Sermon for September 6, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20
September 6, 2020

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

The first portion of today’s Gospel reading made it into the constitution for congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The three-step process outlined here in Matthew for holding members of the church accountable for their sins is the foundation for the process outlined in Chapter 15 of ELCA congregation constitutions on the “Discipline of Members and Adjudication.” Chapter 15 of our constitution ends up listing many more steps than three.

I find it unfortunate that the focus in the constitution is primarily on discipline and not reconciliation. Moreover, some read the three steps in Matthew’s Gospel as a prescription for excommunication, a process that leads to severing unrepentant members of the church from participation in the life of the church.

Such excommunication seems to be suggested by the verse in Matthew which reads, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17b)

Gentiles, of course, were excluded from participation in the life of the Hebrew people. Tax collectors were reviled and despised, and people tended not to associate with them.

Yet I cannot help but read this verse from Matthew about Gentiles and tax collectors as being a kind of punchline that brings the focus back on reconciliation and away from exclusion and excommunication.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile….” How did Jesus relate to Gentiles? A few Sundays ago, didn’t we just read and hear in Matthew about the Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who was commended by Jesus for her great faith? Wasn’t outreach to and inclusion of Gentiles a central feature of the emergence of the faith tradition that became Christianity as recorded in the Book of Acts?

Next, “let such a one, [an unrepentant sinner], be to you as a tax collector….” How did Jesus relate to tax collectors? Don’t the Gospels record that Jesus routinely ate with tax collectors and other sinners, table companionship being a major expression of hospitality and welcome in the ancient world?

To me, today’s gospel reading illustrates once again that the Jesus portrayed in Matthew and the other Gospels is one who never gives up on the possibility of relationship, who never precludes continued inclusion, who always and forever pursues genuine reconciliation, even after all of the officially prescribed steps are taken and have otherwise failed. Jesus persists in pursuing reconciliation.

For seeking continued relationship, and not excommunication and exclusion, has remarkable divine power. That’s the take away for me from today’s gospel reading.

The reconciling power entrusted to Jesus’ followers is reinforced by the next verse in today’s reading: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)

On a previous Sunday, we heard this phrase in relation to Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession of faith in him as Messiah and Son of the living God. We hear it again today addressed to all of the disciples.

Binding and loosing traditionally is connected with confession and forgiveness. Hence the power of our rites for individual and corporate confession and forgiveness.

As an aside, since confession and forgiveness is so meaningful, so powerful, several of you have asked why we don’t incorporate a rite for confession and forgiveness into our home worship video. The short answer is that, like Holy Communion, confession and forgiveness is best practiced live, in person, in real time. It’s not something we can faithfully do on a video recording precisely because of the divine power that results from Christians coming together in real time.

So, I’ll make my invitation here – if any of you desire to experience confession and forgiveness again, I am more than happy to schedule a time when we can creatively do that live and not on a recording. Contact me if you want to claim this wonderful opportunity!

But then there’s more in today’s reading about the power of togetherness in the church. Jesus says in Matthew, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19) That’s an astonishing teaching about the power of communal prayer.

Prayerful agreement, consensus, being on the same page together connects up with divine authority and power to make things happen. When my son had his stroke, immediately persons of faith convened to pray for Nathan and for us. Never in my life have I experienced in such a palpable way the power of prayer such that we felt completely embraced by God’s healing grace. The agreement to prayerfully intercede for us made all the difference in the world in the life of my family.

Unity in prayerful agreement is why the powers and principalities of our age and other epochs in history capitalize on keeping people divided and in disagreement. “Divide and conquer,” the saying goes. When people cannot agree to come to together, they are robbed of the sacred power of united voices and thus are more easily defeated. We see these dynamics enacted on all sides of the spectrum at work in our world today.

Then there’s still more in today’s reading about the divinely powerful nature of nurturing togetherness in the church. The reading concludes with Jesus saying in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you.”

What could be more powerful than the presence of Jesus himself in our midst? Notice how this is translated. Jesus in Matthew does not say that he is within us as individuals. Rather, he is among us in our communal relationships. His presence is focused on the points of intersection among Christians in relationship, in community, in agreement, in unity.

And Jesus presence among us brings us all the sacred gifts that Jesus is known for – grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, compassion, healing, salvation, and so much more.

In short, don’t take it for granted when Christians gather in Jesus’ name, for when they do, the power of God erupts to make good things happen.

The church, Christian community, Christian togetherness, is not about being a social club, a nice thing to do. No, our gathering in Jesus’ name invokes and releases the very power of almighty God to save and to make whole.

Which is why it can be so dis-spiriting, so disquieting, so destabilizing when we cannot gather and be together in person now during the pandemic. It’s as if the spiritual wind is taken out of our sails.

Thus, let us be mindful of and intentional about creative ways that we can come together and connect with each other, even if it’s by phone, or via Zoom, or physically distanced outdoors briefly with our masks on.

For a little bit of Christian togetherness can go a long way, for again, where two or three are gathered in [Jesus’] name, [he] is there among them.”

Thanks be to God in Christ. Amen.

Now as is my custom for worship at home, I invite your reflection and holy conversation:

  • Recall and name occasions when you have experienced the divine power of prayerful agreement and togetherness in Jesus’ name.
  • What are some creative ways in which you can gather with two or three others in Jesus’ name?
  • What concrete steps do you envision to make such gatherings possible?

May your reflections and conversations bear the sacred fruit of the Spirit bringing us together in Jesus’ name.