“CHURCH” IS AN ACTION WORD
A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Based on Matthew 18:15-20
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY
Do you remember the game we used to play as children, when we put our hands together, our fingers intertwined downward, and said, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open your hands and you see all the people”? (Try it).
And do you remember the little proverb that we saw – and we still see it every now and then, usually on a poster appropriate for Rally Days and Church Festival and occasions like that: spell the word “church” – “It can’t be `church’ unless UR in it”?
That little game and that little proverb were all too true: the church, Jesus’ church, has to do with people. The singular word “church” is really a plurality of people, working together with a common purpose. The original New Testament word for “church” was “ecclesia.” It is an action word, and it means “called out” – the people of Christ’s church are “called out” of the world, “called out” from the people of the world to be something special that the rest of the world wants. Jesus made that very clear when he said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The people of Christ’s church are to make it known to every one else who God is, a God who loves them above anything else.
Did you know that that was the unique attribute of the God of the Bible? When Israel came into the land that God had promised them, they encountered other peoples already living there and the gods they worshipped. The Egyptians had worshipped Amon and Re, Ptah and Aten, and the Canaanites worshipped Baal and Asherah, and the ancient texts tell us that El was a word commonly used for God among Semitic peoples of the ancient near East, including Isra-el. In the Bible Israel’s God is called a warrior, but so are some of the other gods. Early Israel understood itself to be a theocracy, in which God was their king; but the nations around them also referred to their gods as their kings. We now know of other cultures of the ancient near east that had their own stories of the creation and their own stories of the flood, with their gods active in these stories. But the one thing that was unique about Israel’s God, that described none of the other ancient gods of the religions around Israel, was this: God was a God who loves. The prophets spoke of God in terms of God’s love for Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my child out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1). God’s rescue of Israel out of Egypt was an act of God’s love. In every case of the religions around Israel, their gods did not define themselves in terms of their love for their people, nor did they demand or expect their worshipers to love them in return. Obey them, fear them, do reverence toward them, yes, but love was not part of the equation.
So when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment God gave us?’, Jesus responded simply and clearly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.” And of course, Jesus was quick to add a second commandment just like it, he said, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).
That was what was unique about Israel’s God, and that’s what Israel’s God expected in return. No wonder, then, that Jesus’ followers took that unique attribute of God and built their own community around it. They saw it as the reason for their own redemption, that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And they saw it as the one commandment that Jesus himself would have his followers observe. “One commandment,” he said, “I leave with you, that you love one another. By this everyone else will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
So Jesus’ earliest followers took upon themselves a hugely challenging task: to show the world that God not only loves Israel, but the whole world and everyone in it. And that task has become an even greater necessity for our world today, because, if all religions and everyone in them would see God as a God of love, tragedies like 9/11 would not ever have happened. Jesus’ earliest followers, and all followers of Jesus ever since then, know that they have been given a gift that never, ever, runs out, the gift of God’s love, which they are to show in the world toward all other people of the world.
Of course, we all know that that is a very difficult task to do. To practice God’s love in a world full of hatred, a world that is so fragmented into sub-units of humanity, from individual nations and their interests to ethnic groups and tribal cultures with their own insecurities and their suspicions of others. That is why Jesus had to make sure that God’s love was practiced first and foremost at home, among his followers, within his church, so that other people could see it and want it for themselves. So the words of Jesus that we hear in our Gospel reading for today give us a regimen, a practice routine, for the exercise of God’s love among us.
First of all, Jesus tells his followers that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he would be there in their midst. But he also knew his disciples very well, and he experienced the fact that where two or three of them are gathered together there would at times be some conflict. So he did not leave them without some directives about how to resolve that conflict, so that the community would not be fractured and could maintain its unity as a community.
So he said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out his or her fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Notice that Jesus wants us to be open with each other, to be able to tell each other what bothers us, when we are hurt, or feel betrayed. The purpose is always “to regain” the brother or sister, so that we can continue to be sisters and brothers in Christ’s family. If that doesn’t work, then we are still not to act publicly, but privately, by taking two or three others with us and trying again. We are not to tear each other down in front of others, before trying again and again to regain our brother and sister in Christ. When that doesn’t work we are still not to go public, but to keep it within the church, the community of God’s love. Then, Jesus says, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” To Jesus’ first disciples, and to Matthew’s own church community, Gentiles and tax collectors were the outsiders, people who would not have the community’s best interests in mind.
“Let such a one be to you as an outsider.” These words may sound harsh, but in effect they are there to build a mutual accountability inside the circle of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ community was a community in the making, and his words are meant to preserve the integrity of the community. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the God whose uniqueness lies in his love for his people, a love that is to be shared among his people for each other. Love for God and for our neighbor is the mark of the community Jesus wants to build.
If we were to take today’s gospel reading in Matthew 18 and retell it in a way that reflects the standards and practices in our own surrounding culture today, you can imagine how it might sound: “If your brother sins against you, call him on your Smart Phone with the `record’ button set, and tell him his fault. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother and you will also have evidence should he have second thoughts. But if he does not listen, take one or two attorneys along with you, that every word may be confirmed before you issue the press release. If he refuses to listen to them, threaten to tweet the story and sell it to the highest bidder, and let him become a cash cow for you and a ticket to fame. Truly I say to you, whatever you tweet on earth will go viral through cyberspace, and whatever is syndicated on earth will pay residuals forever and ever. Again I say to you, if public opinion polls agree about your brother’s sin, go ahead and sue, and the court will award you a large settlement. For where two or three are gathered in a talk-show audience, there are 15 minutes of fame for the guest and his entourage.” (Adapted from W. Willimon, PR 30,3, pp. 42-43)
The difference between a get-even culture and the community of Jesus’ making is that conflict can become the creative ground for regaining, not destroying, human relationships. The God of the Bible is interested in restoration, in binding up human relationships into his unique way of love. Regaining, restoring, and rebuilding God’s community in the making – that is our calling. In fact, I would like to see it expressed in every congregational mission statement, to read something like this: “We are called out of the world to proclaim the gospel in all that we do, so that all people may experience the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
This month of September is the month when Christian congregations restart their parish programs, and we look to our parish leaders to engage us in our worship and music activities, in our educational and outreach tasks, and in stewardship in general, in the use of our time, talents, and treasures for the glory of God. We recall to ourselves that the word “church” is an action word, and that we are called out of this world to practice the one unique thing about God, unique among all the other gods of this world, namely the love of God, starting first and foremost among ourselves. Because, when others see it, they will want it for themselves.
-- Richard L. Jeske