By Paul Koch –
There are a lot of questions that arise in the life of the church. These questions ask how we ought to conduct worship, or how responsive we need to be with regard to the felt needs of our community. We ponder different forms of worship experiences; should we have a praise band and sing contemporary hits, or stick with the trusty organ and use our hymnals? We wonder about mission opportunities, about whether or not we support local endeavors or overseas missionaries or simply send monies to the district of Synodical offices. We question the usefulness and benefits of having a school or other educational opportunities at the church. We look around at the the other congregations in our area; we see their growth or decline and try to gauge the best way forward for our fellowship.
And these questions are important. Their answers will shape how a particular congregation looks to those who gather there and to the community in which it resides. However, it is often my fear that such questions consume our dialogue to the point that we never ask the truly important question. In fact the important question, or at least the answer to it, is simply assumed. The truly important question is, “What is the church?” Before we talk about how its worship might appear, or how it might engage the community, don’t we first need to know what it is to begin with? Now some of you might be thinking, of course we all know what the church is, and it’s why we’re here. This is my point; we all assume that we have the same idea and understanding of what the church is – but do we really?
When I was in Georgia, I witnessed life in the so-called Bible Belt. There were little churches on just about every corner of our town. The more I was able to learn about their history and their relationships, the more I realized that the vast majority of those churches were started by splits from other little churches. And the splits were not over great matters of doctrine or abuse; they dealt mostly with things like the color of the carpet, the size of the youth group or any number of other secondary things in the life of the church. You know, questions like worship style, mission work and schools. When a large enough group would get mad they would just leave and start their own congregation, right down the street. It became quite clear that their assumptions regarding the church weren’t as unified as they had once thought.
Our Lord’s words in Matthew 18 offer a corrective to an understanding of the church. We tend to begin with our own preferences or desires and not the word and work of our Lord, himself. Matthew 18 begins as a discussion regarding who is the greatest. Throughout the chapter it establishes for us how this community, that we call the church, is to work. In so doing, our Lord gets to the heart of just what the church is. If the church is more than just the building or the music or the programs, then what is it? Well our Lord says that His church, at its core, is a place of unbound forgiveness, which He explains in a parable.
We are told that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. As the king is going about this business a servant is brought before him who owed him ten thousand talents. Now to put this amount of money into perspective, to work off this debt at the average day’s wage would take him roughly 10 lifetimes to pay it back. There was no possibility of repayment. So the king was prepared to sell off all that the servant had, including his family, as repayment. But he begs, he falls on his knees and pleads, he hopes for patience on the part of the king, that he might somehow payoff this enormous debt. Ultimately, the king shocks everyone by releasing him; he has pity on this man and releases him from everything he owes. Imagine a debt that size and he is simply declared to be free from it all.
But the story continues. This servant having been newly released from such a massive and crushing debt sees one of his fellow servants who happens to owe him a debt. Now this guy owes him 100 denarii, that’s about one 600,000th of what he had owed his master. Still the servant takes a hold of this man and choking him shouts, “Pay what you owe!” Just as he begged before the king, now this other servant falls before him and pleads for patience; he will repay what is owed. Previously, we were shocked when the king released his servant from his debt, but now we are shocked that this servant doesn’t follow suit. He is not merciful, he is not compassionate, he shows no pity and has this poor man thrown in debtor’s prison until he repays the debt.
This action is despicable to the other servants who knew of the master’s great mercy. We should be disgusted by it as well. Remember, this parable was told as an image of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an image where the blessing of our God is given in his unbounded mercy towards a debt that we cannot pay. If those who receive this mercy, those who have been blessed with such freedom, refuse to hand that freedom on to others then we are looking at a church that has forgotten to be a church. It is the mercy of God, the forgiveness of sins, that stands at the heart of the church.
And we can get caught up in this. We who love the church, who give to the church, who support and treasure the church, we can forget the heart of the church. Sometimes this comes in the form of grudges and clicks within a congregation that tears at the body of Christ. It can be what happens when new-comers are kept at arm’s length until they have paid their dues and put in their time. It can become such a part of the ethos of a community that it is all we know; our default reaction is to make sure everyone pays, everyone jumps through the hoops. It is the Law, and not the freedom of the Gospel, that becomes our heart. And if this happens we are on a dangerous road, for we risk losing it all.
When the king hears about what this servant has done, he says, “You wicked servant!” He has him thrown into prison until he should pay off his debt; we can only imagine how long that will be. And then our Lord Jesus says to us all, “So also my Heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” If we do not have forgiveness at our core, then we have nothing. In fact, if we refuse to hand on the forgiveness that we receive then even what we have will be taken from us.
You see, our Lord is dictating what his own church is. He doesn’t leave it up to our ponderings. It is in all things a place of unbound forgiveness. We should forgive each other, that is what it is to be church. The church is a gathering of God’s people around his Word and Sacrament, it is a place where his forgiveness is received but it is also a place where his forgiveness is handed on. It is my joy and privilege to stand before you and declare in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that your sins are forgiven. This day you are set free. In Baptism you have been washed and made clean, in the Supper you are fed forgiveness and taste the heavenly feast to come.
And that forgiveness fills each and every one of you so that you might open your mouths and declare it to one another. This is what the church is; a place where we are greeted at every turn with the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation itself. So go; forgive, as you have been forgiven. Forgive one another.