Big Words like “with” and “as”, Sermon on Matthew 18:5-20 for Ordinary 23, A, Pentecost +12 September 4, 2011

Big Words like “with” and “as”

Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you

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have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This week, I could not stop thinking how far we are today from the world in which this text seems possible.  Does that sound severe?  I believe we do need the truth of this text, but that we live behind huge barriers to receiving it.  But, there is hope, and we will get to it, but let’s look at the situation we are in.

The Problem of Our Culture

Cultural habits and customs sometimes are accepted by everybody and yet, helpful to nobody at the same time.  You can study other cultures and see how they are organized, and from a distance, you can see some things that they have worked out really successfully to the benefit of everybody, like the terraced hillsides that make land available for farming or canals that bring water where it’s needed.  But you can also see where customs and cultural habits are unhelpful.

Once, a friend who had studied the history of Europe told me about the customs that had developed for the European kings.  He told me that they would get... married in their mid thirties, and that they typically married very young women in their teens.  This custom created terrible marriages of course; people 15-20 years apart in age probably lived in entirely different mental and emotional worlds.  The whole arrangement was unsuccessful from a domestic point of view, but culturally it was the norm that no one questioned.

Democracy: a double edged cultural value

Our cultural habits and customs sometimes help us live as Christians, and sometimes are obstacles to faithfulness.  For example, we value democracy – everyone gets to participate and everyone gets one vote.  That’s a great way of affirming that we are all members of the body of Christ, and equally valuable.  So far, so good.

Democratic process, however, may become a barrier to seeking God’s will.  If we believe that when there is a motion, a second, and a majority vote, it necessarily constitutes the leading of the Holy Spirit, we may be short-cutting prayer and openness to God’s leading.  Democratic process can become the enemy of the process of spiritual discernment.

Personal Freedom: double edged

There are other aspects of our culture that may help or harm us as Christians.  In our country, we all place a high value on personal freedom and individualism.  “Liberty or death” is a slogan we learn as children.  We hold dear our freedom to gather together, to speak our minds, to worship as we choose, to live and work where we wish, and all our other constitutional freedoms.

But individual freedom is not the only value we hold dear.  We expect that by elementary school, children will know that their own individual freedom is limited by the freedom of other persons.

By middle school they should have learned that their own freedoms are also limited by the needs of the group; the class, the school, the team they are on.

When individual freedom becomes summarized by the slogan, “No one has the right to tell me what to do” then “freedom” has become arrogance and even harmful.  No marriage could survive with that view.  Nor could a country, nor could a church.

Jesus’ Teaching: not easy today

And yet this is what I found so sad, as I reflected on Jesus’ teaching in this text this week.  Our culture has developed along such a path as to make it unlikely that the practice Jesus teaches of confronting a person who is involved in something demonstrably sinful would ever work.

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Choice

Why?  Because, in addition to our independence and freedom, our culture values choice; we love to have alternatives.  We want competition.  Hot and spicy or

mild? – both are on the menu.  Condo or private house with a green lawn? – it’s up to us.  Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian?  Contemporary or Traditional?  Mega-church or intimate community?

“Suits me”

We have become a “suits me” society.  And the moment it stops suiting me, I’m free to go find another place that will suit me better.  Christian discipleship gets crushed under the weight of consumerism.  Find the best services at the lowest  price.  Who sticks around, in this kind of culture, when they are told that something they are doing is sinful?  Who would that suit?

This is not a surface-level problem for our culture; like the kings of Europe, we practice this perspective to our own peril.  Do you think that this “suits me” obsession has nothing to do with our divorce rate, not to mention the infidelities that often precede the rupture?  Our culture treats relationships like cell phone contracts: renewal optional.  Keep shopping.  Surely one will suit me.

Odd place in the story

So it’s odd to hear this teaching of Jesus,  the way it sits like a square peg in our round culture.  But here is the oddest thing about this text from Matthew’s gospel: the odd thing is that it comes at this moment in the story.

