Sermon: Doing Life Together
September 10th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14, Proverbs 9:7-9
“Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.”
Here we are, gathered together, claiming Jesus’ name as Christians, as people of Christ, as God’s faith community. There are more than 2 of us, so if we believe Jesus’ words, we must believe that He is indeed here with us. Here in this room. Sitting beside us, watching, worshiping, listening to each conversation. What would Jesus have thought about the interaction that Rheta and Cliff just had? Of course, that was just a skit, planned out ahead and not really portraying who Rheta and Cliff truly are or how they behave or what they would say, but do we have other interactions with one another that carry similar criticisms about perceived mistakes or similar defensiveness against feedback?
As we begin the Fall activities, the program year for the church, it is a good time to think about doing life together in community. It’s a good time to think about how we interact with one another, how we get along, work together, support one another, care for one another, even correct one another. Because how we live together and interact with one another is a significant and visible part of our witness to the world around us about what faith in Jesus Christ means.
I read a devotion this past week by a Rev. Floyd that started with the story of a pastor who regularly told his congregation, “If there isn’t somebody here who rubs you the wrong way, you need to come around more often.” The fact is that except for me, you have not chosen one another. Even though there is not great diversity, you still come from varied backgrounds and may not agree. You have different personalities, different interests, different priorities. These differences are sure to cause conflict at times, to rub the wrong way, to make you feel that perhaps someone is doing something wrong or needs to be corrected.
Often in church settings, when conflict arises, the scripture passage for today is pulled out and applied to the one who is seen to be causing the problem and who needs to be corrected. Jesus’ teaching here has been viewed as rules for dealing with sin or conflict in the church – three steps of intervention and then you’re out. But I don’t believe Jesus is providing a rule for discipline as much as a guide for relationships. It is the context of today’s teaching that gives us that clue.
The passage we are looking at today comes in the middle of a longer conversation Jesus is having with his disciples. It begins with the disciples asking who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven – who is most important in the community of God. Jesus’ response lifts up three groups of people – children, the weak and the lost. First, we should live in community with one another with humility, childlike, without a sense of pride or power. Next, Jesus warns about the danger of being a stumbling block to the faith of another or leading someone astray. “How terrible it is for the person who causes a believer to trip and fall in to sin,” Jesus says. We should live in community with one another with a sense of responsibility and accountability. Then Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep – a sheep who is part of the flock, but wanders away. There is great concern for this lost sheep and every effort is made to find and restore that sheep. In the same way, we should live in community with one another with a heart for finding and restoring those who get off track and lost.
So as Jesus gives these steps of dealing with conflict, his focus really is not so much on discipline as it is on restoring relationships and regaining brothers or sisters. In fact, when he advises that a person should be treated as a pagan or tax collector should other steps to restore them fail, we should keep in mind that in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is accused more than once of being a friend of sinners and tax collectors. This is not a rejection.
What Jesus is suggesting is to actually take the more challenging way in community. Rather than talking behind someone’s back, we should go to the directly with our grievance or concern. We should bring others alongside to help us truly listen to the other person and to give alternative perspectives. We should work things out in community rather than simply condemning and accusing from the anonymous space of social media, facebook, twitter. We are to interact with one another with respect, with repeated chances for change – for others and for ourselves, guarding the dignity of one another, trusting one another, extending forgiveness. We are to be serious when we pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”!
Is this easy? No, of course not. It is certainly easier to assume that our own opinions are the only valid ones. Like Cliff in the skit, it is easier to criticize and to come alongside. Like Rheta in the skit, it is easier to deny a problem and get defensive than to be humbly open to correction and direction. It is easier to get distracted by the details and forget that the whole point is to share God’s Good News. We are not working at odds with one another, but are working toward a shared goal and mission of worshiping God and teaching, encouraging and practicing discipleship of Jesus Christ. It is more comfortable to ignore the fact that Jesus is actually in the room with us, in the meeting, at the table, part of the conversation. But Jesus clearly declares, “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.”
Indeed, Jesus is not just giving us good advice for doing life together in community in this passage. It is not just about strategies for having a healthy congregation for our own sakes. There is a much bigger reason we do this. We are not just representatives of Jesus, but when we come together Jesus is actually present, made incarnate, embodied and alive in our midst. What a privilege and a responsibility we have as a Christian community! We actually bring Jesus to the world! And, oh my goodness, doesn’t the world need Jesus right now?!
The number of concerns and needs are overwhelming! The unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Harvey – record breaking rainfall of more than 4 feet of rain in one storm! Hard to even imagine! Without even being able to catch a breath, Hurricane Irma is lashing the Caribbean and Florida with record breaking winds and destruction. Hurricane Jose is right on its heels. An earthquake has shaken our neighbors in Mexico – the strongest in 85 years. Fires engulf huge stretches of land in the Northeast – in Oregon and California. Floods have killed and displaced thousands in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Unprecedented numbers of people are fleeing homelands due to war or drought or disease or desperation, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Women and children are being exploited and trafficked. Political leadership seems deadlocked in finger-pointing and advancing personal interests or the profits of the rich and powerful.
It is not just Christian values and example that is needed now – it is Jesus Christ himself! And THAT is the real power of doing life together in Christian community! For, “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.” So when two or three of us gather at Turtle Creek School or Wileman School this year to pack food for needy children, Jesus is able to actually be present. When two or three of us put food on the table and sleep alongside the guests of the Spirit of Hope Homeless Shelter, Jesus is able to actually be present. When we give to disaster relief so that two or three of our brothers and sisters in Christ are able to take supplies to those who have lost everything, Jesus is able to actually be present. When we give to World Missions so that two or three of our brothers and sisters can share God’s love in places of darkness, Jesus is able to actually be present. When two or three stand together to defend the right of all people to be treated with human dignity regardless of earthly citizenship or past mistakes, Jesus is able to actually be present. When two or three speak up to share how God has made a difference in their lives, to witness to what it means to have a restored relationship with God through Christ, Jesus is able to actually be present.
Rather than judging others – the poor, the prisoner, the homeless, immigrants, those with disabilities, refugees, those with different lifestyles, those with different cultures and languages and faiths … Rather than judging one another, criticizing one another or feeling like we need to correct or compete with one another… Let’s be open, let’s embrace, let’s behave as if we truly believe that Jesus is present – watching, listening, loving.
“Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.”
Come, Lord Jesus, Come!
Closing Song: “The Bond of Love” # 696