Loosed in Heaven
Matthew 18: 15-20
You might have seen the quote I posted to my Facebook wall this week. It’s by a United Church of Christ pastor and writer, Lillian Daniel, commenting on the tendency of people in our culture to refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” She writes, “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself” (“Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me,” Feed Your Spirit Daily Devotional 8/31/11, www.ucc.org).
I’m going to hazard a guess that even for those of us here in worship today who would comfortably call ourselves “spiritual and religious,” Daniel’s assertion that the most interesting part of religion is being part of a community “where other people might call you on stuff” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the benefits of religion in our lives. But if we are listening to what Jesus says in this passage from Matthew, we might.
What does Jesus instruct us to do as individuals living in Christian community? It’s astoundingly simple, direct, and easy-to-follow. If someone in the church sins against you, go to that person and point out the problem. If she hears you, great. But if she doesn’t, then go back again and this time take two or three other church members along so that they can witness the conversation and make sure both of you are listening and not misrepresenting the other. If this doesn’t work either, then take the matter to the whole congregation. And if even that doesn’t work, “let [that] one be [like] a Gentile and a tax collector [to you]” (Matthew 18: 15-17). How could we possibly be confused about this process? But when’s the last time you witnessed this in any faith community you have been a part of? Why do you think we don’t do this? Surely it’s not because there are no grievances and no church members sinning against one another.
In fact, the first verse may as well have said “when another member of the church sins against you…” It’s not a distant possibility. It’s a very near probability. It’s only a matter of time until it happens, and then what do we do?
It’s interesting that the onus is on the one who has been sinned against. If someone has hurt me then it’s up to me to go find him and tell him what he did. That’s hard to do. I, the hurt and wronged person, am supposed to go seek out the one who did this and bring it all up again? When I am feeling hurt and vulnerable, that’s usually the least likely time when I feel like talking to the one who hurt me.
Of course, there are people who don’t seem to have a problem with this, who seek out opportunities to let others know how much they have sinned. I’m thinking of the people who stand outside of clinics where abortions are offered, people who leer and shout and sometimes even get violent, making sure that the women trying to get into the clinics know exactly how grievous their sins are. I don’t know how vulnerable and hurt the protestors might feel. What I do know is that that type of interaction is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about people who know each other and are trying to live together in Christian community. And he’s clearly given us a step-by-step guide to confronting one another. In the case of these scenes at clinics, where is the community? Where is the one-on-one conversation that is supposed to start the process of forgiveness and reconciliation?
As opposed to the way it would surely go down on a reality show, with a lot of stomping and throwing things on the ground and finger wagging and bleeped words, Jesus is not giving us permission to haul off and randomly wail on people – especially people we do not know. These instructions are expressly for use within the church, with the people we are already in relationship with. In other words, following these instructions is way harder than spouting venomous anger at strangers in public.
There is no permission here for self-righteousness or for requiring something of people we don’t know. There is an obligation to hold fiercely onto the relationships we are in, especially those in the community of faith.
But, you might be thinking, I’m not hanging out at clinics and I’m not joining in with the raging amphitheatre dudes. I’m just trying to eat breakfast in my dorm room and the roommate keeps eating all my Pop Tarts – and it really irks me. Or, I’m just trying to be part of a small group at Wesley but someone keeps interrupting when I have something to say. You might be thinking, Shouldn’t I just get over this stuff?
I guess that depends on whether you’re really over it or not. We often have initial, knee-jerk reactions of anger or frustration. And many times, when we reflect, we realize that she didn’t mean to step on my foot or cut me off in traffic or hurt my feelings because she said “blondes have more fun.” Sometimes we reflect and we see that we are the ones in need of forgiveness or that we just had a bad headache when whatever it was happened and we’re not really upset at all. That’s fine. You can and definitely should get over those things. You probably don’t even need to have a conversation about most of those.
But on the 10th day without your morning Pop Tart, when your stomach is rumbling and you are seething and your eyes have turned into angry slits as you glare at your sleeping lump of a roommate and you know you don’t have time to get to the dining hall before your class now, and you realize this is going to just keep happening and you are getting madder by the minute – that’s high time for a conversation. Are Pop Tarts trivial (and not a very good breakfast)? Yes. But what’s not trivial is the repeated offense – intentional or not on your roommate’s part – and the fact that you’ve tried to “just get over it” and stuff those feelings down but they aren’t subsiding. That’s not trivial, it’s pain. And it needs to be dealt with honestly and directly so that you can get on with eating those Pop Tarts and, most importantly, so that you can engage in a real and mature relationship with your roommate, and not just bide your time until you live with the people you choose to live with. Because, trust me, they will annoy and hurt you, too. Maybe even more so.
When we gather here each week we share our family meal around God’s table and as part of our prayers we will offer up the Lord’s Prayer, starting with “Our Father….” It’s a reminder each time we gather for this feast that our faith is not about each one of us “getting right with God” but about a way of living in community as the children and family of God. There is no such thing as a solo Christian.
We don’t get the option of “getting right” and then going on about our business and looking just like the rest of the culture. We get to live in a quirky community and follow a difficult savior. We get to chase after even those who have wronged us, always looking out for our family — the one God has created for us.
When we gather here each week, we share the peace of Christ on our way to the Table. As you may have noticed, that’s a favorite part of worship for many of us. We learn names and give and receive hugs. It’s friendly and warm. But we don’t include this in worship in order to get in our hug quotient for the week. And, though we may exchange casual-sounding greetings (“Hi, nice to meet you. Peace.”) this is not at casually-considered part of worship.
Offering and seeking the peace of Christ with one another is our obligation and our privilege. The peace of Christ is not merely a nice thing to say or a quaint idea or a pleasant greeting. The peace of Christ is the peace that sets us free. It is not merely the absence of violence, it is the peace that comes from conflict and truth-telling and a tenacious hold on these relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 166). And even when conflict is not present, to offer the peace of Christ is to offer a blessing. “God has forgiven our sins and offered peace through Christ to all who have confessed their sin. Now all may offer the benefits and blessings of this peace to one another.” (Mark Stamm, Living Into the Mystery, quoted at www.gbod.org/worship).
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 (Mt. 18: 18). We are given that obligation, privilege and power – to remain bound up or to let loose truth and reconciliation and be vehicles for the peace of Christ to be loosed right here, right now. We live and worship in just the sort of community Lillian Daniel speaks of – we are here to call each other on things, to do the hard work of confronting one another in love, talking through tough things and walking through hard times. We are called to live this way – unbound and “loose” in the truth, freely offering the peace of Christ to one another. Because it’s the real truth, deeper than our annoyances and hatreds, broader than our dislikes or habits, more abiding than our tally-taking minds.
When we offer the peace of Christ to one another today, know that you have the power to bless and to forgive and to heal. You have the power to help set one another free – to “loose” ourselves right here as if it’s heaven on earth. Because it is.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2008, 2011