Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Mesh God Made of Us

The Church can certainly be a messy place, so witnesses the gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20.  Here we have words attributed to Jesus that have found their way into many a church constitution, which speak to the need for church discipline.  But the passage ends hopefully with the promise of our Lord's presence whenever we come together in his name.  What would that mean - to gather in Jesus' name?  There is probably more there than we first think.

(The following are from a series of questions which get at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves.  They come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is clearly instructing the future church on its life together.  This is a classic example of the call to obedience.  This is instruction in how to live in response to the gospel.  The Law is present in this text as the need for such instruction implies that church members sinning against one another is part of our life together, and so forgiveness must be part of our life as well.  A word of Gospel comes right at the end as Jesus promises that the Father will work on our behalf whenever we agree together, and Jesus himself will be present whenever we gather in his name.  These are powerful promises.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Law and Gospel in this text since the main intent of the text is to instruct.  A word of Law here would be a clear word regarding our need for Christ, and a word of Gospel would be a clear word about what God has done for us in Christ.  Neither is present here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the worshipping community.  It is we who need forgiveness from one another,  we who need to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us, we who will stand with those who have been sinned against in the body.  This text is addressed to any who are members of a faith community.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text gives us language for several couplets:  sinned against/regained into fellowship; not listened to/reconciled with the body; bound/loosed from sin.

5.  Exegetical work:  The words translated "bind" and "loose" have a rabbinic background.  They are terms used "to declare forbidden or permitted, thus to impose or remove an obligation.  Hence to impose or remove a ban, to expel from and receive back into the congregation."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, p. 60f). These terms may suggest that if you ban someone from the congregation on earth, that person is banned in heaven from the assembly of God's chosen.  And if you admit one, or permit someone to share the assembly on earth, it will be so in the kingdom of God.  (Ibid.) Augustine, in his writing, reminds us of our continual need to show mercy and charity to those who have sinned against us:  "Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves.  For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries.  Just set aside your injury, but do not neglect your brother's wound."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 77).  Augustine continues, reminding us that even when a person refuses to be reconciled by any means, our duty is still to love them:  "[When one has refused to be reconciled] we don't consider him now in the number of our brothers.  But not even is his salvation  to be neglected.  For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation."  (Ibid, p.78)  I appreciate the perspective Douglas Hare shares in his commentary on this passage:  "There is a sense in which verse 20 interprets not only the immediately preceding saying but all the verses of the paragraph.  The risen Christ is 'in the midst' of each stage of the procedure of verses 15-17, and it is he who has conferred on the congregation the responsibility of binding and loosing.  If the Christian fellowship is to survive the strains imposed by human failure, it will be only because the risen Lord sustains it."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 215)

 Blessings on your proclamation!

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