Exodus 12:1-14 – The commandment to observe Passover.
Ezekiel 33:7-11 – As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.
Psalm 149 – Sing to The Lord a new song… Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
Psalm 119:33-40 – Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Romans 13:8-14 – Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The Ten Commandments… are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Matthew 18:15-20 – If another member of the church sins against you… How to manage conflict.
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. In Christ God was reconciling the world | to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. (2 Cor. 5:19)
Let me begin by saying thank you to Pastor Don Carlson for continuing these lectionary notes during my sabbatical. His insights, coming at the end of his group In Search of Paul, to Turkey and Greece, were insightful and thought-provoking.
I must also thank the good people of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, for a delightful sabbatical. It is a wonderful gift, being able, for the first time in twenty years of ministry, to take an extended leave of absence for study, rest, and renewal. It is our synod’s policy that rostered leaders are offered a three-month sabbatical after seven years at a ministry site, and every five weeks thereafter. The practice is borrowed from academia, and has found its way into the business world, as this Fortune article shows.
I am deeply grateful. I will prepare some reflections on my sabbatical for the September meeting of the Synod Council. If you wish to receive a copy let me know.
September and October our texts are from Matthew 18-22. There are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community. Here’s an overview:
- September 7: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
- September 14: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
- September 21: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
- September 28: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
- October 5: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
- October 12: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
- October 19: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
- October 26: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)
On to the texts. Our Hebrew Bible texts are Exodus and Ezekiel. The Exodus text is the commandment to observe Passover. The Ezekiel text is God’s call to Ezekiel, asking him to tell the house of Israel to repent, for God does not wish the death of sinners, but that they turn and live.
The Romans text embodies the theology of love that Jesus espouses when asked the greatest commandment. He says it is to love God and neighbor. It is the theology of 1 John 4:7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Paul’s clearest exposition of this theology is in 1 Corinthians 13, where love, for Paul, transcends eloquence, ecstatic speech, prophecy and even faith. Here in Romans 13 he boils it down three times. “Whoever loves has fulfilled the law.” (13:8) “The Ten Commandments are summed up in a single saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (13:9) “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (13:10) ” This passage from Romans 13 is the passage that famously caused Augustine to convert to Christianity.
The gospel text for this Sunday is one that absolutely must be studied and understood by anyone living in community. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. As we take a look at this text, it is well for us to keep Paul’s words about love from Romans 13 in our heads.
It is likely that Matthew, writing in AD 80 or so, included this story because of stuff going on in his church. The Gospel of Matthew is the church’s manual, after all. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did they would most certainly have included it. Wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his disciples. We can expect no less. There is nothing unchristian about conflict. But there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.
This passage on dealing with conflict outlines a way to keep community healthy. If we respond to conflict without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out even this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point.
So let’s look at it. Matt 18:
“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. But 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. If 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.”
So we have a 4-step process.
- If a member sins again you, go and talk to that person privately.
- If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
- If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
- Gentile/Tax collector
Every pastor should preach this text every time it comes up in the lectionary (only once every three years). Perhaps this should be an annual sermon. Boundaries and leadership are the immune system of a healthy organization.
Friends, this is not how most communities function. This is why you have to teach this. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone except the person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well let me tell you. It’s so awful. I am never speaking to her again…” And we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. We spread our conflict throughout the whole community. Anger is like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.
Some churches are made up of extended families. We have one congregation where 2/3 of the members are part of one of or two families. In this situation, methods of managing conflict (avoidance, blaming, computing, distracting, placating…) are deeply ingrained in generations of family systems. One pastor is not likely to change this, but it should not stop us from proclaiming it and living it. Engaging the council in a study and discussion of this text will certainly have some impact. If leaders set the example, the culture begins to shift.
Jesus says the first step is to go to the person privately. When this happens most of the time reasonable people who love will be able to work through things. Equally important, the community has not been dragged through the drama.
Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation: It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” The person who is wronged is to initiate the action. This is because sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.
Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:
Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)
Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.
If anger and anxiety are infections in the community, the leaders are the immune system. Leaders model conflict resolution, one way or the other. They can convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, many will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council/board are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.
Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.
But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. There are some out there, like me, who are hard-headed Germans, and we have to hear things a couple of times before they sink in. In those cases, Jesus says, don’t give up! Try again. This time take someone along with you.
When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often they’ll say, “Not yet.” Perhaps that would be a good starting place. Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, many of the rest are going to respond to a caring, conversation with a couple of people.
But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (AD 80) churches were small. They met in homes. This is a small group only a bit bigger than the group that you used in step two. And, Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those first two steps don’t work. If the conflict reaches the leaders, they will often be able to take care of it.
But not always. The first three steps are going to get most folks. There are, however, some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. There are some people who simply cannot let go of bitterness. It may even come from a former conflict that has nothing to do with the current situation. If that person won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated “as a Gentile or tax collector.” (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)
One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting that after all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.
But there is another interpretation.
How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? It just so happens we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! And isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?
Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? To see them as a target for mission and conversion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.
This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.
Chapter 15. DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS AND ADJUDICATION
Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council.
I have been asked if I would suggest this method for international global conflict. It is doubtful that Jesus or Matthew, who conveys the story, were suggesting strategies for international diplomacy. They could hardly have pictured modern nation-states. But would these be bad strategies? Are they not in fact what actually often happens? A president calls a president. Advisors and ambassadors are brought in. Sometimes parliaments have to get involved. I’m not suggesting this is the way to operate every time, but if we are to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, it might be worth consideration.
