September 10, 2017

Pentecost 14        September 10, 2017   (Psalm 148, Leviticus 19:11-18, Romans 13:8-14) Matthew 18:15-20 Two or three, together

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I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on this theme of two or three together, as I was home alone for a week while Reah and Rohi were off in Seattle at a sibling reunion. After just a day or two of their absence… I caught myself talking to myself aloud… more than usual. (When I was single and living alone in Vermont 25 years ago, I’ve been remembering, a friend once gave me a volume of poetry by Vermont poet Galway Kinnell, titled When one has lived a long time alone…My friend John Gilroy’s discrete way of letting me know… I just might be fishing and talking to myself too much…and not spending enough time with other humans…)

Of course I wasn’t really alone all last week. There were the usual mix of meetings and visits. And even while out fishing and walking I fell into some very good  spontaneous chats. And – I had two nights full of conversation – at our high school class’ 50th reunion. (Baby boomers have been called the generation most in denial about our aging. So for the record, the class of ‘67 was dancing not only to oldies from our high school years, but also more recent sounds…Like Sly and the Family Stone from 1970.) I wasn’t alone long…

But being alone much of the week did have me pondering the significance – of Jesus giving such a large amount of power and authority to us, as he says – whenever two or three of us agree and ask God, it will be done for us. Whatever we forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven. Whatever we permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. Which sounds like more power than we humans know what to do with. Is there maybe some kind of a catch to what Jesus says?

Well – Jesus does also say – at least two or three of us need to agree on what we’re asking. And maybe you’ve heard the ancient proverb – where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there will be four or five opinions.

And where more than two or three are gathered, the history channel tells us… there’s likely to soon be several new denominations. Which I’ve also been thinking about – this being the 500th anniversary of the split into Catholic and Protestant wings of the church. The church media has been reminding us all year that we all look to the same gospels but hear some of the words differently. Catholics hear Jesus say to Peter in chapter 16 of Matthew, “You are Peter (the name means rock) and on this rock I’ll build my church. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Popes are considered to be direct descendants of the apostle Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom by Jesus and has passed them on, pope to pope.

Protestants also look to Matthew, but tend to hear the accents falling on different syllables – as we hear the same authority to bind and loose given first to Peter, given now to all believers. (In theory, of course, we don’t have any pope-like-human authority-figures. But Lutherans, Calvinists and Methodists sure sometimes seem to treat Luther, Calvin or Wesley as if they were soft-core Protestant popes. And we Methodists, with our bishops and district superintendents and book of discipline sometimes look suspiciously like Catholics to some of our Protestant kindred.)

But whatever our traditions, we all share in the promise of Jesus’s presence now given to all of us, whenever, wherever, however two or three are gathered in his name. And… However we hear the scriptural accents falling, we all look to the same Jesus and rely on the same Holy Spirit. We all rely also on human reasoning and traditions and interpretative decision-making as we read the word of God.

Fortunately it’s not as if we Christians can’t agree on many things. We agree on helping people in need – whether here in Bourne, or in Texas, Florida, or the Caribbean islands… or anywhere. Since all Christians, according to Jesus, need to  agree on loving our neighbor as ourselves. Even when we may not always agree on the details of how to show love – we all try to obey the ancient commandment, given originally way back in Leviticus, to love our neighbor as our self.

And this commandment to love one another is the summary of all the Law of Moses – as Jesus tells us many times in the gospels and St Paul tells us today in Romans. Our gospel reading builds on the foundation of love for neighbor first heard in Leviticus. And Jesus in one sense is translating the law of Moses into a new context. Notice –

The law says correct your neighbor who is going the wrong way. And Jesus says speak to any local church member you notice going astray. The law requires two or more witnesses for any charge against someone. Jesus also counsels us to enlist  two or three witnesses when there is a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved one on one. (Most of us, like me, I suspect, dislike even the thought of conflict in the church. We often avoid doing what Jesus says, for fear of embarrassment or fear of making a situation worse. But Plan B shouldn’t have to happen often if at all. And our Plan A communicating one to one can be as gentle as giving a book or article, like my friend up in Vermont gave me decades ago… )

Jesus says the law is still in play, but now to be interpreted always in light of his life and teaching, his death and resurrection. The law of Christ is the law of love. His gospel is essential instruction for all believers. Not one-size-fits-all-regulation – but living words of life to be interpreted locally in every household of faith. Universal gospel principles, to be interpreted prayerfully by all believers. Two or three or more together…in Jesus’ name.

