Yr A ~ Pent 16 ~ Mt 18:15-20
What makes us a Christian faith community and not just a nice group of folks? Well the short answer is Jesus – but that’s too easy, Jesus is always the answer. Like the minister who asked the kids at children’s time ‘what’s small and furry, has 4 legs and a bushy tail, lives in trees and gathers nuts’ – to which a very bright kid responded ‘well, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but that sounds a lot like a squirrel to me.’ So yes, Jesus is the reason – but what does that mean for us?
We heard a verse this morning that sheds great light on this: Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them, in the midst of them.” We’re a Christian community not because we’re believers who have joined together but because when we gather in Jesus’ name he is here among us, his Spirit is present and tangible. We’re a community IN Jesus, not a community OF Christians. It’s all about presence. Ok, so now what does it mean to be celebrating Christ’s presence as a Christian community in this place in this time?
Community is not still – it’s constantly moving, changing, evolving. Just when you’ve got it figured out it shifts again, because new people arrive and times change. It’s part of a larger rhythm of life – like the seasons, or the return to school in September.
So, here we go again. It’s September – here we go again.
There’s changes in the staff – here we go again.
There’s new people around – here we go again.
How you say it makes all the difference in the world. Do you say it with anticipation or resignation, with excitement or eye-rolling? Is this an opportunity to grow deeper or a burden to put up with?
Here we go again – not alone, not for the first time, but as part of a never-ending line, taking the baton that Jesus passed to his disciples and running with it here in this moment.
Here ‘we’ go again – with the emphasis on ‘we’ – and not just ‘we’ alone, for where two or three are gathered in his name Christ’s Spirit is there among them. Christian faith communities can do and be things that no other group can do and be because Jesus is here among us – present. We don’t just live in the name of Jesus; we live in the game with Jesus. We’re different – because Jesus makes us so. We’re community – because Jesus makes us so.
So with that in mind, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading – a reading that speaks of just how differently the first Jesus communities operated. They had to be deeply committed to being a community of faith. Their stakes were much higher than ours, and so were their standards. Conflict in the early church was deadly – literally. To join a Jesus community was a major choice – you had to be all-in.
Matthew 18:15-17 “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 have regained that one. But 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. If 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.”
Perhaps today’s reading strikes you as being harsh. If so, I wonder why? Is it because it talks openly of conflict, which we too often prefer to sweep under the rug? Is it because it speaks of church discipline, or excommunication? Or is it perhaps because it challenges our way of understanding church – that we’re more individualistic and Matthew’s orientation is more communal?
I’m going to have to stop a moment here and talk about what I understand “sin” to be. Sin is not so much your actions as it is your state of being. It’s like the difference between a symptom and the disease – the symptoms are caused by the disease, and the symptoms are what we can see and identify, but the disease is what really needs to be addressed. So what we usually call sins are really sinptoms of our real disease – our dis-ease – which is our persistent inexplicable resistance or unwillingness to being present to God. The poor choices we make are the sinptoms that flow from our dis-ease at feeling separated from the Sacred.
But we can never be separated from God because God is always present. Our sin is how we turn away from or ignore God’s presence. God’s best intention for us is to be in deep loving communion with God at all times, so to sin is to fall short of God’s best intention for us.
Now, if we understand our falling short to be entirely personal, then Matthew’s description of a Jesus community will surprise us. The early church understood that sin was a matter of the whole congregation, and one person’s stumbling impacted both the individual’s and the community’s life. Do you ever consider your faith journey that way? To be Christian is to be bound together in community; to pray is to say ‘our Father’ even in the privacy of our own room. Here we go again.
That was then. The question is, does this passage have anything to say to us today about being the church – about being a community of faith? Can we read it despite our individualistic eyes and see the heart of the community it describes, or is it speaking of a lost way that just won’t work in our time? Let’s find out:
v.15 – “If another member of the churchsins against you (falls short of God’s best intention and it impacts you), go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
There’s debate among scholars as to whether the words “against you” belong in this verse. I’m inclined to side with those who say it does not belong because it changes the whole tone of the passage. If a member of the church does something against “me” then I have a personal beef with them, and if I can get a few more people to agree with me and take my side I can get my revenge or whatever. It’s personal, and I stand to gain when the other is corrected because I’ve been wronged.
That’s very human, but I’m not sure it’s what the guy who preached “turn the other cheek” would really be teaching here.
If you take out the “against you” it changes the tone. It elevates the context and removes the personal gain. “If another member of the church falls short of God’s best intention for them, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Now it’s talking about community.
Now it’s speaking to how we can hold each other accountable for not just our actions but our spiritual growth and our faith journey in this community.
