Sunday, September 10, 2017

Proper 18

Matthew 18
15 “If your brother or sister[a] sins,[b] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Never trust a politician who begins by saying “I think we can agree...”

Ditto for “let me be crystal clear” and other verbals tics that fall from the mouths of those we elect.

To be fair, being a public figure in the age of Twitter and Youtube is perilous. Comments can be misinterpreted. Mistakes can be amplified. Today’s offhand comment can become tomorrow’s hashtag. Gone are the days when a politicians “word salad” will be mended prior to publication in the newspaper of record.

And the source of all these annoying phrases and tics is simple: we expect instant answers to difficult problems, given in complete sentences, comprehensive but not dense, comprehensible but not simplistic, and including at least one “sound bite” for the 10 o’clock news.

“I think we can agree” and “let me by crystal clear” are little more than delaying tactics, an alternative to “ums” and “ahs” that allow the speaker more time to formulate that articulate answer we demand. The one exception is the politician who says “believe me” all the time (no names mentioned). In this case, don’t believe him.

Sometimes, however, “I think we can agree” is an important point to make. More than verbal filler, sometimes the speaker needs to remind his or her audience that there are some things on which we can agree. An appeal to common set of values, facts that are commonly known, even shared emotions in the face of events can be acknowledged with “I think we can agree.”

And this, of course, takes us to the oft-neglected second half of our reading. The first half, Jesus’ own conflict resolution strategy is well-known both inside and outside the Christian church. It’s a touchstone for us, but it’s also the basis for many secular policies around organizational conflict. It finds the balance between honouring the individual and protecting the organization, and has therefore stood the test of time.

So that’s the first half. The second half of our reading, three seemingly distinct ideas, is more of a challenge for those who live in pulpits and try to speak in complete sentences. Jesus has just given us a comprehensive policy in four sentences, and then this:

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The first idea—binding and loosing—is a restatement of something Jesus said in chapter 16. In that case, he first gave St. Peter the “keys to the kingdom” and told him that ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” and so on. Here, he picks up the same idea of binding and loosing and gives it to the twelve disciples (and presumably everyone listening).

This, of course, will be very familiar to Roman Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope. The papal symbol includes a set of keys—the keys referred in Matthew 16—underlining the authority of Rome to articulate binding tradition down to today. The reformers took issue with this, of course, and were more inclined to see the keys reseting with the whole church, as described in Matthew 18.

And this seems to lead to the second idea, that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” It’s hard to know the exact context of this promise, but it seems to come from some controversy in the previous chapter. Jesus heals a demon possessed boy, but only after the disciples have failed to do so. Jesus rebukes them for their failure, and suggests they lack the faith needed to do it. Truly I tell you,” he tells them, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.”

If these two ideas are linked—having faith means moving mountains and if you agree about anything it will be done—we can imagine that part of the power given to these disciples depends on internal agreement, finding a common mind. In this sense, it’s more about shared faith—faith in and through each other—than the strong faith of the individual.

And then the final idea, the one we know best: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Taken together, we begin to see a pattern. What is at first glance a set of three distinct ideas may be a single idea about the power of God in community. How would this work?

Assuming that Jesus has restated the power of binding and loosing to include all the disciples, it requires agreement. The same two that must agree, and the two or three that gather, summon the Risen Christ to their midst. In other words, the work of the church—healing, encouraging, strengthening—requires cooperation and agreement. The work of the church never falls to the individual disciple, leader, or believer—it’s a corporate effort born of achieving a common mind.

It’s a tricky thing, this idea of the power of God in community. In some ways, we almost want to invest power into leaders and individuals, if only to have someone to blame if something goes wrong. Like the politicians we trust until we grow tired of them (and toss them out) we want to be able to blame someone other than ourselves for the direction of the church and the work we do or fail to do.

Having the power of God in community means constant discernment, testing what we do against the biblical record, the urging of the Spirit, and full knowledge of the mistakes of the past. And this discernment must be based on agreement—two or three or more who can agree that what we do is faithful and just. It requires a variety of spiritual gifts—knowledge, insight, prophecy—and a conversation that applies gifts to the situation we find ourselves in.

It’s also important to note that having the power of God in community is not the same a being God. It seems self-evident, but many traditions that fall under the Christian banner are quick to condemn people and cast them into the outer darkness, when this belongs to God alone. And the fact that God is very likely unwilling to do this at all will prove a great surprize to them. Still, the power to bind and loose has more to do with the ability to forgive than the ability to condemn, something that more Christians should learn. And yes, condemning fellow Christians for condemning others is ironic, so I’ll begin to wind up.

Having the power of God in community is related to the other thing we often say, namely ‘we are the hands and feet of Christ.’ The latter is more active and less formal, more relational and less based on concept that have an uneasy relationship with—that being power. Claiming the power of God seems overwhelming and more than a little arrogant.

In truth, whenever we undertake that things we are commanded to do—forgive each other, love our neighbours, feed the hungry—we are demonstrating the power of God to transform lives. We are more than just hands and feet: we are agents of the Most High. Acting together, we bring the power of God to our community, our homes, our very selves. It’s daunting, and that is no accident. We should tremble whenever we do what God would have us do.

May our worship and work be blessed with God’s own power, in community, and in our hearts. Amen.


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