Updated: Sep 10, 2020
I am a firm believer that God has a sense of humor. So it made me laugh that the last time I gave a reflection, it was about ‘how good and pleasant it is for brethren to live together in unity’ (Psalm 133) and today’s gospel is all about conflict! While I still believe it is good and pleasant to live together in harmony and unity, I’m also realistic about how life can be on earth – and so is Jesus. Jesus knew that within the community of the church, boundaries were important for its health and unity and well-being. Boundaries are good and healthy, and they are very necessary. Boundaries are as natural as creation itself. The opening chapter of Genesis is about the boundaries that God created. Out of a formless void – there was a distinct division between day and night, sky and earth, light and dark. In the ministry of Jesus, he had distinctions and boundaries between what kind of behavior honored God and what did not. He encouraged mercy, forgiveness, love, repentance, and reaching out to the despised and the outcast. He was against arrogance, against corrupt religious leadership, against hypocrisy, and against mistreatment of other people, especially the marginalized.
The question I think the gospel passage is trying to answer today is, “What does the church stand for and what does it stand against?” The early church was a small group of ragtag people that were caught in an ‘in between time’ in their lives. Some were raised Jewish and were now kicked out of their synagogues. Some used to be pagan and were rejected by their families and friends. Jesus knew that the church he would leave behind would have divisions; despite his hope that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Jesus knew that for this group to survive, they would need strong boundaries and clear definitions of who they were and what they stood for.
In seminary I learned a basic definition of sin: anything that separates us from having a right relationship God and our neighbor. We are not given any specific examples of what kind of sin the church member did in today’s lesson but we do know the end goal – not condemnation, but reconciliation. “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.” Notice here the verse doesn’t say, “If another member sins against you” – hold it against them and make sure you simmer in resentment and judgment and plan for revenge. Nor does it say, “If another member sins against you” – go talk bad about them to your friends or blast them on Twitter or social media. No. It says, “If another member sins against you, talk to them about it privately because the goal is reconciliation – not division!” This advice should come as no surprise to the hearers of Matthew’s gospel because a few chapters earlier we hear Jesus say, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and you remember your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled.” (5:23-34). So “If another member sins against you” you don’t go in with the attitude of “I’m right and you are wrong” or, “I’m going to tell you off!” but -Jesus says in this gospel lesson- “Go in with the goal of listening to each other” – that key Benedictine word, “listen” – because listening is required in any healthy relationship – whether that relationship is between each other or between us and God.
Out of all the four gospels, Matthew is known for portraying Jesus as the new Moses and the new bringer of the Law. The gospel of Matthew references the Old Testament more than any other gospel. In this second tier of conflict management in today’s gospel, we are told that Jesus wants us to take two or three witnesses with us if the person does not listen to us. In the Levitical code of condemnation, two or three witnesses were required to convict someone of sin. With the words of Jesus, the purpose of the two or three witnesses is not to condemn, but to confirm – the verse says the goal is to listen “so that every word may be confirmed.” In this instance, like the first tier, the task demands listening. And if the offender refuses to listen to these witnesses, it is taken to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, they are to become to the church like a Gentile and a tax collector. While this decision may seem harsh at first glance, it really is just showing externally what happened to the offender internally – they have had multiple opportunities to repent and change their minds, but they have inwardly already established their own boundary which is against the values of the group. And while it also may seem harsh that the sentence is to be treated like a Gentile (who was outside of the promises of God) and a tax collector (the enemy of the people because they stood for Roman oppression) we should not forget the origins of the Matthew – he was a tax collector! So being a Gentile or a tax collector did not mean that person was unredeemable – but rather, they were part of the mission field of the church to be brought back in, to have a right relationship with God and others. So this story doesn’t end on condemnation – like it may appear to on the surface – but in hope – hope in remembering that Jesus ministered to Gentiles and tax collectors and loved and encouraged them to live righteously. If Jesus doesn’t give up hope on either one of these groups of people, we shouldn’t either. But their repeated actions show that they are not striving to honor the promises they made in baptism – to turn away from sin – because they are continuing in it – so they are removed from the church.
The gospel lesson for this morning ends with the words “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” This isn’t coincidence in this section on church conflict and membership. When someone we loved dies, we honor their memory by telling stories about their life and the ways they made an impact on their loved ones. With remembering Christ in worship, this takes on a deeper significance. If we say we are followers of Christ, but don’t act according to his commandments, then we are not honoring his memory. I don’t need to make up any examples of this dishonor of the name of Jesus, because history is full of them – corrupt televangelists and abuse in the church are two big ones. What if, before things got out of hand, people that knew them in the beginning confronted them privately? What if a few people that had authority over them removed them from power before they could do any damage? What if the church started actually living out their beliefs and realized that the actions of the church members reflect what the world thinks the Christian life is all about? If people only think the Christian church is about really wealthy pastors and child abuse, why would they join?
I think the message for today is a reminder of what we say we stand for as members of the church. In the catechism of the BCP it says (p. 855)
Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
That means all of us, not just ordained ministers, have the responsibility to live out the mission of reconciliation with each other and with God and go against actions that promote injustice and hate. And maybe, just maybe, through our worship, actions, and prayers – and most importantly the grace and Spirit of God – we can each day be the church Christ has called us to be.