By Paul Koch –
“Will you instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of the those who repent, and will you promised never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?”
Yes, I will, with the help of God.
I made that promise a long time ago, and it has served as an intentional guide for my vocation as a pastor. The focus of this vow is to continually demonstrate to the Church “a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel.” And while that means admonishing and encouraging along with hearing confession of sins and speaking the gift of absolution, I have found that it is the ministering to the sick and dying that is often the most difficult to carry out faithfully.
At the heart of the difficulty is that this is the one element that requires the Church to become mobile. Everything else is normally done when the children of God gather together in a given location. The individual people come together. They travel to the place of worship, the place where the gifts are to be given. They mobilize around the Word and Sacraments, where they confess their sins and receive absolution, where they receive admonishment and encouragement. The building where you gather may be big and ornate, or it may be a simple and humble home of a member of the fellowship, but it is a central place for the gathering of the Church. It is here where the preaching, teaching, and administering of the sacraments is carried out. It is here where a pastor does the bulk of his work.
Yet there are those who cannot gather with the rest. Those who are sick or dying, those who we usually call shut-ins. That is, they are shut into their homes or facilities where they reside. Their mobility is limited, and so they are cut off from the gathering of the fellowship. And it is all too easy throughout a busy day and week to forget about them—well, maybe not forget about them, but at least put off visiting them. After all, there’s always next week, or the week after that.
It’s not like they’re going anywhere.
But here’s the thing. Every time I finally do visit those members who cannot come to church, every time the Spirit overcomes my sinful neglect, I learn all over again about the truth of the Church. And in learning the truth I see anew the terror that is found if the Church remains immobile.
See, I am never greeted by a shut-in with anger at my absence. I am never faced with a laundry list of complaints. Sure, there may be little look of concern on their face if it’s been too long since my last visit. However, usually that quickly fades to a look of eager anticipation. You see, when I arrive as their pastor, I arrive as a mobile church. I am not there as Paul Koch, a really great guy who likes to visit the sick and elderly. No, when they see me, they see the rest of their brothers and sisters. They see the Church. They see one who has come to hand over the goods.
Without the Church there, without anyone to bring the gifts of Christ, they are left with a terrifying silence. They look at their own struggles, their sufferings and trials. And like anyone else, they try to make sense of it. Why do they suffer? Why has God allowed this to befall them? Why have they lost those they love? And they work through it and seek answers. But without an external Word, without a preached God, they are left to their own devises. They figure it must have been something they’ve done. It must have been that one moment when it all went awry. And they curse themselves and wonder about their salvation and just want it all to be over.
But a mobile Church does not mobilize in vain. And God continues to do his preaching through hesitant and forgetful sinners he has called into service. So, the terror of the unknown God is defeated by the God given in the Word of the Church. The God that hears the confession and declares, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
This is the what the Church is about. This is a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel, and it is not immobile.