Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Twenty months. That’s how long the COVID-19 epidemic has been so far. So, how has COVID impacted church attendance for us? It has been over twenty months since this church has seen full attendance. Were you anxious to get back to church when we resumed services? Or, are you afraid to return? Maybe you have decided that you prefer “participating” in the online service? After all, why get dressed up and go out when you can relax in your PJ’s, sit on your couch, and watch a screen? This has raised some interesting questions. What difference does it make if we are gathered in a building? Why do we go to church? As this plague progresses, a serious controversy has arisen among Christians, even Christians in this church. Some are chomping at the bit to see the pews full again. Many of them are advocating a policy like this: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the vaccine passport, opened to us through the government….” But.. Wait. That is not what our Epistle reading said. What is it that qualifies us to approach God? Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?
Forgiveness of Sins Qualifies Us
To answer this, we’re looking at the assigned epistle lesson from Hebrews. How did the Old Testament people approach God? God dwelt in the Tabernacle and Temple. Access to God was limited to the priests. Every priest in the performance of his sacred duties in the earthly sanctuary had to stand. He stood daily. He stood at the altar of burnt offering, entered the sanctuary and stood at the altar of incense, stood at the menorah, stood at the table of the bread of the presence. And when the high priest once a year penetrates behind the curtain, he stood as he censed the ark or sprinkled it with blood. The priests stood not simply as a mark of respect but because their job was not finished. The sacrifices were repeated daily and yearly because they never quite did the trick. They could never take away sins.
Instead of priests offering daily sacrifices, we have Jesus. Christ voluntarily offered himself as our sacrifice. He did so only once. The other priests stand, but Jesus sits. Other priests stand because they offer the same sacrifices for sins daily over and over again. It’s never done. Jesus is seated. He is no longer at work, no longer sacrificing or offering his sacrifice. This is not a daily sacrifice. This is a once-and-done sacrifice. His work is finished, complete, and perfect. He has taken his seat, signifying that the work is over. He does not need to die over and over again, like the daily sacrifices offered in the Temple.
How does this qualify you to approach God? It means you have the forgiveness of all your sins. You have the entire pardon of all your crimes, and there is an absolute and unconditional cancellation of your debts to God. The cross has destroyed the barrier between you and God. When we look for assurance that we have truly been forgiven, we don’t look—or we shouldn’t look—at anything we do. We look back to the one event outside Jerusalem on that dark Friday afternoon. Once your sins have been forgiven, no one has the right to demand additional sacrifices. No one can errect any more barriers. Your sin has been removed absolutely, and it is remembered no more.
Forgiveness is Delivered through the Means of Grace
So, if Christ’s work is completed in the past, why do we need to go to church in the present? I want you to see that the reading says that we can approach God only through flesh and blood of Jesus. It says that we can approach with a fully assured faith because we have been washed with pure water. It says we should not neglect meeting together. So, this text is about worshipping God—not just in private, though private worship and prayer are essential. This is about corporate worship as well.
You can draw near to God here and now in the Divine Service. You have a freedom that not even the high priest had. Without leaving this church, you have access to heaven here on earth so that you may be forgiven and live holy lives. In the Divine Service, God comes to us “externally,” through means. That’s why we call to worship “the Divine Service.” God comes and serves us. God is active, and we are passive. God is the giver, and we are gathered to receive from him.
You see, Jesus died to secure your access to God, and that forgiveness, life, and salvation needs to be delivered to you. The benefits of the sacrifice of Jesus are given to us through the Word and Sacraments. They are provided to you in the Divine Service each Sunday. We are well-qualified to have access to God because he has washed us with water in Holy Baptism. Our text says: “let us draw near with a true heart.” At the start of the service, we say that don’t we: “Beloved in the Lord! Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching Him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness.” Before approaching God in the Divine Service, we must confess our sins and receive his forgiveness through Jesus. And guess what? That’s exactly what the Divine Service is intended for, delivering to you the forgiveness of your sins!
God communicates to us through words, using human language that we are capable of understanding. He uses physical elements and his word to connect his promises to them and deliver them to us. When you read the Bible, you hear God’s voice. It is God who speaks to you through those words on the page. When you hear faithful preaching, it is God who speaks to you through the voice of that faithful pastor. When you receive the Sacrament of the Altar, you hear God’s word of promise – given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins – and faith takes hold of that promise. We confess that Jesus’ own body and blood are present with the physical elements of bread and wine. Wherever Jesus is proclaimed as crucified and risen for your salvation and where His Supper is given to sinners, it is literally heaven on earth. You do not have to wait until you die to go to heaven. You don’t have to struggle and strain to reach up to heaven mystically. God comes down to where the word and the sacraments are.
The point is clear. Church is where God himself comes among us. It is heaven on earth. The Divine Service is where we hear about repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus name. Here we confess our sins and receive absolution from God himself. Here Jesus himself is present with the bread and the wine. So it is vitally important that we come to church. Every Sunday we are able. Not once a month. Not twice a month. Not just when it’s convenient, and it doesn’t interfere with our precious plans. No, every Sunday, every Lord’s Day, and other services and Bible classes and occasions. Now, that’s a bit hard with the current restrictions, but it shows you how important it is.
This is how and where, and when we encourage one another. This is how and where and when we get to know one another, talk to one another, and find out how we can stir one another up to love and good works. We find out who is hurting and how we can help. Even our physical presence in the pew is encouraging. We see our brothers and sisters here with us, and it is encouraging. We hear their voices, confessing the faith together with us in the Creed, singing with joy and praise together with us the hymns of the church, and it is encouraging. Friends, let us meet together and make it a habit to encourage one another in the faith and consider how we can stir one another up to love and good works.
A vaccine passport would add a barrier between parishioners and God. It adds a barrier between parishioners. “No, you can’t draw near with a true heart.” “I’m going to encourage you to neglect meeting together because you don’t have a vaccine.” That’s wrong. It’s satanic. And this church won’t stand for it bceause it divides the church and shows partiality to one group and not to the other. It’s incredibly selfish. Our text says that all barriers to God have been destroyed by the flesh of Christ given for us. We dare not add another. Now, there are times when someone might be sick or contagious. They opt to stay away on their own accord, for the love of their fellow Christians, and I can bring the Divine Service to them, and we pray for them. All of the safety measures we have in place are out of love for our neighbours’ bodily well being. But there is no godly reason for excluding a fully healthy person from the public gatherings of the church just because they don’t have a vaccine. It’s not just about you. Turn your eyes away from yourself and look at the person next to you, behind you, and in front of you. This text reminds you that our presence here together is to love and to encourage one another to do good works.
Our text calls us to hold fast. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who has promised is faithful.” We are banking on a promise, you and I. By the sheer mercy and grace of God, we are trusting that when this life is over, when this age is over, when the last Day finally comes, we will be numbered among those who rise to everlasting life. We believe that not because we are good, religious, holy, pious, or Lutheran. What qualifies us? It is certainly not a vaccine. It is Jesus’ shed blood. It is his flesh given unto death for us. It is holy baptism, where we our hearts were sprinkled and washed clean with pure water. If you have faith in Jesus’ shed blood, if you are holding fast to the confession of our hope, that’s what gains you access to this service and this altar. Nothing else.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.