It is a rare treat for pastors to be able to sit alongside their families in a worship service. Okay, “treat” may not always be the most fitting word. This summer, for instance, after the way my children behaved during the divine service, I told my wife she was free to skip church for the next 13 years - they were awful! They told me I was awful too, which was entirely fair. Nonetheless, despite our little spats during the service, I find great joy in worshipping alongside my family any chance I get.
A few weeks ago, while on vacation, I found myself once again seated next to the Hiller crew. While my father preached the Gospel into my ears, my youngest son looked up from his doodles and with the sweetest smile you can imagine, whispered in my ear, “Daddy! If you don’t go to church, you won’t go to heaven!” Without any hesitation, he proceeded right back to his doodling as if he hadn’t just exposed his little semi-Pelagian heart to his grace-addicted, Lutheran father. What had I done to make this child think of such works-righteousness? How could a child look so innocent and so Roman Catholic at the same time? What was I to do?
To save my child from such heretical tendencies, I leaned over and said, “Actually, buddy, we go to heaven because Jesus promised us so when He died and rose again.” “I know, daddy!” grinned my newly-redeemed boy as he continued to color as though nothing happened. Whew. Orthodoxy restored, and the proper confession proclaimed into those five-year-old ears. I could rest easy knowing that this pastor’s son wasn’t going to embarrass his daddy at the next children’s message.
Heaven is as near as the Word proclaimed from the mouth of the preacher into the ear and heart of the sinner. It is as near as the bread and wine in your mouth. For, you see, Word and sacrament are where Jesus is.
But then it happened. There in the sanctuary, my son’s words came true. That Sunday, I went to church, and I went to heaven. More specifically, I went to the Lord’s Supper. And there, in the bread and in the wine, Jesus showed up. I took my seat among the saints and the angels as I ate the body of Christ in the bread and I drank the blood of Christ in the wine. Heaven invaded that sanctuary. If I hadn’t gone to church, I would have missed it!
Where Jesus is, so is heaven
The incredible reality that heaven invades our divine services on Sunday morning is celebrated in one of the most profound parts of our liturgy during the Service of the Sacrament. As we prepare to receive Christ in the sacrament, we sing a song called the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might:
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
(Lutheran Service Book, pg. 161)
I love this part of the liturgy. The Hosannas that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as He made His way to the cross echo in our mouths as we welcome the same Lamb of God who will soon give His sacrificed and resurrected body and blood to us. The Jesus of heaven is coming to our altar so that as we sing, “Holy, holy, holy” we join with the same Cherubim Isaiah saw in his grand vision (Isaiah 6:3) to worship the same God. Similar to the way Isaiah entered the temple only to find heaven come down to him, Christ enters our sanctuaries in His Word and sacraments. Like Isaiah, we are too impure to be there. But, Christ, that sin-removing Lamb of God, comes and purifies us with His absolution so that we can join the heavenly song. True, we don’t audibly hear the angels, they are hidden. But, as the church triumphant comprised of all the angels and saints sings to Christ their Savior, we in the church militant join in!
It is crucial for us to notice the gracious nature of the entire event. After all, Christianity is grounded in the gracious activity of God; why should our worship be any different. Paul's words to the Romans remind us of this:
But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'"(that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'"(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim) (Romans 10:6-8).
The God who came down in the flesh to save you with His sacrifice and resurrection does not sit idly by waiting for you to conjure up the right attitudes or practices before He can take you to heaven. No. He comes to you with His Word and brings heaven with Him! Heaven is as near as the Word proclaimed from the mouth of the preacher into the ear and heart of the sinner. It is as near as the bread and wine in your mouth. For, you see, Word and sacrament are where Jesus is. And heaven is where Jesus is. Every time we gather for worship, Jesus invades our earth in Word and sacrament; our sins are forgiven from the lips of another; and forgiveness, life, and salvation are granted in the bread and the wine because Jesus is here doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Perhaps this is why Luther, in the Large Catechism, denies the faith of anyone who removes themselves from the regular reception of the Lord’s Supper. Who would want to miss this? Who doesn’t want to go to heaven? Or, better asked, who doesn’t want Jesus to come to them every Sunday with all the benefits of heaven? Who doesn’t want to gather around the Lamb on the throne and join the heavenly chorus as they receive the gifts of God? What could matter more?
That’s why I praise God that my bride has thus far ignored my exhausted, sarcastic advice and faithfully continues to bring my squirrely kids to church every Sunday. She knows when she does, heaven will get to them. Perhaps my son was on to something. If you don’t go to church, you won’t go to heaven. Not because God is keeping track of how often you have come. But instead because where Jesus is, there heaven is also. Jesus is where His Word is preached and His sacraments are administered. We call that church. What a marvelous sermon my son preached to me! At church, I got to sit with my family and go to heaven. See you Sunday!