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A Christ-Inhabited Community
September 7, 2014
Matthew 18: 15-20
If you’ve been in church for any time at all, you’re probably familiar with verse 20 of this passage: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.” This verse is sometimes mentioned when a church gathering is under-attended. Maybe a special Bible study has been planned, with the leaders hoping to attract at least a couple dozen folks. But when the time arrives, only two people show up—the same two who show up for everything. In an attempt to beat back disappointment, the leader might say, “There aren’t many of us here, but you know what scripture says, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.’”
Well, this scripture is more than simply a good verse for bolstering morale when attendance is down. Better still, it refreshes our understanding of Christian community. Since Rally Sunday is something of a regrouping of our community, today’s passage is timely and instructive. It draws us into conversation about community—honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that community is messy. Someone said that community is something we all say we want, but usually we have no idea of what it requires. Further, we all know the basic problem: community is made up of people. I can honestly say, and with a deep sense of gratitude, that UPC is not a community wracked with division and turmoil. Our spirit of unity and graciousness is not only a precious gift, but—as I’m only beginning to realize—something of a rarity. Even so, our UPC community—like all churches—is made up of human beings, and wherever human beings congregate, there is at least the potential for hurt feelings, or misunderstanding, or miscommunication.
At a conference I recently attended, a pastor was reflecting on the various churches he has served over the years. He said, “I’ve discovered the strangest thing. I’d leave one church to move to another and, lo and behold, the same ornery people would show up in my new congregation—only with different names and faces.” Yes, community is sought by nearly everyone, but we don’t always realize the challenges that can accompany community, especially one that is as wide open as the church.
Perhaps that helps explain why many people today gravitate to cyber communities and social media networks. No troublesome face-to-face meetings, no having to put up with people who rub you the wrong way. If something or someone upsets you in a cyber-community, all it takes is a click of the mouse and the problem is gone—just like that!
It’s also understandable that most communities are essentially affinity groups—our kids’ playgroups, or hiking clubs, or antique car enthusiasts, and the like. I read in the newspaper a couple weeks ago about a kind of community that has formed at Uncle Billy’s on Barton Springs Road. Young adults who like to both run and drink beer gather every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. At 6:45 members dash off on a 5K run, then return to the bar to hang out and drink beer. You’d think the beer would mostly cancel out the health benefits of the run, but of course the point is not just health. The point is to experience community with one’s peers.
But now let’s circle back to our scripture in Matthew. The passage we read this morning opens a window on the life of an early Christian community. At first glance, some of the features of Matthew’s community may not be entirely to our liking. To be honest, the process it lays out for conflict resolution has sometimes led to rigid, legalistic practices. Some Christians have called this passage the “Matthew Principle” for resolving conflict in the church, one that consists of four steps. If a brother or sister sins against you, first go alone to that person, and try to work your differences out. If direct negotiation fails to resolve the matter, take one or two others with you, and see if that can bring about resolution. If that effort also fails, take the issues up with the entire church, before step four: if there’s still no reconciliation, “Let that person be to you as a Gentile or a Tax Collector.”
Now in all my years in the church I’ve never heard of a conflict between two people publically aired before the entire congregation. And if that ever did happen most of us would run for the nearest exit. Also, the matter of “Let that person be to you as a Gentile or a Tax Collector” is troubling. Too often churches have used that statement as an excuse to shun a member who has fallen out of favor. So if this passage is taken literally as a set formula for resolving conflict, most of us would reject it. Besides, in my experience, conflicts tend to be convoluted, enmeshed in personality and difficult to sort out.
But look, the gift embedded in today’s scripture is not a fail safe formula for conflict resolution; it’s an announcement of good news! Namely, in it Jesus promises that wherever the community gathers in his name he will be among us. And wherever Christ is present, there is relentless commitment to the reconciliation of differences.
This is made clear by the placement of today’s passage in Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s passage is preceded by the parable about the Shepherd who was willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one that was lost. When he finds the one lost sheep, he restores it to the fold with great rejoicing. And following today’s passage is Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Remember how, when Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus shocks Peter—and us—by saying, “not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times seven.”
In short, when it comes to healing broken relationships, maintaining unity, and offering forgiveness, Jesus’ spirit inspires us to be intentional, persistent and patient.
And even the admonition that, if all efforts at reconciliation fail, to “let that person be as a tax collector and gentile to you” is wonderfully ambiguous. After all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? Wasn’t he known for dining with tax collectors and gentiles? And don’t forget that Matthew, the author of this Gospel, was himself a tax collector. So when we take today’s passage together with the parable of the lost sheep and Jesus’ teaching on unlimited forgiveness, we realize that it’s a plea for boundless forbearance. Even when we fail at reconciliation, in the Christ-inhabited community we can never walk away from the table or slam the door on the possibility of a future reconciliation.
A couple weeks ago at Austin Seminary’s pastors’ breakfast, we watched a video clip from the recent Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit. The video was a speech before the Assembly by African-American Teaching Elder Jim Reese. Reese has served parishes in Alabama and Tennessee, done mission work in Kenya, and served in various capacities in Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly work. Reese is 90 years old, and he has attended every General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church since 1974 (and has lived to tell about it). In his speech before the Assembly, he recalled how, over many years, he has sat in countless committee meetings, Assembly debates, and policy discussions, on everything from race, to women’s issues, gay and lesbian ordination, divestment issues and marriage equality. In his speech he said, and I paraphrase: “I was often in the minority, many times I disagreed with positions taken, sometimes I was deeply disappointed by my church, but”–he concluded—“there’s one thing I never did. I never left the table.”
This elder statesman of our church reflects the true spirit of Christian community–a spirit that refuses to walk away from others, one that is relentless in seeking reconciliation.
Friends, Jesus knew that his church would never be a conflict-free community. But the glorious good news Jesus gives us is that he will be among us in times of agreement and, perhaps more importantly, in times of disagreement. As one Christian leader put it, “The mark of the Christian community is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of a reconciling spirit.” Such a reconciling spirit is present in our gathering this morning. You can feel it in the very tenor of our fellowship. You can taste it at the Lord’s Table. And you can be an instrument of it in your own life.