Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 6 September 2020; Proper 18A (RCL); Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
I said last week that we often find ourselves in Peter’s shoes; we want someone to come and make everything right. Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus said that on the rock of that faith, he would build his Church. Note that this one of only three times the word “Church” appears in the Gospels, on Jesus’ lips.
Then, when Jesus begins to tell his disciples how he must die, Peter scolds him, saying that must never happen to him. Jesus lays into Peter, calling him Satan, and telling him he is setting his mind on human things, not divine things. I said we are in Peter’s shoes because we too hope for and expect God to set things right.
I think Psalm 149 is another example of this same kind of thinking, only even worse. The psalm not only expects God to set things right, but expects that we, God’s people, will be God’s chosen instrument to do that work: Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hands; to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.
I would like to think this is not a very attractive image, but I’m afraid it is far more attractive than we would like to admit. At least in the realm of our civic theology, our national ideology, this is the way we think. We are God’s chosen instrument to bring the American way of life to the world. Even the narrative of the Passover has an element of this way of thinking: God executes judgment by killing the first-born of others.
But, last week, Jesus told Peter that he was setting his mind on human things, not divine things. We have confused our way of thinking with God’s way of thinking. And we can see the consequences all around us. All of the anger in our political process comes from knowing we are right, and wanting to impose our way of doing things on others, or it comes from feeling like others have imposed their idea of justice on us, and hoping for a savior to set them right.
But, in today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us what a divine way of thinking looks like. For the early Christians, the cross was the sign of God’s justice, and it was exactly the opposite of our expectation – not the sword at all. God accepted into the divine self all the consequences of human sin.
And so, Jesus shows us how to live that divine way of life. If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the problem in private. If your brother or sister doesn’t listen to you, take two or three others with you, and if your brother or sister won’t listen to them, take the matter to the whole church. Only then can you write that person off.
The idea is reconciliation. If your brother or sister listens to you, you have regained a brother or sister. The restoration of the world works from the bottom up, not the top down, and the responsibility falls squarely on us.
This is one of only three places where the word “Church” occurs on Jesus’ lips. It is an anachronism – the church didn’t exist when Jesus was with his disciples. This is the only community rule we have on Jesus’ lips, the only rule of the community that Matthew felt important enough to write back into Jesus’ life.
This is the Church that is founded upon the Rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. This is the divine way of thinking that we have such a hard time wrapping our heads around. If the world is going to be set to rights, it will be done by reconciliation.
We tend to think of law and justice in the abstract. When we hear talk of “Law and Order,” that is something that exists outside of us. It gets imposed from the top. Paul is saying much the same thing as Jesus is saying. All of those laws that we think of as abstract rules – you shall not murder, you shall not covet, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal – are not so much abstract rules as ways of living in community. Love sums them up. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self, and that we have received the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation requires a cost – we have to admit the hurt done, rather than turning it into anger and exacting retribution. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good example. It is sometimes called restorative justice. It’s not about punishment, but about mending relationship.
The Church built on the rock of the confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the place where reconciliation happens. It sounds like hard work, but it is the only way to set things right. Imagine if you were a member of one of the nations against which Israel imagined they were called to wreak vengeance. The cycle of violence would only continue.
The cross shows us that God has done the hard work of reconciliation, accepting into the divine self all the damage of human sin. In the confession of Jesus as the Messiah, we are invited to join that reconciliation, and restore the world from the bottom up. God has already done it from the top down, and it didn’t look like we expected. The work from the bottom up doesn’t look like we expected either, but it so much deeper a restoration than anything imposed from above would be.
That’s what Jesus means when he invites us to set our mind on divine things, not human things. We get to join in that divine work.