A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 7, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 18:15-17 and Romans 13:8-10
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our gospel lesson for today may include the most direct and practical advice Jesus gives his disciples.  Except he probably didn’t say it.  There’s a word in verse 17, ekklesia, that causes a problem.  It’s a word borrowed from Greek democracy, which means the assembly of those “called out.”[1]  It’s a word used to describe the early community of followers, a word we translate, “church.”  Of course, there was not church when Jesus walked the earth.  He was a Jew calling Jews to follow him.  So, if this is from Jesus, it certainly isn’t a direct quote.

It is hints like this that make scholar think that Matthew’s community must have been in conflict.[2]  And here, Matthew places words on Jesus lips or modifies a saying of Jesus to address that conflict in his community.

As I said, the advice is direct and practical.  If you’ve got a problem with someone, go address it. If that doesn’t work, bring someone with you. And if that still doesn’t work, bring it to the community. And if the whole community can’t figure something out together, they you have to let that person go.

Implicit in this direction is the advice:  don’t let the stuff that bugs you fester.

The word ekklesia is only used twice in Matthew’s gospel.[3]  The first time is a couple chapters before today’s reading, when Jesus says that he will build the ekklesia, the church, on the somewhat rocky foundation that is his disciple Simon Peter.  The second time is here, in the context of conflict.  “Biblical scholar Sarah Dylan points out, here in its final gospel mention, the church is the site of conflict.”[4]

What do we make of this?  Well, one conclusion I’ve reached is that conflict in the church isn’t abnormal or something to feel guilty about or even a problem.  The problem comes when the conflict isn’t addressed or when the way it’s addressed isn’t grounded in love.  Grounding our relationships in love, even our relationships that are in conflict, is the point Paul is making in the passage we heard from his letter to the church in Rome.

In his book, The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs writes about his attempt to spend a year following all the rules in the Torah.  Not just the Ten Commandments; all of them.  Dietary laws, laws about punishments (he ends up throwing pebbles at someone as an act of “stoning” them), even the obscure laws like, “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” (Lev. 19:19)  What he comes up with is a fairly humorous account of an impossible task.

Jacobs writes about his attempts to harness an aspect of cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is “the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”[5]  One of the things that cognitive dissonance can do is make the person experiencing it shift their beliefs for values to make the dissonance go away.

A technique that comes out of this is to behave your way into new ways of thinking.  If you want to share more freely, one way to reach that feeling is to act like you already feel that way.  Act generously and you will become more generous.  If you want to become more faithful and God loving, which Jacobs sought to do, act more faithful and God loving.  “If I pray every day,” he wrote, “then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.”[6]

Jacobs muses about what comes first, one’s actions or one’s beliefs.  Paul says, neither.  Action doesn’t come first, nor does belief.  What comes first is the love of God.

One of the things I love about infant baptisms is how they proclaim the truth that God’s love comes first.  Even before the baby can say a “mama,” let along “Jesus,” we recognize through this sacrament that God loves this baby and claims this baby.  God claims us, not because of our faith, not because of our values, not because of our actions, but because God loves us.

Our life of faith is ultimately found in the radical and inclusive love of God.  As Christians, we find that love in Jesus – in his life, death, and resurrection.  We see in him a model for us of a love that breaks down barriers and fulfills the whole of the law.  “The commandments,” Paul says, “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

For people like Jacobs who want to follow all the rules, Paul has just made it much easier.  We not need to worry about the minutia of the law.  We are not bound to a strict, legalistic, or literal following of the law.  We fulfill the law by being grounded in love.

There is something very liberating in this.  Living by a rule of love rather than a rule of law is freeing.  It is not, however, necessarily easier.  In fact, living by a rule of love requires much more of us.  It requires thought and engagement and discernment.  “There is not script to follow indiscriminately.  Easy answers are harder to come by.  Former dichotomies of right and wrong are brought into question as we consider instead, What is loving?  Each encounter with another human being, each new situation that arises, asks to be considered through this lens of love.  That can be a challenge, for it requires us to trust God in the midst of a fluid and contextualized faith.  And it requires us to listen for the Spirit of God as she speaks today.”[7]

Love asks so much of us.  Love asks us to be open and vulnerable, to extend a radically inclusive hospitality, to risk forgiveness, to choose trust.  One of the harder things love asks of us is to live with people who are not just like us.  It asks us to share our lives with people we do not agree with all the time.  It requires of us forgiveness.

All of these things are aspects of community.  When we are grounded in love, we will be asked to live in community.  Which brings us back to the reading from Matthew.

The Anabaptist tradition teaches that we cannot be Christians by ourselves.[8]  We need our brothers and sisters to help us along the way.  That is why I am part of a community of faith.  Community is not an added attraction; it is not something optional.  Community is essential for my journey, just as it is for yours.

Niles-Discovery-Church-Logo-with-tagline-RGBThis reality is one of the reasons I embraced our slogan from the moment the writing committee shared it:  “United in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.”  This slogan expresses the demands of love.  It calls us to be grounded in love.  It proclaims our desire to live that love, as challenging a call as that is.

I’m not sure building community is humanly possible.  That is, I don’t think it is possible to build community on our own.  And the harder we try to build it on our own, the more impossible it becomes.  Author Art Gish once wrote about the paradox of community:  when we focus on building community, we will fail.  But when we open ourselves to something deeper, community can be a by-product.  “Community is never the goal,” he wrote, “but the result of a deeper decision to live in Christ’s kingdom.  Community exists only as God’s gift to us.  We cannot create it.  The question is whether we are willing to let go of all our pride, egoism, and loyalty to the false gods [including the idol of individualism] and receive what God wants to give to us.”[9]

That’s why what we’re about to do is so important.  In a moment, we will receive new members into this gift of community we call Niles Discovery Church.  They will be making a commitment, a covenant, to be part of us.  And we, just as importantly (perhaps more importantly), are making a commitment to them.  If they are to be successful, these commitments need to be grounded in love.

Elie Wiesel tells a story that he says is an old Midrashic story.  “A man is on a boat.  He is not alone but acts as if he were.  One night, he begins to cut a hole under his seat.  His neighbors shriek:  ‘Have you gone mad?  Do you want to sink us all?’  Calmly he answers them:  ‘I don’t understand what you want.  What I’m doing is none of your business.  I paid my way.  I’m only cutting under my own seat.’
“What the fanatic will not accept, what you and I cannot forget, is that all of us are in the same boat.”[10]

Love is hard, and it asks us to do hard things.  Love asks us to confront our hurts and find resolution.  It asks us to live in community with people who are not just like us.  It asks us to share our lives with those with whom we do not always agree.  It requires us to forgive one another’s wrongs.  Love asks us to do hard things.

But only the life grounded in love will be a life that fulfills our calling as followers of Jesus.


[1] Laurel Dykstra, “Love in Action,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/love-action (accessed 25 August 2014).

[2] C.f., Shelley Douglass, “Bound and Free,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/bound-and-free (accessed 25 August 2014).

[3] Dykstra, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Cognitive dissonance,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance (accessed 6 September 2014).

[6] Quoted by Joann Haejong Lee, “Living By The Word,” Christian Century, 3 September 2014, p. 18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Art Gish, “Community,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/community-1 (accessed 25 August 2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Elie Wiesel, “When Passion Is Dangerous,” The HyperTexts, (translated from French by Katherine Levin), http://www.thehypertexts.com/Essays%20Articles%20Reviews%20Prose/Elie_Wiesel_Essay_When_Passion_Is_Dangerous.htm (accessed 6 September 2014).