I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text in a second. The last time we heard it was in 2011. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. It might be about time for the congregation to hear these important words again. For they call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.
Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking.The one is the shadow of the other.
Carl Jung, “On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness”, 1917, Swiss psychologist (1875-1961)
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Taking the words in, letting them become a part of you – as all nourishing food becomes; this is what it is all about. But, truthfully? Sometimes the words – and the Word – causes me some indigestion; it unsettles in innards. However, in the end, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In the empire, Christianity was classed as a mystery religion. When Paul talked about being “in Christ” and having Christ “in him” he was trying to express the mysterious indwelling presence of the Word – the risen Lord. For him it was to be possessed. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Yes, belief and faith involve assent; but it goes far deeper than that. And so, that’s where I go in Romans and Matthew.
Paul is beginning his summation. He has been addressing the unity that Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Jews, and Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians all have in Christ. They are do love one another with mutual affection. They are to outdo one another in honoring the other.
These are words to be heeded at a time when various sects in various religious traditions – Christianity included – paint one another with a broad brush of misunderstanding and caricature. Interfaith relationships, ecumenical relationships, and relationships with agnostic and atheistic groups ought be tempered by these words; as should congregational relationships.
“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Wow. Really? Yes, really.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in 16:23 – Πέτρῳ, Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου – could be paraphrased, “Peter, get back in line! I’m leading; you’re following!” This fits with 16:23, “…take up their cross and follow me…” And, I suppose that is what Jesus says to us all, “Get back in line!” As congregational leaders it always behooves us in the midst of our leading to make sure that we are also following.
Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block” – σκάνδαλον; skandalon; scandal. Jesus also uses this term again in 18:6 – “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” Woe to those that trip up people endeavoring to follow Jesus.
Then comes the Matthew’s “theology of the cross” – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have been rummaging around in this a lot lately. I think that we have “cerebralized” (made up word, I know) “believing” way too much. The English translations of “belief” or “faith” are cognates of πίστις. But pistis – especially in an imperial context – has connotations of faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, and following. It isn’t so much a thinking thing as it is a doing thing.
“Theologies of glory” are theologies about the cross. The cross is seen as something – perhaps a substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction transaction – at which one looks and in which one “believes”; believes to be true. But it doesn’t really involve or affect the “believer”; God or some supposed divine economy is affected instead; affected in our stead. What this leads to, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, is “cheap grace” – grace that costs us nothing. However, the text (and I would argue even all Pauline theology) suggests that following Jesus – active faithfulness, fidelity, and allegiance – will indeed cost us something. It will cost us our very lives and way of living.
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death-we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time-death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”
Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
And the death of the old man – the old Adam – is a continual death; a death that affects us and causes us to continually realign our live; to get back in line. This is what Luther meant in his Small Catechism:
What does Baptism mean for daily living?
It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.
St. Paul writes in Romans 6:
We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
What does this “newness of life” look like? It seems to me that this is what Matthew is describing; it is where Matthew’s gospel heads…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
It’s about discipleship: faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, and following. It is about a way of thinking – as Paul says in Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – but it is a way of thinking that cannot be separated from a way of doing and being. As Paul says in Acts 24:14, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors…” Discipleship is an active way of thinking and being.
The pericope concludes, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I think that this applies to both individuals and congregations; for, as did Peter, we always follow Jesus with others; never alone. As we journey together through in this post-modern death of Christendom era, many congregations are trying to “save their lives”. Our Lord tells us that such an effort is a fool’s quest. It’s only as congregations lose their lives for Jesus sake that they will find life. The paradox of faith, belief, and following is that resurrection and newness only come through death.
It has been a privilege to write these pericope posts during the summer months. Next week Bishop Rinehart returns from sabbatical; rested, refreshed, and filled with newness of life.
If you are a rostered leader or church professional looking for a continuing education event in 2015, you might consider “In Search of Paul: An Aegean Odyssey” – hosted by yours truly. Last year’s participants speak highly of their experience and this coming year should even be better.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson
Watching or reading the news is depressing. If you get to feeling down consider this: Global conflict is down. It seems like it’s up, but that’s only because we hear about it nonstop on 24-hour news channels, ubiquitous TVs and our overused cell phones.
The NY Times wonders if we’ve seen our last war between nation-states: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/opinion/sunday/war-really-is-going-out-of-style.html?pagewanted=2&_r=3
In this WSJ article Harvard professor Steven Pinker says violence has been on the decline for thousands of years. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180
Make no mistake. There are many armed conflicts, but not many tend to claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
Take heart in this too. Less people are undernourished and dying of hunger-related causes. It’s still unacceptably high given what we could do, but it’s down.
In 1970 37% of the developing world was starving. Today that number is 15%. In 40 years, the proportion of malnourished people in the developing world has been more than halved. The proportion of starving people has decreased even faster. 2.5 children will die this year because of hunger-related causes. This is awful, but when I was in college that number was much higher, and the population was lower.
The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70% population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day.
So when you get down. Have faith. Have hope. Have love.
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”
— Ronald Reagan
The outward work will never be puny if the inward work is great.
— Meister Eckhart, German mystic and heretic