Can I ask you a question? Do you get frustrated when the church doesn’t look like the church?
I think if we were being honest with ourselves we would say yes, there have been moments when we’ve been frustrated when the church has failed to look like the church. We are a holy and powerful body that gives witness to Christ, but we are also a collection of fallible humans who are prone to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and make a mess of things. We don’t always look like what Christ calls us to be.
We know this. We recognize it, but what do we do about it? What do we do when our community fails to live as a reflection of the love of Christ and of the Lord’s grace?
Too often, we ignore the issues that cripple the community. We turn a blind eye to the inappropriate joke said in a meeting, even though we know it causes someone pain and hurt. We will tell someone that we love them, but talk about everything that they have done to hurt us when they’re not around. We’ll storm off and get mad if we don’t get our way. These are actions that we expect in the larger society, but not in a community that is called to be an authentic reflection of Christ’s love.
These moments make us uncomfortable when it happens, and we struggle with knowing what to do with them. As a result, we’ll use the practices of the larger society than the witness of Christ to guide us, which only leads us further and further away from the community Christ calls us to claim.
Is this really how Christ calls us to respond to issues and struggles when they arise in the church? There will be struggles. There will be difficult moments. How we respond to these moments, however, should be a reflection of a desire to be a church that is an authentic living witness of the love of Christ.
When we approach Matthew 18:15-20, we come to what appears as a formulaic of how to respond to an issue when they happen. It feels almost like a good response strategy. Go to the person and, then, if they doesn’t work bring others along for a conversation. If that doesn’t work, then go to the church for a deeper conversation. If all of that doesn’t work, then, you’ve done enough. That’s what it appears when we do a rush reading through the passage, but there is more going on with these words, especially as it relates to how we seek to be an authentic community, than a mere formulaic response would suggest.
Jesus’ words come in the midst of conversations about brokenness and sinfulness. It also comes as Jesus reminds the community that will form through faith in the Lord to be concerned with the most vulnerable and hurting in their midst. The community that will arise through Christ will be one that takes seriously the relationship that is fostered with one another as we join our hearts on this journey of faith together.
There is a seriousness and importance placed by Jesus in our shared connection by the mere fact that Jesus talks about what this life should be like. We have joined our hearts together not as mere individuals who worship together. We are part of a community where we share our lives with one another. That puts our connection with one another in a different context. We often think of church as something we go to and, for that, just an hour of our time a week. That may be our desire, but that is not the context of faith or what Christ calls us into. As part of God’s holy church, we are made for connection with one another and share this life with each other. We’re going to spend a lot of time with one another, so it matters how we form our relationships with each other as an expression of Christ.
What Jesus invites us to do with these words is to take seriously our response to when issues arise in the church. Jesus doesn’t invite us to do what we normally do. Often when issues arise there is a consistency that we want to avoid conflict. Really what we mean is we just don’t want to talk to the person who has harmed us directly. We would rather move on and ignore it, even while the pain is still there. That pain, when it is unresolved and not given a possibility for reconciliation, hinders the growth and connection of the community. We become a shell of the possibilities of deeper connection in Christ when we refuse to engage the issues that will arise in our shared life.
Jesus calls us into an authentic community that requires us to speak and listen with one another. He says if someone sins, but we know it is not a matter of if but when someone hurts or harms us in our shared life together. We are invited to talk with that person who has harmed us. There is power in being able to give voice to that pain, yet we often allow our fear of being unheard or unwillingness of making someone sad keep us from sharing our pain. Our hope in speaking is that someone hears what happens and listens to what is taking place. A listening that requires us to put ourselves in their shoes and hear how our words and actions were received from a different perspective. The hope is that this provides a chance for reconciliation.
We’re called to do this within the nature of community. Jesus never says we do this work of reconciliation alone. We do it within the context of community, so that if a one-on-one conversation breaks down we go to the larger body for help. This isn’t a help where we get two people to help us in proving our side of the story. We get find people who are trustworthy that will serve as mediators to protect the various people involved. If that doesn’t work, we seek the guidance of the larger community for help.
All of this is with the work of God’s peace and grace to guide us towards reconciliation. It is never to prove one side or the other, necessarily, but to seek the two people to be reunited in Christ and with one another. This is important for us, because we are a people of reconciliation who have been reunited in God’s love through the grace of Christ. As a result, we are called to share that reconciliation with the very people within the church and live it out, so that we may all live in peace and grace with one another.
Let’s think for a moment what all of this is about. If we have honest conversations with one another, if we bring people together to foster true dialogue, and do so with the hope of God’s love being realized, then we become a reflection of the authentic community Christ invites us into. An authentic community that lives out the witness of God’s love and desires to be honest and real with one another.
These are the communities that are growing in Christ’s love, because they are seeking to be led by Christ in the hard things. It is not the communities that seek to be a shadow of grace, or try to hide from their pain, or burry wrongs. It is the communities that are willing to get a little dirty, be open and honest with one another, and hear God’s love at work in the process that realize a deeper and powerful spiritual renewal of hope that comes in Christ.
A renewal of hope that comes as we are a community bonded with one another around the table of communion. On this day, we celebrate communion for the first time in several months. Since the last time we took communion, we have seen our world and society fractured by the pains of division and sorrow. We would be amiss if we did not believe those fractures do not affect us or our shared connections with one another. The celebration of communion reminds us of the grace of God that is available for all, and the living presence of Christ that leads us to be transformed in our lives and connections. As we partake in the bread and juice, we are reminded that God is here and calls us into a deeper community that takes seriously how we live with one another.
As a pastor, I know I need to do a better job encouraging more authentic relationships and communities within the life of the church. I tire of playing the game of church. I yearn for a deeper connection and life within the church. I yearn for authenticity within our shared life to where we can be honest and transparent with one another, especially when our voices need to rise to speak our pain.
On this day, as we return to the table, that is my prayer for me and for us as we seek to be the people known as Pea Ridge UMC who love God, who seek to grow in faith, and who desire to be authentic in our connections and relationships with one another, even when it is hard, even when it is challenging, and especially when it can lead to reconciliation and hope with one another.
One thought on “What Really Counts”
Are you kidding? Personally, I have been in two churches where the pastor has had moral failure. One happened when I got into trouble with my marriage and sought counsel with the Pastor and his response was for me to leave the church till I got it sorted out. I did not get it sorted out and divorced. 20 years later it came to light that he was involved with a church worker; he left the church and move out of country and never repented.
I took a lot of time and healing to reconcile my own actions as well as the church’s response. With perseverance and not compromising, we have been married over 40 years. It took Jesus being in the center of all our flaws. The Church is a holy mess. And individual members do not just start loving each other automatically. As you hinted at, it takes an act of the will grounded in the grace of Jesus to sometimes tolerate my brothers and sisters. Loving my ‘neighbor’ no matter where I find them, from God’s perspective is not an option.