Dear Disciple of Christ,
By any chance do you remember your confirmation (if you had one)? I expect, if you had that class (most often led by a pastor), you might get some cold chills down your spine at the question. In my day, in my church’s practice, we studied for two years to be able to understand and confess God had been at work in us. We were understanding the faith, filled with the Spirit since our baptisms and we affirmed that baptism in a series of tests. We were tested by the pastor and then the church elders and finally we were seated on the chancel step in church and any member of the church could ask us any questions about the faith (especially focusing on Luther’s Small Catechism about baptism and communion and the commandments, etc). If that last test, open to everyone seems “daunting,” it was actually one of the easiest since turn about was fair play (and an adult asking a question of another family’s child were bound to have that happen to their child or grandchild by that family.
But instead of this happening at Pentecost, I’ve led my congregations to a practice of doing this at Reformation (yes, that event we celebrated last weekend and with three young people affirming their baptisms (by confession of the faith if not by testing). This allows us to follow up with them after they affirm their baptisms since the full of the school year is before them rather than summer vacation when some families leave for summer break (with the confirmands in tow) and we wonder if or when we might see them in worship and service again. We want to make sure the faith takes root in them, that it is alive and well. They are young adults and will join the other adults in serving in the community. We pastors will be watching to see what gifts are brought forward by these young people and how much effort they put into their discipleship.
But of course, we watch for that with all our members when they join. When we hold an orientation with them, we hear of skills they’ve developed over the years of their lives and perhaps even what they have done at their previous churches. Sometimes people need a “break,” having been worn out by their previous service. And some will move into action with joy and abandon, giving more and more than they ever have before. The needs are clear and their gifts can answer those needs. Sometimes we pastors get concerned when we see them complete “Time and Talent” forms selecting so many different ministries with glee that we wonder if they can do them all with joy.
That is a real gift (when our service is a joy), but what is crucial is our willingness to serve the Lord (with joy or without). We don’t do just what’s “fun” but even do what can be quite a challenge, accomplished only at cost to us. We follow Jesus (that’s what disciples do) and His Way is always the way of sacrifice, carrying a cross not just at the end of His ministry at Golgotha, but throughout His ministry. Ministry is exhausting and He and His disciples were busy all the time. We read from the 6th chapter of Mark the description of what happened after the disciples when they returned to Jesus after being sent out by Him on a mission trip. “The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
That is what Jesus always did. He kept His eyes open so He could see what the needs of those around Him were. He will see the thousands who were hungry and reject the suggestion of the disciples that the people were to be sent away. “YOU do something! YOU give them something to eat!” And that is what He says to us – “YOU…. DO SOMETHING!! Do what is needed to provide care in My name. Have compassion on them. Do you see my sheep? Feed them!” You do remember what the word, “pastor,” means, right? Very simply it means “shepherd.” Pastors model the ministry of Jesus, mentoring disciples who as well are ministers ministering to the needs of people. I knew that in Brooklyn, from the very beginning of my pastoral ministry. I invite people to join me in ministering but I would never ask them to do what I would not.
So, back in the late seventies, there was a costly ministry being done by churches (and their pastors). I was presented with the decision when a visitor to our church asked me to visit their son in the hospital. I could sense the seriousness of the request by the way the father spoke. Speaking hardly over a whisper he said, “He’s dying of AIDS.” In those days, at the beginning of the impact of HIV, there was nothing scarier, nothing more deadly, nothing less known or understood. Most of what we knew about the deadly virus was not enough. We certainly didn’t have a clue on how to treat people suffering from it or even how it was transmitted. Those suffering from it were often shunned by communities and even by their own families. The fear was palpable, almost feeling the disease in the very presence of someone suffering from it.
I can remember walking through the hallway of the hospital, to an area that had been set aside for those patients. I remember the “conversation” I was having with God as I approached the young man’s room. I remember asking Him if He would take special care of my family (wife and two children) if I contracted what was taking the life of the young man I was going to see. But when I entered the room, my focus shifted from those concerns to the concern for the young man who would ultimately (and shortly) lose his life. There is much that can be said to a person nearing the end of their life. So much “small talk” fades away as insignificant and the center of the conversation is on life and death and sin and grace. He wanted to hear what we pastors know and spend our days proclaiming; that the steadfast love of the Lord continues forever.
The other aspect that needed to be dealt with was the nature of sin and whether this disease was the result of sin that was far more serious than all other sins. It was considered on the level of suicide which, even then (and now?) for some people, is an unforgivable sin (despite the fact that Jesus says in Mark 3:28 & 29 that “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” It is not AIDS or suicide that separates us eternally from the Father, that takes away our hope through Jesus, it is only when we are without Jesus that grace escapes us. For those who watched the mission of Jesus, in concert with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and said it was the work of the devil, they will not be coming to Jesus for forgiveness and therefore will not be forgiven.
But that was not the case with the young man dying in the bed. No. He was crying out to the Lord who went to the cross in his place to take away his sin and mine and yours. Thanks be to God!
Peace in His service,