Mt 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20

The Rev. Marc Vance

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

September 7, 2014

Well, here we go again.  We bought a new car last month and the dealership sent the info so I could get it registered properly and in order to do so I had to go to  Granted, I like being able to get all that taken care of from the convenience of my computer screen rather than going to the BMV office and sitting there waiting, but that points to what makes it increasingly challenging for us to understand, much less live, even basic Christian practice.  For example, how far do you think you would need to walk down the street before you saw someone with their nose stuck in some kind of screen or another, oblivious to the rest of everything around them?  And how many?  Lord knows, there is plenty of that behind the wheel.  Just take a walk down the halls of Congress or look at how it is portrayed in the media.  Anyone working together anywhere?  We, as a town, recently experienced some vandalism that was particularly unsettling.  And the one thing each of these things has in common is that it is all about “me”.  (Not me, personally!, but me generically.)

But where that kind of separatism rears its ugly head, there is the opportunity to revisit what our faith teaches, which is that the whole thing is nothing if not a “we” thing.  Let me show you what I mean.  Look at the baptismal service on p. 303 in the Prayer Book (that is, the Book of Common Prayer), one of the two primary sacraments that form the basis of our particular expression of the faith.  When asked to support the baptismal candidates, how do we respond?  [“We will!”]  On p. 308, immediately following the baptism, we all say together what?  [“We receive you into the household of God.]  “We receive you.”  Not “I receive you” or “You are received,” but we receive you.  We, all of us gathered here together as one body receive this new person for God’s kingdom so they may “share with us” in the grace that is received.  That is why we do not do private baptisms (except under extraordinary circumstances).  It is a “we” thing, an event celebrated among the community, the grace offered and received among the gathered body of Christ.  And further, we receive you “into the household of God.”  Not into this congregation (alone), not into the Episcopal Church (alone), not into the town of Columbus or the state of Indiana, but into God’s house, the household of God.  Likewise, when we pray together, (p. 364) we pray in the words our Savior taught us: Our Father.  Not just my personal Lord and Savior, but our savior.  In teaching this prayer to the disciples and throughout his ministry, Jesus did nothing by or for himself, but always in and for the community of disciples, Israel, and of all others who would receive the revelation of his identity.  And as that community grew globally, we came to make a common declaration as we reaffirm our faith when we say together (p. 358): We believe (in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  We see it in marriage (p, 423), at the time of death (p. 462), and when the choir sings.

Baptism, prayer, the Creed, worship, ministry, scripture, tradition….  Across the board, it is about our common life; about who we are, not just as individuals who proclaim the good news of Christ, but who we are collectively as the body of Christ, gathered together for worship and ministry in and as God’s house, and how we are to live, not just as individuals, but in our common life as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  There are private dimensions to our faith, certainly - prayer, giving, etc. - but they are never private in a vacuum.  This is not solely about personal faith.  This is about community, the loving relationships we have with God and one another.  For all the frustrations that any of us can name about living in community, let’s see if you recognize any of the benefits it offers: It can give us a solid foundation for life, develop a strong sense of identity, of belonging and purpose.  Being a member of a community might afford us a particular kind of support and care in response to crisis or disaster that otherwise would be absent.  You undoubtedly can point to others and even have personal examples, but what all this demonstrates is that, for the Christian community, it is not about “me,” but “we.”

Scripture has repeatedly pointed out over the past few weeks that Jesus is building a new community.  A community is made up of individuals, of course, but ask anyone who has ever taught a class or made a group presentation or led a meeting (or worship!): There is a synergy that exists that makes the collection of individuals together more than just individuals in the same place at the same time.  There is a group dynamic, a group identity.  Not unlike Paul’s reference to fulfilling the Law in his letter to the Romans, or the explicit directives given in preparation for the Passover, as we heard in Exodus, the directives and Law were given to the community for the sake of the community so that the directives and the Law could have the effect of instructing the community in God’s ultimate intent for the members of God’s community to love God and one another.  The point of Jesus’ teaching is for the sake of the health of the body of Christ, gathered together collectively for worship and ministry in and as God’s house, and how we are to live, not just as individuals, but in our common life as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  Even where there are as few as two or three gathered, this is about the commitment to the priority of life together in community.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Briedenthal, former professor at General Seminary in New York and now the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio observes in his book entitled Christian Households that we are made to be in relationship, to love God and one another.  “We value life together,” he says, “because we value the opportunities to embrace our availability to one another in the name of Christ, to transform our violence into communion, and to allow our relations with one another to become a livening temple of praise to God.”  As those who experience clinical depression know, as those who are made to be outcasts for any reason attest, as Jesus clearly understood, there is little that is more painful than the emptiness of isolation.  And so we are taught that even when there are as few as two or three gathered together in and as God’s house, the health of Christ’s body and its members depends on how we live, not just as individuals, but collectively in our common life as disciples of the risen Lord.

Part of what makes Columbus such a good community in which to live is its municipal resources like the hospital and other first responder services, a strong employment/economic base, and its commitment to the arts.  And we saw it in the broad faith-based response to the incident of vandalism I mentioned.  Part of what makes St. Paul’s such a good community in which to foster our grounding and identity as Jesus’ disciples are things such as the faithful leadership of those who, like for our children’s ministry and Confirmation and adult forum, nurture the faith of all our members; or who ensure the sacredness of our worship and the vitality of the overall life of this community; or who respond with no fanfare or public recognition to those among us with special need.  I think everyone who worked together so diligently for yesterday’s yard sale, with more than $900 going solely to fund outreach endeavors, wonderfully demonstrates the value and commitment to the well-being of the community.  There are a lot of “me”s who make the ministries like this among us happen, none of it for the sake of “me,” but all of it for the sake of the “we” of the community.

We are not just a collection of individuals who happen to converge on this building at the same time each week by chance.  This is a “we” thing.  We are Christ’s body gathered together in a community whose overarching purpose is to love God and one another.  Whether with me or just with two or three other members of this community of faith or the whole lot of us together, across the board, it is about our common life; about who we are, both as individuals who proclaim the good news of Christ and who we are collectively as the body of Christ, gathered together for worship and ministry in and as God’s house, and how we choose to live, not just as individuals, but in our common life as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  And just so you know, I have been doing an awful lot of work on the website lately.  (You might want to check; no more three-year-old information!)  But one thing you can be sure of is that I will not change the domain name to!