The necessity of attendance by Christians at the Divine Service is grounded in our need and in Christ’s gifts. We face the continual struggle against sin in this fallen world in which weekly we need the assurance of forgiveness and strengthening in the faith. Our Lord in turn gives His gifts of the Means of Grace (the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper) which go on in the Divine Service in order to deliver forgiveness to us and strengthen us in the faith through His Holy Spirit. Our Lord offers His gifts, and the natural response of faith is to receive those Means of Grace as Christ is present for us.
Christians need to appreciate the uniqueness of God’s gifts that are present in the Divine Service. There we encounter God in ways that we cannot encounter Him at any other time. There He gives forgiveness and assurance in ways that do not occur at any other time. In the Holy Absolution, God speaks to us in the first person through His called servant and says, “I forgive you all your sins.” In the reading and proclamation of the Word God addresses us through His called servant. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present with us in His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening in the faith.
Faith says “Yes!” to God’s gifts of the Means of Grace that go on in the Divine Service. When we reject the gifts by not attending the Divine Service where they go on and Christ is present for us, this is not the action of faith and it indicates two things: 1. The individual does not take his/her sin seriously. 2. The individual does not take our Lord’s gifts of the Means of Grace seriously.
If people cease to eat, they will eventually die. It is the same with a person’s faith. When people cease to be fed by God’s Means of Grace in the Divine Service they are putting their faith at great risk.
For this very reason, God commands Christians to attend the Divine Service. The Third Commandment expresses God’s will that Christians are to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it in the Divine Service. Our Lord has commanded Christians to partake of His Supper with the words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1Corinthians 11:24). God knows our need and the gifts He has provided for us. God commands us to attend the Divine Service and refusal to obey – refusal to say “yes” to God’s gifts - is sin. No matter whether we approach attendance at the Divine Service from the Gospel and God’s gifts or whether we approach attendance from the Law and God’s command, the matter is clear: attendance at the Divine Service is not an “option” for the Christian.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). His words remind us that simply calling ourselves “Christians” does not make us Christians in God’s eyes. Simply claiming to have “faith” does not mean faith as Christ defines it is present in us. Faith as defined by Christ and the Scriptures is a faith that acknowledges its need and joyfully says “Yes!” to God’s gifts of the Means of Grace that go on in the Divine Service. A consideration of our attendance habits at the Divine Service prompts us to reflect upon whether we are living the faith as Christ has established and defined it. Such reflection is an open invitation to say “Yes!” to God’s gifts of the Means of Grace by more regularly and faithfully making use of them in the Divine Service.
God’s Word is very clear in its command and assumption that Christians will attend the Divine Service weekly:
Exodus 20:8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Acts 20:7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.
1Corinthians 11:24-25 “Do this in remembrance of me.”
1 Timothy 4:13 Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching.
Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as is the habit of some, but let us encourage one another, and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.
The confessions of our Church are very clear that Christians will regularly attend the Divine Service:
The Third Commandment – Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. (Small Catechism I.5-6).
God wants this commandment to be kept strictly and will punish all who despise his Word and refuse to hear and learn it, especially at the times appointed (Large Catechism 1.95).
What is meant is that those who want to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently (Large Catechism V.39).
Nevertheless, let is be understood that people who abstain and absent themselves from the sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians (Large Catechism V.42).
In the first place, we have a clear text in the very words of Christ, “DO THIS in remembrance of me.” These are words that instruct and command us, urging all those who want to be Christians to partake of the sacrament. Therefore, whoever wants to be a disciple of Christ – it is those to whom he is speaking here – must faithfully hold to this sacrament, not from compulsion, forced by humans, but to obey and please the Lord Christ (Large Catechism V.45).
Thus you see that we are not granted liberty to despise the sacrament. When a person, with nothing to hinder him, lets a long period of time elapse without ever desiring the sacrament, I call that despising it. If you want such liberty, you may as well take the further liberty not to be a Christian; then you need not believe or pray, for the one is just as much Christ’s commandment as the other (Large Catechism V.49).
All we are doing is to urge you to do what you ought to do, not for our sake but for your own. He invites you and incites you, and if you want to show contempt for his sacrament, you must answer for it yourself (Large Catechism V.52).
It is certainly true, as I have found in my own experience, and as everyone will find in his or her own case, that if a person stays away from the sacrament, day by day he or she will become more and more callous and cold and will eventually spurn it altogether (Large Catechism V.53).
Surely it is a sin and a shame that, when he so tenderly and faithfully summons and exhorts us for our highest and greatest good, we regard it with such disdain, neglecting it so long that we grow quite cold and callous and lose all desire and love for it (Large Catechism V.67).
Thus you have on God’s part both the commandment and the promise of the Lord Christ. Meanwhile, on your part, you ought to be induced by your own need, which hangs around your neck and which is the very reason for this command, invitation, and promise (Large Catechism V.71).
If you could see how many daggers, spears and arrows are aimed at you every moment, you would be glad to come to the sacrament as often as you can. The only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the devil (Large Catechism V.82).
Also, excommunication is pronounced on the openly wicked and on those who despise the sacraments (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XI.4).