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Pentecost 14, 09/10/2017

Sermon on Matthäus 18:15-20, by Luke Bouman

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 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.”

Wherever Two or Three

My uncle was already in my mom’s hospital room on Saturday when I arrived. I had sent a message to all of her brothers and sisters that she seemed to be declining after a stroke some six weeks ago.  The plan was that while she was still sharp in her mind and physically able to have meaningful conversations she might enjoy visits.  We did not know how much of a window of opportunity there was, so we started to plan to have people come and her youngest brother was the first to visit.

But my mom was clearly not doing well. For the first time in weeks she seemed to be in pain and she had a hard time focusing on anything but that.  So, I invited her brother to tell his favorite stories of her when they were growing up.  As he talked, she would remember and occasionally smile.  Her distress was interrupted by the mutual love and memory that she shared with her brother.  It was a hard visit.  But it was a good visit.  We did not stop to pray, nor did we invoke the name of Jesus out loud.  There was no unfinished business to recall and deal with, only the mutual affection of three family members for one another.  But you had the feeling that God was watching over our gathering, sometimes serious, sometimes playful as we might have been.  God was laughing and sharing our pains in turn, though we didn’t really speak about it. Our text for today speaks to this and many other gatherings of the faithful throughout time and space.  It offers a way to speak of love and community, of family and the kind of remembrance that brings the past into the future, either to celebrate it, or else to redeem it from some history of conflict unresolved.  Jesus, speaking through the Gospel writer, Matthew, speaks to a community that was yet to come, a community that would be formed through, formed after, formed to continue to experience the power of the life-giving death and resurrection of their leader.  By the time that community had formed and Matthew had gathered his collection of the sayings of Jesus, there was certainly a richness of community life that included many varying circumstances and needs.  This text addresses that richness.

Certainly, in that community there would be conflict, as there is in any human community. People who live in close proximity to one another for any length of time will invariably have disagreements. In the course of those disagreement there would have been hurts and wrongs to be redressed.  But there were also new situations that might arise that no one had thought of before.  The new community would need wisdom and freedom to explore handling those situations with grace and justice for all of its people.  That community would experience both the loss and paradoxical presence of Jesus in everything that they did.  They would need to know how it is that Jesus is both physically absent and present at the same time, in ways both abstract and concrete.  They would still gather around their leader, and would still commune with Jesus as they gathered together in fellowship with one another.  Finally, they would need to understand how they were to carry out and continue Jesus’ mission to communicate God’s love, especially to the outcast and they despised around them.  They would need to know that love, not law, would be the hallmark of their community together even as love and laws would both need to be present and active in their gathering.  This text addresses all of this and more. And it does so not only for the church in the past, but also in the present as we anticipate God’s future for us and our world.  The present church needs all of the above richness as we continue to struggle with and grow into what it means to be the “Body of Christ” in the world.  While it might be tempting to look at this text as a way to deal with “problem people” in our lives and in the life of our communities, we dare not see it that way.  There will be disruptions caused by people in community.  Our communities will not survive, much less thrive if we let destructive acts go unchallenged.  But note that demonizing people, labeling them as the “designated problem people” is not anything that is recommended in this text.  Jesus says that even after going through a long and careful process of reconciliation we find that people still will not turn from behaviors that break down relationships and community, we are then to treat them as “tax collectors” and “gentiles.” 

Take note: with whom did Jesus go out of his way to find and connect?  Was it the good righteous people?  No.  Jesus did have relationships with a good many of the righteous of his day, but he challenged them to expand their vision of the people of God by the others with whom he interacted.  The writer of this Gospel was, by tradition, a former tax collector.  He, in turn, wrote stories of Jesus’ ministry with many of the “wrong sort” of people, including gentiles and other “undesirable sinners.”  When Jesus says in our text today, “Let them be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector,” he is not saying that we should write these people off.  Instead, he is saying that we must attend especially to their need for love and reconciliation.  We say “no” to their disruptive actions even as we seek them out for renewed inclusion in the family of faith.  It may be hard to imagine doing both things at the same time, but whoever said following Jesus was going to be easy?

