Church is not Optional: Luke 14:15-24, Hebrews 10:22-39

The parable in today’s Gospel reading is one confrontation in a sea of confrontations by Jesus with the Pharisees.  But Jesus told today’s particular parable when He was eating dinner at the house of a “prominent Pharisee” (Luke 14:1).  So, the dinner story line in today’s parable was meant to hit home, as the Pharisees who opposed Jesus were eating dinner with Him.

But going against God and His messengers is nothing new.  After God had sent Moses to lead His people out of their slavery in Egypt, the most-common reaction of the people was to reject God in favor of what they wanted.  It was a battle of the wills: God’s will or their own will, what God wanted or what they wanted.

So, when the Pharisees resisted Jesus, that was nothing new.  They were simply doing what their forefathers did, marching to their own drum, marching to their own view of God.  The Pharisees had made of idol of their own view of God over what God was revealing to them through His Son, Jesus Christ.

In today’s parable, Jesus points out to this house-load of Pharisees that God had extended to them His invitation many, many times.  God had called them to repent.  God had called them to live under the Gospel promise of the coming Messiah.

But, no, it was not to be!  Their forefathers were too busy with daily life to respond to God’s invitation to walk in repentance and the promise of sins forgiven.  And as with the fathers of old, so it was with their sons, the Pharisees.  They were too busy with their own lives to give the true God the time of day.

By this parable, Jesus then goes on to describe how the New Testament Israel–the New Testament Church–will come into being.  God will create His people from others, Gentiles, and “compel [them] to come in, that [His] house may be filled.”

So, Jesus was warning those of Old Testament Israel that their status was about to change, to change most radically!  For, even after God had “compelled” them to come, they still refused to come to the banquet that God intended for them.

But there is still more in this parable.  Jesus also shows and tells how God will deal with fallen sinners.  To such sinners, Jesus proclaims His full and lavish grace!  We see this when the house owner sends out his servants into the streets, and into the highways and hedges, to compel even outsiders to come to the banquet.  As the parable says, “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled’” (Luke 14:23).

The point is clear.  It doesn’t matter who His servants get as they are out gathering people for the banquet.  Any person will do!  The disrespected and impoverished will do.  The despicable and repulsive will do.  Compel them!  This is what matters: the host will bring them into the supper, and He does this by compelling them.

But how were they compelled?  The house-owner’s word compelled them.  Now, those who were compelled to come didn’t even know the owner of the house.  Maybe, they didn’t even know who he was.  But that didn’t matter.  The house-owner had already extended his invitation to those who knew him.  And they refused it.  So now he extended his invitation to others.

To those outsiders, those hanging out in the hedges near the highways, even they are compelled–even commanded–to come to the banquet.  In English grammar, we call this the “imperative mood.”  “Hey, you, over there, yes, you, hiding in the hedges, come to banquet!”  It is more than just a description or an advertisement.  It’s a command!

But here’s something we might miss.  The owner of the house had earlier given the same imperative, the same command, to those whom he originally invited.  “Come, because everything is now ready!” (Luke 14:17)  They, too, were compelled by words, compelled by the homeowner’s commanding word.

But, of course, those originally invited refused to come.  They all had one excuse after another.  “I bought a piece of land!”  As if the land would disappear during the banquet!  “I bought five teams of oxen!”  It’s as if the cattle would become lonely when the banquet was taking place.  “I just got married!”  Oh now, there’s an excuse!

The point is that they all received the same invitation.  The owner of the house compelled them with his word: “Come!”  But still they refused.  Why they refused, was immaterial.  It was that they refused; that’s what mattered.

So the owner of the house now compels others to come in their place.  And they came!  It was not that they earned some credit by coming.  But it was an enormous loss that others suffered by refusing the word, “Come!”

So what’s the point for us today?  What’s the point of this parable for me and you?  What is Jesus saying to His New Testament Israel, the Church?  It’s clear and straightforward.  Yet, it is an understanding that has withered away in our lazy, convenient, North American Christianity.  It is the same compelling word of command: “Everything is ready!  Come to church!”  “Come to my weekly banquet, and forget those excuses, or you may never taste of my eternal, heavenly banquet!”

Pastor, you’re not saying that I have to come to church to be a Christian, are you?  Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  For that’s exactly what Jesus is saying.  You have to come to church, you have to gather around God’s preached Word and His sacraments, to be a Christian!  That’s how Jesus saves you.  That’s how Jesus keeps you in the one, true faith.  To do otherwise is to do as the Pharisees.  It’s marching to your own drum, marching to your own view of God!

When did we lose this truth?  When did we lose that gathering around the preached Word and Sacrament isn’t optional?  When did we stop saying what God clearly says: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy”?  What does this mean?  “We are to fear and love God, so we do not dishonor His Word, and the preaching of it, but hold it as sacred and gladly hear and learn it” (Small Catechism).  It is so clear!

Now, this does not mean that everyone who simply goes to church is a Christian.  That would be the same as saying that someone, by simply stepping foot into a hospital, is automatically healed of disease.  That being said, church is not optional.  Church is not simply one of several possibilities for a given day and hour.

God’s Word says, “Come!  Draw near!”  That’s a command!  Listen to what follows this command, in the New Testament Book of Hebrews: “Draw near to God in full assurance of faith, with hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).  That’s baptism, your gift of new life from God and that which compels you to be in His house.

And the command words continue: “Hold on!”

Hold on to the hope that we confess without wavering, for the One who made the promise is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good works–not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some–but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

If we choose to keep on sinning [refusing to be compelled] after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.  There is only a terrifying expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the enemies of God [those who refuse God’s gracious compelling] (Hebrews 10:23-27)….  It is terrifying to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31)….  So don’t throw away your confidence, since it holds a great reward for you.

For you need endurance, so after you have done God’s will, you may receive what he has promised.  [And Hebrews now quotes the Old Testament:] “For in a little while, the One who is coming will return–he will not delay.  But my righteous one will live by faith, but if he shrinks back, my soul will take no pleasure in him.”  [But now Hebrews ends with this promise:] “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but are those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:35-39).

So, do you have to go to church to be a Christian?  Yes, for how else do you stay a Christian?  It is not by your own reason or strength.  It is by the Holy Spirit’s working through the preached Word and the banquet of the Lord’s Supper.  These are God’s ways by which you keep your faith, by which you receive the forgiveness of sins, and by which you remain a Christian, and remain in Christ’s Church.

You go to church.  You don’t do this simply to show that you are a Christian.  More importantly, you go to church to be reconnected to the body of believers, to the true Church of Christ on earth, by the forgiveness of sins in Word and Sacrament.

God has made you a Christian.  Because of that, He compels you, again and again, through His Word to come to His Word.  He calls you through His compelling Word: “Come to my supper, because everything is ready!”

Come to church!  Come to the Word of grace, by which God gives you faith and strengthens you to believe that this grace applies to you.  For it is through His Word that you will to cling this grace as the most precious Word God has ever spoken to you.  For you “are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but are those who have faith and preserve their souls.”  Amen.