Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Be Reconciled!



FOR THE Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we hear the early church of Matthew lays out Christian behavior for their adherents. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew tells us precisely what was done internally as the early churches formed. This text then, should stand as a basis for handling disputes along our modern paths…

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  (Matthew 18:15-20)

Going to Court?
In today’s lesson, we find that the church of Matthew lays out a method of reconciliation. This is to be used whenever disagreements beset members or factions within the church. The statement as we read for this coming Sunday, however, bypasses that which had been set in an earlier judicial stage for the disciples, as they functioned in tension with the synagogue. The text which preceded this in Matthew revealed to readers that the early Christians in Antioch were to view the apostolic founders as "infants" before God. And thus, being infants, warnings against harming them rolled forth from Jesus. Using statements such as “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!” (Matthew 18:7), Jesus emphatically warned any person or persons who would dare attempt to sideline the evangelical course of the early church.
 Jesus drew stark word pictures of preferring self-mutilation rather than offending the “little ones”. So strong was the mindset of our Lord concerning this matter. One may properly envision eternal hellfire and brimstone falling upon any who would harm his apostles and their Christian witness.
 When that previous text was read, therefore, it set the stage for this discussion. I find it somewhat profound that in my own denomination, some Lutherans use these earlier verses while others study only the latter. This latter that text we study here, therefore, concerns only any internal strife within the faithful community. It seems to me that there existed a sticky band-aid tearing away of painfulness in the early church. We note that only Luke echoed any mention of dealing with internal strife…

And he (Jesus) said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”  (Luke 17:1-3)

 Being that we find this importance only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, we calculate that the source was the common “Q” document. “Q” is a writing which has not yet been found and only exists in reconstruction. However, tradition reinforces that this text is the thought, position and words of Jesus, and not a later invention of the gospel writer’s community. We need only refer to earlier Hebrew writings…

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  (Leviticus 19:17-18)

 But, in the realm of this Law, the settled peoples of Israel nation soon heard further legalisms. In this we note an absence of any loving softness in final decision…

“A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you. And the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  (Deuteronomy 19:15)

 By this example, we see that the Law concerning dispute was set forth harshly, but the emphasis on the gospel of loving one's neighbor got historically lost in application. This initial forgiving priority became rediscovered by Christians, however, as it was carried by Jesus over into the writings of the earlier church. We see this when we examine writings that predate Matthew’s witness only by several decades. For example, Saint Paul wrote in his earliest letter to a church…

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each man will have to bear his own load.  (Galatians 6:1-5)

 That the apostles were thought of as founders, the first little ones of the church, they went forward before the Law along with restored gospel proclamation. We see that a proper balance of Law and forgiving Gospel became a goal among the Christians. To provide further proof, we later see that Paul stressed this new balance, restoring for the vacillating synagogue Christians the original intent found in Leviticus. He upbraided the new church which was formed in Corinth…

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?
                                                                                      (1 Corinthians 6:1-6)

 Thus we see that the issue of internal community strife was not newly found in the church in Antioch. It was not due to an isolated incident addressed exclusively by the pen of Matthew. Wherever there is sin… whenever there are disagreements… assuredly prescribed Christian guidelines needed to be laid out before the people of God. Matthew did so. And the guidelines were to be done prayerfully. They were not necessarily taken before the province or authorities of any outside governmental power. The instructions provided in Matthew thus gave us procedural process within a growing faith community and guaranteed that Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit would be with us in the midst of what may at times be sinful, painful and gross unrest.

Follow the Progression!
 This promise was given to Matthew’s church and also to us, by the gospel writer’s pen. We see that Matthew’s community was an infant church struggling in separatist fashion with its parent synagogue… providing a path of ministry into the future. Looking in retrospect, therefore, our modern church is also called by the power of the Holy Spirit to follow similar progression as outlined clearly. This is true whether the sin and dissonance be personal, congregational, denominational or across the breadth of the entire church.
 I noted when studying the original Greek found in the Matthean witness, that “agreement” was very specifically flavored... in that we should exist in “symphony” (In Greek = συμφωνησωσιν [sumphōnēsōsin]). We need remember therefore, some very final and everlasting words to the church spoken by Jesus. These are recorded by the church of John. Written likely in the last decade of the first century A.D. we read …

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:21-23)

From John then, we call attention specifically to the refrain of peace that our Lord Jesus Christ gave to his disciples who were present. As they were in the upper room, hiding like little children from the wrath of parental Judaic anger, he said repeatedly, “Peace be with you.” (In Greek = Εἰρηνη ὑμιν [Eirēnē humin]). I contend that this statement was said as an actuality for the infant churches since the Prince of Peace was already there. This statement was also Law, however… a command in that the community of Matthew and others developed guidelines for the children’s behavior. And finally, this statement is most surely Gospel… for as the baptized children of God the good news is that through Jesus Christ working through the Holy Spirit... we also may certainly work to have lasting peace with one another. By the witness of Matthew, knowing that we fall short, we sinners can yet gather at the table of the Lord knowing that the peace existing beyond all understanding is already ours. Thanks be to God!




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