What is the church?

Proper 18A (RCL)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Psalm 149 has always bothered me. We read it on All Saints’ Day, among other times. “Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand; to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples; . . . to inflict on them the judgment decreed; this is glory for all God’s faithful people.” Really? Seems odd to sing those lines.

The twelfth chapter of Exodus describes the preparations for the passover meal, before the Hebrews leave Egypt. God will come through Egypt and kill all the first born males, animal and human, except in the houses with blood on the lintel. With that as a foundational story, a group of people would be inclined to see the world in terms of us against them. God save us, but not them.

I noticed a couple of weeks ago, in the reading of Peter’s confession in Matthew’s Gospel, that Matthew’s Jesus seems to be making a distinction between the Christ and the Son of Man: Who do people say the son of man is; who do you say that I am; to which Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” If the Son of Man is the figure who returns at the end of time to wreak God’s vengeance, then Matthew’s Jesus is saying the Christ is some other figure. The very next week, Jesus helps us figure out the distinction: The Christ will suffer and die. Peter of course tempts Jesus not to (get behind me Satan).

And this week, we run into that very rare word again: Church. Jesus tells Simon he is Peter and on that Rock (the rock of Peter’s confession), Jesus will build his church. Now, in the only other occurence of that word anywhere in the Gospels, Jesus tells us that if a brother or sister sins against you, try to work it out between the two. But if not, then eventually lay it before the Church. If things work out, you have re-gained your brother or sister, but if not, then be cut off from them. This follows the teaching about refusing to be a stumbling block for one of these little ones, and the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the single sheep.

I believe Matthew intends an inclusio with these two occurences of the word church, and the saying about binding and loosing. It is, after all, Peter who asks how many times I must forgive a brother. The foundational story about the church is not how we are distinguished from them, but how we are to treat one another. If two or three are united in something, then it’s done. Whose sins do we bind to them, and whose sins do we loose for them? In Matthew’s Gospel, and no where else, Jesus, at the last supper, says that the cup is his blood of the new covenant shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. The blood isn’t about distinguishing the saved from the not-saved, but for the saving of all, the bringing of all inside.

That, I think, is what Matthew means about saving one’s life and losing it. If we think this is about making us special, we’ve got it wrong. The vocation of the church is to loose the sins of all — not that we can just let them go; it has to happen through reconciliation. But we are to be about the work of reconciling each to God and all to all. If two or three . . .

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