A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
September 7, 2014
The word that is translated as “church” in this passage is the word “ecclesia”, which means “called out of”. It was a term from Greek politics. It was the name of the assembly of citizens who came together to vote for magistrates, to declare war, to do the work of the government. So, early on, what we now call the “church” took its name from the idea that people who came together could effect change. An ecclesia is a group of people who make a difference in their world by working together.
There were plenty of other words that could have been used to describe a religious gathering of Jesus followers, but the early church mothers and fathers picked this one.
Jesus calls on the assembly, the ecclesia, and reminds us the church has never been about the building. It is about the people who are gathered together, who have been called out, who have a job to do.
Matthew, by including this in his narrative of Jesus’ story, is addressing a need of his congregation, and of every congregation, namely—
Why does it matter that we gather together as church and do this hard work of getting along?
Let’s face it. We could be doing other things today.
We could have slept in or gone for a hike.
We could decide the fractious politics of churches today are so frustrating to us that we’re done with the whole business of organized religion and are going to go read our bibles by ourselves in a cave and just pledge to be good people.
Why are we here? Why do we gather each week, setting aside time in our busy lives to “be church”?
It’s messy. It can be complicated.
And Jesus doesn’t pretend it should be any other way.
The Greek text really begins like this: “when a brother sins against you..” which means that Jesus doesn’t even mess around with some notion of church perfection. Jesus does not say, “now that you are in a church, I know you will all get along perfectly and all discord shall cease”. What Jesus says is “when this happens”.
Often, we in American culture get disgusted with church because we think that all of those disputes that complicate our life shouldn’t happen in church. I suspect you have heard something to the effect of “I stopped going to fill-in-the-blank church because people didn’t always get along. And they call themselves Christians!”
You know you’ve heard it.
We know that Christians aren’t immune to difficulty or strife, yet we want Christians to be perfect, and we want church to be perfect. And there is NO scriptural basis for that, whatsoever.
All but one of Paul’s letters that we have preserved in the Bible were written to congregations that were rent by disagreement and fighting.
Paul and Peter couldn’t even be in the same room without disagreeing, according to Acts and to Paul’s letters.
And here, Jesus says “when this happens”.
As Christians, even though we can’t be perfect, we are still called to be church together and work through it.
So, the disagreements will happen. And Jesus says we’re supposed to go talk with the person with whom we’re in a disagreement.
“Really, Jesus? Can’t I just moan and whine about that person to my husband and friends and then never actually talk with them about it, hoping it will all go away?“
“No”, he says.
“Can I send them an email or an anonymous letter?”
“No”, he says. “Go talk to them. Face to face.”
“But that’s so hard!”
“I know,” he says. “Follow me.”
So, quite simply, our call in this text is to talk to each other, face to face. Giving each other the respect that each person deserves as a beloved child of God who has been called out to be part of the church.
It is worth noting that this passage about church discipline is in the midst of a larger passage about forgiveness and restoration. Church discipline is not about punishing people.
It is about restoring them.
“If the brother or sister refuses to listen, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
I think we tend to hear that as a sign we should write them off, as people outside of the family.
But Jesus, in this gospel, and in others, has the bad habit of hanging out with the people with whom society tells him he shouldn’t fraternize with because they were outside of the family. Tax collectors, gentiles, lepers, women. You name it. Jesus goes to their homes for dinner and invites them to hang out with him.
When Jesus tells us to consider a person to be a tax collector or gentile, perhaps what he’s saying to us is this:
“Consider this person to be the biggest illustration you can imagine of someone who needs to be brought into my family. Consider this person to be exactly the person you need to keep seeking out.”
You don’t let them get away with bad behavior. There are still codes of behavior that matter. But we never reach a point where we stop seeking reconciliation.
When we are gathered together in God’s name, Christ is there with us. So, when we are together and are fighting over, oh, I don’t know….
Scriptural interpretation and issues leading to denomination schism.
The appropriate response to Gaza, Ukraine or ISIS.
Who we’re going to vote for in November.
Or the really important things, like the style of music in worship…
When two or three of us are gathered together, disagreeing over who knows what, God is there. I hope you hear this as good news. God is going to be with us until we can learn to get along.
And then, Peter, perhaps trying to figure out how long it will take us to get along, asks Jesus, “how many times, Lord, should I forgive someone? As many as 7 times?”
(Peter’s being a bit of a show off here. Who would expect someone to forgive someone seven whole times? It is just silly.)
And Jesus, to make sure we get that forgiveness is about redemption and restoration, says, “no Peter, not 7 times. but seventy seven times.” Jesus throws out numbers that are so big that the message is this—forgiveness can’t be quantified.
I confess I want to quantify even this.
I recognize 77 times is supposed to be hyperbole, a number so high we wouldn’t keep track.
I have to fight the tendency to keep track.
“She is up to 23 times I’ve forgiven her. He’s made it to 40. Maybe I should think about prizes to offer when they get to the 50th time I’ve had to forgive them”.
I kid. Sort of.
I want to be like Jesus.
But come on.
He doesn’t really want someone in the family of God if they require 77 forgivenesses, does he?
Yes, Marci. Yes he does.
We are supposed to stay together, to keep working at this, until we get along.
And when that happens, and there are moments it does, glimpses of the kingdom perhaps, listen to Jesus’ words:
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my father in heaven.”
That’s the reason we go and talk to each other face to face—because if or when we can come together, we don’t just change things on earth, we change them in heaven. So, we keep working at it, 70 times 7 times, because it is that important to us and to God.
This text reminds me of the connections between salvation, grace, forgiveness, and life in community. Just as Peter is instructed to forgive someone a seemingly infinite number of times, so have we been forgiven by the God who loves us, so we have been called to keep working at being the family of God.
This passage is actually the text I preached on my first Sunday with you, exactly 6 years ago.
And I’ve been reflecting on these first six years with you this past week, as I marked the anniversary. And I better understand, now, why it matters that we work through these things to be God’s family together.
I know you’d been working through things just fine before I got here. But we’ve worked through a lot in the last six years.
As we got to know each other, as you put up with my style of leadership, which I know is different from the previous pastors you’ve had— we’ll call my style ‘delightful and charming’, shall we, we’ve had to seek forgiveness and understanding from each other many times. Thank you for offering me that.
Think about the changes in our world and in the denomination that have happened since 2008.
Think about the changes in this congregation— many long time members have passed away in the past 6 years, and others have moved, but more new people have joined our family.
Quick survey—how many of you are new here since I arrived in 2008?
It is no small thing for a congregation to weather the kind of change we have been through and to be able to say you are stronger for it.
And this congregational health is not because of me, to be clear. I’d love to take credit for this, but that would not be true.
It is because you have been willing to continue to live into Jesus’ call to be family, to be family as ecclesia, even though we all know family is complicated and messy and takes work.
I’ve heard your stories of redemption and reconciliation.
I’ve seen you, gearing up strength to go talk and pray with a person from whom you’d become estranged. By overcoming your fear and hesitation, you’ve changed this place, strengthened this family, and offered us all glimpses of the very kingdom of God.
You are healthy because you have called out from your midst leaders—elders and deacons—who are willing to face troubles head on, so troubles can become means of redemption and not festering wounds.
You are a healthy congregation today because you participate in the grace that has saved you and take seriously God’s call to hospitality, mercy, and love that you have read in scripture.
You have forgiven 70 x 7 times because you believe the promise in scripture is true: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
I know the language of that phrase is odd to our ears. I invite you to consider what it might mean in your life, or what it might look like. When we come together in divine agreement, when we put aside those things that might divide us and find our unity and common purpose, it is not only our lives that are blessed, but also the kingdom of God.
While we may not understand the physics of heaven and earth, this verse reminds us that our connections to each other, and to the world, are more important than we fool ourselves into believing when we pretend we are islands, each one separate from the other.
Even church leaders can get confused about it. Here’s Victoria Osteen, giving some questionable advice:
Thank goodness for people who add Bill Cosby to videos at just the right moment.
Each month we gather at the Lord’s Table and are told to remember. Communion is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace and mercy, where the connection between earth and heaven is made visible. We are called to remember our inclusion as family of God and to remember the difficult sacrifice required to make us family.
It is a gift to keep coming back, month after month, to celebrate together that we are not strangers but family. It is a gift to celebrate that our being together matters, both to our lives and to God.
Reflecting on these past six years, you’ve given me glimpses of this.
I also realize how much better I understand the continued call to redemption and reconciliation now that we are family and not just people who were being introduced to each other.
If we had walked away from each other the first time we disagreed on something—how much would we have missed out on?!! I am grateful for the gift you have given me in sharing our lives, together.
Thank you for being people who have offered me far more grace than I deserve. Thank you for being people who have shown me why it is a good thing to keep coming back to the Table, the place we remember how God united us by becoming one of us.
Grateful for these first six years. Looking forward to seeing what our story looks like in another six years. If we continue to seek this divine community, if we continue to wade into the messy work of true community, what might be loosed on earth and in heaven?