On the Rule of Christ
September 10, 2023
Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
*** Today’s sermon is titled On the Rule of Christ.
As I grow older, I have a growing appreciation for rules. That was not always the case. As part of my psychiatric evaluation and testing that had to be completed before I could be licensed as a minister, I had to explain the circumstances surrounding my arrest in 1995. It was in my fifth year of working for the Forest Service and by that time I was well aware of what was happening in the national forests of the west coast because every day I was driving the backroads through massive clearcuts where not one single tree was left standing because that is the cheapest, quickest way to harvest timber. I had witnessed mudslides where rain-saturated soil could no longer be held on steep slopes so it would collapse into the riverbeds, sending tons of silt into what were once clear-running waters, silt that would bury salmon eggs and choke the gills of young salmon. To add insult to injury, 90% of this timber, old-growth timber, trees so big around that only 4 sections (or 3 or 2 or even 1) could fit on the back of a logging truck…90% of this timber was being exported to Japan where it was, and still is, being stored underwater. That timber, those forests, belong to the American people; they are held in trust by the Forest Service and the American people were not being informed about what was really happening outside the carefully protected corridors of forests that line all the major highways.
So when I heard that a group of environmentalists had plans to occupy the largest remaining redwood grove in northern California, I decided it was a cause worthy of the sacrifice of my clean record. I trespassed onto the private property that allowed access to the Forest Service and I sat in the road, one of more than 100 other Americans, so the bulldozers could not pass. It was Good Friday of Easter weekend. The court ruling about whether or not the timber harvest could proceed was scheduled to be released the following Tuesday and it was only because of a whistleblower that we knew the dozers would be coming in to cut road before the court decision. Why would they do such a thing? Because the revenue from the trees illegally cut over the holiday weekend would pay any fines and leave plenty to spare. So without court protection, we placed our bodies as barriers. As quickly as we were arrested for trespassing and carried away, others came to fill our spots. For four days this went on, with over 400 arrests, until the court ruled in favor of the forests and all further logging was halted.
Was it right for me to break the law? I’m not saying it was. Was it wrong for the logging company to exploit the loophole in the law? I’m not saying it was. The line between right and wrong is not always easily identified. I imagine that has always been the case, since time before mind. Sometimes the line between right and wrong is obviously crossed. Jesus offers us some sound advice in our scriptures today when we find ourselves on opposite sides of the line from someone we care about.
This passage is commonly referred to as “The Rule of Christ.” On the surface, this passage appears to be a kind of template for conflict resolution, an outlined approach for how to address grievances. This passage comes in the middle of a chapter that is full of good advice in right living. In the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks first about children and how we must open our hearts as children so easily do. He then warns of placing stumbling blocks for others and reminds us that we are to be strict with ourselves so as not to sin against another. Then Jesus offers consolation in the parable of the lost sheep, assuring us that even if we lose our way, we are of no less importance than the 99 who did not stray.
Following the parable of the lost sheep, we find our scriptures for today where Jesus instructs his followers about what to do when one person in the community sins against another. Here Jesus is drawing from his rich Jewish tradition of the laws of sanctification known as the Mishnah. The steps are clear but there are problems with the translation. For one, Jesus would not have been speaking about “members of the church” because the church did not yet exist in the time of Jesus. The book of Matthew was written in Greek in the year 85 CE. Instead of “member of the church” the original Greek used the word adelphos, translated as brother or sister. A more accurate translation would be as follows: “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If they listen to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If they refuse to listen, tell it to the church…” Here, a different Greek word is used for church. The word used here is the Greek word ekklesia (ek-lay-see-ah). The word ekklesia is translated as those who have been called out from the world and to Christ, also known as the beloved community. We can consider ourselves as ekklesia. This word was first used in the Roman Empire to identify a group of government employees whose responsibility it was to spread the news of changes decreed by the Roman emperor. There were no published newspapers and no other means of rapid communication other than word of mouth. The ekklesia were messengers. They were the first to hear the news and then tasked with spreading that news to their assigned region of the empire. The early church became synonymous with ekklesia, as they spread the good news of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and, especially, his resurrection as the Christ.
Jesus’s teachings, drawing from ancient Jewish wisdom, clearly advises us to seek to make amends and to try more than once. We will hear more about this next week when we look at the passage of scripture that follows. Our scripture passage from this week is not just a template for reconciliation. If we look more deeply at what Jesus is describing, the intention behind the process is described best in the words of biblical scholar Dale Andrews; he proposes that what Jesus is holding up for us is “the ethos of care for the other.”* The ethos of care for “the other” is, in this case, the care for the offender, care for the one who has wronged another.
I was unsure about the meaning of ethos. Ethos is “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” Jesus is instructing his followers to remember what we are all about. What is the characteristic spirit of our community? Does it accurately reflect our beliefs and our hopes for the future? These questions can be answered by how we treat one another, how we forgive or how we withhold forgiveness, how much effort we put into making amends. We are to take great care, Jesus says, because how we resolve conflict is a clear reflection of who we are and whom we follow.
Our passage today comes to a close with the familiar phrase, “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.” I love these words. Again, Jesus draws on the Jewish Mishnah to articulate the concept of divine presence whenever two or more are gathered around the scriptures. The “glory of the divine presence” is summed up in one word in the Jewish tradition. The glory of the divine presence is Shekinah, with a capital S.
In closing, I can not imagine what could be more important than our commitment, as followers of Christ, to make room for the presence of God in all our relationships, especially in those that are strained or broken. The same principles apply as we address the strain and brokenness in our culture in America in the year 2023. Jesus advises us to remember who we are and remember whom we follow. We are the ekklesia, the beloved community. Our goal (especially in resolving conflict) should be to follow the “rule of Christ” and make room for the divine presence, the Shekinah, within us, among us, always, forever and ever. So be it. Amen.
“Therefore any gathering in which Torah study is completely absent is considered a gathering of scorners. Furthermore, the statement is that there must be between them words of Torah. It is not sufficient that each studies or meditates upon Torah on his own. The words of Torah should be shared with others. However, even two people who gather to study Torah cause the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, to abide amongst them.”
Infinite Love we call God, I pray your guidance within us through the challenges of our lives. We have been told that nothing can separate us from your everlasting love; help us to be open and trusting enough to experience that as truth, and as grace. When we struggle and when we
soar, remind us to look beyond ourselves and expand our awareness that we may begin to fathom the workings of the Divine, even in the most mundane aspects of our lives. Guide us in ways to care for ourselves, and as we extend ourselves in service to others, help us to maintain a healthy balance within. Grant us peace, that we may then listen and be ready to act in a way that allows for healing, hope and possibility. This I ask in Jesus’s name, who taught us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 2:
“May your hearts be comforted, and well-equipped in charity and in all the riches of complete understanding, so you may know the mystery of God, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”