Jesus tells us wherever possible we should take care of anything that injures  relationships with one another, one-on-one, in mutual love and respect, in private conversations.

Only if one-on-one isn’t working, for whatever reason – Jesus gives his Plan B. Take two or three others with you, focus on the issue, speak again with anyone thought to be wounding the church. The context of this whole chapter is the health of the church as a whole.

And we often need to unpack ancient words that have taken on new meanings over time. When the gospels and New Testament letters use the word sin this is usually a broad-spectrum term meaning anything that causes wounds or tears the fabric of our relationship with God and neighbor. Some specific behaviors we’re to avoid or beware of are listed in our readings from Romans and Leviticus. The specific behaviors are symptoms of something deeper. Paul says elsewhere in Romans anything not done in faith is sin. Gossip or false witness can kill us spiritually just as quickly as murder or adultery. Sin is basically any kind of acting as if God is absent…So we can do whatever…

But if we can hear Jesus speak (– as he always does speak – ) out of his heart of love for all… We understand his focus here is all about our faith community’s spiritual health and well-being. If we need to confront another believer about anything (as Jesus suggests we may occasionally need to) this should always be done in love, and with deep concern for the other person’s healing and well-being at least as much as for our own. Our focus always should be on the health and flourishing of the whole community of faith.

Even in very rare Plan C cases where someone refuses to listen to two or three witnesses and even to the church, in which case we’re told to treat them as a gentile (a non-believer) and a tax collector… We remember… St Matthew the gospel writer himself was a tax collector. And Jesus praises the faith of several gentiles as greater than any faith he’s seen in Israel. So even in any worst-case scenarios we never give up on anyone permanently…

(A lesson I was reminded of in our class reunion… Where we were mostly on our best behavior. Loving one another respectfully. And people who knew me back when, and knew better… giving me much more grace than I deserved… )

A bit like all the ways Jesus gives to us… much more, far better than we can ever really deserve… And I’m still feeling like Jesus gives us more power than we know how to use responsibly in his counsel today… As I ponder – what then happens? when two or three of us believe ardently that something is wrong – while another two or three believe just as strongly that it’s not wrong – while still others are believing something else is wrong…

But I suppose this kind of question is also meant to be worked out in prayer, two by two and three by three, together…

And among the many things I’m not at all sure of, one thing I am convinced of – is that Jesus isn’t assigning angels to tabulate how many are for or against this prayer or that idea. Prayer is not a contest.

But Jesus is telling us how much we need each other. How much we need to be in deep, prayerful, intimate conversation with one another. Because God has created us to be social creatures, relying on each other. God has designed us to love one another. And by giving us the promise of his presence when we meet together, two or three gathered in his name… granting our prayers whenever we pray in unity with him… Jesus is inviting us to practice agreeing together…on all the things he has told and taught us to do.

And yes, this word from Jesus is truly radical stuff. The smallest gathering of Christians – two or more together, hearts, minds, bodies, souls together in Jesus name – have the same assurance of Christ’s presence – as thirty-thousand people in a mega-church! Two or three ordinary Christians praying together, are heard every bit as much as bishops and seminary presidents! This is all about radical inclusion for all of us small-church-Christians.

So what do we do with all this power Jesus gives? I’m still pondering –  but – it sure seems Jesus is asking us to zone-in and prioritize things he wants us to pray for. And pray relentlessly for peace on earth, good will to all. Pray for love to triumph over hate, peace to get the victory over violence, justice to win out over oppression and apathy. Pray for all people everywhere to know the peace of God which surpasses understanding, and dwell in that peace and grace and love together, forever… So let’s pray always –

Dear and holy God, may your kingdom come – your will be done on earth as in heaven. Let whatever else we need be added to us, all according to your gracious will. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Thank you, dear God. Amen.