Sermon: "The Sacredness of Christian Community"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew builds upon a text we considered two weeks ago. When Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus said, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16.18-19; NRSV). Jesus is laying the foundation of the church. Today’s gospel passage begins: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18.15; NRSV). It is worth noting that Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church; the church, as we think of it, came into existence after Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
It is also worth noting that the Greek word for church which appears in these two passages is ekklesia. The word derives from the prefix ek which means “out from and to” and kaleo which means to call. As such, in the gospels, the ekklesia consists of those who are called out from the world to fellowship in Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus and his disciples constituted an ekklesia.
We tend to interpret this passage as a method of conflict resolution. If you want to stir up some conflict in a church, simply propose painting something a different color! I think I previously shared how I painted the doors of St. James Episcopal Church in Albion, Michigan, a lovely shade of brown. The hue and cry reached heaven! I not only repented – I also repainted! The vestry minutes reflected the fact the entrance doors had been primed with brown paint. Change works every time – just try changing a color, a program, or a worship practice. Here’s a question for you: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Change a lightbulb???? Why...my grandmother gave that lightbulb!!!! (Father Steve, Little Falls, NY https://javacasa.com/humor/lightbulb.htm).
Sometimes two or more families in a church compete for honor and control. I remember hearing of a large metropolitan church wherein one family donated a beautiful stained-glass window that cost many thousands of dollars. A competing family then donated half a million for a new pipe organ. You guessed it – it was installed in front of the stained-glass window. I pity the poor priest!
The older I get the more I come to realize we take ourselves and our importance too seriously; we tend to overly invest in our ego at the expense of community.
Yes, this passage addresses conflict resolution, but something in the background is of greater importance. Jesus’ primary concern in sharing these things is the sacredness of Christian community. Conflicts, which are inevitable, left unaddressed erode sacredness! Thus, Jesus tells us, if someone in the fellowship has sinned against you, you are to go to them and lovingly discuss the offense. Our motivation should not consist of satisfying our own sense of honor or rectitude; it should reflect our desire to repair the sacred bonds of community.
Should this fail, Jesus says you are to take one or two others along with you so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. Concerning this, The Rev. Dr. Karl Jacobson says, “Jesus is not instructing us to bring witnesses to testify against our "brother" who has sinned against us, but to testify to the exchange between brother and sister” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1039 ). The witnesses should be impartial observers of the process; they are not there to condemn, chastise, or bring pressure on the person who committed the offense.
And should this fail, Jesus says to take the problem before 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” (Matthew 18.17; NRSV). The offender is thereby cut off from the community. In some religious communities, excommunication and shunning are still practiced. I think there is more grounds for excommunication than for shunning. After all, let us not forget the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, and how Jesus called him down from a sycamore fig tree, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19.5; NRSV). Love compels us to act with positive regard even if we are not in full fellowship.
After having set forth this practice, Jesus said to the disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18.18; NRSV). As noted previously, “bound” or “loosed” were rabbinic terms which are better understood as prohibited or permitted. This responsibility was originally extended to Peter but is now extended to the ekklesia. Then Jesus added, “Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18.19; NRSV).
As we reflect on this passage, I encourage you to keep three things in mind: First, when Jesus says “If another member of the church sins against you,” he is not speaking of minor slights or offenses. Bear in mind that Jesus is concerned with maintaining the sacredness of Christian community. The reading from the epistle to the Romans provides further insight. Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, 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 gain further insight concerning what Jesus has in mind from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5.21-24: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. The passing of the peace which immediately precedes the offertory is meant to provide this opportunity – it is designed to promote the sacredness of Christian community.
Second, we do well to remember Jesus’ promise that God will grant whatever two agree about what to ask appears within the context of Jesus’ concern for the sacredness of Christian community. Hence, I do not recommend that we form small groups to pray that every member of our congregation will be rich -- that would likely not promote the sacredness of our community. If anything, it would likely lead to a whole new set of problems. I do recommend that we jointly pray for a greater manifestation of our love for God and our neighbor and for the grace that will empower us to live into that love.
Third, bear in mind the method Jesus gives us for addressing conflict applies to Christian communities. Even so, one seldom sees this method used in Christian communities – perhaps that is because we have lost sight of the sacredness of Christian community, of Christian fellowship.
I have heard people recommend we employ this method in more secular contexts. I am not so sure that I agree for the operant values differ. In Christian community, the key values should be love, sharing, and respect for the sacred. In contrast, key values in the secular context are more likely to be autonomy, competition, and status, to say nothing of wealth and power. The Christian community is called to be altruistic whereas the secular community is egoistic.
In closing, permit me to say that most Christian communities are rather content to sweep their conflicts under the rug. We need to recognize that conflicts are inevitable – even necessary for the health and growth of individuals and organizations. Divine love compels us to recognize the sacredness of Christian community while dealing honestly and appropriately with conflict.