Pentecost 17+, A
7 September 2008
Mt. 18.15-20 (Rom. 13.8-14)
In the name of the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.
Many of you are familiar with the button that I usually wear on my shirts and jackets on the right side. It says, “Peace is the church’s business” with a peace cross under it. While I’m not wearing it today – it seems to have been misplaced in the shuffle of wedding clothing and location changes with my wallet – I did have it on Friday afternoon at my brother’s wedding rehearsal. My cousin Seth, after I explained my reasons for wearing it said jokingly that he was offended. My simple response was that the Gospel is offensive.
And, beloved, within our context of this gathered community I think that there are some things in this Gospel text that are offensive to some hears, or might be if applied directly as Jesus speaks to those around him then and now. I considered talking about this passage as a series of three points the way my mother expects all good sermons to be constructed, but upon furthered and continued reflection I know that those are not words that are to be spoken today, although I really wrestled with exactly what those words were.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus gives us a three-point plan for handling disagreements in the community known as church. Hear my phrasing there again while think about the horrid song “We Are the Church”: Jesus gives us a three-point plan for handling disagreements in the community known as church. This emphasis on community – and not individuality – is hammered home by the conclusion of the Gospel text today, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
The post-resurrection writer of this Gospel ascribed to St. Matthew would have known about the various and sundry issues causing strife in the Matthian church – the church over which Matthew would’ve been leader. This manual for maintaining community standards was a way to keep the people of the community in harmony, and in addition to the levels of trying to reprove a sibling, these three steps dealt with the seriousness of issues – major schism making offenses would’ve almost certainly wound up before the whole of the community.
This is instructions for, in plainest terms, church discipline – the maintenance of community standards for the good of the Church, and it doesn’t end very nicely, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Matthew – the most Jewish of the Gospels – uses this language to say that when someone is in clear violation of the will, standards, and principles of the community the church community is to wash their hands and kick the dust of their feet. It’s harsh words that are meant to be harsh: the Church hearing this originally was young and schism was breaking various churches apart from the moment of the resurrection. The only way to preserve this new group of Jews and Gentiles following Jesus as Messiah was to keep the community together without personal petty conflicts – or heretical, schismatic ideas – was to have a form of discipline and way to expel people from the body.
It is important to note, however, that it’s not a single member that calls for the expulsion of a member or two members or three members from the body. Before that step was taken, an individual, two additional individuals, and finally the whole church community must have first spoken to them. Before moving to the end of this text, I implore you not to hear that God is a vending machine whose buttons can be pressed if two people (or more) are pushing them. This requirement of more people is part and parcel of what is really the crux of this text: community. Jesus again underscores that in the conclusion of this selection from the Gospel, “For where two or tree are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Christ – and the early church mothers and fathers – didn’t intend for Christianity to be practiced in solitude. Full stop. Whether someone “believes in organized religion” or not, being together with others for the work and worship of Christ is part of this religion, and in the first century, it took the will of the community – bound together in tension of being human beings trying to do their best in the world – to expel members.
The New Revised Standard Version is what talks about treating those who will not bend to the will of the Church as “gentiles and tax collectors,” two groups that the thoroughly Jewish Matthian church would’ve despised in the first century. Despite it’s taking great liberties with the original text – by great I mean ignoring in favor of something more Easter friendly – I really prefer how The Message puts that verse: “If [that person] won’t listen, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront [him or her] with the need for repentance, and offer God’s forgiving love.” Those two versions offer drastically different statements, but I think that while doing violence to the Greek The Message does not do violence to the meta-narrative of God’s relating God’s love to God’s creation.
Perhaps the gurus of the lectionary knew the abuses or failures of this three-tiered program of church disciplined applied out of its original historical context when they chose our Romans text for this selection from the Gospel. Hear again the words from Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
We aren’t to be in community looking for reasons to expel people. Although this three-tiered system of church discipline was intended for use in the 1st C, it might well have some relevance as a system of governance now. If there is an issue with someone, maybe the person offended should take it up with that person. If there is no gain, maybe it should be taken to two others – here is the catch though: If two other stout brothers or sisters in the communal faith of Christianity won’t approach the person who has done “wrong,” the person who feels offended should let it go. Same for if two neutral people go with and the community as a whole doesn’t address it. Rather than continuing on with complaining or being passive aggressive or threatening to not boycott, the person who feels offended should take a deep breath and think…
Following the rabbi from Nazareth requires a tension in loving community. The nature of the religion requires community, despite whatever individualism Protestantism and Americanism have instilled into our beings. At the ultimate head of that community, though is that rabbi we’re all following. Crediumus in unum Dominum Jesum Christum – we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, who is present with us when we – a group – gather in community. When we learn to acknowledge this belief in the Lordship of Christ for what it is we may more easily “start over from scratch, confront [him or her] with the need for repentance, and offer God’s forgiving love.”
Being in community requires putting ourselves aside – and our passions and factions aside. Hear the words we’ll be singing in just a few minutes but think about them in their relationship to being in community the Gospel requires and living in love as Saint Paul directs, “I come with Chistians far and near to find, as all are fed, the new community of love in Christ’s communion bread. As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends…Together met, together bound, we’ll go our different ways, and as his people in the world, we’ll live and speak his praise.”
As we gather around this table – we practice an act of community in sharing a meal together. As we gather around this Altar we affirm our belief in Christ as Lord, who breaks bread with us and causes proud divisions to end. As we gather around this table we meet with one another to share in this feast. When we leave from this table, though, we remain bound, tied inexplicably with the entire body of the baptized. Whether we like them or not, we have to live in a community of love with them…or at least try. And as we go our separate ways – with those we like and don’t – we must do the work and the worship of the Holy and Triune God.
One who has ears – especially this preacher – let him or her hear. Amen.