By Paul Koch –
“The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” Rev. 21:7
A bunch of awkward looking pastors stand around decked out in their white robes and red stoles. They’re talking to each other using those shallow and empty pleasantries of untrusting professionals. Nothing substantive is discussed, nothing really funny is being said (though there is still that polite laughter you get when coworkers mingle), and all in all, everyone is most likely thinking about what the rest of their day will be like after the reason for their coming together is completed.
Now, there are usually only a few reasons that a group of pastors come together all wearing red. They’ve come to participate in the rite of ordination of a brother into the Office of the Holy Ministry or to install a colleague as the pastor of a given congregation. All the different red stoles may look pretty when the pastors process into the church together, but for me it is a reminder that fellowship is changing.
Last Sunday, I participated in the ordination of a man that I am eager to get to know better as a new colleague in the pastoral ministry. This coming Sunday, I will put on the red stole again as I participate in the installation of a good friend who will be taking care of a new flock of our Lord’s sheep. This movement of pastors in and out of specific areas of work is not much different from the movement of congregational members who join and leave particular congregations over the years. The body of Christ is a living and moving thing, which means that it is constantly shifting in the makeup of the fellowship. This movement leads to a temptation to think that those who move in or out aren’t really all that important to the fellowship. This, in turn, leads to a belief that the most crucial thing is not the fellowship but our individual personal faith.
We end up trying to establish a dichotomy between individual faith and Christian fellowship; I think there is a great temptation to place our personal experiences of faith over that of the whole body. Our own faith and confidence and the life of the fellowship cannot be separated. To remove our faith from the fellowship is like cutting off a new shoot from a tree stump. Without the deep roots, it will shrivel up and die. And the thing that stands at the heart of the necessity of standing together with the body of Christ is the simple gift of absolution.
I’ve always cherished the way Bonhoeffer put it in his work Life Together:
“God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him… The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” (23)
The proclamation found in the words of another person spoken for you are the surer thing. They are that necessary thing we need if we are to endure until the end of the age. Absolution, then, is a radical reordering of things. No longer can we curve in upon ourselves and go at it all alone. We need someone else. We need a sister or brother in Christ to speak the Word of life into our ears. The pure Gospel gift of absolution turns us to our neighbor and to the fellowship we are a part of and binds us in love.
Sometimes I really don’t like the movement within the body of Christ. I worry when trusted friends head off to other congregations. I sinfully wonder why those I would rather see leave are always the ones who end up staying. The fellowship is ugly and seems to be mismanaged. It’s tempting to think that I could do better on my own. But again, I learn from Bonhoeffer,
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” (27)
And so I put on the red stole and engage in the awkward and polite conversation. I trust not in my own wisdom and dreams but in the strange movement of God’s Word on the lips of others. We don’t need the ideal fellowship but the one we already have where the Gospel is proclaimed without wavering. For where the Gospel is proclaimed, there the fellowship endures. And by the gifts of Christ flowing through the words and lives of those around us, we will conquer.