Sometimes I have the impression that some of God’s people think they’re doing something for him when they show up for church on Sunday, whether fulfilling an obligation or doing Him a favor. Other times I have the impression that some of God’s people think they have come for a purpose comparable to watching a football game. When the score becomes badly lopsided in the fourth quarter and the result seems certain, it’s fine to spend game time raiding the kitchen for chips or beer. What could you possibly miss?
It’s important for God’s people to realize that He doesn’t need anything from them. You do him no favors by showing up on Sunday, and you have no obligation to turn over 59 minutes, 59 seconds of your precious Sunday morning to Him. He can do just fine without that, thank you very much.
It’s also important to realize that when we come to church expecting to be entertained, diverted, or otherwise “pulled in” to Sunday worship, we’re badly missing the point and depriving ourselves of something much greater and (dare I say it?) far more important that football. You can’t measure eternal life by quarters, or slow it down with time-outs.
So if God doesn’t need you there, and you don’t go for the entertainment value, is there any reason to attend church on Sunday?
Yes. Yes, there is.
First, let me clarify: I’m not saying that God will only give eternal life to those who came to church faithfully on Sunday. A presumable case in point was the penitent thief on the cross. But understand this: God doesn’t give eternal life to people the way a state fair vendor hands over a corn dog.
Lutherans should already understand the term “means of grace” in a common way. These are means by which God imparts His spiritual gifts to us. They involve common, outward, earthly things; even apparently unspiritual things like water, human language, bread, and wine. Anyone not paying attention to what God has said about this stuff should yawn at this point. But those who care more about what He says than about their own ideas of worship should sit up and pay attention. Baptism, the gospel message, and the Lord’s Supper are not idly called means of grace. For us, they are nothing less than the keys to paradise. If someone gave you the keys to a Ferrari or an F22, would you dare to complain about how boring and ordinary they look, or how unlikely it seems that they would really work? Because of what God imparts through them, the means of grace are themselves the most precious thing we can hope to receive on Earth, ever.
That’s what the Sunday service is for. It’s where you get to receive from God such valuable treasure that you can’t even hope to appreciate it properly. The structure of the service, which we call the liturgy, developed organically over centuries of use by God’s people, to address the shifting conditions of the world with the unchanging gifts of God in the means of grace. Those gifts don’t change, because the needs of humanity don’t change. We remain lost sinners without them. We need Jesus. They provide Him to us in the most comprehensive summary form available, right in the Sunday divine service.
We don’t come to church to serve God. He comes to church to serve us, because that’s how sinners receive eternal life. That’s what we mean by the term “Divine Service.”