Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14
How important is the church to you? Does it really matter that we gather together on Sunday mornings? With so many things competing for our time, shouldn’t we focus on our families and our commitments? Is attending church a blessing or a chore?
Wow! Some pretty loaded questions for us to ponder! I ask these questions to give us a little perspective on the church at the time of the writing of the gospel of Matthew and our church experience today. When we consider Jesus’ life on earth, it may be easy for us to think the Bible as we know it was a part of the culture. Since Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, we may want to assume it was written first. However, some of our evidence points to the probability that many of the Epistles were written before the gospels. The Gospel of Matthew may have been written some time after 70 CE because there is language included that indicates an audience after the destruction of the temple at that time. Jesus died almost 40 years earlier. Paul’s letters began appearing around 55 CE right around the time scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written.
When Jesus referred to or quoted scripture, he was talking about what we refer to as parts of Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. Stay with me here because this is all important stuff for us to better understand the scripture text from Matthew and Romans. Both these passages were issued as instructions on how to live together in Christian community.
Christian community – what is the importance of Christian community? When these scriptures from Matthew and Romans were written the church was just getting started. They had many obstacles to overcome, including persecution simply for being followers of Christ. Being a part of the church was extremely important. People needed to feel the reassurance of God’s presence in addition to communing with those who were also followers of Christ. They needed to feel they were not in this alone. Christian community was important for individuals to feel a part of God’s kingdom and to feel that their belief in Jesus as the son of God was somehow validated by others who felt their hearts changed by grace. People were encouraged and encouraging to one another, reminding each other to stay the course, take the often difficult path, and live in a way that people would notice the change in them. They were living out their calling to be the light of Christ in community with others.
So what? How is this relevant to the church of today? I believe it is the message of living counter-culturally. Our culture – our environment, continues to stress the need to satisfy ourselves. ‘Social’ media has taken over our lives as we spend less time talking with one another and more time texting. We spend less time in the real world and more time in the virtual world. Why bother getting together with friends when you can simply ‘like’ them from your phone?
We talked about our Godly Play program that we hosted all summer with our children. Some would see this as just a time for kids to blow off steam – they really weren’t learning anything. But I would disagree. I think our children may be in danger of forgetting how to play together in a safe, supervised environment. I think our children may be in danger of falling into the trap of isolation with the fear of acceptance being their driving force. I think our children need to be encouraged to get some exercise and fresh air – how is this not Godly? How is this not living in Christian community? Full acceptance of persons is a rare gift indeed – acceptance without judgment or hatred or criticism. Unfortunately all too often our children are subject to the opposite.
That sounds great for our children, and not just for Godly Play but for the Sunday School program filled with fun activities, crafts, and learning in a different environment then they find themselves at school. But what about the rest of us? Why is it important for we as Christians to come together in Christian community? Human beings were not meant to live in isolation. We need each other. We need to be in active communication with one another. We need to feel accepted and loved. No matter where you are in your life, whether you are beginning a family or facing the joys of retirement, whether you are 2 or 92, we need to live in community. As Christians, we are literally defined by how we function as a community of Christ’s followers. Feeling loved and supported; feeling as if your life has true meaning; has nothing to do with your income or status in life. Feeling blessed by God often comes with being a blessing to others.
When I was a youth group leader in my home church, I created a poster that hung over the door to the youth room so this would be the last words they viewed before facing another week at school: “You will spend your entire school career trying to fit in and the rest of your life trying to stand out.” The message I wanted the kids to hear was to recognize their need for acceptance, but also to not be afraid to live a different life. I wanted them to understand that following Christ will mean helping others and putting others’ needs ahead of our own. Following Christ means being willing to serve others and share God’s love in real ways when the rest of the world is simply looking out for number 1.
Today we are celebrating Holy Communion together. It is a special time for us to confess our sins before God, recognizing that we are not perfect people. We need to die daily to sin as Martin Luther would say. We need to realize that Christ died for us even when we were sinners not worthy of such an amazing gift of love. Eternal life is our promise that we cling to as servants of God, as we love God and love our neighbor.
But when we come together to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice for us, we also know the end of the story. We celebrate communion today because Christ did not stay dead in a tomb but rose from the grave claiming victory over sin and death. As Christ’s followers we are welcomed at the table together. For those seeking to live a Christian life the table is prepared for you as well. God’s abundant grace is here in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Celebrate together in Christian community. Accept each other as followers of Christ on a journey of faith. But know you are not alone. Christ walks with us in our day-to-day lives, and you walk with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
We cling to the promise that when two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, Jesus the Christ is in our midst. We at Mayo UMC are considered a small church, but I would vow that we are small but mighty as we take up the cross of Christ, follow God’s will for our lives as this Christian community of believers, and serve others as Christ is calling us to do. Philippians 4:13 reminds us that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Amen.