Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18A)

'The word ‘corporate’ has to do with the body, for the Latin word ‘corpus’ means ‘body.’ This is why we refer to the statue of the crucified Christ as the ‘corpus.’ When our worship book names a service ‘corporate confession and forgiveness,’ it makes the point that what is happening is the bringing of the parts of the body back into healthy relation.'


Matthew 18:15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Two weeks ago, I asked everyone to look at the service of individual confession and forgiveness found in our worship book. There is another service of forgiveness in our worship book. I’m not going to ask you to look at it, but you can if you like. It’s on page 193 in the front of the book. While the purpose of the rite of individual confession and forgiveness is to reconcile the penitent to God, the liturgy of ‘Corporate Confession and Forgiveness’ is meant to reconcile members of the community to each other. The occasions for such a service vary: it could be used as a way to deepen repentance and the power of absolution as individuals confess their sins in a group setting; it could be a means of effecting the reconciliation of families or of factions within the congregation; or it could be a vehicle for acknowledgement of sharing in corporate wrongs and corporate guilt.

 I’ve never led such a service. It would have to be used very carefully. It is a great temptation for pastors to use the words of the liturgies of confession and the prayers to try and browbeat people into feeling guilty about some issue, usually political or social, that the pastor wants them to feel guilty about. Besides, people have a very great resistance to seeing their own errors. Self-defense is part of our makeup. In order to face the truth about ourselves, we need a great sense of trust in God that we can examine ourselves without putting up defenses. If that’s not there, the only way that we can see our wrongs is if they become so destructive and obvious that we can’t hide from them, or they are approached as Jesus does with the parables, to subvert and undermine our defenses.


When we consider a parable, perhaps the Good Samaritan or the unforgiving servant or the parable of the sheep and the goats, we may, despite our best efforts to deflect, recognize ourselves and our own flaws in the parable. The stories become mirrors in which we are surprised to see ourselves.


So the service of corporate confession and forgiveness can never be used to manipulate people into recognizing their own wrongdoing. One must always recognize one’s own wrongdoing on one’s own. Then one can be reconciled with God and with others.


But the fact remains that we don’t usually think of reconciliation with others. We don’t feel the need. The reason is that we don’t understand what the Church is. We think of the Church as a business which dispenses religious products. Or we think of the Church as the property of the members, a voluntary organization of like-minded individuals which hires a pastor and staff to do things for them.


Maybe that’s not the way you view church. But this is how many people understand church, whether or not they say it that way. It’s certainly not the way the New Testament understands church. The Church is so much more than a purveyor of religious goods and services or a volunteer organization.


At some time in the past, this congregation, St Stephen, began referring to itself as a ‘faith family.’ This is Scriptural. If, in baptism, we are made brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, then anyone who is baptized is our brother or sister in faith as well. St Paul, in his letters, uses the word ‘brothers,’ and to the Galatians, he writes, ‘So, brethren, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ Those who live in a household are one family, and therefore ‘household of faith’ can also be translated ‘family of faith.’


But there is a metaphor for the church that is even more intimate, even closer, than a family. It is that of the body. The Church is called the body of Christ. ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ The word ‘corporate’ has to do with the body, for the Latin word ‘corpus’ means ‘body.’ This is why we refer to the statue of the crucified Christ as the ‘corpus.’ When our worship book names a service ‘corporate confession and forgiveness,’ it makes the point that what is happening is the bringing of the parts of the body back into healthy relation.


When Christians do not have an understanding of the church as a ‘body,’ when they do not consider themselves as fundamentally joined to each other, what happens? We consider some people as more important than others. Some may even consider themselves as ‘dispensable.’ Congregations become enamored with their own ideas of success rather than addressing issues of community health or need. Pastors and members of their congregations become intractably at odds and harden in their attitudes toward one another. It is much easier to get rid of a pastor or members of a congregation who are at odds with you rather than to come to compromise or agreement. It is much easier to leave a congregation without saying a word rather than speaking openly and honestly to our brothers and sisters.


Now, that is not to say that there is not a time when one must leave a congregation for another, or even one church body for another. There are times when a pastor and a congregation must part ways, for the sake of both the pastor and the congregation. But the concept of the ‘body’ means that such decisions are not made suddenly, lightly, frivolously, or without openness, honesty, truth and love. Thankfully, I can report that I experience honesty, truth and love in this congregation, and I hope that I also model this for you. But in my previous congregation, and in conversation with ordained and lay brothers and sisters in other places, I can tell you that the experience of alienation in the body of Christ is real, it is widespread, and it is painful, for individuals and for their families. I am close friends with one pastor whose children have all left the church behind, and when their parents ask why, they say, ‘Why would we want to associate with the kind of people who said that they worshiped God but who lied about Dad and hurt our family so badly?


Our Lord Jesus wants his disciples to live in a different way. They are to meet occasions of disagreement in the community in a spirit not of hatred, but of love. Even great sin can be overcome for the sake of the truth that we are intimately joined together in the body of Christ. The process that Jesus outlines in our Gospel reading today is often mistaken for the process of excommunication. Or it is read in a legalistic fashion, to complain about how someone went about confronting someone else. But Jesus’ words are a guide to reconciliation, not excommunication. The concern is not to shame the offender, but to protect and preserve the offender’s good name and status within the community. The offender’s wrongdoing is not unnecessarily dragged out into the open to damage the offender, but it is only publicly revealed for the health of the community. Finally, even excommunication is for the sake of the community and for reconciliation. Truth is told for the sake of bringing together again that which should be inseparable.


What would it mean for the congregations of the Church to live together in this way? A warm and fuzzy response would be that everything would be daisies and sunshine. But frankly, it would be both less comfortable and more comfortable. Less comfortable because honesty always is uncomfortable to the sinful self, the old Adam or Eve whose first response to criticism is to say, ‘Who, me?’ But more comfortable because any words spoken would be spoken truthfully and with love. It would mean far fewer pastors leaving the ministry, and far fewer lay people fleeing from churches in which they experience the antagonism present in their workplaces and schools where they should feel safe amidst God’s people.


Well, there’s no community that is perfect, no individual who is without sin. But if we believe that Jesus’ words are more than a legal process but instead a call to live a life oriented towards reconciliation; if the Church understands itself to be a body whose members are meant to live in healthy relation, then we may anticipate in our imperfect life together the peace and unity known in heaven among the saints. This is the unity for which Christ died, that we might be made one body with him and with each other through the cross. Amen

The Rev. Maurice Frontz

St Stephen Lutheran Church

Sept. 10, 2023