You would think that this teaching about how to live together in a community, and what to do when someone is being bad, would have come up way back in chapter 5 or 6, in the Sermon on the Mount.  But instead, Jesus has left this teaching until way late in the story.

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It comes only after Peter has confessed his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It comes after Jesus has announced that as Messiah, he is going to suffer and die before being raised to life.  It even comes after the Transfiguration.

This is getting close to the end of the story.  At this moment when the mood is becoming, for the disciples, one of impending doom (remember they never caught onto the concept of resurrection before Easter), as they see deadly opposition increasing on all sides, why stop now and talk about group dynamics?

Community Survival at Stake

Well here comes the point – but again, our culture may make it difficult for us to get it.  Let’s try.  The point is that because Jesus’ visible life on this earth is indeed nearly at an end, because he is leaving soon, there are some survival issues that must be addressed.  This little community of faith, gathered around belief in Jesus as God’s Son, God’s Messiah, is going to need each other.

They are going to need each other at a deep level.  They are going to need each other more than they need consumer-friendly choices.  They are going to need each other more than they need their personal freedom.  They are going to need each other like arms need the heart, like legs need lungs.   If the church that Jesus came to live and die for is going to survive the temptations, the persecutions, the cultural obstacles that will confront them, they must be able to live together in peace.

People Sin: “as”

But people are people; no community is perfect any more than there is a perfect person.  People will sin.  If the community of faith, the church is going to survive, it must find a way to restore back into the fold, someone who has broken faith.  This process that Jesus laid out is a restoration process, first and foremost.   The point is to regain the  one who is getting himself lost.

There are some surprisingly harsh words in this teaching.   Jesus explains that if a person in the church will not respond when confronted, even when confronted by two or three witnesses, or even by the entire community, then, he says the “as” word:

“…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Missing Essential Pieces

Yes, Gentiles and tax collectors could be converted; but until then, what was true about them?  Gentiles had no concept of living in a covenanted community under the guidance of Torah.  Tax collectors had no sense of ethical obligation to their fellow citizens whom they abused, economically.

People who think that they have the personal freedom to live in either sinful neglect or harmful abuse of each other will kill any community they are a part of.  If that’s how they are, then the church needs to start over with them, reaching out to them, as it reaches out to all Gentiles and tax collectors, with the Good News of the Gospel which clearly they have not yet come to believe.

You see, this is why this teaching is oddly delayed until very near the end of the story.  Jesus cares, from the bottom of his heart, that this group, this little church survive without his physical presence after he is gone.  The odds are stacked against them – they are all sinful people, as Peter himself is going to demonstrate very soon.  They will need each other not to be toxic to each other, but to be reconciled.  So this culturally difficult teaching on restoration comes at this moment.

Hope: One Fact: “with”

But if this little church is to survive, they need more than just a process for dealing with toxicity.  They also need to know one final truth that will make all the difference in the world.  They need to know that when they come together as the church, Jesus, the risen Lord, will be present.  Yes, even when they gather in small groups, hiding out in catacombs for fear of persecution, Jesus gives them (us) this great promise:

20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

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Ultimately, it is the presence of Jesus among us as we gather in his name that gives us hope.  In the end, our survival depends on the word “with”: when we come together in Jesus name, Jesus is indeed with us.  He is with us to comfort us when we grieve.  He is with us to encourage us when we are disillusioned, he is with us to strengthen us in our feeble weakness and with us to restore us after failures of faith.

“With” – at Table

He is most powerfully present with us when we gather around his table.  He promised that we would see him “in the breaking of the bread,” just as those disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon.   That is why many Christian theologians and pastors, myself included, believe that the Lord’s Supper is appropriate, just as prayer and scripture reading is, in every worship service – but again, our culture, our habits of the past are an obstacle to this community.

This teaching was delayed to this moment in the story because it is crucial.

We need both parts of this instruction: we need each other, and therefore need to be reconciled to each other.

And we need to know that Jesus is here, right now, with us!

Whatever your need is, Jesus is here for you, present, because we have gathered in his name.  Come to the table.

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