Some Lutherans turn up their noses at ceremonies in the Divine Service believing that only those things that are understood (and, for many, appreciated) are worthy anything. The rest falls somewhere in the category of vain words and empty gestures -- the stuff that falls under Jesus' complaint against the worship He encountered among those who were known for their zeal. This is a red herring as well. We teach our children to do things all the time but know that their understanding may not come for a long time and their zeal for such things may never arrive -- still it does not keep us from teaching these rituals to them. I am not sure that the value of ceremonies is simply that we get them or appreciate them. They teach without words. That is enough.
I grew up in an age in which to actively participate in worship meant giving people equal time and exposure in leading parts of the Divine Service. Although my congregation never did it, at the time I would have jumped at the chance for a youth Sunday in which the kids did everything on Sunday morning. Then I was really participating because I was large and in charge. What we thought as youth eventually became the cause for putting women in leadership roles on Sunday morning as well. Unless you have your shot at the center stage, you cannot really be participating, can you? Unless you are doing something, you are not doing anything. Or, are you?
Some would point to the postures of worship as the areas of participation for the majority of folks at the Divine Service. All the sitting, standing, kneeling, speaking and singing of the Divine Service is our participation, right? While these things help us to participate in the Divine Service, they are not the actual participation. They aid us to participate more than just standing or sitting there the entire time with a blank look on our face does but that is not really what it means to actively participate in worship. I figure you can guess what I think about comfortable seats with cup holders so that we can watch as spectators what others do in worship.
Active participation is not getting something out of it either. I can well recall somebody wrestling with a small child during church and then saying offhandedly to someone in the Narthex "I don't know why I came to Church today -- I got nothing at all out of it!" Okay, I understand what she was saying and her kid was a holy terror that day but getting a little tidbit of information or a help to make your life better or some insight into something you had wondered about or any other such thing is not what active participation in the Divine Service is. Active participation is not the feeling that it was worth it to be there or it made you think about something or feel closer to God. These things are nice enough but that is not what it means to actively participate in the Divine Service.
To actively participate in the Divine Service is to believe. Faith is what makes active participation in the Divine Service happen. By faith.
- By faith we hear not simply the voice of the pastor but the voice of God declare our sins forgiven.
- By faith we meet the Lord on the holy ground of His presence but as His bidding and invitation.
- By faith we listen to the Word of God read not as a record of the past but the living voice of the God who works through that efficacious Word to do what that Word says in you and among you at that very moment.
- By faith we hear the voice of the preacher address us with that life giving Word to engage us with what God has done to save us and what God is doing right now to make us into the holy people He has declared us to be.
- By faith we confess the creed not as some personal statement of opinion but as our voice added to the manifold voices of the saints before us, echoing with St. Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"
- By faith we worship God with the songs that proceed from our lips and the tithes and offerings we bring forth with our hands knowing that this is what God has called us to do and the Spirit is empowering us to do -- in response to His gift and grace.
- By faith we hear the words of our Lord and trust that because it is His Word and He is still speaking it, that bread is no longer mere bread but His flesh and that cup is no longer mere wine but His blood.
- By faith we come to kneel at the altar and receive upon our lips His body and blood hidden in bread and wine -- the meal that bestows not what we think or want but what Christ declares and for the forgiveness of our sins and as the foretaste of the eternal in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom without end.
- By faith we depart from the Lord's House not with a little tidbit of truth but with the Lord tabernacling within us in our communion in the holy things of His Word and Table.
- By faith His blessing attaches to us and to all that we endeavor to do as His children from this place forward throughout the rest of the week.
This is our active participation -- believing in it all and trusting that God has been in this place and we have dwelt with Him as the recipients of grace undeserved and life beyond imagination. Active participation is not about what you do but what God does for you, to you, and through you and your trust that it is as He has said, He does what He has promised, and the future He has prepared will be yours in His time.
To actively participate in the Divine Service means to believe. Faith is not incidental to it all but the object of all that God is doing -- to build us up in this faith and preserve us in this faith until He has finished all things and delivered us into His heavenly kingdom forevermore.