As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another. Matthew Skinner
Today’s episode in Matthew
In Matthew chapter 18, Matthew puts words into Jesus’ mouth that reflect issues in his community. Yet, his words are consistent with the way Jesus would have approached differences as he addresses how his disciples are to behave towards one another as they begin to travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. One might imagine that his comments are particularly addressed to the process by which the disciples will negotiate differences and conflict between them.
If Skinner’s assertion that we belong to one another is to have any meaning then we have to understand Jesus’ teaching on our responsibility to one another, and our individual accountability for one another, especially around issues of difference and potential conflict.
“No one is going to tell me what to do”, we mutter to ourselves and, “if I find I don’t like it, then I will just leave”.
In a culture where Episcopalians have come to treat membership of the Church as another version of our membership of any number of voluntary and non-profit organizations, the idea that we are responsible for, and accountable to, one another rings alarm bells. Leaving is often our solution of choice when faced with the inevitability of conflict in our social worlds.
I love Rick Morley’s tongue in cheek characterization of so much of our behavior in the Christian community in a blog entitled Before you un-friend :
If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And, while you’re at it, CC the bishop. If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Unfriend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church.
Matthew 18: 15-20 has become ingrained in our collective unconscious as the epitome of the abusive and oppressive way religious communities treat individuals and the way we pass this abuse on in our treatment of one another. These verses are the basis of the practice in some religious communities called shunning. Shunning is a form of officially sanctioned scapegoating.
For not to
We don’t particularly care for the experience of being accountable to another person, especially if the other seems to be just like us, with no more nor less claim to authority than we possess. Yet, what happens if we read Matthew within a new frame created by substituting the word to with the word for?
I take Jesus to mean that within our community life we are to be accountable for one another. This means looking out for one another. Sometimes, looking out for one another involves addressing behaviors that are harmful to relationships between individuals. Sometimes, looking out for one another makes it necessary to challenge one another when if left unchallenged, our behavior might endanger the stability of the whole community.
Watch our for your verbs
We should not be surprised when we disagree with one another. Conflict is rarely the problem, but fear of conflict often is. Fear of conflict makes us secretive and avoidant. It cultivates an atmosphere of paranoia in groups and communities.
We might take particular note of Jesus’ final words in this section. He does not say where two or three agree in my name – he says where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them. the only agreement necessary is the agreement to gather. This is why despite our differences, worship has always been the glue for gathering in Anglican communities.
In The Essential Ingredient, David Lose commenting on Matthew 18:15-20 asks:
So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?
These are great questions on Homecoming Sunday when: peering into autumn’s transitions, we find that we belong to one another.