Living in Church Community in Tumultuous Times
One of the beautiful parts of Christianity is that it brings together so many people of different backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, cultures, and more (or at least that is what it should do). We are brought together because we have been convicted of our sin, and we have heard the amazing news in Jesus, that we are forgiven! We are set free and we are initiated into a new kind of life. We are brought together because we are united in the love and grace of Jesus Christ. And because of this we are empowered to work for peace and justice in our world today!
Sometimes there will be disagreements between us. Sometimes we may even misinterpret what another person is trying to say. For this reason, there are certain norms for how we are to live together in fellowship with one another. Rules that Jesus taught his disciples and that have passed down to us for when there is conflict in the Church, as there inevitably will be. We find these regulations in the Gospel according to Matthew chapter 18 beginning with verse 15.
Here Jesus explains that if one member of the church sins against another, they are to go to that member in private first, in order to try and resolve the conflict. If that does not work, then that one who has been wronged is to take two or three other members with them to meet a second time to make sure there are witnesses. If that still does not lead to repentance and reconciliation then the matter is to be brought before the whole church. And still if there is no settlement of the dispute then that person should be cast out of the community.
These same rules, that describe how disagreements and discipline are to be handled, can be found in the constitution of St. Paul Lutheran Church. There is a very clear process about how these situations are to be handled, from direct contact, to a small group of testifiers, to the whole congregation, and then as a last resort, excommunication. This was even the process that Martin Luther went through before he was excommunicated by the Pope way back in the 1500’s!
We should not forget, however, that almost immediately after the passage about settling disputes Matthew says this:
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Jesus had said we are to treat such a one who refuses to repent as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Well, how did Jesus act toward the Gentiles and the tax-collectors? By offering them forgiveness, and a place at the table! Yes, there are going to be times when people do terrible things that mean they must leave the community of faith, especially when they are unwilling to repent; but Jesus’s teaching and his example for us is to, whenever possible, push toward forgiveness and reconciliation. To reach out to one another in love.
The Eighth Commandment says this: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” And Luther’s interpretation in the Small Catechism says “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
May these be the guiding factors in our life as community together at St. Paul Lutheran Church. May we seek to see others and interpret them and what they say in the best possible light. May we move together toward repentance when we have sinned and forgiveness when we are wronged. Toward healing, grace, love, and new life in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Nathaniel Allen