encountered through the sacraments of communion and baptism. Ordinary things made extra-0rdinry by God’s Promise.
The body of Christ—us—is gathered around the body of Christ to be re-ignited in the Good News that God is with us and God is for us, even in the darkest of times; that God has entered into our darkness, fear, and violence, taken upon Godself, and crucified it. We celebrate the life, death, and resurrection power of Jesus that gives us new life each day.
Then God exhales and we are sent into our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and public spaces to be the hands and feet of Jesus: to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, set the captives free, speak truth to corrupt power, accompany the broken and oppressed, and be the presence of God’s grace with our neighbors.
In case you think I’m making this up, the elca.org website succinctly describes the essence of Lutheran Worship:
While some of the approaches to worship may differ from one ELCA congregation to another, we hold certain things in common. Central to our worship life is the presence of God through word and sacrament. The word proclaimed and the sacraments —both Holy Baptism and Holy Communion — are called the means of grace. We believe that Jesus Christ is present in these means through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we describe worship as a “gathering around the means of grace.”
There is also a basic pattern for worship among Lutherans. We gather. We encounter God’s word. We share a meal at the Lord’s table. And we are sent into the world. But we do not think about worship so much in terms of what we do. Worship is fundamentally about what God is doing and our response to God’s action. Worship is an encounter with God, who saves us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here is an image I drew last year during our CORE series that is a picture of this form of worship.
That is the essence of what Lutheran worship is, anyway.