Christian Community’s Distinct Nature

Matthew 18:15-20

We hear a lot these days about community. Why?  Why is community—and in particular, why is Christian community—so important?

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created Adam.  Adam was given stewardship over all creation.  He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God.  But it was not good for him to be alone.  It was not good, in other words, for the man to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent individual.  He needed community.  So God, we read, created Eve.

The first man and woman dwelled together in community.  Much drama accompanied their life together, granted.  They shared the forbidden fruit; their once enjoyable work became toil and labor; their children argued and fought, even to the point of murder.  And yet, the story continues, God began to work his good will through them in their community.

God wants community, we infer; even with all the drama that comes along with it.

But can we take community too far?  In the sixth chapter of Genesis we read about the whole human population working in community against God.  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually, the Scriptures tell us (Gen. 6:5).  And it happens again only a few chapters later, when the people conspire to build a tower to subdue God, as if that were possible; and God confounds their language and scatters them abroad.

Community is good.  Community is necessary.  But community can go too far: community can go against God.

So how do we keep our Christian community, this church, in check?

The church is different from other communities.  Let’s think this statement through for a few minutes.

As a starting point, consider marriage.  It is a small community, consisting of two persons (like Adam and Eve).  When two people get married, there are many hopes and dreams that come into play.  Through the relationship prior to marriage, these two persons have discovered many things they share in common; they formulate goals that include one another; and they agree that together they harmonize better as a unit than they do on their own.  In time, if the couple has children, this community grows, sure.  But my point here is that this community has been founded upon human ideals.  Even if the marriage is intentionally Christ-centered, it is founded upon the human ideal intentionally to look to Jesus Christ for leadership.

Now, isn’t marriage a picture of other communities?

A community forms because of some ideal.  Whether a school, an organization focused on diminishing poverty in San Antonio, a civil engineering firm, whatever—a community forms with an ideal to be realized, or to die trying.

But the church, unlike all other communities, is not focused on human ideals.  Rather, the church is a present divine reality.  We follow Christ, the incarnation of God who lived and died as one of us then rose again and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  But now, in between his resurrection and his second coming, his disciples have been scattered to the far regions of the world.  It is a privilege to be part of a Christian community—a church—at all.

Christian community is a gift from God we cannot claim, like sanctification.  It is a reality in which we participate, not an ideal we attempt to realize.  In the church, there is no place for fashioning a visionary ideal of community.

Now we come to today’s passage. We are the church, a community established and maintained by Jesus Christ.  But the church is a community unlike any other: a reality in which we participate rather than an ideal we try to realize.  As such, in this reality there will be disagreement; there will be dysfunction; there will be conflict.  Jesus knows this.  And Jesus tells us very plainly here how to deal with it.  But if I can nub and tag today’s passage in a simple sentence, it is this:

As the church, we must be reconciled to one another.

Reconciliation comes when we realize the nature of Christian community.  We enter into the church not as demanders, not attempting to realize our own ideals, but as thankful recipients.  Think about your own baptism.  Or maybe you’re too young to remember it, so think about baptisms you’ve witnessed.  These are times of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We enter the Christian community as thankful recipients.  We participate in this already extant reality called the church.  This is the nature of community we should always experience in the church.

But our mindsets don’t always stay that way, do they?  We don’t always remain grateful recipients.  We begin to think we have a lot to offer; maybe even more to offer Christ than he has to offer us.  This is a danger zone.

What is your understanding of the church?  What is your agenda?  Do you see the church as an organization to influence local politics?  Do you see the Christian community as a wholesome place to raise the kids?  To you, should the church follow a slick business model to market the good news of Jesus Christ to the consumer-oriented world around us?

Now, any time your own agenda disagrees with someone else’s, conflict results.  In a church this size, such agenda-clashing conflicts can happen a lot.  Sometimes the nature of these conflicts rises to a high enough level that feelings get hurt.  Sometimes we feel that people may have even sinned against us.  Sometimes people do in fact sin against us.  Reconciliation becomes necessary.

But reconciliation can be difficult—especially when we’ve taken ownership of our own agendas, our “babies”; and we become demanders rather than thankful recipients. “I’m gonna live or die on this one,” we tell ourselves, “and no one—not the vestry, not the rector, not even the bishop!—no one’s gonna stop me!”

If someone in the church has offended you, go to that person.  But go not as a demander.  Go instead with the willingness to hear him or her out.  Maybe there’s a side to this thing you’re not seeing.  Maybe your offense is unfounded.  Or maybe not.  But don’t go with your mind made up beforehand to get your way, that no one will change your mind, that no one’s gonna stop you.

Then, if you’ve truly gone with the right attitude, that Christ’s agenda is ahead of your own; and you still feel offended or sinned against, that’s when you bring someone else into it.

Do you see?  It’s a system of checks and balances given to us by Jesus Christ.  Perhaps you have been sinned against.  Or perhaps you haven’t.  Either way, in going humbly to the one who has offended you, the goal is to be reconciled to one another; the goal is to live in harmony with each other—whether the other is a regular churchgoer, a vestry member, a priest, the rector, or even the bishop.

This is the church.  It exists not so that we can accomplish our human ideals, our individual agendas.  Rather, it exists for the glory of Christ.  Christ’s glory is why it existed before we ever got here; and Christ’s glory is why it will continue to exist long after we pass on.

Disunity, disharmony, and dysfunction do little to glorify Christ.  Reconciliation does much.  Let us therefore be reconciled to one another.

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