By Rev. Michael Keith
I remember it clearly. I was in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario. I was in the Grand Hall where they keep the Stanley Cup – the trophy for the Champions of the National Hockey League. It has the look and feel of a cathedral. You could go up to the Stanley Cup and look at it, but you couldn’t touch it. You could stand beside it and get your picture taken. There was a sense of respect and reverence in the room. This is the trophy that I have watched presented on TV to the champions every year since I have memory. This is the trophy that all the greatest hockey players of all time like Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux, gave all they had to give to win. This is the trophy they triumphantly held over their head in victory as they skated around the rink. It is abundantly clear when you are in that room that the Stanley Cup is something special.
I often do not see that sort of reverence and respect when people are coming into church on Sunday. The reason, as far as I can tell, is not to be intentionally irreverent or disrespectful. I think it is that people don’t know that in the Divine Service there is something special. More than that – that there is something holy. Better yet – Someone holy.
When we gather for Divine Service around the Word and the Sacraments heaven meets earth. Jesus is present. He is there to give out His gifts through His Word proclaimed and preached, through the watery word of Holy Baptism, through His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Jesus is present with His gifts in a way that He is not present anywhere else. Indeed, there is Someone – very special in the room.
Our behavior reflects what we believe. When I go to a movie theatre I get popcorn and a drink and I sit down to be entertained. That’s why I am there. That’s what I expect. I paid my money and I bought the overpriced popcorn and coke – entertain me! Some people might approach going to Divine Service in the same way. I walk in with my Starbucks coffee and grab a seat, sit back – and wait to be entertained. If we believe that is what going to church is about then that is how we will behave.
But, if we believe that going to church is about receiving gifts from Jesus who is actually, truly, there for us… well, our behaviour ought to reflect this belief, no? For my American friends – if the President came for a visit to your house would you stay seated on the couch and greet him “Hey – what’s up Pres?” I don’t think so – unless you were intentionally meaning to disrespect both the man and the office he holds. The office of President is held in high regard among Americans and the behaviours around the President reflect this belief.
That’s why the Church in her wisdom has taught us certain behaviours to observe in Divine Service that reflect what we believe. When we come into a church we usually speak in hushed tones because we recognize we are in a holy place set apart for God’s use. We sit in the pew before Service preparing ourselves to be in the presence of God and to be thoughtfully engaged with the Liturgy. We quietly pray. We don’t let our kids run around in the sanctuary screaming their heads off. They can do that outside – have fun! – but not in the place and time where we come in contact with the Holy. No, here we are reverent, respectful, and humble. We confess our sinfulness. We receive cleansing in the Absolution. When we come forward we bow to the altar – reverence the altar – because our Lord’s Body and Blood are there. Jesus is there.
Our behavior reflects what we believe. There are many ways our behavior might reflect this belief. We don’t need to get legalistic about it and prescribe certain behaviours that “must” be observed. We don’t need to judge those who may have behaviours different than our own. However, we can learn from those who have gone before us and how they behaved in the presence of Jesus. We can become thoughtful about why we are in the church for Divine Service. Jesus is there. For you.
Our behavior reflects what we believe.
Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, AB Canada.