By Paul Koch –
Once a month I gather with a group of my local colleagues. These fellow pastors in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod come together to worship and study and discuss any pressing issues that need our attention. It is a gathering that I rarely miss. Not that it is always inspiring, but it is important to gather together to receive the gifts of our Lord and discuss contemporary issues facing the children of God. And it quite often turns out to be inspiring, or at least we manage to go out for a few beers when we’re all done, and that is inspiring.
When we last met, we had an interesting discussion on the topic of reconciliation. The centerpiece of our discussion was 1 Corinthians 5:17-20:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The ministry of Word and Sacrament is the work of God’s reconciliation. According to Paul, reconciliation is a message, a Word that is spoken. It is absolution, forgiveness in Christ alone. Reconciliation deals with the heart and the pastoral office as it clarifies just what it is a pastor is called to do. And yet the discussion took an unexpected turn from being reconciled to God or even reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ to being reconciled to the pastor.
Quickly the issue was focused around how we deal with those who leave one church and run to another. Do we tolerate and minimalize the “church hopper” who goes around leaving discord in their wake? When a member of one congregation shows up in the sanctuary of a neighboring church, does that pastor just welcome them in with open arms, or does he actually want to make sure that they have tried to find reconciliation with their now former pastor? What’s the proper protocol? What is the procedure for such a thing?
All of this is well and good. We ought to be do our due diligence when a person comes to our congregation from another to make sure they are not causing reckless discord. We ought to protect our flock by holding potential wolves at the gate. And it is good that if a person leaves a congregation that there is some peace to that leaving, some sense of forgiveness and reconciliation so that it won’t disrupt the proclamation of the Word and a new destination.
However, the assumption of the whole conversation was that the individual layperson was the one at fault. The discussion never seemed to be able to focus on the perpetrator of the discord being the pastor and not the layperson. Yet isn’t it likely that quite often the real failure of reconciliation lies in the pulpit? If the Gospel is not clearly being proclaimed, if forgiveness is not being handed over, if there is no absolution being spoken, then there is a complete breakdown of reconciliation.
As pastors, we need to first assume we are perpetrators of the failure before we take up the mantle of victim. Our call is not a ministry of popularity or earthly success. We will most likely not be well known and will soon be forgotten to the passage of time. Our message cannot be about us, for it is about reconciliation—not to us, but to God through Christ alone.