The church that Jesus describes in the gospels is beautiful and messy. Life and love in Jesus sometimes means leaning into the messiness of being church, because we are bound to each other.
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 23 A
Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:(+10-14) 15-20
Beloved church, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word “church” (ecclesia, in Greek) only appears in two places in the Gospels.
It appears lots of times in the book of Acts and in most of the epistles, but Jesus only mentions the church twice, and only Matthew’s gospel. In fact, we heard him say the word “church” for the first time a few weeks ago. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Then Jesus came back with, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it!”
The first time we hear of the church, it is ascendant. A church that death itself cannot prevail against. A church built strong on the rock of faith, of Peter’s faith in the Living God who came in love as Christ. This church is a glimpse of God’s beloved community, of life and love in Christ. It’s beautiful!
And now, here we are, just two chapters later, and when Jesus speaks of the church this time it is in conflict and disarray. Jesus describes a wounded church, where members are hurting each other and aren’t listening to each other, and the church represents the last-ditch effort to restore peace. It’s messy!
These two chapters tell a tale of two churches. The best of times and the worst of times. So divine. So human. Beautiful and messy. And isn’t that just like the church?
Because church is often messy, isn’t it?
Even this church. I haven’t been here long, but I’ve been reading the wonderful history of Mount Olive that was put together for the 100th anniversary. It has been such a lovely way to get to know more of the rich history of this place. But it’s also a tale of two churches (at least 2!) There have been many beautiful moments and many messy moments in this place.
And in the wider church as well. Some of you shared with me this week your own painful stories of the messy church and the ways you have been brought down and let down, sometimes by people who sanctioned their actions with these very texts. It’s all too easy for “2 or 3” people to claim God’s authority to push away or even excommunicate some sheep who makes things just a bit too messy. Whose “sins” (real or imagined) threaten the idea of the beautiful church. And the conflicts weigh us down. And they hurt.
It’s heartbreaking. In my cynical moments, I think about God’s promise to do anything we ask – IF “two of you can agree.” – I imagine God thinking, “Oh I’ll take that bet. Two of you need to agree on something? Yeah, sure. If two of you can agree on anything, I’ll do it. Good luck.”
But of course, that’s not how God thinks or what God wants. God wants us to agree, wants us to love one another, wants us to live! Telling the prophet Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live!” But how? How do we turn and live? How do we muddle through the messiness of living side by side?
Well, God has given us a good place to start. It’s called “the law.”
We Lutherans love gospel so much we like to give the law a bad name. But the law is a gift. It is supposed to help us. It’s a good thing. It was the desire and delight of the writer of Psalm 119. And it’s what Paul offered to the Romans who were trying to navigate their own very messy church. Paul helpfully summarized for them and for us that “the law” is really just love. Love for our neighbors. So that we can turn and live! So that maybe we can be that first beautiful version of the church a little bit more often.
But as helpful as the law is, the love and life we find in Jesus goes even beyond that.
This passage in Matthew 18 is often called “The Rule of Christ” – but it isn’t just sensible conflict management advice. This is the kind of love that doesn’t just follow the law, it fulfills it. This is the love that goes to find the lost sheep that has gone astray. The love that doesn’t want a single one of these little ones to be lost. The love that brings every single one back.
That’s what we are commanded to do here. If a sibling in Christ has sinned against you, has hurt you, has offended you, has annoyed you, whatever it is, you don’t shut the door on them. And you don’t just take it like a doormat. You go out and you meet them face to face. You might need to bring along others. You might have to bring along the whole dang messy church if you need to, for the sake of one. That is restoration and reconciliation that will go to every length.
Which sometimes means that we need to be a little bit flexible for the sake of reconciliation.
We need to learn to lean into the messiness. Sometimes that might even mean re-evaluating the rules the law has given us.
And God gives us that flexibility! Jesus says, not once, but in both of these passages where he mentions the church, the same phrase: whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven. This isn’t God setting us up as little tyrants with terrifying cosmic power. This is God reminding the church to go to every length to reconcile, to restore, to turn to life. You aren’t bound to the law. If the law isn’t working to bring every sheep back, be released from it. If you need a few new rules to help you love each other into life, go for it.
You aren’t bound to the law. You are bound to each other.
Which means that when you need to hold others accountable (which sometimes you will), you can’t forget to hold them. 1
Too often, these passages are used to wash our hands of those who have hurt us or those we don’t think should be a part of the church.
Sometimes we are so afraid of a messy church, we want so badly to skip right to that beautiful church, that we are really tempted to read that part about Gentiles and tax collectors as license to exclude. To leave those sheep to wander on their cliffs.
But that isn’t the church. We only need to look at the way that Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors to see that. Jesus wasn’t afraid of messy. Jesus knew that the two churches, beautiful and messy, are really only one church. Because the church that death cannot prevail against is the same church desperately trying to hold itself together. Not two churches. One church in Jesus. Who has already gone to every length to reconcile us to God, to bring us back into the fold, who doesn’t want to see a single one be lost.
And don’t forget, dear church: Jesus is here. He promised.
Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am among them. In my beautiful, messy church, I am among them.
In the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. This idea was inspired by Kazu Haga, a trainer of Kingian Nonviolence, from a line in his book Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm (Parallax Press: 2020).