When Christians gather together for worship there is a horizontal dimension to it. In other words, not only are we communicating with God in the vertical dimension of hearing His Word and giving Him our praise, thanks, and prayers, but we are also communicating with each other within the sanctuary. In some traditions, the people communicate with the preacher by shouting out, “Amen!” While our tradition as Lutherans might be for what we say aloud in worship to be more scripted, even so we are communicating something encouraging and edifying not just to God but to each other. As one who is often leading the liturgy, I can assure you that I’m blessed when I hear back from the worshipers a hardy, “and also with you,” or hear the congregation (especially the children) recite aloud and with enthusiasm the creed or the Lord ’s prayer. Clearly one of the things that is missing when we worship at home is this edifying horizontal dimension of worship. While it may be secondary to receiving God’s Word, it is nevertheless part of the blessing that God wants us to receive. That’s why God tells us not only to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” but also to be “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16, cf. Ephesians 5:19). Notice, we sing “to God,” but also to “one another” at the same time.
Another obvious omission with stay-at-home worship is the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion is indeed a means of grace by which God communicates to us His forgiveness, life, and salvation. But it is also not only communion with God but with each other as well. For this reason, St. Paul writes “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Surely our proclamation of the Gospel is not just to God but to each other. Sadly, that important horizontal dimension of communion is missing (along with the vertical) when we do not come to the altar and receive the sacrament. I thought of this recently when reading a Martin Luther quote that President Harrison included in his article in the July of 2021 edition of Sharing, the LCMS World Relief and Human Care newsletter. I’ve put italics into the quote to emphasize the horizontal dimension in the Lord’s Supper.
Whoever is in despair, distressed by a sin-stricken conscience or terrified by death or carrying some other burden upon his head, if he would be rid of them all, let him go joyfully to the sacrament of the altar and lay down his woe in the midst of the community and seek help from the entire company of the spiritual body – just as a citizen whose property has suffered damage or misfortune at the hands of his enemies makes complaint to his town council and fellow citizens and asks them for help. The immeasurable grace and mercy of God are given us in this sacrament to the end that we might put from us all misery and tribulation and lay it upon the community, and especially on Christ . . . When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . Here the saying of Paul is fulfilled, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). See, as you uphold all of them, so they all in turn uphold you.
Stay-at-home worship is no doubt here to stay, but it should be the exception rather than the rule. I pray that more and more members of our congregation and community will in fact congregate, coming together in worship so that we might not only be blessed as individuals but bless each other with the fellowship our presence. Yes, we come together to worship God. But God has designed worship in such a way that as we worship Him we also at the same time “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24–25) and encourage each other in our faith and discipleship in these often difficult days.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography