Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 18:15-20) 9/07/2014
Listen to an audio recording <select here>
These last few days there has been a lot going on in the world, both near and far; the news media would say, “it surely hasn’t been a slow news day!” There has been continued unrest in the Middle East, with continuing reports of extremist activity; there has extreme weather, with tornadoes as close as Worcester; and of course, there is the busy time of packing up the summer vacation period and heading back to school. As you might imagine, even with all the activity going on, I cannot help but be preoccupied with the idea of community. Yes, that’s right, the change of communities and the community of St. Francis in particular. And as I have considered this topic, I have wondered…how is it that we are “community” in the Christian sense? Some characteristics of community are obvious, while some are not so obvious. The obvious ones might be easy to pick out: we gather in the same building for worship and meetings, we support the same ministries, and hopefully we are setting our future in the same direction. The “not so obvious” ones may be a bit harder to plainly see: we faithfully pray for each other, our lives are transformed by the presence of others, and our communal presence transforms our broader community and the world in grace filled ways. And some characteristics of community can be just plain hard to do, like forgiveness and open-hearted conversation. These last characteristics, these challenging characteristics are the ones on the mind of Jesus today in our Gospel lesson.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel account has Jesus explaining the characteristics of community throughout the whole of chapter 18. Today’s Gospel turns its attention to the practices of forgiveness and intentional presence. These practices, forgiveness and intentional presence, are important to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ ministry because there were changes going on in the community; a change from the following the laws of the Jewish tradition to the newly established customs of the Christian Church. The previous customs of the Jewish law guided members of the community with “black and white” do’s and don’ts of behavior; the new customs of the Christian community removed the laws and forced relationship to occur in new and strange ways. Being in relationship with others, intentional relationship, can be hard, can be confusing…and we will hear Peter struggle with this new way of being in next week’s Gospel lesson. The act of intentional relationship with others can sometimes demand our very best, can ask that we stretch in new and creative ways; but if we are open to the power and presence of intentional relationship, we can be truly transformed.
Jesus understood both the challenges and transformative power of intentional relationship within community. When challenges arise, we hear Jesus say, “go to your brother or sister discretely, go with love in your heart, try to work out your differences.” If your differences are not settled, then bring others in to the confidence of your discussion…this is about community after all! If differences cannot be resolved, then we must acknowledge difficult times when full relationship must wait for another day. But there is ALWAYS hope…this is what the redeeming love of Christ assures us of as Christians. The redemptive power of God’s love is without boundaries! As Christians, we are children of a God overflowing with love and forgiveness: this is the power of relationship, this is the power of community.
I am incredibly thankful to have been invited to join this community. I am incredibly thankful to the many people who worked so hard on the various transition committees, those who prayed for this community and those beyond this community during this time of transition, and those who upheld and sustained this community throughout these past many months. During my first visit to St. Francis I noticed many wonderful things present in this community, but the banners in the parish hall stood out as powerful symbols of the commitment and love of this community. As I sit in my office today, I can look out and clearly see the banner made in 2004: “I am a witness”…a powerful phrase! This particular banner was created with numerous hands – hands in different directions, hands made of different colors, hands hanging on different branches of a tree; a tree with one solid trunk, one solid base. That solid base is the community, the Body of Christ, the many made one through intentional relationship. Biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, in his commentary on our Gospel lesson today, noted: “Overall, the extent that churches listen to the Jesus who speaks to his disciples in [these verses] of Matthew, they will keep Jesus’ spirit alive instead of memorializing him. Then, Jesus’ words will be fulfilled: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'”[i] As we gather in community, in groups of two or three or many more, we are filled with courage and hope to know we gather in Christ’s name; we are filled with love to know God will help us to be in holy relationship with each other; we are blessed to know we have been called together to faithfully proclaim through our words and actions: I am a Witness!
[i] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 193.