Matthew 18:15-20 • September 4, 2011
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
I know one week is a long time, but I hope some of you remember what the Gospel Reading was last week in worship. If not, let me refresh your memory a bit.
The disciple Peter has just confessed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” after that a short exchange happens between Peter and Jesus resulting in Jesus telling Peter to “Get behind me, Satan.” And then Jesus turning to the disciples and saying “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I think it’s no accident, and I’m actually thankful, that today we head to Matthew 18. It’s a text that many of us know, but far fewer of us seem to have a clue as to what we are supposed to do with it.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus was last week. In light of the gospel reading before us today, does any of that change? I think it is often easier for you and me to say “I Love You” to someone than to say “I forgive you.” Or maybe even more directly, easier to say “I love you” rather than say “I am sorry.”
Do you know that this text from Matthew 18 appears in nearly every constitution of congregations in the ELCA and many congregations outside of our denomination? It is also one of the most significant ways in which we are called to engage each other during conflict as it arises between staff, pastors, or committee members that serve in those congregations. If this is true, which it most definitely is in the life of our own congregation, why is it so difficult to actually do?
Maybe it’s the somewhat hypothetical questions that are brought forth in Jesus teaching today. The first question is – “If another member of the church sins against you” or another translation from the Greek is “if your brother sins against you.” The second question is “If the member (brother) refuses to listen…”
I like the intimacy that the translation of brother or sister offers in those questions. It moves us from relationships among only members of churches into all relationships of our lives. I don’t believe that it’s a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when” these questions will need to be addressed in human relationships.
What Jesus is saying here about relationships is significant, not because we don’t know what we’re doing – but because we don’t always understand the depth and importance of relationships to our life in Christ. Jesus is not talking about us as individuals who constantly seek to control relationships. Jesus is lifting up the fact that all children of God are called to live in community and that all of our relationships are deeply connected together and deeply affect the life of the entire community.
So Jesus is giving us a bit of a guide today for times when relationships aren’t working well or not always filled with happiness and joy. When those times come, more often than not, our response is to simply and strongly point a finger at the other person and let them know what is wrong with them. Is that what Jesus is talking about here? Pointing fingers at our brothers and sisters in Christ?
I don’t use a lot of props in my preaching, but I thought I’d use one today. My brother and I used to play crochet in our backyard growing up. We were fairly competitive when we played, especially if there were other kids from the neighborhood playing. One day, and I honestly can’t remember why – I think it’s one of those memories I’ve repressed into the deepest recesses of my memory. Anyway, on this particular day we were playing crochet in the backyard when all of sudden we are running around the yard and through the house, me in front – my brother chasing behind me swinging the crochet mallet at me.
Needless to say our father wasn’t too happy to witness this activity taking place, he grabbed both of us in a fatherly way that demonstrated clearly what he thought of the entire situation, and sent us to our rooms for the remainder of day. Eventually my brother and I apologized to one another and I don’t think we ever played another game of crochet together again.
I make light of this a little, but I also lift it up in all seriousness. That experience had a impact on the community of my family that day, whether my brother and I knew it then or not. I think it changed our relationship in that community forever. We eventually figured out that what we had done was wrong, but I’m not sure we will ever know the impact or hurt it may have caused our father. The community of family is not easy. It requires active participation from everyone involved.
The community of being church is not easy either. Sometimes it’s about playing fun games with kids or celebrating new life in baptism. At other times it’s about death of people we love and loss of things and programs that we will miss forever.
What other communities and relationships are important to you?
Jesus doesn’t promise us that the relationships we experience in community will always be easy or that everything will go the way we expect it to go or that we will all get along with each other all the time and nobody will ever disagree. What Jesus does promise is that he will be with us in all of those relationships, in all of those communities, and in all of those times. In verse 20 of today’s gospel, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I think that life in community as brothers and sisters in Christ is not found in the fact that inevitably something bad will happen or a struggle will take place or that eventually a treasured relationship that we have will fall apart and require reconciliation between both parties. Life in community as brothers and sisters in Christ happens through the presence of our risen savior. Christ’s presence in our relationships and the communities in which we live invites you and I to experience times that I believe are a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven on earth in a most incredible and beautiful way.
And on this first weekend in September, following some of the most challenging times that many communities in which you and I participate in have ever faced, we gather as a Christian community in worship, children of God who are forgiven and freed to become the people God wants us to become. My prayer on this day is simply this – Good and gracious God, may your kingdom come. Amen.