We proclaim Christ crucified and arisen. This is the central fact of our worship--it is proclaimed in the Sacrament of the Altar, in the preaching, in the very structure of the liturgy--forgiveness for sin is the reason we are here, not to learn positive thinking or self-esteem or how stories from the pastor's childhood can be an inspiration to his hearers.
The Cross shows us the whole truth of the Christian message. It teaches us how serious a problem sin is. Sin is so serious that there is only one penalty: death. The Cross also teaches us how serious God's love is. . . for the One who suffered death is not the guilty sinner, but the innocent Son of God, who came from heaven to take your place on that cross, so that you could receive His perfect goodness credited to you.
No wonder the apostle Paul could write to the Christians in Corinth about his first visit to them: When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1f NIV).
The Cross is so important--and its prominent place in our chancel shows that.
Good Shepherd is a group of believers who worship together and work together. Our worship together is facilitated by things that cost money: hymnals, electricity for the lights and the organ, gas for the heat and the mortgage for the building. We have a professional Bible teacher and worship leader (our Pastor) who serves us full-time--that costs too. The bread and wine for the Sacrament of the Altar are purchased with--you guessed it--money.
The Pastor doesn't do everything, either. He is not the whole team, just the coach (and sometimes a cheerleader too!). The members of Good Shepherd contribute their time and their talents. You don't see those things collected in an offering plate and placed on the altar. Yet they are there, in the worship service--worship bulletins being folded and handed out, someone staffing the nursery, someone lighting the candles, someone preparing coffee and cookies for the fellowship after church. During the week, too--shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, maintaining the building, decorating a bulletin board. You get the picture: people serving God with their time, talents, and treasure.
These things must be purchased or done--but that is not the real reason we give. After all, as the Bible says,
I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. (Psalm 50:9-10, NIV)
Our God owns everything. If it were just a matter of paying the bills, God could do that much better than we could! We give because it is good for us to do so. It helps us to remember that God's supplies are unlimited. And in this way, we exercise a little bit of trust in Him. When we place these gifts on the altar (and offer with them our service also) we are saying, "Lord, you gave me this in the first place, to use for You. Here. I give this small part back to You, to show You and my brothers and sisters gathered here that I trust You to help me get by in the coming week without this. In this way I want to partake in your work of spreading Your love."
We don't sell flowers and organic cookies door to door. We don't get on TV and the radio and beg for money. We don't sell chances (raffles or bingo) to win something. We support God's work ourselves. If this is to be our ministry, it must be our work that makes it work. As someone has said, the grace of God is offered to the world absolutely free, but somebody has to pay for the pipeline. We want to do our share to extend the pipeline.
The night before He was put to death, Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover meal with His disciples. During the meal, He established a new covenant with His people and instituted what many Christians call "The Lord's Supper." We believe that when Jesus said "Take, eat, this bread is my body; take, drink, this wine is my blood," He meant us to take Him seriously. We believe that the bread is, somehow, in a mystery, His Body, and that the wine is His Blood. They remain bread and wine and yet are also Jesus' body and blood, by which He works stronger faith in us and reminds us again of His forgiveness of our sins. Through partaking in this act we proclaim:
Partaking of the Sacrament of the Altar basically means that you are united with the other Christians with whom you are communing in this act. In other words, you are going up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with members of this congregation, united with them in their doctrine and their mission. A person could only say that if he has studied that church's doctrines and mission, and examined them to see if they fit with his understanding of Holy Scripture. Also, the Bible says that a person who partakes of the Lord's Supper without discerning the body of Christ can do so to his harm (1 Corinthians 11:7-32). For these reasons, we (along with other congregations in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod) do not practice "open communion", but rather "close communion". We require a Christian to receive instruction before communing with us so that he does not inadvertantly take the Lord's Supper unworthily, and so the prospective communicant has the opportunity to see if he is united with us in our doctrine.
We recognize that many Protestant churches have abandoned this understanding of the Lord's Supper. It is sometimes awkward when someone who has been used to "open communion" comes to worship with us and finds that he may not commune with us. If this happens to you, please understand that we are not saying you are inferior or defective in any way. Rather, it is out of respect for you and your faith that we do this. Let's say you are a Methodist. To come to the Lord's Supper at a Lutheran altar would be to say, "I believe as you Lutherans do. . . I no longer hold to the doctrines of the Methodist church." It would be wrong of us to put you in that position. So when we do not ask you to join us at the Lord's Table, it is because we respect your choices and wish to protect your integrity.
The Altar is the central piece of "furniture" in the chancel. . . for a good reason! It is a reminder of the presence of God. Many Protestant churches put a pulpit here; perhaps to them, the sermon is the main reason for the service. But in Lutheran churches, God is the "star" of the worship service, not the Pastor, nor any other mere human. In fact, the word "service" means that God must do something for us ("serve" us the forgiveness of sins) first of all before we can do anything for Him. Everything we do is a response to His initiative in calling us to be His. He is the hero of our rescue story.
