Sermon Notes for September 17, 2017
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Jesus spends a lot of his ministry trying to build his followers into communities. Care for each other. Learn from each other. Eat with each other. Gather together in my name. Part of being a disciple is about being in community. That's my concern about people who identify as spiritual, but not religious Christians. Usually when people call themselves spiritual, what they mean is that they have a close personal relationship with God. It's just them and God far away from the rest of the world. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have such a relationship with God. It's a good thing to go off and find God away from people. The trouble comes, when we have to go back into the world. We can't stay in our spiritual retreat forever and the world is full of people we have to deal with.
And let's face it. Religion is full of other people. People who will need things, and disagree with us and sometimes be downright awful to us. It is easier to love God and to love our neighbor when we don't ever have to talk to our neighbor. But that isn't what Jesus is calling us to do. "Gather together in my name." When we belong to a church we belong to a family of other believers.
And long as Jesus insists on gathering us together into community, there are going to be times of conflict. We are all different people and we all have different reasons for coming to church. Some need to be comforted and others need to be challenged. Some are ready to move forward, and others want to recapture a piece of the past. Some people are measured and cautious and others are impulsive and spontaneous. Some are inspired by ancient truths, and others are drawn to new ways of thinking and believing. God has gathered us all of us into this community, with all of our unique attributes and tendencies, and we're not always going to have the same vision of what the future looks like.
So Jesus knows that there will be conflict among his followers. What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how go about addressing and resolving these issues. And at the beginning of this passage, he gives of his version of church conflict 101.
A bit of background here: the word for "sin" is hamartia. The word came originally from the world of archery and means "missing the mark." It means that you aren't following the path God calls you to follow. Sin involves a failure to become the people we were created to be. Matthew gets no more specific than that.
Now, in just the last chapter, when talking about sin Jesus said "first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." So when we find that someone has wronged us, we first look at our own actions and times when we have gone astray before going to talk to the other person. We remind ourselves that we get it wrong too, before responding in righteous anger.
The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. Without others around, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation. If our heart is made right through prayer, if what we are seeking is the healing of relationship and not the punishment of a guilt trip, we might start with a simple, "Can we talk?"
If that private talk doesn't create reconciliation, if people are too hurt or frustrated or angry to listen, then Jesus advises that two witnesses be brought along for a second meeting. But the witnesses aren't meant to be extra muscle to lean on the stubborn one. They are not supposed to be on anyone's side but are meant to protect both parties. They are an extra set of eyes and ears to help understand what is going on, to help determine the various degrees of right and wrong. The ultimate goal in this is peace and right relationship for everyone involved, not punishment for the guilty.
But some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, "If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we've checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Everyone knows that the Jewish people Jesus is talking to didn't talk to the gentiles or the tax collectors if they could help it.
But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. Over and over again Jesus treats tax collectors with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word. And gentiles become a crucial part of his ministry, as he goes out of his way to heal them and care for them.
Jesus' instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.
Matthew 18:15-20 is often referred to as a spiritual "three strikes and you're out" law. But it is less like "three strikes and you're out" and more like "you've left the playing field, and we'd like to invite you back into the game." It isn't about punishment but restoration. It is ultimately about peace, and the kind of forgiveness that makes peace possible.
So church conflict, if we're seeking to follow Christ in the midst of it, doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do in the Church can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world
The reality is that Jesus offers us a vision of the kingdom which seeks continuously to re-reincorporate the lost. The mission of God is clear, in forgiveness and in all things, to bring back into the fold those who are lost. Restoration, recreation, and transformation of all people is the ultimate work of the mission of Jesus Christ.
Authentic community is hard to come by. It's work. But it's worth it. Because when you find it, it's like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it's like experiencing the reality of God's communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way, with honesty and integrity, even when it's hard, amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.
We are gathered here today in Jesus' name. Be assured that he is with us.