Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sermon Matthew 18:15-20; September 7, 2014

Link to Gospel text

Albert Einstein said,
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
This applies to scientists,
but it also applies to theologians as well.
Theologians are fond, perhaps overly fond,
of showing their erudition by using big words
and complex phrases.
But if they cannot explain the concepts simply,
or at least make sure the people know the big words
and the complex phrases,
they may not understand the subjects well enough.
And what they know is of no use to the people.

On the other hand,
every simple statement must be interpreted.
in order to make it intelligible.
Take the following statement.
‘This is a free country,’
What does this mean?
Are we free to do whatever we want?
Well, no.
If we are not free to do whatever we want,
is it still a free country?
In this free country,
what are we free to do
and what are we not free to do?’
And what is the nature of freedom?
What are the goals proper to it?
Should we even talk about the ‘proper’ nature and goal of freedom
if meaning is contextual and cannot be discussed
outside of the experience of individuals and communities?
It’s easier to simply say,
‘This is a free country.’
But to say ‘This is a free country,’
really says nothing.
It means to embark on a long and complex discussion
about the proper nature and goals of freedom.

With these two caveats in mind,
‘What is the Church?’
It is a simple question.
with an answer that turns out to be anything but simple.
Lutheran seminarians learn the definition of the Church
found in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession:
‘The church is the assembly of believers
among whom the gospel is purely preached
and the Sacraments are administered according to the gospel.’
But not that simple.
Who determines whether the Gospel is being preached purely
and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel?
And how purely does the Gospel need to be preached
and how rightly do the Sacraments need to be administered?
Believers. Word. Sacrament.
The definition is simple and straightforward.
This is its strength.
But it does not answer every question we might have about the Church.

I am no expert on ecclesiology,
theology of the Church.
One might say that I am an amateur ecclesial theologian.
But I think that in the Gospel today,
Jesus gives an even more succinct definition of the Church,
which we don’t always think of as a definition of the Church.
He says,
‘Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.’

I wonder how often we think of our gatherings that way.
Sometimes people think of church as a gathering of like-minded individuals;
or as wanting to hear a good message,
a kind of a spiritual ‘fill-up’ for a hard week,
beautiful music, to meet with friends,
or simply as something we’ve always done.
I’m not accusing any of you of thinking these things,
although maybe some of you have from time to time.

But Jesus seems to say that his presence is what makes Church happen.
These two elements – gathering in Christ’s name
and Jesus’ presence,
seem to be a basic and elementary definition of Church.
But it is also a dynamic definition.
When the Church gathers in Jesus’ name,
Jesus is present.
Believing this might make a huge difference in someone’s life.
What if they believed that when they gathered in Jesus’ name,
that he himself was present in order to be there for them?
This is a radical redefinition of Church,
by the very one who defined it.

Moreover, so many of us stop ‘coming to Church’
or even expecting anything from church,
because we don’t hear a good message,
or we don’t feel we need a spiritual fill-up,
or we don’t like the music, or we don’t have any friends there,
etc. etc.
If we believe that Jesus is present,
none of those reasons really matter much anymore.

My predecessor and I have said at different parts of the liturgy,
Christ is in our midst.
Christ is in our midst!
To believe this is to understand not only the church differently,
but the world differently.
Now, of course, like any simple statement,
there is more to say.
It is not enough to simply say we can get together and say,
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’
and then Jesus will be there in a way that we can discern.
Fortunately, the Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church
are there to guide us.
Martin Luther said that there were seven marks of the Church
which you could look for in order to see if the Church was present;
Firstly, the Word,
secondly, baptism; third, the Lord’s Supper,
Fourth, the office of the keys or the forgiveness of sins.
fifth, the office of the ministry,
sixth, prayer, praise and thanksgiving,
and seventh, the holy possession of the sacred cross,
by which Luther means that the Church that is truly the Church
suffers for the sake of Christ.
‘These are the true seven principal parts of Christian sanctification
or the seven holy possessions of the Church.’

So when we gather in Christ’s name,
he is here among us.
But there is another reason to prefer the old English,
‘in our midst.’
Not only is Christ among us,
he is also between us.
This helps us to understand the part
that comes before,
the part which is cited in every church constitution
and pastors all hope never needs to be followed.
It unfortunately has been  unfortunately has been simply legalized.
But behind the process is the reality of the Church.
The community gathered around Jesus
is a community which must be founded on truth
but a community in which the members uphold each other in weakness.

And so, when a grievous sin is found in the community,
it is not tolerated, for the Church is holy.
But neither is the sinner condemned, for the Church is for sinners.
How is Jesus present in the community?
At least in this case, he is present this way:
the members of the community act as Jesus,
to reprove but also forgive sin.
As a good pastor does, they preach Law and Gospel,
the Law which condemns us
but the Gospel which promises us God himself.
They do all things for the sake of the offender,
so that the offender can be restored to community.

This public reproof and forgiveness happens in rare cases.
More often, forgiveness is offered through confession and absolution.
But there will be times when this is called for.
As in so many other things,
the Church has failed spectacularly in its task.
And yet we have the promise of Christ
that he is in our midst;
both among us and between us,
so that we may be a people unified in his presence.