Pentecost 16A Matthew 18:15-20
If you have heard it said once, you have heard it said a thousand times, “The church. The church. All the church wants is my money. Money, money, money. They may start out gently and nicely but don’t worry, they are going to slip into your life and then dip into your back pocket. That is just the way churches are.”
Or, some say the church is absolutely dull. It is “dullsville.” It is the same old platitudes over and over again. It is “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Same tune, second verse. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Over and over and over again. The same prayers. The same liturgies. The same sermons. The same ideas. The same phraseology. We have heard this so many times before that we can come to church, turn off the intellectual engine, sleep right through it, come back six months later and it would not be any different. Just like a soap opera in the middle of the day.
I love that paraphrase of Martin Luther’s hymn, “Like a mighty tortoise, moves the church of God. Brothers we are treading, where we have always trod.” Over and over and over again.
Others say, “The church; its people are kind of boring. It is not only the worship service which is boring, but church people are kind of boring as well. Stuff shirts. Pious prigs. Holy than thous. Religion is a crutch for weak people. Weak, sick and old people lean on their crutches.
And besides, the church is a bunch of hypocrites. They are Sunday only Christians. Do you know what that so-called Christian did to me on Monday? What a hypocrite. The church is a bunch of hypocrites, that ‘s all. Church people are those who just can’t kick the religious habit.”
Or, others say, “I can be a good Christian without going to church. I believe in Christianity, not churchianity. I believe that there is no need for me to come to church. I have my personal religion, my personal God. I don’t need the church to be religious; all I need is God to be religious.”
Still others say, “The church and its teachings are intellectually absurd. I no longer can accept the credibility of Genesis or the edibility of Jonah. Twentieth century people don’t believe that stuff any more e.g. man swallowing a whale or a whale swallowing a man. That is all too much for me to swallow.”
Others still say, “I have been burned by the church. When I needed the church, the church wasn’t there to help. The preacher. You should have seen what he did to my husband. Talk about insensitive. If that is the way preachers are, you better believe that my husband won’t come back, and after my run in with the preacher, I won’t be back either. Preachers, for the most part, are fat, pompous, prigs who think that they are right and holier than thou.”
It is with these warm and comforting images of the church that we approach the gospel lesson for today. This is only one of two times that the word, “church,” is used in the gospels. Of course, there is Mathew 16 which we examined two weeks ago when Jesus said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and you will have the keys to the kingdom.”
We find the concept and language about the church in our gospel reading from Matthew 18 today. The basic idea is this: “If you are having problems with a someone in church and that person appears to have some fault that is contributing to the conflict, go and talk “one on one” with your brother or sister. If you are still having problems and conflicts within the church, talk with two or three more people in the church. Three or four wise people are better than two. If that person still does not listen, then talk to the whole assembly. And pray about the conflict. Ask God to help. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” And so this passage for today is describing these inevitable conflicts in the church, and how to solve those conflicts with the Spirit, love and forgiveness of Jesus.
The word, “church,” is a very common word used by the Apostle Paul, but in the four gospels, the word, “church,” occurs in two places. Here in the Scripture passage for today from Matthew 18, and from a few weeks ago, in Mathew 16.
So today I would like to focus on the Greek word, “ecclesia,” which means church or fellowship. It is amazing to me as I reviewed all my sermons this past week, in my decades here at Grace Lutheran church, I have preached only one sermon on the church, and that was many years ago. I could not believe it but yet I can. That is, the church has always focused on Christ and not itself.
Today I would like to talk about the church. There are five themes in today’s sermon.
First, I would like to begin by saying that Christ is the head of the church. Now, that concept is not emphasized in Matthew, but it is emphasized in Paul’s letters. It needs to be clearly said: that Christ is the center of the church. Christ is the head of the church. Everything around the church is focused on Jesus Christ.
You see, the temptation today is always to replace Christ with success. Many people think, “I don’t want to be part of a Christ church; I want to be part of a successful church.” It is a very easy trap to be caught by in American culture. … Now, for many people, they want to be personally successful so they also unconsciously want to be part of a successful church. Successful churches are to grow bigger and better, with pretty sanctuaries and pretty music and pretty programs and pretty people and pretty preaching and pretty talented leadership. The good news is subtly replaced by good times. The gospel is replaced by pretty and vibrant preaching. The cross of Jesus Christ which invites us to love and suffer with people around the neighborhood and globe is replaced by colorful programs. It happens very subtly. The cross is replaced by programs and activities. The social compatibility becomes more important than Jesus Christ. Social compatibility become more important than the gospel that Jesus Christ came to this earth as a human being in order to die for your sins and mine so that we can live with God eternally. Many people want to be part of a successful church. In fact, they are more interested in a successful church than a Christ centered church. They want a church that will meet their needs. This is especially true here in the United States.
