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Six rules from Jesus about living in community
I want us to walk through Matthew 18 together and doing some good Bible study and application. You might call this Jesus’ basics about Christian life. We’re trying to embrace love and mercy being central to our faith, knowing that our whole religion, our whole movement, our redemption and transformation, come from the power of forgiveness—God’s forgiveness of us. At the start of Matthew 18, as is also recorded in Mark 9, the disciples are getting into an argument on the way to Capernaum about who is the greatest one among them. In Mark, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, and they stay quiet about. Matthew omits it from his version (maybe he was in the argument and kept quiet about it too). The importance of rank, or allotted position, was important to the disciples and their contemporaries and they naturally wanted to now where they stood. You can already see the roots of some of the honor/shame culture that is still prevalent in the Middle East in this passage. The disciples want to be the most honored—you can also see this in the Bible when the sons of Zebedee, John and James, ask if they can sit at the right and left hand of the father. 1. Be as humble as a child (not as insecure as a child). Jesus reverses their idea of greatness as the first element of community. Be dependent on God in your community and find him as the loving parent he is. Get taken care of, and know your weaknesses, submit them to God as you venture into community and get transformed. Know your weaknesses and let them be known. We seem to only want to open with each other when we are assured that the response will be positive judgment. We ruin friendships because of disagreements. We need to communicate the truth in love, but we can’t just look for the love and hide away from truth. I suppose you could survey all of your friends until you got the friends that’s dumb enough to just keep enabling your self-destructive behavior, but is that really helpful? It certainly lacks the humility of a child. Jesus goes on to stay that there is a great importance in not only being as humble as a child, but also welcoming children into the community in His name. Care for every individual, whether your allotted position is higher or lower than him; everyone deserves you love and your grace. And if you don’t offer it, you might be the one who contributes to their rebellion and their sin, too. 2. Be responsible for each other in community, it’s a group project that we are working on. When something festers, we all smell it, and it wounds the weakest of us. So in community, we’re creating a culture of discipleship, and if our lack of discipline causes a child, or someone who has become childlike to follow Jesus, to stumble; there is a great a cost to that. Jesus’ hyperbole helps to deliver that level of importance—it would be more tolerable to hang a millstone around one’s neck and be drowned then to do something so egregious. And if you are bold enough to “hurt the conscience” of individual, it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or arm, or gouge out of your eye. Again, this is illustrative, poetic language that Jesus is using. I hope we can see the importance of that, without interpreting it dogmatically or using it as a platform from some broken theology that ends with everyone getting drowned without their arms or eyes. Jesus continues to make his argument that we are to humbly love everyone around us and that is what defines his community. He again argues that God, despite his majesty and dominion over the whole world, despite his sovereignty and the magnitude of his mission, despite, in fact, not needing us to fulfill it (but rather offering us the beautiful gift and invitation of being engaged in it), he loves each of us so much, that he would chase after us and leave the whole flock behind to find his. Jesus follows us down whatever wretched path we take and never leaves us. He’s always with us. And he bears our sin, fully and wholly. He does that work, so that we don’t need to, so that we don’t need to fight for our own forgiveness. The smell of our festering wound never repels him. But Jesus never leaves us and always loves us. It might be easy to take this passage and actually think that it is now our responsibility to bear the burden of the whole world on our shoulders, to bear the community’s sin, and never have a conflict about it in the name of humbly loving all of the people around us. We can go around justifying everyone’s inaction, their passive aggressive behavior, and their dark secrets because we think we are powerful as Jesus. 3. Don’t try to do the work that Jesus has already done. We’re not Jesus, we’re called to follow Him, but his redemption of the whole world is something that he’s already accomplished. The work that we do in community, looks much messier than that, and it’s much more complicated. Because once we start being a part of a community, an intentional one where we are living together, or even one where we are regularly interacting with each other, we start to see how messy things can get, how much we can hurt each other, and how we sin. And so Jesus knows that, and he knows we can’t just bear all of it on our own, as we go wandering after all the stray sheep. So what happens when a person sins against you? Jesus of course, has a great way to respond. 