What if someone asked you the question: “What makes Lutheran worship Lutheran?” If you were going to describe or define Lutheran worship, what would you say? What makes it unique or different from worship as you might experience it or participate in it in any given church across the country or around the world? Is it just that Lutherans do “Catholic-lite”? Is it that Lutherans have a particular order to services, or that we have prescribed readings and written prayers? Is it that we haven’t quite shaken the ghosts of our Germanic ancestors?
So what makes Lutheran worship Lutheran? Its uniqueness, its particular quality, comes from the same spring from which all of Lutheran theology comes: the free and unconditional Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for sinners like you and me. That means that the direction of what happens on a given Sunday is the most important thing. With the necessary qualification that, of course, we sing, praise, pray, and thank God—things that are certainly not limited to Sunday morning—the significance of how Lutherans understand worship is found in God descending to be present with and among us. Just like the Son of God taking flesh, just like Jesus walking around on the earth which was created through Him—He remains present among us, just as He promised in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel.
This is why Lutherans have long referred to what happens on Sunday morning (and on other festivals) as the Divine Service, of which our worship is only one piece. When we are in the Lord’s House, we are not there primarily to praise and worship God for what He has already done in the past—whether at the cross, or in our lives. He is not done with His gracious work. He is still doing it whenever and wherever His Word and Sacraments are present.
So Lutherans do not begin with me (my preferences, desires, hopes, longings, emotional satisfaction), but with Christ (His work, gifts, peace, hope, joy, salvation, Spiritual nourishment). That gives an entirely different spin to what we “get out of” worship. We may or may not get what we think we should. But there can never be any doubt in the Lutheran Divine Service that we have gotten far more than we deserve or even ask for: we have gotten Jesus Christ in the flesh, Life Himself. No matter else what we get or experience, Jesus comes to us each and every time. Anything else is pure icing on the cake.
Thank God that He is present with us and gives us His saving and living gifts by His Word and Sacraments, and that His presence is not dependent on what goes on inside us! That is what makes Lutheran worship Lutheran—or, rather, that is what makes Lutheran worship Christian. It is, from beginning to end, from Introit to Benediction, from Advent to Pentecost, all about Christ for you. Whatever may be happening in your life, in your family, in the world—good or bad—you can trust that He is the same for you today and tomorrow and next year, just as He was yesterday and last year.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”