I must confess that I cringe every time that I heard it and I have heart it often. That is, when I was down in Eugene, Oregon, where I was an assistant pastor down there, I heard it over and over again that Central Lutheran Church was “Pastor Natwick’s church.” I cringed. When I was back at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, I heard that it was “Pastor Wee’s church.” I cringed. When I was back in Madison, Wisconsin, it was “Pastor Borgwardt’s church.” I cringed. And I cringe anytime when I heard that Grace Lutheran Church referred to as “Pastor Markquart’s church.” I cringe. This is not some pastor’s church. This church is a congregation that belongs to Jesus Christ’s church.
I have it on a pencil and therefore I remember this Bible verse often, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The words of John the Baptist. Every time that I am scribbling with that pencil, I am reminded that Jesus Christ is to increase and we are to decrease.
And I guarantee you, if you have a problem with idealizing your pastors, you are going to be disappointed. For they are not going to care for you and love you in the way that you want. And if you are mesmerized with a quality of a program in the church, I guarantee you that in time, it too will deteriorate. For that is the way it is with all congregations.
One more thing: when you die and cross the bar and go to the other side of existence, a successful pastor or a successful church are not going to be there to meet you. Christ will be there to meet you. When you die and cross the bar, the person who will be there to meet you is Jesus Christ.
At the heart of all Christian congregations is Jesus Christ who is the head. The purpose of every congregation throughout all history is to lift up Jesus Christ, so that people are bonded to the beauty, the forgiveness, and the eternal love of Jesus Christ. When I think of the word, church, I think of the word, Christ.
A second theme: When I think of the word, “church,” I think of the word, “sinners,” people like you and me. In the gospel passage for today, we find that when somebody has sinned, another person goes and talks to him or her, and says, “You know, you are doing something here which is not real healthy for you and your family.” But that person would not listen. So you get two or three other members of the church community and the three friends to and talk with their friend about this problem. But the friend would still not listen. Then the whole community of the church assembled together, perhaps thirty or forty people in those days, listen to the complaint. The complaint becomes public.
As you read this story in the gospel for today, you realize that the heart of the church is to help each other to deal with our sinfulness. The church, the friends at church becomes a family and we as a church family are to help each other with our imperfections, our unhealthy patterns, and the way we sin against each other and ourselves. The church is to become a family that helps each other with one’s flaws. That is what families always do. We help each other to grow up and become mature people.
You are very unfortunate if you have no one to help you with your sinfulness and imperfection, with your defects of character, with the pieces of your personality which are not so healthy. We all have these imperfection, these flaws, these deficits. All of us. There is no exception. You are very unfortunate person if you have no one to talk with you honestly about your weaknesses in order to help you mature and grow into wholeness. That is one of the purposes of the church. We are to be like family who loves each other with loving honesty about our strengths and our weaknesses.
There is almost nothing worse in the world than religious people who think they are holier or better or less sinful than other people. I love the limerick which says, “The power of hell is strongest when the odor of sanctity creates the smell.” Yes, the odor of sanctity does stink.
Martin Luther said a similar thing when he wrote: “ O Lord, deliver me from Christian churches with nothing but Christian saints in them. I want to remain in and be part of a church which is a little flock of faint-hearted people, weak people, who know and feel their sin, their poverty, their misery, and they believe in the forgiveness of God.” That is what Luther wanted. Nothing about colorful programs. Nothing about great music. Nothing about great preaching. What Martin Luther wanted to be part of community which had faint hearted and weak people who know and feel their need for forgiveness. Luther wanted to be part of a real family, a Christian family, a small family that cared for each other.
I like the following definition of a church. “The church is somewhat like Noah’s ark. If it were not for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the smell inside.” That is true. There is that smell to the church. The smell of sin. The church stinks. The church is filled with sinful people, but let me tell you, outside the church it is even worse. It is crazy out there. It is absurd what is going on in that world out there. Knowing how terrifying it is out there, I will gladly live inside the smell of Noah’s ark.
At the heart of the church, we are like a small family who helps each other deal with our sinfulness. Is it not true that you need help? That I need help? To live as a human being because of the shadow side of our personalities? Do you and I not need help with that?
The church? The church is Christ. The church? The church is a family of imperfect people who help each other mature in love.
The third theme for today is this: the word, “church,” means fellowship, a gathering, a grouping. The passage for today says that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The church is a community of loving people. The church is a community of people who love you, know your name, and are concerned about you. Is it not important for you that as a member of a church, that people know your name? Is not that your right? That they know what you struggle with? Isn’t that at the heart of a church? Where you are known and loved as a friend?
Yesterday was the seventh grade retreat. Those kids were wonderful. You can have a great youth program and have great singing and great energy around the campfire, but every one of those kids wants to be wanted. And the kids, in spite of the fancy camp and in spite of the fancy singing, and in spite of a fancy youth director, if a kid feels that he or she is not wanted and loved by their friends, those kids will not want to be part of it.
