Community rule

7 September 2014
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18A (RCL)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

The NRSV does a bad bit of translation with this passage in Matthew. The opening sentence is “If another member of the church sins against you.” The Greek has adelphos, brother. If we’re going to try to be inclusive and accurate, a better translation would be, “If a brother or sister sins against you.” The word “church” is jarring on the lips of Jesus. There was no church at the time of Jesus. A couple of chapters ago, Jesus tells Peter, after his confession of the Jesus as the Christ, “on this rock I will build my church” — future tense.

However, Jesus does speak this word in this passage: first go to your brother the two of you alone; then take one or two others; and then take the matter to the church. Matthew uses the Greek word ecclesia. This is the word Paul uses consistently for the body of Christian believers in a given place. It occurs only twice in the Gospels at all; once in Jesus’ response to Peter, and once in this passage. In this passage, the rule is in the present tense, as if Jesus were speaking directly to Matthew’s community.

Clearly, Matthew understood this rule for his community to be important enough to put it on the lips of Jesus despite the obvious anachronism of having Jesus speak about the church in the present tense.

Christians have misused this rule throughout the history of the church, usually as a way for shaming people out of the Church. The rule has often been used to bring people’s peccadilloes to the attention of the whole church. The rule is intended for the reconciliation of wounded relationship. We are supposed to go to the offending brother or sister first alone, and try to work out the difference. If we can, then we have regained a brother or sister. If that doesn’t work, then one or two wise people in the community, who may moderate the issue, and then only if these impartial witness are in agreement with the harm done, and there is no restoration, are we to go to the Church. Think of the gossip this would end if we followed it well.

Living in community is hard work, and the more tightly bound the community, the more certain it is that we will get out of sorts with one another. This community rule effectively ends the bearing of grudges and nursing of past hurts. If you are nursing a hurt, you clearly have not gone to the person involved, and then followed the rest of the process. That may indicate it’s time for someone to come to you.

Paul’s instructions the last several weeks (from chapters 12 and 13 of Romans) follow essentially the same lines: outdo one another in showing honor. Clearly, Matthew’s and Paul’s church communities lived more tightly together than our Sunday morning church communities. One of the things the church has to offer the world is a pattern of living together and working out differences. But we need to practice among ourselves as well.

The Old Testament lesson gives the account of the first passover, which establishes kinship between God and the people and forms the people into a kinship group. Ordinarily, the choice bits of the lamb would have been burned on the altar for God’s portion of the meal. Here, the lamb is roasted with all the choice bits left intact. The community eats God’s portion. Likewise, the blood, which is the life, and belongs to God, is smeared on the door posts rather than being returned to God by being poured on the ground. God will recognize God’s own blood (kin) by the sign of blood on the door posts. Our baptism does the same for us. No wonder Matthew and Paul needed such clear rules for community conduct.

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