By Paul Koch –
Many years ago I was sitting on a well-worn barstool at the little neighborhood bar around the corner from our house having a conversation with the bartender about church. We might well call her a nominal Christian; she referred to herself as a Christian, but probably couldn’t remember the last time she was actually in church outside of a wedding or funeral. But she had recently experienced a lot of hardship and suffering in her life; sure she could put on a smile for the customers but you could tell that under the façade she was hurting. Deep down she searched for meaning in it all. She began to talk about her fears and regrets and wondered if there might be solace in church. Through our conversation I ended up inviting her to come to church, and an interesting thing happened. Her concerns shifted from her own personal struggles to concerns about the people that would gather there. How do they dress? What sort of people are they? How would they treat her?
To calm her fears I tried to offer her a picture of what I see on Sunday mornings. When I stand before the congregation, what sort of people did I see? I saw people of different backgrounds, people of different social-economic strata, and people from different generations; but most importantly what I saw was sinners. So I told her that when she comes she would find she was in good company, for she would sit in the midst of a broken people. We don’t gather out of power and prestige but because we cannot fix or save ourselves. Now I thought that was a pretty good answer, but I have to admit, I knew it wasn’t very complete. For while the church is surely made up of broken people we are also a people that have a habit of forgetting that very thing.
About the time that I arrived at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Southeast Georgia there had been a break-in at the church. It was a curious break-in; a small window was forced open and someone had clearly been in the church. They didn’t steal anything, they didn’t damage anything; in fact, it looked as if they were simply sleeping there. This happened more than once and people seemed to know who the culprit was. Well call him “Greg” and he was a member who had gone through a pretty ugly divorce. There were children and grandparents and friends and family all involved in that little church. And somewhere through it all he was pressed out of the fellowship. Sure, he had done some terrible things; but Greg was no more of a broken sinner than any of the rest. Over time they forgot that, and it became acceptable to exclude him.
In many ways, the history of the Church is a history of means by which people find their place before God, and find how they can draw near to his holiness. From a tree in the Garden of Eden, to a mountaintop experience, or a burning bush there has been an ancient quest that ties together the patriarchs of our faith and the bartender I mentioned earlier. Such systems of drawing near grew to a rhythmic system in the temple of our Lord’s day. Sacrifices were made over and again and there were levels of separation between the repentant believers and from the God of his fathers.
But all these systems, all these means by which we could strive to find our place before our God, all of them were but shadows pointing to the ultimate means of entry – our Lord Jesus Christ himself. So we hear the writer to the Hebrews say, “Therefore, my brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Christ made the final and complete offering for us. His is the means by which we draw near to our God. And Christ did his work completely. His sacrifice didn’t leave anything left over. He didn’t do most of the work and then command you to finish the rest. By his blood we enter with confidence before our God through his flesh we draw near.
You see Greg knew what so many others have forgotten. He certainly had made a lot of bad choices in his life. He had much to repent of, but he knew that somehow there was still room for him in the sanctuary of our Lord. He was breaking in because it was a place that he had received the gifts of God, and because it was safe. Well, it was safe as long as the rest of the members weren’t there. I often wondered what it was he did, did he just sleep there, did he pray, did he shout in anger, did he weep?
One Saturday, the whole congregation had gathered to do a major cleaning of the church. Volunteers were doing everything from staining the large wooden cross that hung outside the sanctuary, to washing the widows inside and out, and polishing the brass candlestick holders. A member came to me with a letter they had found tucked up behind our altar. We had a freestanding altar with an opening on the back of it where some extra supplies were kept, and as they were cleaning it out they found a neatly folded letter wedged up between two boards. It was from Greg. He had written a letter to his God, a letter of repentance and hope in the mercy of our Father. He knew that in Christ he could in fact draw near to his God.
The life death and resurrection of our Lord has given us access to eternal hope. In Christ, we too draw near to our God. Everything that should keep us away; every sin and failure to live as you ought to live, every thought, word and deed that you know you are commanded to stay away from yet you do anyway, every bit of guilt and shame that you carry with you day in and day out for those you have hurt in your life and for those you have failed to help, all of it is paid for in our Lord’s great sacrifice. He dies for it all, so that you might enter into the wedding feast and drink deep of our Lord’s blessings.
Now, I would love to tell you that Greg’s story ended with a happy reunion among the believers. That the fellowship rallied around him and welcomed him back, but I can’t. At least by the time I left, though I had gotten to know Greg a little bit and he was on a much more destructive path away from our Lord’s rich gifts. I never told him that I found his letter. In fact, unbeknownst to the members of our congregation I ended up putting it back behind the altar. I placed it there with the prayer that no matter how strange of a path he may take, that he would never forget the hope and welcome that is found in the body and blood of Christ.
The thing is, when we are brought near to our Lord by the gifts of Christ we find that we are also brought near to each other. Sometimes we fail each other when we forget that we are all indeed broken and hurting sinners. In the case of Greg, that forgetfulness was powerful. But quite often we find that as we live in the freedom of Christ, as those who have been welcomed through the blood of the Lamb, we will in fact find true brothers and sisters in those who sit around us on a Sunday morning. That remembrance of one another is even more powerful. I could tell story after story of a faithful fellowship there in Georgia caring for the hurt and lonely in their midst, the help in finding apartments and new cars, the trips to the doctor appointments, and late nights of simply listening.
See, even when we’ve failed in our fellowship, when we’ve forgotten that we stand beside the broken and sinful, we are not beyond the love and forgiveness of Christ. His sacrifice, as we said before, is complete. He forgives you and draws you near to the Holy One. So then in that freedom “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24-25)