Understanding the Service
Welcome to the Divine Service!
As the name suggests, this is God’s service. It is here that He has promised to meet us and give us the gifts He generously wants to lavish on us. Pay careful attention to what’s going on around you because there’s a unique pattern to worship in a Lutheran church.
First of all, notice the pastor. He is the one sent by God to give out His gifts. His white robe symbolizes the holiness of Jesus Christ, which is the first gift we have been given. His robe covers his clothes, just as Christ’s holiness covers our sins. Also notice the direction the pastor faces. When he faces the congregation, he usually is speaking as God’s representative to us. When he faces the altar, he speaks as our representative to God.
The service begins in the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is in this name that we were baptized (Matthew 28:19-20), the time when God gave us the gifts of new life and faith in Him and made us His children (Romans 6:3-4). We speak the name of the God who comes into our presence.
Next, we confess our sins: the ways we have failed to obey God’s Word completely. God’s word is clear: “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We sin when we do what has been prohibited and when we fail to do what has been commanded. We can never be perfect. Jesus, the only one who fulfilled God’s standard of perfection, offers to us the gift of forgiveness. According to Jesus’ promise “if you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven (John 20:23),” when the pastor says “I forgive you, in the name of Jesus,” those are the words of Jesus to you. Jesus takes all our sins upon Himself, pays the penalty we deserved, and gives us the gift of His own holiness.
After we receive forgiveness of our sins, the pastor literally “moves into” the presence of God as he—on our behalf—approaches the altar. Just as through Baptism, God gave us the gift of membership in his church, once our sins have been forgiven and we have been declared holy, we move from the Baptismal Font (the square piece of furniture in the front of the center aisle) to the Altar. Historically, the service began with the Introit (Latin for “entrance’); Confession and Absolution was a separate service, prior to the gathering of the church.
In the Kyrie (Greek for “Lord”), we are invited to pray to God in song, asking for His continued good gifts in our lives. Then the Gloria in Excelsis is our response to God for the gifts He has given us, some of which we mention in this sung portion of the service. During the seasons of Advent (4 weeks before Christmas) and Lent (40 days before Easter), we omit the Gloria in Excelsis, a joyful expression, to highlight the preparatory nature of these seasons and to focus on our repentance. Also in Lent, to distinguish it from Advent and to draw our repentance into greater focus, we omit all “Alleluias” (Praise the Lord, in Hebrew). At the news of Christ’s resurrection on Easter, our immediate response is a joyous “Alleluia!”
The reading of God’s Word from the Lectern and the preaching of the sermon from the Pulpit are equally important parts of Lutheran worship. God promises that His Word never returns to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11). No matter what, this is a gift of God, wherein, the Holy Spirit is active in creating faith in the hearts of all who hear His Word. Out of reverence for the words of Jesus, we stand for the third reading, as it comes from one of the Gospels, the books of the story of the life of Jesus. These three readings come from the church’s ancient practice of having a Lectionary, a prescribed set of readings that follows the seasons of the church year.
All throughout the service, we join in singing hymns and songs that tell the story of what God has done for us (Colossians 3:16). Some hymns date all the way back to the early Christian church, thousands of years ago. The words are just as true today as they were then. Some hymns are much newer, but the message is still timeless and ancient. The treasury of hymns is a hallmark of Lutheran churches, which strongly encouraged congregational singing, which was less prevalent at the time of the Reformation in the 1600s.
You probably wonder why we stand and sit when we do. We stand to honor God, and we sit to learn. That’s why we sit during hymns, which primarily teach us what God has done for us, but sometimes stand for the last verse (if it praises the Triune God).
When, after the sermon, we join in speaking one of the Creeds, we confess the common faith that unites us with innumerable Christians who have lived and died before us. Believe it or not, much blood was shed to express the truth of these creeds. What a privilege we have to speak them here.
One thing that most people enjoy in the pattern of Lutheran worship is the opportunity to participate. God comes to us and gives us His gifts of Word and Sacrament, and we are given the pleasure of responding to Him with words of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and offering. Even while sitting in the pew, you are a participant in this service, both receiving God’s gifts and responding to Him. When we speak and respond together as a congregation, we are demonstrating the faith we share. Also, almost every word we speak as a congregation comes directly from the Bible. In other words, God gives us his gifts that recreate us and give us new life, and we speak His holy Word back to Him.
The first half of the service—from the Introit until this point—has been called the Service of the Word, focusing on God’s gifts given to us in His Word. The second half, called the Service of the Sacrament, focuses on God’s gift He gives us in the Lord’s Supper.
We join with all the angels in heaven when we sing the Sanctus (Latin for “holy”). “Holy, Holy, holy” were the words of the powerful angels the prophet Isaiah saw when God approached him (Isaiah 6:3). And we join with all the Christians who have preceded us in the faith when we sing “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” These are the words of the onlookers as Jesus rides into Jerusalem to give up His life as the payment for our sinfulness (Mark 11:9). The one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is God Almighty, the one on the throne in Isaiah’s vision, is the one who comes to us in His Body and Blood.
The Lord’s Prayer is a gift Jesus gave to His disciples and us as a pattern for prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). When we pray it, we know God hears us because He gave us His promise to hear our prayers (1 John 5:14-15).
Listen carefully to the Words of Institution, the words Jesus used when He established the Lord’s Supper as a gift of God for the church to gather and celebrate (Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20).
Agnus Dei means “Lamb of God.” Jesus is the holy Lamb of God, the sacrifice for sins, made in our place (John 1:29). We sing of the gift of forgiveness of sins we are about to receive because Jesus has died in our place. The Agnus Dei focuses our attention ahead on what is about to happen in the Lord’s Supper.
At the Lord’s Supper, enabled by God’s gift of forgiveness, we approach the altar. Jesus himself gives us the gifts of His Body and Blood. This is truly a miracle: Jesus makes this simple bread and wine His very Body and Blood. What we receive with our mouths is the same body and blood that was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…and rose again.” With these gifts, God gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation, renewing His gift of faith within us. With so much going on at this Holy Supper, it is important to heed the warning of the Apostle Paul not to eat or drink in an “unworthy manner,” sinning against the Body and Blood of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:28-30). Thus, out of love and concern for all, we only permit those who have examined themselves, repented of their sins, and confessed a common doctrine with us to participate. Because of the tremendous gift of God given at this feast, it is our deepest hope that all might confess a true belief regarding the Lord’s Supper and join us in fellowship at the altar. If you have not communed at our altar before, please speak with the pastor before communing.
As the worship concludes, the pastor speaks the words of God to us in the Benediction, words God promised to use to make us His people (Numbers 6:4-6). And then, reminded of His constant goodness and faithfulness to us through His precious gifts, after a final hymn, we depart in joy.
This is but a sample of the treasure of theology preserved through the Church. If you’d like to know more, we invite you to join our adult membership class for more information about what we believe.