Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

“Simple Communion"                                                                         PLEASE READ:
A Sermon by the Rev. R. Scott Herr                                                  Romans 13:8-10
The American Church in Paris – September 4, 2011                          Matthew 18:15-20

One of my colleagues recently sent me an interesting piece on how the English language has some wonderful assortment of nouns for various groups of animals: We say a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, a school of fish, a gaggle of geese and a pride of lions. However, less widely known is a murder of crows (as well as their cousins the rooks and ravens), an exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a parliament of owls. The funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time is what you call a group of Baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates.  And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? A Congress! After what happened this summer with the US credit rating and other various news reports out of Washington, some people might feel this applies to a particular congress, but it’s easy to throw stones at our politicans! 

What do you call a group of Christians? And why? As we are gathering ourselves after summer holidays and welcoming new friends into our congregation here, what are we really doing and what are we supposed to be called? Our gospel text is the second place in the NRSV version of New Testament where the term church is used as a way to describe the Christian community (the first was in chapter 16:18 when Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”). The term normally translated “church” is the Greek word “ekklesia,” and we find that in verse 18 of our text. It literally means “[ones] called out.” The apostle Paul uses “body” language. We are the “body of Christ.” Each one of us are members of the same body, we read in Ephesians 4 or Romans 12 or I Corinthians 12… Or in I Peter we read that we are a spiritual house, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people…” I like the language that we are to be dispensers of grace.[1] More confessional language is that we are “the communion of saints.” We say in the apostles’ creed: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic (“universal”) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…” etc…

Whatever people call us, we are called by God to be a loving and welcoming community! Some of you have heard me talk about how we are not a bounded set community but a center set community. I believe we become the community that God calls us to be not when we draw lines around us of rules to delineate who’s in and who’s out, but rather as we lift up Jesus Christ as the center of our life together and welcome all in his name.

But of course that means that we must listen to what Jesus has to say to us. Matthew 18 gets at the heart of the gospel, the foundation of Christian community. If you go back and read the whole chapter, it points us to the ministry of reconciliation that is at the core of Christ’ ministry on earth. For it was Christ who came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, to reconcile us back to God. He did this primarily not through what he said but by what he did. Paul writes that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (II Cor. 5:19). And basic to the ministry of reconciliation is forgiveness. We are reminded that “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). Jesus taught us that we are to forgive others as we are forgiven by God… And there’s no limit to God’s forgiveness.

Forgiveness becomes possible in the Cross.  On the Cross Christ forgave our sins before God,  allowing us to claim forgiveness in our own lives.  Karl Barth writes, "When the pardon of God is received it enables us to forgive."  He also writes, "Let us have toward others this small impulse of forgiveness, of freedom."  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  [Whoever] is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”

This is easier said than done, of course. That’s why one of the names for the people of God was first given as Israel, which means literally, “one who struggles with God.” As the communion of saints, we are hardly perfect saints, working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Life is complicated and easy answers never satisfy. I like what H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong!”[2] We all need to recognize that in any community, people are going to be in very different places in life, and with a community as diverse as ours, very different perspectives theologically and biblically. We will very likely misunderstand and sometimes offend one another, so it is key to learn how to forgive. We talk about loving our neighbors, but until we can forgive, we cannot love.

Well, this is all important background, but if you pay attention to the text before us, it is really about how to confront one another when we have sinned against one another! The rest of chapter 18 is about forgiveness, but our text this morning is really about how to speak the truth in love. Outlined here is a process for confrontation when someone has wronged you. Notice, Christian community is not conflict-free community. Just like brothers and sisters in any family, brothers and sisters in Christ’s family will not only err, but sin. We will hurt one another, transgress against each other, offend one another… Such is community life. I like the prayer of the little English girl, “O God, make the bad people good, and the good people nice.”[3]

Honestly, we need to remember that when we experience brokenness at church, we are called to go through a process of reconciliation, the first step is letting our brother or sister know that we have been offended. If they agree and ask forgiveness, we are to forgive them. But if they don’t agree or acknowledge the offense, then we are commanded to open the discussion and increase the level of accountability. This is a good principle in all arenas of life. Deal with people one on one; face to face. If you are still treated unfairly, then involve others. The idea is that even small conflict can become a community issue if it is not dealt with honestly and fairly.