Dealing with conflict and restoration is not the only thing this text is for. It is also for dealing with things that we have not anticipated.  Our world is constantly changing.  Our lives are constantly challenged with new variables that impact our lives together as community.  Among the questions that we wrestle with today are things that the people of Matthew’s day never imagined.  How do we cope with the fact that we have, through our misuse of the worlds resources, brought about a change in our climate that endangers communities everywhere around the world?  How do we cope with changes in medical practice that beg question of quality and quantity of life as well as who has access to medical care in the first place?  How do we begin to account for the rapidly changing technology of our world and what does that mean for our communities and their gathering and worshipping together?  How do we address the shifting role of women in our culture and in our church communities?  How might we address the needs of people who find themselves dispossessed in our culture and our world at this time, including the poor, cultural minorities, people of different sexual orientations, and so many more? All of these things are addressed, not specifically in this passage, but by the wisdom within the Gospel writer’s purview.  He states that when we gather in Jesus’ name, that we have the power to “bind and loose,” which is to say the power to determine which things might be permitted and which things might be forbidden as we consider how we might best live together.  Of course, there is great responsibility that comes with this power, and it certainly can be and has been abused over the centuries and even today.  But note that it is predicated on gathering “in Jesus’ name,” or agreeing on actions, “in Jesus’ name.”  This does not mean that we simply invoke Jesus name in order to have this power.  In fact, I would argue that it means the opposite of that.  It means that the power does not belong to us at all.

To do something “in Jesus’ name” means to do something as Jesus would have done it. Thus, it is important in our communities to study, to understand, and to follow Jesus’ leadership in everything that we say and do.  Faith in Jesus means trusting Jesus way of being as our world, even though we haven’t always been very good at any of what that means.  It means understanding that we have a special mission to the outcast and despised.  It means knowing that we forgive as a first option, because we are forgiven.  It means giving even our very lives for the sake of others in ways that are life giving rather than life destroying.  It means that we have a very deep, as opposed to superficial, understanding of what it means to be followers of Christ.  We can’t simply order ourselves and our prejudices as a new “rule of faith” as, for example our ancestors did as they legalized discrimination against various groups in our country’s past.  We must look beyond those things and hear the challenge of Jesus to that way of being on our journey to becoming something so much more than that.

But in the end, we have a promise of comfort and help for all of the challenges with which our world presents us. Jesus promises that wherever two or three gather he will be there in our midst.  Our God, our incarnational God, promises to continue what has always separated our God from the many others out there.  God does not abandon us to try to figure things out on our own.  God continues to show up and with a loving, forgiving presence, turning us toward love and forgiveness as the hallmarks of our communities and our lives.  Love is the only thing in this world that is more powerful than fear, and love teams up with hope and faith to make itself known in world changing ways.  In that way, this passage is truly revolutionary in its depth and scope.  It allows us to face our fears and the challenges of the unknown with uncommon courage and grace, just as it did for the first followers of Christ.  But here is the kicker.  We cannot, we dare not, do this in isolation.  This promise is specific.  We are stronger when we gather together, and specifically when we Gather in Jesus’ name, in Jesus way of being in the world.

Within a few short hours after my uncle and I left my mom’s hospital room last Saturday, I received a phone call at home from the hospital. My mom had taken a turn for the worse and would I please come as quickly as possible.  By the time I arrived, she had died.  But I was amazingly at peace with it all.  Had we not gathered, just hours earlier, implicitly in the bond that we shared both as family and as God’s children.  Had we not felt the presence of Christ with us in those holy moments of conversation?  Had we not said “good bye”, which is to say, “God be with you” as we left and shared the kiss of peace on one another’s cheeks?  Jesus was there, as promised through all of it.  We have the courage and grace to face the disruptions of life, to face the greatest disruption, that of death, knowing that love wins in the end.  I joked, in reflecting later that evening with my uncle, that mom probably waited until we were gone so that we couldn’t talk her out of dying, as she knew she would soon anyway.  But in reality, she was tired and ready for God to call her into a greater fellowship.  And I was ready to commend her into God’s care.  It is for courage for our life together that Jesus speaks these words, certainly.  But it is also for courage for our dying and rising, as this is the daily struggle of all of life.  And indeed, we face it better, gathered as we do, in groups as small as two or three, and Jesus, there in the middle of it all.

Rev.Dr. Luke Bouman
Valparaiso, IN
E-Mail: luke.bouman@gmail.com