Five years ago I was invited to participate on a national United Church committee that looked ahead to equipping churches for the 21st century. One model we looked at closely was the house church, specifically house churches across Canada where faith-filled people with interest in United Church theology and practice were actually living together under one roof. It was very much “back to the future” as many of these new expressions of church resembled the early church we find in the Book of Acts. We invited leaders from these emerging communities of faith to share with us their rituals, norms, and mission. Even now the United Church offers grants and training to groups that come together in a new way to follow Jesus.
Not surprisingly one of the vexing challenges of these new emerging churches is how they live together. Unlike our church and most churches, where members worship together, work together and have fun together and then go home these Christians live throughout the day and night under one roof. When they get on each other’s nerves, clash over norms, or have to deal with matters of conflict that result in offers of forgiveness and reconciliation they need to develop norms, rituals and understandings so the conflicts do not bog them down, create a toxic atmosphere or result in mass exists of members.
In many ways this is also the story of the early church. After Jesus’ death and resurrection he left a movement without its charismatic leader and such a diverse lot that its future was very much in doubt. Never sentimentalize the early church community, they too argued over deep questions of faith and petty squabbles about hierarchy. It’s all there in the scriptures, in black and white and much of it is not pretty. I have yet to see a stained glass window depicting these struggles!
Matthew 18 is a guidebook to dealing with these conflicts. “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” It all sounds very sensible and straightforward but we all know none of it is easy. And it was not any easier for the early church than it would be for these emerging faith expressions or our church here at Bethany.
But I think the most important verse in our lectionary reading this morning is verse 20. “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” The “I” refers to Jesus. Jesus is in the midst of community and when people come together in his name, to do his work, in his Spirit, he is there. This placing of Jesus’ presence at the heart of community, in a group no bigger than 2 or 3 disciples, is radical and suggests that the heart of God is truly in community. Remember the great commandments, “love God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as you love yourself”. God, neighbor, self, all connected in a diverse, dynamic and developing community.
Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. He loved the Jewish law, the Jewish traditions and the Jewish community. But Jesus’ affection for the Temple was at best ambivalent. And Jesus expressed this feeling in how he identified his presence in the gathering. Michael Crosby in his text House of Disciples: Church, Economics & Justice in Matthew reveals the source of Jesus to be found in the early church. “No longer would it take ten heads of households to constitute the authority of the synagogue; now wherever two disciples gather (synagogue) there Matthew’s Jesus is with them (18:20) in authority (28:18-20), forming church (18:18).
Jesus is here not because of the heads of households, not because we have reached some magic number, not because we have found worldly status and success, Jesus is with us whenever two or three faith-filled disciples have come together in his name. Jesus is present in Christian community.
David Lose is the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He says that there are two things he’s discovered about community. 1) We all say we want it and 2) We usually have no idea how difficult it is to come by. Community, after all, is one of those feel-good words that draw us into idealisms -- we imagine something out of Cheers, a place where you're accepted for who you are, where you're never lonely, and where, of course, everyone knows your name. But the really difficult thing about community is that it's made up of people! And people -- not you and me, of course, but most people -- can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Which means that usually when we're daydreaming about community we're often prompted to do so because we don't particularly like the people -- i.e., the community! -- we're currently a part of. It's into this reality that Jesus, according to Matthew, speaks, and I find his candor refreshing. Let me summarize what I take to be the salient points:
*Communities are made up of these sinning people.
*When that happens and you're involved, do something about it; namely, go talk to the other person directly like a mature adult rather than behind his or her back.
*If that doesn't work, involve some others of the community. This is more about hearing other opinions than taking votes to condemn or sanction.
*If that doesn't work, then things are serious and you're all at risk.
Authentic community is hard to come by. It's work. But it's worth it. Because when you find it, it's like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it's like experiencing the reality of God's communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way -- with honesty and integrity, even when it's hard -- amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.
So what kind of community do we want from our congregation -- largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?
I want you now to cluster in your pews, in groups of two or three and talk, write down what kind of a Christian community you are looking for. And when you do this try not to be like our consumer culture. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy “Ask not what the Christian community can do for you but what you can do for your Christian community.” How much are you willing to risk or work for this kind of community? And remember as we struggle to be together in Jesus’ name and vision, the Jesus who formed a community around this powerful healing message is here, right here, in the midst of us. Amen.