Sunday, September 6, 2020

Unity Matters


September 6, 2020 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18A
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 18:20.)

Years ago, not long after I was ordained, I received a phone call from a distraught mother. Her son had received a diagnosis of an uncurable disease—not fatal but life-changing and life-limiting and utterly unalterable—and she wanted me to do her a favor. She wanted me to pray. She wanted me to pray that, despite everything the doctors had told her, God would heal her son. Without hesitation, I agreed. I believe in miracles. As unlikely as it may be, I believe that sometimes God reaches down and intervenes in our lives in ways that doctors cannot explain. “I would be happy to pray,” I told her. But that wasn’t all she wanted.

“I need you to call another priest—another member of the clergy—and I need you two to pray about this together.” I hesitated. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she explained, “I was reading the Bible today, and I read the passage where Jesus tells his disciples that, when two or three of them agree about anything they ask for, it will be done by their Father in heaven. I believe with all my heart that, if you and another priest pray about this, God will hear you and grant your request.” I let silence fill the space between us. This wasn’t faith. This was magic. This was Christianized witchcraft. But I wasn’t strong enough to say so. I wasn’t strong enough to tell this distraught mother that God doesn’t work like that. Instead, I started to explain that the prayers of laypeople are just as strong as those of clergy and to tell her that I didn’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said that to his disciples, but she was convinced, and I wasn’t willing to speak clearly enough to disabuse her of that notion. So I promised her that I would do as she asked. 

I didn’t tell my boss and ask him to pray with me. He would have recognized right away what kind of foolish trouble I had gotten myself into. And I couldn’t call any of my colleagues close by. They, too, would have seen my request for what it really was—the half-hearted prayer of a spiritual coward who didn’t have the guts to tell a grieving mother that he couldn’t conjure up a miracle on demand no matter how many other clergy he prayed with. So I called one of my friends and colleagues back in England—the one whose brand of Anglican Christianity most prominently features the gifts of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues and the laying on hands for healing. But even he saw straight through my request. “You know, God doesn’t work like that,” he explained. I told him that I knew that already but that I had promised the mother that I would do what she asked and I needed him to pray with me about this thing. And so we prayed, even though I knew that God wasn’t going to use our prayer to give that mother what she wanted.

God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t look down and say, “Oh look! Two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, and they’re agreeing with one another about their prayer request, so I suppose that I had better fulfill their request.” No, despite what today’s gospel lesson says, God has not given us the power of communal wish-fulfillment. But God has given us a power, and I believe that the power we have been given is even greater. As followers of Jesus, who believe that, in Christ, the kingdom of God has come to the earth, we have been given the power to act on God’s behalf in order that God’s kingdom might be manifest in us. 

You may remember hearing some words from today’s gospel lesson a few weeks ago when we heard Jesus tell Peter that he is being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Today, we hear those words spoken a second time, but this time Jesus is speaking not only to Peter but to all of us. We are the ones to whom Jesus has given that authority—not as individuals but as the church, as the ecclesia, the collective body, literally, of the “called-out” ones. Jesus has called us together in order that, as his followers, he might invest in us the authority to decide what to bind and what to loose, what is required and what can be left aside, what is of God and what is not. Because that power resides in us, we no longer need a voice to thunder from the clouds in order to hear what God is speaking to us. When we hear the voice of the church speaking as one—literally as a symphony, as a harmony of voices that speaks one truth—then we have heard the voice of God declaring where God’s kingdom shall be found.

But how is that possible? How is it possible for selfish, greedy, sinful human beings like us to get it right every time? Have you seen what scandals have rocked the church in this and every generation? Have you read what horrific deeds have been done in the name of Christianity by the church’s leaders? I do not pretend that simply because Jesus has handed over the authority to declare what is God’s will that the church will always be on the right side of history. Far from it! But I do believe that we have been given the power to make clear to the world what is God’s will whenever we are united in Christ’s name.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind and loose on the earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. Truly I tell you, if two or three of you agree about anything, it will be done by my Father in heaven. How is that possible? Why is that true? Because, as Jesus says to us, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Throughout history, Christians have spent immeasurable time and energy wondering about the day when Christ will return as he promised. That day is absolutely worth waiting for, but how much time and energy do we spend recognizing that Christ is already here whenever two or three of us are gathered in his name? That is what he promises us. If the kingdom of God has come to the earth in Jesus Christ, then that kingdom—that reign, that authority, that rightness—is here on the earth whenever and wherever we gather together in Christ’s name.

And the key to all of that, Jesus tells us, is unity. It only works—the kingdom of God is only manifest in us—when the unity of that kingdom is manifest through us. That’s why Jesus explains in such detail the lengths to which we must go in order to preserve the unity between us. “If a member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” And, if that doesn’t work, then two or three others are to be recruited to try, and, if that doesn’t work, the whole community should get involved. Finally, if even that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to treat the one who breaks our unity as a Gentile and a tax collector. What remarkably harsh and final words coming from the one who consistently welcomed misfits and outcasts to his table! But those are not idle words or an empty threat. Jesus knows that only when the power of forgiveness and reconciliation are manifest throughout the community of his followers can he truly be there among them. Once that power vanishes, he does, too.

I’ve spent so much time and energy over the last few months trying to figure out how and when we can come back together in person that I haven’t paid enough attention to the real threat to our spiritual community. As hard as it is for us to stay apart from one another because of the pandemic, the real danger we face isn’t the coronavirus, which may have the power to push us apart physically and even to kill us if we are not careful but alone cannot dismember the body of Christ. No, the real threat to us is the threat of disunity, which, as the thing that has the power to undermine Christ’s presence among us, is truly the work of evil. And, in this time of physical separation and political uncertainty and cultural division, we can see all around us how the forces of evil are at work, trying their best to pull us apart in ways that seek to rob God’s kingdom of its power on earth.

But we have hope. Our hope is not that we would overcome our differences in order that Christ might be present among us. Instead, our hope is that, because Christ is already present among us, we have the power to overcome whatever differences and disagreements seek to pull us apart. God did not wait for humanity to get its act together before sending God’s Son to the earth. God came and brought God’s kingdom to the earth in order that we, in all our brokenness, might be made whole. As those who have been restored to unity with God in Christ, we have been given the power to make that unity manifest throughout the earth. Now, that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to reach out to the one who has wronged us and seek reconciliation quietly instead of sharing our hurt with the world in order to bring shame upon our adversary. But that is the work of God’s reign on the earth. That is where Jesus is to be found. For where two or three are gathered together despite all that would pull them apart, there Jesus and the power of God’s kingdom will be found—even right here in the midst of us.

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