Now the sin isn’t against a person, it’s about our walk with God.
Now your motivation for confronting your brother or sister in Christ is not settling a score but helping them to find their way back onto the path of abundant life.
Every single one of us fails – so we are constantly in need of God’s grace, and constantly in need of our community’s accountability. But we’re not to be judgmental either. We’re not supposed to go around with sin-radar and point out everybody’s failings. This passage is not talking about just anyone, but a member – someone who has stood before the church and made a statement of faith, said that they would strive to follow Jesus and to grow in discipleship – that’s the person who’s willing to be held accountable, and expecting us to help them.
Now look at the way the accountability is diagramed. First of all, you have to find out something’s gone amiss. This requires some discernment. How do you know when your brother or sister has stumbled? And how do you avoid the trap of trying to remove a speck from their eye while you have a log in your own? So this is not to be done lightly. Solid accountability only comes within groups of people who have committed themselves to being a community together. You must willingly enter into that kind of relationship. We can only hold each other accountable if we are first a caring community together, otherwise, it’s just legalism, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy. This is challenging, risky stuff!
So let’s assume we’ve discerned well and our sister or brother has indeed fallen short. The first step is to point it out to them when you are alone. If you really care for the other you’ll want to help them, but you’ll also want to maintain their dignity and respect their humanity. You’re not perfect either and you wouldn’t want your stuff broadcast to the world. So you do it privately. If you’re successful – great!
If not, verse 16 says to take along one or two others so that the person can see it isn’t just in your imagination – and if it is in your imagination the folks you try to bring with you will let you know.
Now the stumbling member of our community is confronted with two or three of their brothers or sisters who are trying to help them see what they cannot (or will not) see for themselves. Now, these are not some imaginary standards that three people cook up. The standard is love. The standard is communion, compassion, and connection – loving God, loving people, and loving one another. To sin is to turn away from love, to be unloving – to God, to people, or to one another.
Remember, we’re talking about accountability among people who have chosen to enter into a relationship with one another, and have committed their lives to these 3Cs. This is what church membership ought to mean. If you’re not holding one another to account you’re not loving one another.
However, if the wayward member still won’t listen verse 17 instructs the group to share the issue with the church. Again, not publically for embarrassment, but to the elders.
And if the person won’t even listen to the church… then they’re to be chucked out – which shouldn’t bother the person at all. I mean, if all these people see something one way, and you still see it another way, then either everybody else is wrong or you are – but either way, you’ve removed yourself from the community.
Does this seem harsh to you? It’s certainly a hard and serious teaching from scripture. It really underlines how important becoming a deep community of faith is and knowing what we stand for and believe in and value as a community – communion, compassion, and connection. And it shows how much work it is to authentically care for one another in the Way of Jesus – because care has to be more than just providing for our friends in their times of distress.
I do love this about churches, though. If someone’s family member becomes ill or dies or has a great hardship the church is there admirably. Food is shared, chores are done, rides are offered, accommodations are arranged, money is loaned or given, and prayers are offered in earnest. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s living in the Way of Jesus.
But this passage today doesn’t speak about hardships or about the bumps on life’s road – it’s speaking about your faith life. Yes, we are accountable to each other in times of need – but we’re also accountable to each other in our day to day spiritual walk. Accountability flows out of community – and community flows not out of merely driving into the parking lot each Sunday and finding a chair, and not even out of putting money in the plate and sitting on a committee or two (or 3). Community grows when we invest ourselves in our faith journey – when we truly commit ourselves to communion, compassion, and connection – loving God, loving people, loving one another.
Generally we have an “it’s none of your business” attitude when it comes to religion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “my religion is private.” Well, guess what? According to Jesus, you’re wrong! The life of faith is about growing deeper in communion with God’s Presence, broader in compassion for others, and stronger in connection with one another. And you are not in it alone. We are in it together! In Genesis 4:9 Cain snidely asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer is an emphatic “Yes. You. Are!”
Look, there are a thousand different places you could be this morning, but you’re here. You’ve chosen to put yourself into a Christian community. And it isn’t a community of fair-weather friends or casual acquaintances who wave or chat at soccer games, or hockey rinks, or Tim Horton’s. Those are good examples of community too, but a Christian community is much, much more. It’s not just a nice group of people who get together and sing songs and feel good about doing some good in the world.
We are called to be a group of followers of the Way of Jesus, journeying ever deeper together, in strong mutual accountability, in Christ. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Here, in this time and place.
We, gathered in Christ.
Go, ever deeper in communion, compassion and connection.
Again, and again, and again.