The same is true of us as adults. We want to be wanted. We want to be loved. We want people to treat us as friends. The church is a fellowship. The church is a community. The church is family.
Years ago, I read a piece of research that I found to be fundamentally true: I call it Friendship 1:7. If a new person at church has seven new friends within a year, one hundred percent of those people stay. If a new person has four or fewer friends, ninety-two percent drop out of the church. I know this is true from my personal experience. I know that people join the church because they like the vitality of the worship service or the vitality of the music or they like the vitality of the youth program or the vitality of the preaching, but such people will not stay at Grace Lutheran Church or any congregation unless they make friends. Koinonia. Fellowship. Family. Closeness. Connectedness.
Two years ago, some of us went to a church conference. It was called the “Meta-Church” conference. We were the only Lutheran church present at that conference; most congregations were from the Missionary Alliance denomination. We were also the smallest church in that group of attending churches. The word, meta, means “change” in the Greek language. The point of this conference was that the fundamental change that is needed in all congregations is that small groups are to be at the heart of the church; through which people make friends in the life of the church. We came back from that conference with a refrain ringing in our ears, “As the church grows larger, it must grow smaller.” Every church present at that conference was committed to the principle that small groups would be the nucleus of the congregation. The most important task of a congregation was to get people into small groups.
I must confess to you that I check our worship attendance every Sunday because I am aware that if a congregation has fifty percent of its membership in worship, it seems to be a vital congregation. We usually have about fifty percent of our membership attending worship. But the meta-church conference suggested that sixty percent of our membership needed to be involved or connected with some small group in the parish in order to it to be alive and growing. I believe that their focus is healthier than mine. That is, I focus on the percentage of people in worship; they focus on the percentage of people involved in their family life called small groups. I know. Both are needed.
This past week, I received a congregational letter from a larger parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in their newsletter, it stated that their number one goal as a congregation was to have sixty percent of their parish belonging to a small group. I wish that goal was permeating our parish as well.
Today, within our church, we have the kick-off of Koinonia Sunday where people are working so hard to get small groups started in our own church. Koinonia groups are groups of Christians who pray together, talk together, study together, become friends together. Koinonia groups are family groups.
I need to ask you a personal question: are you making new friends here at Grace Lutheran Church? Or are you one of those old time members who are content with your old friends? You have your old friends and that is enough. You feel inside, “I have old friends of five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years and I don’t need to expand my friendship circle. I have enough personal relationships.” If that is your perception, you have lost the vision of the church. For the very heart of the church is to welcome strangers into your friendship patterns. Where you get to know these new people; when you get to know their names, know their history, know their daily concerns. And one of the best ways to do this is to be part of a small group, a family group.
Jesus said, “Where ever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” There is no greater power within a congregation than that of a small group of Christians, caring for and loving each other, and lifting up each other in prayer and support.
A fourth theme: The church is to be a praying family. In the passage for today, the Bible says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, ask anything of the Father and I will give it to you.” We know not to take these words literally. What the Bible said isn’t always what it means. We know that. We have gathered in our small groups for many years and have prayed incessantly. Sometimes you can take the Bible literally and get yourself into trouble by the conclusions that you reach. If two or three people gather and pray for the healing of cancer of one particular husband, that does not mean the husband will be healed, simply because two or three Christians are praying for him.
But what it does mean is that there is something meaningful when a small group of Christian people get together and pray. It is one thing for me to pray alone. It is still another thing to pray with three hundred people at worship. But it is still another thing to get together with other Christians in a small group and pray for each other. Something happens that is very special.
“When two or three are gathered.” Sometimes, only two of us are gathered, and the small group consists of only two people. Sometimes it is in a personal face to face conversation. Sometimes it is a conversation over the telephone. At the conclusion of the conversation, we simply pray for what we have been talking about. There is power when two friends pray together, and this happens in church families.
The last thing is this: The church is mission. We, as a congregation, reach out to the homeless, world hunger, our day care. We all want to be part of a congregation that reaches out and is not focused primarily on itself. We love being part of a church which has many missions outside of itself. Being a homeless shelter. Having a day care that serves poor families. Sending our kids to the orphanage in Mexico and rebuilding Habitat for Humanity homes in Idaho. Supplying a medical clinic in Jamaica. Having a sister church in Haiti. Supporting our world hunger program. Inviting people who don’t know Christ or have a church home into our congregation.
We like being part of a church which is mission centered, where the focus is not on maintaining our institution but serving the needs of others.
The church. The word, “church,” is a great word. We are pleased that we have been baptized into this community of Christ. We have found our meaning in life through the church, the family who has taught us to live in the Spirit of Christ. Amen.
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