This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Matthew 18:15-20.
Someone once asked the famous author C.S. Lewis why he thought it was necessary for Christians to go to church. Lewis, with his usual wit and candor, had this to say:
When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
The “solitary conceit” that Lewis mentioned is one of the hallmarks of trendy spirituality in our culture. Spiritually-minded Americans, from Transcendentalists to Evangelicals, have often emphasized individuality at the expense of community when it comes to their devotional lives. Lillian Daniels, a United Church of Christ minister from Illinois, minces no words as she calls this kind of spiritual individualism “self-centered” and “boring”. She goes on:
There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
One’s relationship with God is always personal but never private. One does not simply wander off into a cave to commune with the Divine in total silence and solitude. Even ancient hermits in the desert maintained practices of hospitality toward wandering beggars and spiritual seekers. One cannot be a Christian by oneself.
We find this counter-conviction to American individualism all through today’s gospel reading. Here we see Jesus teaching the people about spiritual community. Specifically, he’s talking about those times when community gets messy. He starts with the words, “If another member of the church sins against you”. This is Jesus giving advice about conflict resolution. Rather than getting bogged down in the procedure that Jesus lays out, I’d like for us to focus our attention this morning on the underlying values and beliefs that undergird Jesus’ message to us in this passage. I say “values” and “beliefs” but really there’s just one of each: a value and a belief.
The value that Jesus was trying to communicate is the value of reconciliation. Reconciliation was a major theme in the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Notice how it comes up again and again in this passage. Jesus says repeatedly that the goal of this conflict-resolution exercise is to persuade people to “listen” to one another. That word, “listen”, appears four times in three verses. Meanwhile, there’s no “eye for an eye” or “hellfire and damnation” language at all. Even in the worst-case scenario, where the “sinner” will not “listen”, Jesus recommends that the church should “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This might sound like punishment at first (remember that tax collectors were the most hated people in ancient Israel), but remember how Jesus treats tax collectors and other religious outsiders? He welcomes them and affirms them! He goes out of his way to make sure that these people know they are loved by God. It seems like Jesus is saying that the point where negotiations fail is the point where real love begins. This is so different from our world where justice is associated with punishment and vengeance! For Jesus, real justice is the restoration of harmonious relationships.
The theme of reconciliation that resonates through this passage is related to the core belief that Jesus is trying to instill in his followers: the belief that God is love. As the people of the community of faith work together to reconcile their differences, Jesus tells them that they will begin to discover a mysterious divine presence working in and through them. Decisions made in this spirit of reconciliation will have the weight of spiritual truth. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Likewise, the community of faith that is committed to reconciliation will see God working impossible miracles through them. Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Reconciliation and love are important values to embody because they most accurately reflect who God is. God is present wherever this process of reconciliation is going on. Don’t look for God in the sky or in magical rituals, but in the genuine love that is made manifest through us, the people of the church. This is why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Love. It’s all about love. Love is what Jesus calls us to. Love is who God is.
This belief runs entirely counter to our culture’s punishment-oriented individualism. In that sense, it is truly “counter-cultural”. People who believe in love, as Jesus presented it, are crazy by this world’s standards. Yet these people see things that others can’t see. When they speak, they speak with supernatural clarity and conviction. When they stand together, they sense that there is “something more” standing with them, empowering them, and holding them up.
One of my favorite examples of this power at work comes from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place in 1955-56. For over a year, the African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama stood together against the demonic spirits of racism and discrimination. These prophetic activists were made the subjects of constant harassment from local citizens, government, and police. Walking together along city streets, many of them described a feeling of divine empowerment. Wherever these few were gathered in the name of Jesus, he was there among them.
One particularly elderly woman was stopped on the street one day during the boycott. The interviewer asked whether her feet were exhausted from all the walking, perhaps hoping that she might give up soon and take a bus. Her reply resonated with exactly the kind of spiritual authority and divine presence that Jesus was talking about:
“My feet is tired,” she said, “but my soul is rested.”
As we go out from this place today, may our lives reflect that same kind of divine glory. May we sense that same spiritual presence among us, especially in this sacrament of Holy Communion. May our church be known to this community as a place where reconciliation happens. May we all be able to say as we reach the end of our earthly pilgrimage, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”