September 10, 2017 Sermon
Exodus 12:1-14/ Matthew 18:15-20
Living Together in the Community of God
The new school year has started, and it reminded me of whenever I started a new school, or a new job. When you start a new school or job, you have to get used to the new schedules and responsibilities. When I first started McGill University 5 years ago, I lived 15 minutes away from my faculty building (on foot), and I had to pass the school gym. I remember thinking, I will go work out at the gym regularly since the gym is 5 minutes away. Unfortunately, I didn’t do very well. But I remember how I felt going to classes the first semester, and although I didn’t work out very regularly, how I felt going to the gym with new determination to stay healthy. Anticipation and at least a little anxiety are what we usually feel when we start something new. When we start something new, when we begin to belong to a group, it bring changes to our lives. Our daily schedules and our mindset change, because you start doing different things because you belong to a certain group or program. Belonging to a new group or program means, we change our way of thinking and living.
In both the Old Testament and New Testament stories we read today, we encounter those who are taught a new way of living or being a part of a specific group. In our Exodus story, the Israelites who are about to leave Egypt and slavery are given their first commandment from their God. Right before they actually exit the country, God is sending the last plague to influence the Pharaoh. The angel of death will pass by and kill all the first born sons, people or animals. The Israelites are given instructions to avoid their first born sons being taken by the angel. They are to kill a lamb and cover their two doorposts and the lintel of the houses with its blood and then eat the meat in a very specific way. The angel will pass over your house if you have done as you are instructed; this is why it is called Passover, which the Jewish people have been celebrating all these years. This is a significant even in the history of Israel because this is the first time they are given rules to follow, as a part of being God’s chosen people. They are commanded to actively participate in being God’s people; because we know that being a part of a group means there are rules and culture to accept. Now that the Israelites will be a free people of God, not enslaved in Egypt, they should accept a new way of living.
Today’s gospel text is a bit troubling and confusing. Have you noticed anything wrong as you were listening earlier? Maybe you didn’t realize it was Jesus who is talking here because we didn’t start with, “Jesus said, blah blah blah.” But then at the end, the speaker says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”; so we know that it was Jesus speaking. Has anyone found it odd that Jesus would say, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church”? Does anyone find this odd? It should sound odd because when Jesus was alive, there was no church. Ha! But there was a church when Matthew’s community was around; Matthew’s community was a church. When you read the gospel text, or any biblical text actually, you should remember that you are always learning about two different communities; the community about which the text is written, and the community that produced the text; because biblical texts were always written in different times than the communities they are describing. In this case, there was Jesus and what he taught, and then what the author of Matthew’s gospel is teaching his members. Jesus taught things and the gospel authors interpreted them to accommodate their specific audience. We will learn all this in our fall study group, so stay tuned…
Now let’s move on to what the author of Matthew’s gospel is trying to teach. This is a teaching of Jesus that has been filtered through Matthew’s community that has already started being established as a religious organization that we call church. This teaching is about how we should manage living together in a community, as God’s people, especially when there is conflict. In short, “How do God’s people manage their relationship with each other in their community?” Jesus’ teaching about love and forgiveness turned into rules and regulations about church discipline. The first part we read about a member of the church sinning against you and how to handle the situation basically means that we must never tolerate any situation in which there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member. It teaches that the confrontation and reconciliation process has to be done personally, face to face. We know how texting and emailing can cause misunderstanding. We have to meet face to face and talk. Now, if that face to face conversation fails, we must bring it to the Christian fellowship; because we are God’s people, and we need an atmosphere of Christian prayer and love to fix our relationships.
But the problem is, sometimes even this collective effort doesn’t work. Matthew says that if that doesn’t work, they should be regarded as Gentiles or tax collectors. Hmm. It sounds like we should give up on them, doesn’t it? But think of how Jesus treated these Gentiles and tax collectors, who were considered human scum. Jesus never gave up on them and neither should we; that’s the lesson. We Christians believe in life eternal, so our relationship doesn’t end when we die. We belong to the kingdom of God both in this mortal life and in the afterlife. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, as it says in verse 18. God’s kingdom on earth and in the afterlife are connected; this is why we should not give up on each other.
The nature of our Christian Church, God’s kingdom, is that it is based on our gathering together worshipping God and learning from the Scripture. It doesn’t matter how many we are or where we gather; Church is not a building but its people. Wherever, whenever, and no matter how many or few we are, the spirit of Jesus is among us. When Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”, it doesn’t mean we can plot together something selfish and whatever we ask, God will grant our wish. God’s people getting together and praying together has to be for unselfish things. We pray for our suffering members. We pray for the suffering of all God’s people. That is why when there is war or disaster happening on the other side of the earth, we as the church care about the suffering of the people we don’t even know, and do something about it; pray for them, donate money, or volunteer to participate in the relief works. When we gather and have an unselfish mind together, pray and work for unselfish causes together, this is where Jesus is and is blessing us.
We belong to the same community called the Christian Church, the kingdom of God. All groups have rules to follow and specific cultures to share among members. We are followers of Jesus. We handle our personal relationship with the love of Jesus and prayer. And we do not give up on each other. These are our rules and our culture as members of God’s community. This is what we do and this is how we live together in our community. So let us always be aware of our identity and remember to treat each other with love and prayer even when things get difficult; because the spirit of Jesus that is among us will encourage and empower us.
Rev. Sunny Kim