Again, this all sounds like it should work, but why does it seem that even in the church we have such a hard time with this? Why is it that one of the most common names for Christians outside of the church is the term “hypocrite”? I think at least part of the problem is rooted in our misunderstanding of and lack of belief in the gospel. Are we really justified (made right before God) by grace? Or are we justified by how well we do things, and how much of life together we get right? You see, if you find it hard to confront someone or hear someone’s critique, you are probably basing your sense of being OK not on grace, but on the law. If you cringe or get angry at people who would criticize you or confront you with your errors, you are probably assuming a rather legalist framework of faith. I don’t think any of us really like to give or hear criticism or be confronted with a rebuke or correction, but if we are confident that we are justified by not by our own righteousness by the blood of Christ, then I believe we are more free to hear and accept a brother or sister speaking the truth in love…

Our life together, is not supposed to be the ridiculous fighting and bickering of a congress of baboons. We are to be turning the world upside down by radical acts of compassion and mercy, showing deference to one another, considering others as better than ourselves and showing special favor to the outsiders, the weak and poor in our midst.

As we are gathering for communion today, I invite you to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ assertion that, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Amazing, really! We may find Christ’s presence here in a special way around the table, but Jesus is making the bold claim that when we are gathering in his name anywhere, whatever we’re doing, he is with us!

That means that that our life together ought to reflect the very person and work of Christ. That means that if the ministry of reconciliation is at the heart of what Christ was about, then the ministry of reconciliation should be at the heart of what we are about. And when we are engaged in the work of reconciliation and peace-making, as we are showing grace toward those around us in transforming ways, we will be reflecting on earth as it is in heaven, we will be securing and releasing that which reflects the Kingdom of God.

Despite a full week of catching up, I was able to meet with two friends, both who happen to be music directors of orchestras or choirs here in Paris. I asked one what he looks for in a great conductor. He said a good conductor is able to create a communion with the orchestra. He said that a really good conductor will bring a unique harmony, a unity, to the different sections of the whole. Direction is not just about keeping time. One famous director said; “It takes five minutes to learn how to move the baton. But it takes a lifetime to make music with it.”

And then he said this: “If you watch an orchestra carefully, each section will be so unified that their bodies will move together with the music. Wind sections will literally breathe together. A good conductor will literally breathe with the orchestra!” …You can see where a preacher might go with this…. Our Conductor, of course, is Christ. And we are to be so inspired with the Holy Spirit that we have the same mind as Christ… We are to be communing with the Spirit of Christ so that we are living and breathing together as the Body of Christ… Our hearts should break for the people for whom Christ’s heart breaks. Our lives should reflect the integrity and truth of the God of truth and justice. We need to breathe in daily a fresh reminder of God’s grace, unmerited favor, remembering that we are loved, that we are valued, that our lives have meaning because God has called us family and as brothers and sisters to love one another. Then, we are able to share the love of Christ with all people, regardless of whether they are a herd, a flock, a gaggle, or a congress! And quite frankly, we in the church need to be confronted when we sin against one another or sin against those outside of our community. We of all people should be speaking out for the oppressed, for the outsiders and marginalized in our society. We of all people should be speaking up when unfair stereotypes or stigmas are laid down on other groups of people. We are not to be setting up boundaries to keep people out. We are to be crossing boundaries to welcome people into the kingdom of God, embodying the radical grace of God!

As we prepare to come to this table, we gather as the communion of saints. We come before the One who has made us and calls us back into loving relationship, who calls us to remember that we are the children of God, beloved sons and daughter, heirs of the King. Here we remember that though we may be great sinners, we have a great savior! And by God’s grace, we can become something more than mere actors…

Here at this table we remember what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. And as we are fed here, as our souls are filled, we are strengthened to be Christ’ healing presence in a sin-sick world, Christ’s forgiving presence in a divided world, Christ’s compassionate presence in an often brutal and might-makes-right world, Christ’s loving presence in an often indifferent and coldly unfair world, Christ’ reconciling presence in an alienated world. But that’ going to mean that as brothers and sisters we practice loving one another through careful confrontation, limitless forgiveness, through doing the painstaking work involved in the ministry of reconciliation.

Around this table, we may gather as a congress of needy sinners and hypocrites, but we also gather as the communion of saints!  

          In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Charles Swindoll, The Grace Awakening ( Dallas: Word, 1990), 213.

[2] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York:HarperOne, 2011), 59.

[3] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1997), 32.