Based on Matthew 18: 15-20
Did you notice in the very first line of the gospel passage today that Jesus is said to have said this; “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” And so on. The thing is, Jesus could not have said that simply because the church had not been established yet.
But Jesus had begun a cadre of disciples whom he called friends, who numbered well more than twelve. That new witness to Christ’s presence and message of grace was an assembly of committed mutual caregivers who called each other brother and sister.
This is the spiritual reality which must define all other perceptions. We are a community of sisters and brothers melded as the very Body of Christ; what “church” is meant to be: close, communicative, forgiving, peacemaking, of common but not necessarily identical mind in Christ. We are not merely a voluntary assembly of individuals who come and go according to our own whims as to what pleases us and what does not; nor are we a merely a larger mirror of familiar family squabbles, who today may air our distinctly anti-Christian perspectives on the larger mirror yet of social media.
If “church” is the word used rightly, it is so because we have been founded by Jesus Christ to practice life together different from what Paul calls the dominion of the self-oriented flesh. “Church” denotes a family of a higher order with an ethic that is at a significantly higher bar than is given to the world at large. When the world goes low, we are told to go high! And only when we go high, practicing well with each other what it means really to be church, only then do we have the capacity to be healers with Christ of the world beyond ourselves.
“Church,” as I have already alluded, however, is still sorely misunderstood as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. That definition goes back into the 17th century political philosophy of John Locke, whose writing very much shaped our own US Constitution and popular thought. The definition was codified by 19th century German theologians (who else?) and found its way into American Protestantism as virtually the de facto popular understanding of church (thanks mostly to Baptists), and even found its way into our country’s tax codes.
“Church-shopping,” of course, is a familiar thing. One would expect that in a land where we respect pluralism. But we also know that any particular church goes awry when it is vulnerable to or accommodates strong individual voices intent on their own vision, including pastors. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote about this as the idolatries of “wish dreamers.” People who “love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” Instead, “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins.”
Yes, we are blessed with freedom. But Christian freedom is the resource of individual choice and action done in love for the sake of the neighbor and community, as the whole community together under the living word of God is the guide for free Christian conscience. The church is not just a restaurant where individuals go because it’s a cultural expectation like Whataburger or appeals to very weird taste buds. Maybe somewhere really would serve Haggis on a pizza. That would clearly be a choice, not a calling. Just so, Christ calls you to Christ’s church. It is not by design first that we are like-minded volunteers, if so at all.
Goodness sake, this very congregation’s life and robust character should put the lie to that! Here at Christ the King we’re about as unlike-minded as the endless summer’s days are long and hot. We’re a double-rainbow coalition when it comes to the variety of political and theological preferences, probably now more amplified by our digital worship and teaching. You members who serve in justice and law enforcement are here so that from here you can be more faithful and bolder in building just lives for everybody. You medical and psychological professionals are here for inspiration so from here to heal West U and North Houston. You teachers are called here so that from here you are accompanied strongly for the purpose of raising the level of reason and understanding in a democratic society. You musicians and artists of image and words are here to so that from here you can inspire more the great number of weary hearts with beauty. You retired folk are here so that from here your rest and joy in various avocations share company and wisdom for the many nearer the beginnings of their long stories so that they can, quite simply, harbor hope. And you attorneys… all you attorneys…, one reason you are called here is so that from here you can show the world that a lot of strong diverse opinions really do and can coexist with at least some harmony! Like-minded? Hardly! We persist because we—or the vast majority of us—freely understand and agree that we are first called by Jesus to be here and to be resourced as his disciples from here, whatever our profession, whatever our color, gender, preferences, and identities. If we think we chose so, it is only because Christ called us to choose just this way, to become attached to Christ’s Body as sister and brother.
That has at least two very consequential implications. First, we’re close. We confess that baptismal water is thicker than blood. And we vow when we affirm our baptism that we will defy the powers of evil in all its ways that bring ill to each other and the creation at large. Our individual words and deeds do matter. We are the proof of the so-called butter-fly effect, that truth that a butterfly’s beating wings over NYC one week will affect the weather over Hong Kong the next week.
Second, we talk through hard things with one another recognizing that Christ is already there at the nexus, at the crux (which means cross) of the conflict. With discipline discern Christ in the midst, so that his will, not one’s own, be done. If it takes another conversation partner or two to get through the other’s barriers to listening, so be it. And if that doesn’t work, the consequence then is not exclusion as a punishment, but the recognition that such a one needs more the kind of attention that Jesus gave to gentiles and tax-collectors; he reached out more in love especially to them. And all is done not with some authoritarian privilege as judges of one another, but in knowing we are bound by Christ’s clear words and loosed to love each other as the situation and Christ’s Spirit lead.
And there is something like a Christian “karma” to all this. What we give or not give, what we do or do not, it comes back to us. This came “home” to me in a very real way recently in a phone call with a stranger. Denise, a woman of color, had called me a recent afternoon. She apologized strongly for interfering with family time. But I insisted that her call was welcomed. She spoke of the current national and local climate of racism that has been so overwhelming for her family, a successful family, ostensibly accepted in this very neighborhood, having lived here for many years. And though her family knew we had a good rep in the community, though they had had a happy life in another church, they thought often about visiting here, but didn’t because they were afraid. They were afraid because of what the culture-wide resonances of racism had led them to fear, because we were in “the village,” and the “village” has its white resonances. She wanted me to know about her principles despite fear. She wanted me to know that she loved me, even not having met me. She wanted to know if I could laugh with her while understanding her pain. She wanted to know if I had the capacity, if we had the capacity, for a Christian life of forgiveness even if we had not yet met. So it was that she, as it were, came to me to discuss her life of long and recent offense, to rest at least for a time then in the joy that we were and are reconciled sister and brother before even meeting. It will be a wonderful moment, and soon, when we do.
Principled Christian love and its attendant forgiveness “processes” are a lifelong discipline for the Christian anywhere all the time. There is no other way. It is how Christ is always with and for us and others. It is almost comic that after this passage Peter asks how many times we must forgive. Jesus’ answer: seventy-seven times, which means all the time. It is not a quick fix. Each individual act takes care, takes time. This simply is the Christian life. We always go high and counsel each other when we don’t. If cynics retort that this is just stupid, snowflaky BS, if they say “ya’ll are high,” we’ll say “hey, we’ll take our compliments where we can get them.” Like from Jesus. And we’ll see how God quietly or dramatically grow this intimate household.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, TX September 6, 2020