[Against you]

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My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context.  This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore.  Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church.  (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here.  The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”)  This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”  Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one.  And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday.  It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.

It is also helpful to take note of content as well.  Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes?  In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin.  Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.

So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did.  This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.”  Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually.  Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector.  The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin.  Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.

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Gentile Pentecost

In preparing for last week’s sermon, I ran across a WorkingPreacher commentary from 2009 written by the late, Richard Jensen, the Carlson Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  One of the things I loved about Jensen’s piece was how he described the ongoing unveiling of the Spirit as various Pentecosts through the book of Acts.  There was the Jerusalem Pentecost in Acts 2, which we will celebrate in a few short weeks.  There was the Samaritan Pentecost unveiled by Philip in Acts 8.  And there was the Gentile Pentecost which we will hear read this coming Sunday from Acts 10.  It is a good commentary, and I commend it to you as a framework for preparing for a possible Easter 6B sermon on Acts.

I find it helpful to frame the experience of Peter and the Gentiles as a Pentecost story because of how caught off guard everyone is.  Think about it.  In Acts 2, the disciples are still huddled together 10 days after the Ascension.  After three years walking with Jesus, forty days learning from the resurrected Christ, and ten days after receiving their final commissioning, the Disciples still aren’t quite sure how to be Apostles.  They are waiting for a sign from the heavens when, all of a sudden, there is wind and fire and a cacophony of voices as the Spirit arrives in power and might, and Peter finds himself standing before a crowd of thousands, sharing the Good News.

Fast forward to chapter 10.  The fledgling Christian community has seen the Spirit at work in all sorts of unexpected ways.  Three thousand were baptized that first day.  Stephen spoke words that were not his own before the Council; as did Peter and John.  The ground shook as they prayed for boldness, and Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their lack of faith, while Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  Even the Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit!  Pentecostal experiences were happening everywhere the Apostles went, and now it was the Gentiles turn.

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  The Holy Spirit does not discriminate.  She’s ready and willing to fill the heart of all who put their trust in Jesus Christ.  The Gentile Pentecost of Acts 10 can be, and is, replayed over and over again as the Good News is shared and people believe.  The floodgates of the Kingdom have been forever opened, thanks be to God, so that we Gentiles can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, know Christ and make him known.