Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
How do you feel when you hear the term “excommunication”? (Worried, wonder what it is, curious, angry…) It is not a term that’s very much used in the church in this day and age, though we hear occasionally hear rumors of it. Maybe in your mind, right now, you can think of someone you would like to have excommunicated in a prior time. Maybe someone is thinking of you, or me, when they hear that word.
When it comes to issues like excommunication or bad behavior in the church or flagrant sinfulness, it is hard for us to think about anything, but the Law. I do not mean what’s on the books in terms of law; I mean, what’s in the Book. In traditional Lutheran understanding, the Law is found throughout scripture. It is the portions that prick our hearts and remind us of how far we fallen from grace. The Law serves as a reminder of our constant and desperate need for God’s love and forgiveness.
The gospel passage today seems very full of Law and even seems to point toward excommunication as a practice of the church. Within this section, we are confronted with the hard truth of what it means to be in a community. We will sin against one another; we have sinned against one another. Through words and deeds, things done and left undone- we create ruptures in the fabric of our community of faith.
Our greatest, and most frequent, sin is when we forget that God is God, the only God. When we break that first commandment and try to put our needs, our knowledge or ourselves first, we end up pushing away those around us and we’re standing in the middle where we wanted to be, but alone.
Even when we take the action in this passage, when we confront someone who has hurt us, we often approach the situation from the idea that we were right and they were wrong. The truth of Law is that even in being wronged, we were messing up in our behavior. Anyone who has been a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, a brother or a sister understands what can happen in a family- how things can hurt. The same thing applies in a faith family. We look at our brothers and sisters and know in our hearts that we have not been able to keep God’s law of love with regard to those brothers and sisters.
The wounds caused by our actions, and aggravated by the Law, are soothed by the medicine of the Gospel. Sometimes that medicine can be hard to swallow. Have you ever noticed that? That it can be easier to keep feeling hurt and angry than to confront the issues and begin the healing process.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus tells his disciples, then and now, to speak up about wrongdoing. This is not about excommunication or about power over one another. It is not the same as the church leaders in John who dragged the adulterous woman in front of Jesus; their hip holsters full of stoning rocks and their throwing arms already warmed up and rarin’ to go. Jesus is telling us that we are called to go to members who seem outside of the community, maybe because of their actions, maybe because they have actually left.
The Body of Christ is not whole without them, so they are to be brought back in- through invitation, conversation and initiation. We are called to swallow our pride, our anger and our certainty and to go to our neighbor.
And this passage is not even about forgiveness. We are not called to go to our brother and demand an apology or reparation. We are called to go and say, “I have been angry with you because of this. Please forgive me. I hope we can move forward from here together.”
The graciousness of this openness in community cannot be over-emphasized. Jesus stresses it, himself: “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” When we act aggressively within the community of the church, we bind ourselves by those actions and, in that tightness, we are unable to experience or see the free-flowing work of the Spirit. When we act with compassion and care toward one another, when we love as we have been loved, we open ourselves to the work that God is doing through us- with and for one another and the world.
Jesus promises that where two or more are gathered in his name, he is there among them. This means that the church is more than a social organization or a moral group. The church is a family, a group of people bound together by something greater than themselves, a family gathered specifically and especially in the name of Jesus.
Jesus says that people who just cannot seem to get along with other people are to be treated as Gentiles and as tax collectors. When we take that statement apart, it seems to be very strong and negative. Treat them like IRS agents…
But this reading is from the book of Matthew- the presumed author of this book is a tax collector! A tax collector who traveled with Jesus and ate with Gentiles, the person writing these words is using his own experience to say, “Jesus tells us to feed his sheep and tend his lambs.” These words are strong and positive: we are being called to active and embracing compassion and relationship with one another. We must move to a new stage of compassion with one another, even as we look toward and hope for the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel.
The thought of that, like the Law, can be frightening, but when we live in the midst of such good news- how can we keep it from one another. In a time of many changes and turmoil in the world, we need one another now more than ever, so that we may experience the reality and truth of the presence of Christ among us.
The church itself is not perfect, but God’s love for the Church and God’s children is whole and perfect. It is through that love that we are able to reach out to one another and do the work that needs to be done- the work of healing, reconciliation, ministry and building.
The commandments about how to treat our neighbor are summed up by the apostle Paul, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near… Let us… put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”
Love yourself- for you are wondrous work of God. That can be difficult, but sometimes harder still is to love your neighbor. You might think he is a piece of work and she is- a wondrous work of God. God’s Church has survived years of human failure- from the early difficulties of the disciples to the excommunications in the Reformation to the great division that is happening in this day and age. Yet still it survives, not because of us, but in spite of us and because of our risen Savior who sustains the church in this and every age. Today’s gospel calls us to the task of reminding those around us, everyone around us, that nothing can excommunicate any of us from the One who made and loves the whole world.