4. Don’t triangulate. That’s a great first step in working out a problem with a brother and sister. Start the dialogue with private reasoning. It’s the first step of love. If we start talking about our wound with someone else, we pass the stench to them. And now people starting smelling it and no one is working on healing it. Sometimes we want to just declare our sins to the whole world because of our overwhelming sense of guilt, well-meaning people exonerate us, and then we proceed to go on a destructive path. Start small. We don’t need to all smell your wound, but your lack of boundaries might infect us all too. And one of the reasons that directness is effective, is that is allows for a dialogue that might help reveal in you why your brother or sister’s action hurt you, what that says about who you are, how you grew up, and you are growing now. It helps humanize the individual who “sinned,” so to speak, since it is almost never one person or another, but a more complicated process. So even when Jesus seems formulaic, if you actually go and have a dialogue with in individual who has wronged you, chances are everyone will end up apologizing and loving on each other. Of course, sometimes the dialogue gets a little heated, a little difficult, and we can’t keep our cools. Tempers can flare, fists can get clenched, knuckles get white, and someone walks out of the room. It’s good to take a time out, but returning to the conflict with a plan is good. 5. Ask for help. Sometimes that plan involves someone else. Sometimes we jump right away to mediation, but I think we should try to do it one-on-one first, and then bring someone else in it. Your cell leader, or pastor, or friends can be great helps in this case. The conflict is getting pretty intense at this point, and usually will get worked out then, but if we’re talking about serious cases of abuse, addiction, betrayal, violence, et cetera; the “church” can get involved. The church, just like every individual in this scenario, has to be rooted in Christ and saturated with prayer before getting into this dialogue. A lot of times we end of condemning the prophets among us, the people who will guide us to a new truth that God is trying to reveal—developing eyes to see those people takes time and requires discipline. 6. Contain conflicts. The “church” doesn’t need to be everyone. In fact, in some cases, it might not make sense for it to be everyone. A festering wound hat is being healed can be tolerated by some, by not by all. We don’t need to preoccupy people with one juicy piece of gossip. From our plan on “forgiveness and containment:” So first, don’t judge. These poor people who are causing us heartache are undoubtedly struggling with major problems in themselves. It is tempting to “kick them while they are down,” or tidy up the church by sweeping them out. Often people call that “maintaining standards,” as if the church will be contaminated. We struggle to have enough confidence in Jesus to face things that are wrong or tragic with grace and hope. But we must struggle to face difficult relationships. Contain the conflicted in love. The angry, the hurt, the mentally ill, the unfaithful, the unaccountable, the disobedient can take us over, use all our time, demand all our attention and emotion. The church is often a fertile field for the weeds of self-interest. We struggle to keep the difficulties were are facing in others from becoming part of someone else’s conflict, or to be drawn into someone else’s dysfunctional, damaging, or ill ways of relating. The result if this doesn’t work is what we call “excommunication,” but Jesus leaves it a little open, I think. If the individual refuses to listen to the church, he says, treat him like you would a pagan or a tax collector. Jesus discipled those people and brought them along with him (he didn’t just tolerate them though—he converted them). They were those wandering sheep that he went after and transformed again. But we actually need to have relationships with people, and we can’t reduce the whole thing down to a modernistic interpretation of scripture. Knowing that we were all lost sheep that were saved by Jesus is important; that the gift he offered us is beyond value. That were all bought for a hefty price and that love and generosity that Jesus gave us is impossible to pay back, so it is our duty to try to keep forgiving. We need to apply Matthew 18 because we can’t perfectly love and heal. Our wounds need healthy exposure to get better. If they start stinking up the place, it might be too late. But even through that imperfection is knowing that God loved us so much and offers us such a gift, a gift we can’t live without, that we can never pay back. But to use that gift to its fullest and actually believe that despite our imperfection, that gift actually transforms us and purifies us completely—so that we can do the impossible, like endlessly forgive. May that be what is perfect among us, that love and that grace, as opposed to endless secrets to make us seem perfect.