Pentecost 14 A – Christian Community

Matthew 18:15-20

Dear Partner in Preaching,

So what do you think? Rules or relationships?

I think this may be the central question to answer in our reading and preaching of this particular passage in Matthew. Is he giving us rules to live by or privileging relationships over, well, just about everything else in our life as Christians.

If the former, then you have a rather neat little formula for maintaining a semblance of order in the Christian community. Someone offends you, confront them. If that doesn’t work, try an intervention. If that fails, cut them off and kick them out. If nothing else, it’s at least straight forward, which is perhaps why some Christian groups have read this passage this way.

If the latter, however, then we’ve got a much more challenging, but also more interesting, interpretation ahead of us. I mean, what if Matthew isn’t simply setting up the rules of engagement but rather is trying to build authentic Christian community? What if the point is less about having a code of conduct to follow and more about regaining a brother or sister? And what if Matthew’s major concern isn’t actually settling disputes but creating an environment where Christ’s presence continues to bring forgiveness, healing, and joy?

The verses immediately before this passage detail God’s delight in gathering back those sheep that have strayed and the injunction to beware despising others, even (and perhaps especially!) those who seem of little account to you. The verses that follow set a new standard for forgiveness, first multiplying Peter’s sense of appropriate forgiveness beyond imagination and then suggesting that our ability to forgive others may be the key determinant in whether we ourselves are forgiven.

All of which makes me think that this week’s passage is not simply the product of an all-too-legalistic Matthew (as many, including myself at times, have been tempted to read him), but rather is offered by someone who knows that relationships take work to maintain and that community is harder to forge and nurture than we might imagine. Because – think about it – going to someone with your concern or grievance is a lot harder than talking behind his or her back. Bringing others to listen closely to what is said a lot more courage than posting something on Facebook. And working out disputes as a community together rather than simply dispensing judgment can be really, really hard.

This more relational approach to hearing and heeding Matthew’s counsel opens up other ways to read and preach the rest of the passage as well. Because suddenly loosing and binding may perhaps not be promises of unlimited power but instead invite extreme caution before setting anything in stone as the way we regard others on earth has cosmic significance. And seeking agreement with others in the community is not a formula to force God’s hand to grant us what we want but instead is the promise that when Christians come together to discuss, listen for, and discern God’s will, nothing is out of our reach. And the assurance of Jesus’ presence is both a reminder that what we say and do together is always said and done in the presence of our Lord and a promise that the hard work to which we set ourselves is not done alone, but always with Jesus’ presence and assistance.

Make no mistake, Dear Partner, authentic community is hard. But also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, but also worth it. Always.

So allow this suggestion: this week, during the hymn that follows the sermon or closes the service, ask folks to look around them, to see the persons gathered together as gifts of God given so that together you can become the people and community God wants and needs you to be. Ask them to imagine what needs, hopes, hurts, and dreams the people nearby hold and how together you might go out into the world God loves so much armed with the courage and compassion of Christ.

There is so much that is challenging in our world just now – from hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance – that the world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ.  Moreover, there is so much going on in the lives of your members – from heartaches we barely sense to hopes we can scarce imagine – that they also need to be cared for by, and to be part of, the Body of Christ. And so I’ll say it again: authentic community is hard. But also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. And a heck of a lot of work, to be sure, but always worth it.

And when we grow weary following the path Jesus set, perhaps we can remind each other that we have Jesus’ promise that each and every time we try, he is there with us – instructing us in the way of love, urging us on, forgiving us, and sending us out to be agents of reconciliation and peace, accompanying us wherever we may go.

The world needs you and your congregation, Dear Partner. Thank you for the words you offer that will help us live into being the community God wants us to be.

Yours in Christ,