If you have a problem with your neighbor, take it to the church. I wonder how that Gospel command is going to be received generally?
The Gospel assigned for this week is full of advice on how to handle conflict in the church. Some of it is useful, and let’s face it, some of it seems a little outmoded unless you’re doing a drug and alcohol addiction intervention. We have come up with a few structures that may work slightly better than the priest and two wardens showing up at your door for Godly counsel.
Most biblical scholars I read agree that this passage represents the concerns of the early Church more than verbatim sayings of Jesus. The biggest clue is when Jesus says with regard to unresolvable conflict, Take it to the church.
The word Church, as referring to an institution with members, simply wasn’t a vocabulary word in first-century Aramaic.
Jesus and his disciples did not attend Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Capernaum, or First Presbyterian of Nazareth, or the Cesarea Philippi United Methodist Church. There weren’t any such designations. Jesus, as you remember, worshiped in the local synagogues and in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. He was born a Jew, he lived as a Jew, he was tried and convicted as a Jew, and he died a Jew.
This may sound a bit strange, but in the strictest sense, I don’t think it’s even entirely accurate to say that Jesus established a church. What he did was begin a movement that eventually, through the power of the Grace of God, became the Church. That is what it means to say in the words of the great Hymn, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord.
This Gospel is an attempt on the part of Matthew and his community to adapt and to integrate what they learned from Jesus into the life of their church communities. In fact, the author was doing a pretty good job until he got down to the part where he seems to be saying, And by the way, if taking it to the church doesn’t work, forget grace, forget forgiveness, shut the door on the person who has offended you… It’s three strikes and you’re out.
Matthew seems to be working here from the older rabbinical saying, Love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy, rather than from the proclamation of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself.
My dear friends in Christ, old habits die hard in every generation. I think it’s time that we begin this kind of straight talk about scripture in our churches, instead of couching our words in a comfortable ooze of holy ambiguity. For the leaders of the church to learn the stark realities of the historical/critical process of Bible Study, and to keep them hidden from the people in the pews is downright dishonest.
At this point, I suspect that a few Scripture is too sacred for this hairs might be beginning to raise up on some of your backs.
First please believe me when I say that I consider Scripture to be Holy and Sacred, and in fact, the VERY WORD OF God. Let me also say that in no way do I believe that any of this reduces the credibility of the Bible. On the contrary, it increases the credibility of the Bible because it moves us away from using scripture as though it were the Vehicle Code with a nice cover.
The fact that Matthew struggled to adapt and to integrate the essential Jesus into the life of his community means that we can do the same, and that we need not to be too afraid of making a mistake once in a while.
It also means that Sacred Scripture can come alive in any time, at any place and in any situation in which we find ourselves.
The Bible isn’t just a book written in a time past, but a Sacred Book for all time!
The exciting news for me in this Gospel is that the very earliest Church struggled with many of the same problems, difficulties and imperfections with which we struggle today.
I hear people talking all the time about the good old days of the church. I hear them say in a variety of ways that they long for that old time religion. Well how old?
Matthew’s church is about as old as it gets, and what do we find there? We find that there was infighting, and gossiping, and competition among groups and a need for some form of arbitration when problems get out of hand.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a whole lot like the church in the 21stcentury… doesn’t it?
It never ceases to amaze me how many people join the church thinking that they are escaping the imperfect, money-grubbing, power-hungry world on the outside. How many come thinking they are entering some pious monastery of retreat where everyone is gentle and loving all the time, and no one ever starts rumors or disagrees.
And then it happens. They eventually teach Sunday School, or help on a project, or serve on a committee and their idyllic church comes tumbling down like a house made out of toothpicks. And well it should.
Jesus was born into disheveled straw, piled up in a hand-made manger, in a stable that didn’t meet building code, in a world far from perfect. It seems as though God prefers the fragility of the human condition.
The church should never give the impression that it somehow has the secret recipe for finally getting one’s act together.
Instead the church should be advertising, loudly and clearly, the simple, and yet widely rejected, biblical notion that it is ONLY by grace you are saved through faith.
There certainly should be no equivalent of gentiles or outsiders in the church, in spite of what the early church may have thought.
The church should be a place where we gather in communion of God’s love, and not a place where we pin our trumped up achievements on our sleeve and then lord it over every visitor who finally gets up the courage to come through the doors for a visit on a Sunday morning.
I’ve given Matthew a little bit of a hard time here. But actually, I believe that he fundamentally understood this, and that is why he ended his description of a church with warts and blemishes by quoting Jesus at his very best:
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
I’d like to close with a very old and most likely familiar story, but it’s one of those timeless parables that paints a picture better than any theological essay could. Whether you’ve read or heard it before, or whether it’s brand new to you, I would like you to try to picture the scene in your mind’s eye and in your heart as you read:
It begins with a parish priest hearing that one of his parishioners was going about announcing that he would no longer be attending church services.
He was advancing the all too familiar argument that he could communicate with God just as easily out in the fields with nature as he could in Church on Sunday morning with all those hypocrites.
One winter evening, the priest made a friendly call on this reluctant member of his flock. The two men sat before the fireplace making small talk, and the man was surprised that his pastor was avoiding the issue of church attendance.
But near the end of the conversation, the pastor took the tongs from the rack next to the fireplace, he reached into the fire, and pulled a single coal from the fire. He placed the glowing ember all by itself on the hearth.
As the two watched in silence, the coal slowly ceased burning and turned an ashen gray, while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly.
After a long pause, the man turned to the priest and said, I’ll be back in church next Sunday.
Where two or three are gathered…
Not necessarily two or three hundred, but just two or three… two or three sinful people who don’t have it all together, who sometimes look more like grey ash than glowing coals, who sometimes fight among themselves, who aren’t necessarily any better than the two or three who have chosen not to gather with them.
Just two, maybe three, who through it all, discover the real gift that the church has to offer: the Good News that God is present within them and among them precisely because they are human.