Thursday, August 20, 2015
Absent Saints. . .
I will admit that I am not always the most charitable in my own reactions to those who choose to absent themselves from the Lord's House. I find it impossible to imagine myself surviving being away from the Lord's Word and Table and the assembly of the baptized. I know that there are those who have disputes with the congregation, with the leaders, and with the pastor(s). It should not be surprising that every pastor preaches to, teaches, serves, and communes people that he does not always like, some of whom have offended and wounded him or his family, yet, as difficult as this is, this is his calling. Some pastors do better at this than others. If the pastor can separate feelings for the person from the ministry to that person, then I often wonder why the people in the pew cannot separate these things from their place within the fellowship of the baptized. But that is a topic for another time.
Saunders has urged both pastor and people to take a hard look at the way they look at these absent members. He reminds us that we are not the ones given to judgment and we must assume that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They have been baptized. They belong to the Lord. Whatever the reason or reasons for their absence, it is not given to us to sit in judgment of their hearts. It is given to us to speak the Gospel to them, to seek them out as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to pray for them with the longing of a family missing family members from the family gathering or reunion. They are the saints with us, absent, but still the saints and there is something wrong with us when we so casually and easily shrug off their absence or forget their place among us. He indicates that he believes this is a flaw and failing not simply for pastors or elders or parish leaders but for all the folks in the pew.
I found it hard not to be at one and the same time convicted by his words and convinced that he was right. The sad truth is that most of us do not lament those who have gone astray, do not carry in us the burden of their absence, and do not express this to those who are missing from action on Sunday morning. Those are hard but truthful words. I am humbled by his words and his witness and I hope the people of God in the pews will be as well. No, it is not necessary our fault that they have left but it is our responsibility to miss them, to lament their absence, to pray earnestly for them, and to seek them out in the hope and prayer that our missing members will be restored to the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.
In a typical congregation, you do not have to look far to find the places where some of the folks we knew once sat, to recall those who once labored with us in the vineyard, or to remember the absent saints. None of us know them all but all of us know some of them. The real question then comes down to whether or not we love them enough to seek them out, care enough for them to not ignore their absence, and feel responsible enough to hold them accountable for their loss and ours. If our hearts do not burn within us for those who were once numbered among us on Sunday morning but now are gone, how can we expect to receive new people into the fellowship and care for them as fellow members of the Body of Christ and fellow partners with us in the work of the kingdom?
I will make this part of ministry a renewed priority for me and for our elders over the coming months. I cannot make the folks in the pew take up again this cause but I will not let them forget their responsibility to the absent saints of Grace Lutheran Church. And I encourage you to take up this cause anew. No, you do not have to argue them back into church nor should you. But you need to express to them they are missed (even if it has been a very long time since they were once numbered with us). And you ought to pray for our absent brothers and sisters with the same earnestness we pray for the new folks in the Kingdom. If we are praying neither for the absent saints or for those who will hear and believe through us and be assembled with us, then this is another matter worthy of some honest repentance and forgiveness.