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Community Reconsidered

San Williams

September 4, 2011
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 worship service or a Bible Study has been planned, hoping to attract at least a 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, “Well, there aren’t many us of here, but you know what scripture says, “Where two or there are gathered in my name, I am among them.”  Well, this scripture is a good verse to bolster morale when attendance is down, but better still, it draws us into a conversation about the meaning of community—honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community.

Someone recently said that community is something we all say we want but usually have no idea how difficult it is to come by. And we all know the basic problem:  community is made up of people.  At UPC we are very fortunate, because conflict and division are rare here. Even so, our church—like all churches—is made up of human beings, and wherever human beings congregate, there is the potential for hurt feelings, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. At a conference I attended this spring, a pastor was reflecting on the various churches he had 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—just with different names and faces—in my new congregation.”  Yes, we all desire community, but don’t always realize the challenges that can accompany community, especially one that is as wide open as the church.

Maybe that helps explain why many people gravitate to cyber communities and social-media networks.  No risk involved there, no troublesome face-to-face meetings, no having to put up with people who rub you the wrong way.  If you experience conflict in a cyber-community, all you have to do is hit “delete,” and the problem is gone—just like that!

It’s also understandable that most communities are essentially affinity groups.  Driving to church on Sunday mornings, I often notice a community of bicyclists gathered the Freewheeling cycling shop on 24th Street.  They all wear the same spandex attire, sport similar expensive racing bikes and share a common interest.   Or if you were in the university area two weeks ago, you would have seen clusters of young women traipsing from one sorority house to the next, hoping to find community with like-minded friends.  When we think about it, we realize that we are surrounded by all sorts of communities.

But let’s circle back to our scripture in Matthew.  The passage we read this morning opens a window into 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 lends itself to rigid, legalistic practices.  Some Christians have called this passage the “Matthew Principle,”one that consists of four steps.   If a brother or sister sins against you, first go alone to the person and try to work it out. If that 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 issue up with the entire church. And step four:  If there’s still no reconciliation, “Let that person be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”  Can you imagine airing a personal dispute before the whole congregation?  And the matter of “letting that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” sounds harsh.  Throughout history, this verse has led to a great deal of religious abuse.  No wonder then that we may find these verses about conflict resolution in the early church somewhat unreasonable and in some respects undesirable.

Yet let’s stay tuned because Matthew’s over-riding concern is for authentic community.  Matthew’s emphasis is on caring for, reaching out to, and not giving up on one another in the midst of human foibles and conflicts.  This becomes clear when we notice that 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 who 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’s 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.”

So today’s passage is part of a larger teaching that requires the followers of Jesus to make a sustained effort at reconciliation.  Rather than walking away from conflict, Jesus keeps directing us toward the person who has offended us.  And if one tactic doesn’t work, we are encouraged to try another.  And if that doesn’t work, we’re to try still another approach.  In short, when it comes to healing broken relationships, Jesus commands us to be intentional, persistent, and patient.

And even the statement 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 Jesus known for dining with tax collectors, 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’s teaching on unlimited forgiveness, we realize that it’s a plea for boundless forbearance among Christians. Even when we fail at reconciliation, we can never abandon forgiveness or slam the door on the possibility of a future reconciliation.

Friends, Jesus knew that his church would never be a community of perfect people with totally compatible personalities guaranteed never to get cross-wise with one another.  He assumed that from time to time the church would face conflict.  But the glorious good news Jesus gives us is that he will be among us.  Not just when we agree, but even in the mist of our foibles, squabbles, dissimilarities and disagreements. So let’s be the kind of church that never gives up on our ministry of reconciliation. Let’s be a Christ-shaped community. As one church leader said, “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 with us.  You can sense 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.