Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
September 7, 2014
In 346 CE the Emperor Constantine made a distorted, diluted version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and made it a tool for his military conquests. Very soon after, the spiritual vigor of the Church declined precipitously. Many who hungered for spiritual renewal withdrew to desert regions from Egypt to Syria and became known as the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). While some of what was written by and about them seems outlandish to us, they kept authentic Christian faith alive. I have found many of their sayings to be of great value today.
One of them struggled with his temper, often having angry outbursts at the brothers in his house. He decided that he would become a hermit and live in a hut by himself so he would have no one to be angry with. The brothers brought him food and water every day but did not speak to him. One day he kicked over his water jug and in a fit of anger smashed it against the wall of his hut. He immediately realized his anger came from within him, and he needed the help of the brothers to overcome it. Repentant, he returned to the community and the brothers welcomed him back to the journey to righteousness.
We just read from Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything except love. With today’s Scriptures, God is telling us that the pursuit of righteousness is not an individual competition sport but a team endeavor which we owe each other as the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Matthew 18:15-20 is such a perplexing passage some have suggested it must have been added later and didn’t come from Jesus. It seems to refer to the church before the church existed, and records Jesus speaking derogatorily about Gentiles and tax collectors – quite out of character for him.
The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia, which the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used at Jesus’ time) used for the Hebrew word qahal which means a gathering or an assembly. Jesus did not speak Greek, so he probably used the Aramaic equivalent. Also, in an effort to be gender neutral, the NRSV uses “member of the church” in place of the word for “brother.” I’ve taken the liberty of slightly modifying the English in hopes of better conveying Jesus’ words.
“If a fellow disciple sins (against you), go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the disciple listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the disciple refuses to listen to them, tell it to the gathering of disciples; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the gathering of disciples, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Often this paragraph is isolated from the rest of the chapter, emphasizing judgment rather than grace. Matthew 18-20 bridges Jesus’ Transfiguration and going to Jerusalem and the cross. He had held up a child to illustrate greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. He had warned about the danger of causing “little ones” to stumble. He had told the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep going after the one that was lost. As we will see next Sunday, right after this Peter asked how many times he must forgive. This paragraph encourages us to go to great lengths to help each other pursue righteousness.
Verse 18 repeats 16:19 about binding and loosing and adds agreeing in prayer and Jesus’ presence with even two or three gathered in his name. This is neither harsh judgment nor carte blanche for prayer nor casual affirmation of low attendance. Rather, it teaches that we owe each other all out team pursuit of righteousness.
That is what I hear from God out of the space between Matthew 18:15-20 and Romans 13:8-14. We sometimes hear love proclaimed as a rationalization for disregarding ethical principle, but makes love both the root and expression of righteousness. Romans 13:13 is clear that love precludes reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy. Personal sin and relational sin are equivalent.
Though Paul doesn’t mention it, love that fulfills the law presupposes loving God which Deuteronomy 6:5 puts at the head of the list of God’s commandments. In Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27, Jesus makes loving God the first and greatest commandment.
Then Jesus went on to quote Leviticus 19:18 with the parallel second commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. So Paul was consistent with both the Hebrew Scripture and Jesus when he wrote that love is the fulfilling of the law. Leviticus 19:34 indicates both how radical this love is and ties it back to God. “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
In Galatians 5:14 Paul affirmed again, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And James, who is often pitted against Paul, wrote “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (2:8) This is the consistent teaching of the New Testament.
As an incentive for righteous living, Romans 13:11-12 urges paying attention to the time, to wake up and live right. Paul clearly had in mind the time until the appearing of Jesus, but he did not mention that specifically. He did not tell people to shape up because they’d soon have to face Jesus’ judgment. Instead, he encouraged them to begin living now the way they anticipated they would be living when Jesus appeared.
In a society much more friendly to the Church (as least as a social institution), two millennia on from Paul, we have lost some of the edge of anticipating the appearance of Jesus in glory. We’re too content to shift into spiritual neutral and wait. In the space between what we’ve read from Matthew and Romans today, God tells us to wake up and work together as a team to pursue righteousness.
On a much smaller scale, the interim journey is also a living in the space between the times. To shift into neutral and wait is very tempting. I’m here to accompany you on this journey and encourage you to stay awake and make the most of this special time. It is a time for acutely listening for the voice of God together. It is a time to work together like never before. It is a time for a fresh burst of spiritual growth.We’ll have our stewardship campaign in October, but I want to challenge the way you look at everything (not just money) during our interim journey with the experience of one of the other churches I served as interim pastor. As they caught the vision of what their church could become with a new pastor, giving actually picked up, and by the time the new pastor arrived they had received 10% more than they spent during the interim journey and had a nice fund for starting up new ministries.