Proper 18 (23), Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
10 September 2023
Years ago we received promotional material for a man who had memorized the Gospel of Mark and who travelled the continent reciting it for audiences. I was intrigued, in part because this is in a time when everyone can look up anything (though not necessarily correctly) and memorization is no longer in fashion.
But I was more intrigued by the accompanying write up. The write-up mentioned how much time on average we spend in front of our television sets and how much time we spend in the community of the church. It was then suggested that most of us are far more affected by what we see and hear on television than by the one hour a week we spend at church.
Following high school I spent one year with a Lutheran monastic community. This relatively new community had moved into an old monastery from the 13th century where it ran a retreat centre. Another young man, who like me spent a year with this community, moved to another community after our year was up. I remember either reading or him telling me that the leader of that community had said that if the church was to survive, it could do so only as a community.
While the church in Germany was still a powerful institution it was evident that in the secular society in which it existed, it was losing support and adherents, and had little traction in the changing culture.
The word about the church surviving and maybe even thriving as a community has remained with me.
But to speak of the church as a community is almost counter-intuitive. In a world in which we see ourselves as consumers and compartmentalize between different “needs”, the church is often seen as an institution that serves the world’s religious needs, when and if the world feels any. The observation about time we spend in front of our television sets supports that.
The story of God that has been entrusted to us is the story that makes sense of our lives, yet in our world there are many storytellers.
On the other hand, smaller churches like ours allow us to get to know one another, to experience community, which is why it comes to us naturally to speak of our ‘church family.’ And in a smaller church where people notice your presence and your absence you do not just come for the preacher or the music but you are here because you are part of the community.
Biblical faith is always the faith of the community. True enough, the psalmists sing of their personal faith but the psalms are sung and recited in the worship of the community, God called a people, the prophets spoke to that people, Jesus gathered disciples, and Paul founded and ministered to churches. This is not to say that we may not have personal devotional practices. I hope that we do; like remembering at meal time that everything is a gift, or giving thanks at the beginning or end of the day, praying for guidance and protection, asking for forgiveness, thereby remembering that we belong to God, but all these expressions of personal faith are expressions of the faith of the church.
And when we discuss issues of our day, we do so as Christians before we do it as members or supporters of political parties. The guiding question always is, what is God’s calling to the church and how can we live out this calling in our lives, for our lives are not our own but belong to God.
Today’s Gospel reading comes from the chapter of Matthew that is about the life of the church. It contains the parable of the lost sheep, today’s passage about what to do when we sin against each other, Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive, closing with the parable of the unforgiving servant.
Today’s reading ends with the treasured word of Jesus, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We treasure this word, because often we feel like a small community. We used to be bigger, which is true for pretty much all churches. And so we like the promise Jesus gives even to small communities like ours. I also think of the old hymn, “Have no Fear Little Flock.”
But there is more in this verse.
If we believe that we should understand the Holy Trinity of Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit as community, that God’s essence is community, then God’s call to the people Israel, God’s inclusion of the community of the church in this covenant, the new covenant, means that God invites and calls us to be part of God’s eternal community.
Hearing again the promise at the end of today’s reading, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” we realize that God’s communion with us and our communion with God is not only made deeper but finds its fulfillment in the community of the church, for where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus will be among us.
This is a marvellous promise. Yet it is also hard. What do we do with people who sin against us, because that happens as surely as that we sin against others? Jesus says not to write them off. Yet, we may have done exactly that.
But Jesus says that we need them, because Jesus needs them. They may leave if they wish, but we are to pursue them when our inclination may be, “suit yourself,” or “I won’t talk to Bob, unless Bob first apologizes to me.” Jesus does not name such conditions. The sin here is not defined, so it could be many things, chiefly, however, it is against the community. Jesus only says to pursue them in love, which is what Jesus did with tax collectors and sinners.
What Jesus does not say is that the sin should not be named. The sin must be named for all things are not equal. Jesus also does not suggest that in a conflict situation where someone without power has been victimized by someone who has abused their power, that in such situations the victim should pursue the sinner. That would set the victim up to be victimized again and again.
But the community should not give up, because God does not give up. And this is why Christians speak of restorative justice rather than punitive, because God wants to restore all of us in God’s image.
St John reminds us that those who love God also love one another. (1 John 4)
Dorothy Day says about the community of the Catholic Worker she had founded, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”1
We give thanks that God called us into community, and that God called us to be community, for it is in community that God’s communion with us and our communion with God is not only made deeper but finds its fulfillment, for where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus will be among us.
1 Dorothy Day, from the postscript to The Long Lonliness.