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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 18): September 4, 2005.

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20
Give me understanding,
that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
--Psalm 119:34

First Reading
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned
with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.'
--Service Book and Hymnal #348

Prophet, psalmist, and poet conspire to put before us the conundrum once posed so poignantly by Paul the apostle in a reading we heard from Romans earlier this summer: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.... I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind" (7:15, 19, 23a). Paul concludes his thought with a sign of frustration, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" while with his next breath he exults "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (25a).

Now nearing the end of his epistle to a church he had yet to visit personally, the apostle in a more irenic mood remembers in today's reading the words of the Master that the early tradition of the church had passed down in which Jesus is found quoting Torah: "Love your neighbor as yourself." After puzzling through in the preceding chapters God's eternal election of Israel in the light of what he felt to be God's turn to the Gentiles in his own apostolic calling (see Stendahl's Final Account, 9-44), Paul here chooses as he rarely does in his letters to cite the ipsissima verba of Jesus: "Love," Paul expands on Jesus' pronouncement in tones reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 13, "does no wrong to a neighbor," concluding that "therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (v. 10).

Pastoral Reflection

"Discipline" is a little-appreciated dimension in the life of being a disciple from which the word itself derives. At its best discipline refers to the formation or process through which one is "discipled." In this regard Paul's counsel to the Romans to count love of neighbor as the fulfillment and summary of all that Torah was meant to teach is his effort to instruct the church at the heart of the empire in the discipline of love. By implication such bad behavior as the "reveling and drunkenness," "debauchery and licentiousness," "quarrelling and jealousy" that Paul singles out for mention are examples of actions that offend the command to love one's neighbor and do him/her no wrong.

Our reading from Matthew 18 contains a passage that is said to be the only Scripture cited in the ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations (in the section dealing with "Discipline and Adjudication of Members"). The passage likely owes its origin to a practice of the early church that encouraged a process for reconciling differences between members. Over time it may have evolved into a process of handling accusations of "sinful" behavior as in the passage itself and eventually charges of false teaching. The advice is simple and outlines a common-sense approach that experts in conflict resolution still recommend. It begins with personally, by yourself, going to the person with your concern. "If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." If you are not listened to, "take one or two others with you" as witnesses. And, "if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." Finally, "if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

In his careful and pastorally sensitive published work on Matthew's Gospel and in various lectures I have attended over the years, Mark Allan Powell has helpfully exegeted this passage along with the ensuing, often misunderstood, words of Jesus, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (v. 18). Powell explains that "the phrase 'to bind and to loose' refers to the rabbinic activity of discerning the will of God for the present day by determining how commandments of the law apply in contemporary situations," that is, whether they are to be strictly interpreted (bound) or judged inapplicable (loosed). Jesus himself was known to both bind the law in matters of adultery (5:27-28) and loose it in matters relating to the Sabbath (12:1-7). The church, Powell argues, is here authorized by Jesus to continue his important activity of "binding and loosing" (God with Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995], 67-68).

In an important application of the church's authority to bind and loose, Powell suggests that this passage should be understood as a significant scriptural authorization for the church's responsibility to consider such controverted issues as the ordination of persons in committed same-sex relationships and the blessing of such relationships by the church. Binding and loosing becomes a way in which the church is authorized by Scripture to reconsider a teaching--especially one involving possible discipline--and change its mind and teaching, including whether certain behavior constitutes "sin," if it judges necessary. The church's rethinking and "loosing" of Jesus' own teaching on divorce (5:31-32; 19:3 ff.) is one such example. At the same time, the bottom line of church discipline, letting the "offender [who] refuses to listen even to the church" be treated as "a Gentile and a tax collector" is not likely the final excluding/expelling punishment it initially may appear to be, Powell believes. He argues that we need to hear Jesus' harsh-sounding conclusion as tinged with a bit of Jesus' characteristic irony, for who was more pilloried by his opponents for his indiscriminate welcome of and table fellowship with "Gentiles and tax collectors" than Jesus' himself?

As Powell also points out in another recent book I highly commend, Loving Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Jesus' concluding promise "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" is not to be understood as a defense of poorly attended church gatherings. Rather, Powell asserts, two or three is not to suggest a spiritual quorum of how few it takes for Jesus' presence to be felt but, rather, how many. "It takes at least two or three, which is to say more than one," implying that "the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ is not realized in any one individual but, definitively, in the fellowship or interaction that takes place between individuals" (pp. 32-33). For Christ to be truly present he needs a "body," a healthy, disciplined body functioning together in love. As Brian Wren's song puts it, "Love alone unites us, wakens and invites us. Nothing else can root and ground us. Habits of compliance, dictates and defiance, soon dispirit and confound us. If by law we keep score, pride will soon divide us. Love alone shall guide us!" (Bring Many Names ([Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1989], #24). JR
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Author:Rollefson, John
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Previous Article:Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (proper 17): August 28, 2005.
Next Article:Alterity.

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