The Altar is there at the beginning of the service, and is still there when the last hymn has been sung--a visible reminder of the faithful presence of God in His house.
Sola is a Latin word that means "only" or "alone". Lutheranism has three "sola"s:
These are reflected in preaching which proclaims, not what man must do, but what God has already done for our salvation. The Law (God's righteous requirements, e.g. the Ten Commandments) is used to show us how far we have fallen from the perfect righteousness God created us with. But the Gospel ("Good News") tells us that God has paid the penalty that we incurred, by sacrificing His Son Jesus in our place. (Be sure to click on the cross in the chancel picture.) By the way, you should know this: we consider the entire Bible to be the Word of God, inspired and inerrant in its original autographs. It speaks the truth not only about man's spiritual needs, but also about his origin, his history, and the world in which he lives. Where modern science seems to contradict the teachings of the Bible, there are two possibilities: either the scientist is wrong, or the human interpreter of the Bible has incorrectly understood what it says. One thing is not a possibility: it is impossible for God to lie. If the Bible says the world was made in six days, then we are free to discuss and debate what exactly constitutes a "day", and so forth--but we are never free to say, "well, after all, the Bible is not a science book."
This Lutheran pulpit is a place where the love Jesus has for us is clearly portrayed, along with the practical implications of His saving actions on our behalf. When the Pastor does talk about how we should live, it is always as response, in the spirit of Paul's words to the Christians in Rome:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer
your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your
spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1 NIV)
In view of God's mercy--because He has acted for us--then how should we live to honor Him and show this mighty love to the world? This is the question in every sermon.
The Pastor is not the cook, but the waiter, who studies carefully to serve up from the Bible the good food your spirit needs, fresh and hot.
The lectern is often used for public readings from the Bible --traditionally known as "lections" or "lessons"--following a three-year plan of readings that is used by many churches. The public reading of the Scriptures is a vital part of our worship service.
Jesus said to the devil, Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4 NIV). We need God to speak to us. It is our spiritual food. Only in this way can we discover what's in His heart when He thinks about us.
There is something wholesome and renewing about listening to the Word of God read without explanation. We feel as Mary did...
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42, NIV).
It will not be taken away from us, either. On Sunday we stop working, sit down, and choose what is better.
In 2012 we installed a pair of mosaic altar pieces commissioned of Grand Rapids artist Ed Riojas, a fellow Lutheran, in memory of his sister, longtime member Diane Bennett. The mosaics depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The one on the left of the Cross shows Jesus rescuing a lamb caught in a tangle of thorns, illustrating His mission to rescue us. This is what it means to call Him "Savior," and because He has solved our ultimate crisis--our need to be rescued from the hell that our sins deserve--we know that we can depend on Him to be our Rescuer in any lesser crisis that will threaten us. Note the nail-hole in the Shepherd's hand.
The smalti-tile mosaic on the right of the Cross shows Jesus carrying the rescued lamb. His rod and staff are a comfort to the sheep, as David writes in Psalm 23. After Jesus rescues us from the eternal consequences of our disobedience, He continues to preserve us. We don't wave Him off, saying, "Thanks for the save! I'll take it from here!" We recognize that we will need His continuing care to bring us safely home, and we acquiesce to His leading. This is what it means to call him "Lord." Note the nail-hole in the Shepherd's hand: yes, the one who leads us safely home is in fact the Lamb Who Was Slain (Revelation chapter 5).
We believe that God uses His word of promise about Jesus and His work for us in connection with His name to bring the fruits of Jesus' sacrifice to people through faith. God's Word sometimes is connected to something physical, touchable--that is called a sacrament. In this case, the equation is: God's Name + Water = Holy Baptism.
Some people come to faith through hearing about what Jesus has done; others who are too young to understand the message can come to faith through the miracle of Baptism, in which God claims the child as His own and works to make the child a believer in Him. Our understanding of Baptism is that it is not something that a person does (the Pastor, or even the baptized person), but that God is acting here, creating faith by the promise of His Word. God says that Baptism unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ: We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:2-4, NIV)
He doesn't say, "all of us who knew what we were doing when we were baptized into Christ." He simply says, "All of us who were baptized into Christ." Just as in the Old Testament, circumcision made a baby boy God's property, so in the new form of circumcision (Baptism) a person is claimed by God and faith is begun in his heart.
This in fact is the main mission of the Church, called the Great Commission:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV)
This mission is one: to make disciples for Jesus. The method is a two-pronged approach: to baptize and to teach. Baptism begins new life in Christ; teaching is necessary to nurture that new life. That's why we have Sunday School for kids and Adult Bible Class for the grown-up kids.
Since God's Triune Name, applied in this way, began our "new life" in Christ, we begin our worship services with a remembrance of those words: "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We believe that the amount of water used in Baptism, and the manner in which it is applied, is not important, only His promise and His name.