Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 10, 2023

Church is a team sport, writes John Wurster reflecting on Matthew 18:15-20.

Matthew 18:15-20
Year A

Various circumstances, including a hefty measure of parental concern, kept me from playing football when I was growing up. Instead, I spent a lot of time in the backyard creating a sort of one-person football game. The game involved throwing a NERF ball at various targets in the backyard: poles and posts and trees and the like. Points were accumulated based on my accuracy. I would be the quarterback for one team and then the other team, moving around the backyard, tossing the NERF ball at all sorts of targets.

The game was fun, relatively safe, and gave me something to do. Still, no matter how vividly I imagined it, the game I concocted in the backyard bore little resemblance to the actual game of football, which, of course, is a team sport with offenses and defenses and different positions filled by different players with different gifts and abilities. You can’t really play football by yourself. It’s a group activity.

There is a group aspect to Christian faith. It’s not something we can really do by ourselves, no matter how vivid our imaginations. God calls us to faith but that call inevitably leads us into the company of other people. We learn to believe and we grow in faith together. Accordingly, a prevailing image in the New Testament for the church is a body, a body with many parts. The people in the body of Christ come with different gifts and abilities, backgrounds and assumptions. Yet in all of our differences we are made one in Christ. God gathers us together as a community of faith. Left alone, we might come up with something kind of like Christianity that we could do on our own, even something fun and relatively safe; yet, no matter how vividly we conceive them, our solitary religious games at best are partial expressions of faith the way the Bible speaks of it.

Our common life, our communal life, matters significantly in our efforts to follow Jesus Christ. This week’s lesson from Matthew is one of many texts that give attention to the dynamics of community and how to keep a community strong and healthy. Jesus outlines here essentially a dispute resolution process, a process that seeks to be respectful and careful and fair.

Behind the process is the clear recognition that disputes will come along in the church. There inevitably will be conflicts and disagreements wherever two or three gathered, and that certainly includes the church. For a community to be successful, there has to be an acknowledgement that different viewpoints will be present and there has to be a place for differing viewpoints to be expressed. We will not all agree on everything. And that’s OK. To use the biblical image, the body has different parts, and the body needs different parts in order to function well.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done. Jesus’ teaching in this passage underscores how difficult it can be to consider different viewpoints within the community. Playing alone with the NERF ball in the backyard can be a lot safer. Yet God has gathered us together. Relentlessly, God gathers us together. The diversity of the community speaks to the diversity that is within the very being of God. The goal is not for us all to think alike. The goal is to worship and serve the God who has come among us in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we are called to be Christ-minded but that does not necessarily mean that we will be like-minded.

I have been greatly blessed over the many years to serve alongside a number of skilled colleagues with gifts that I do not have. They experience and express faith in ways different from my own experiences and expressions. I find it all enriching and inspiring, a present reminder that God is more than anyone of us can fully experience or express. Furthermore, we can combine our different gifts to accomplish far more together than we ever could alone. So it is with the whole congregation, the whole community.

In the congregation I currently service, we try to represent our diversity by having a variety of folks assist with worship leadership. We include children and youth in our liturgist rotation. We have also tried to expand our worship forms, so during Lent we might have a prayer tree in the sanctuary and at other times we have opportunities for people to write or draw or even dance, an acknowledgement that worship is not just something we do with our ears and, occasionally, our voices. We utilize a variety of music in worship, making selections from across the centuries and around the globe. Not everyone likes every song. (I know this because they tell me!) But usually the song that is disliked by some allows others to express their faith in an authentic way. What does it mean that one song can generate responses of approval and disapproval? It means we have a community different people. God has made it so, and so we do well to join our voices together for all the songs.

But more than just recognizing and representing our differences, our community is sustained by holding fast to what we share in common. For the things that unite us are much stronger than the differences that could divide us. I am grateful to have a place within the body of Christ. I am grateful for what we share together. I’m even grateful for the differences among us, believing that God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Questions for reflection

  1. What are the benefits of the dispute resolution process Jesus lines out in this passage? What are the assumptions behind this process?
  2. What have been your experiences of the community of faith? What have you gained? What have you learned?
  3. What are the gifts and challenges of unity and diversity?
  4. How does your community handle differences and disagreements?

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