Today in the Spirit: Proper 18A

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Our Lord’s fourth major teaching discourse in Matthew (18:1-35) is addressed to the disciples and covers some of the stickiest aspects of maintaining fellowship in the Church. This Sunday in Proper 18A, the assigned Gospel reading in Matthew 18:15-20 takes the worshiper to the middle section of that discourse with instructions on how to proceed if your brother [or sister] sins against you (15).

The complementary OT reading out of Ezekiel 33:11 is the dramatic prophecy directed to the prophet himself about his serving as a watchman for the house of Israel. In relation to the Gospel reading, it commends to the whole Church the teaching that sin in the community must not go unaddressed, for it affects the community as a whole. The assigned Psalm 119:33-48 speaks zeal for obeying God’s commandments into the worshiper’s heart, even as we hear the hardest ones like those in the Gospel reading. Continuing in Romans this week (we’re almost finished with it now), we come to Romans 12:9-21 in which Paul, after addressing the willingness of the Church to serve sacrificially, now goes to the godly attitude of humility and openness one must maintain in carrying out that service. The appointed Collect reminds us that coming up against our service to God is always “the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil,” so we pray for the “grace to withstand.”  

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The Collect

O Lord God, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sees the Sword Coming (Ezekiel 33:1-11)

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me (6-7).

It does no good for us to say the watchman is Ezekiel, or even Jesus, but not us. We Christians are the body of Christ, and we have been given a prophetic voice like any OT figure. So, the question is posed: Why do we not blow the trumpet of the gospel as we should? I can only think of three reasons: 1) We do not see the sword coming, or 2) we believe the trumpet has already sounded and the duty is done, or 3) we just do not care. The third is too horrible to think about and virtually impossible if it is true the Holy Spirit, the very life of Jesus, dwells in us. The second can be defended as true: Jesus has come and done his work; the Bible is out there for most to see; the Church is accomplishing its missionary task to reach the unreached (though much work remains). Our work is to keep praying, giving, sending missionaries, and contributing locally as the opportunity arises. 

But let’s address that first reason why we are not inclined to fulfill our duty as watchmen. We have the warning of an enemy coming to attack, but with our worldly eyes, we fail to see the devil and his armies working in opposition all around. We dismiss trouble as the “natural” consequences of living in an imperfect world, or, maybe if we are spiritually in tune, sin in man, but the invisible adversaries in the air working unceasingly to overthrow us, we fail to recognize. (C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape instructing Wormwood of the policy of the High Command (Satan) comes to mind: “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves”). The Collect this week provides a dose of reality medicine for the spiritually blind so that we might open our eyes to see the sword coming: “Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the word, the flesh, and the devil.” We can “withstand” only what we first can see. 

Today, Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see, as horrible as it may be for us, the reality of spiritual and physical forces arrayed against us, and so, with urgency, sound out the Good News of Jesus.

Your Law…My Whole Heart (Psalm 119:33-48)

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes;
    and I will keep it to the end. 
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
    and observe it with my whole heart. 
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
    for I delight in it. 
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
    and not to selfish gain! 
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
    and give me life in your ways. 
Confirm to your servant your promise,
    that you may be feared. 
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
    for your rules are good. 
Behold, I long for your precepts;
    in your righteousness give me life! (33-40).

A key to relating devotionally to the hard-driving Psalm 119 is to tap into the psalmist’s yearning to be related personally to the God of Israel. The young man (2:9) desires not just any law but those of his God–your law and your statutes and your commandments. He longs for revelation from YHWH for daily living. We want that too, and, praise God, on this side of the cross of Christ, we can have it through Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the Scriptures. 

Having made this connection with the psalm, we can appreciate more what it offers. Notice the mention of body parts–my whole heart and my eyes and my mouth. And notice the action verbs associated with the fulfillment of God answering his prayers–then I shall have an answer for him who taunts me, and I will keep your law continually, and I shall walk in a wide space (or walk at liberty NASB). Do you see? You and your (God) and I and me (self). Let all you have to offer, Lord, be given in full measure to me, that I may serve you.

Today, Holy Spirit, work in me the desire of this psalmist to have everything you give to transform every part of me so that I may be free to live for you and enjoy you forever.   

Love One Another (Romans 12:9-21)

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (9-13).

Our NT reading this week appears as something of a disclaimer to the great one we heard last week (Romans 12:1-8) about sacrificial service to God and using spiritual gifts. Most Bible commentators agree that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from Corinth (or soon before arriving in Corinth) during his third missionary journey. Now, it must be remembered that it was the Corinthians who gave the apostle huge fits on just the matter he is raising in the portion of Romans we have before us this Sunday. There had been in Corinth a desire among many to lay down everything for God and use the spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-7), yes; but, in doing so, they selfishly stepped all over each other in worship and church politics. So in Romans, after the exhortation to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, Paul will now hasten to add that service to God is service to fellow human beings. Let love be genuinelove one another with brotherly affection…Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, etc

There may not be in all of the Scriptures a more carefully crafted and comprehensive list of how Christians should live together than this one. Bishop Andrew Williams writes on this matter, “In the power of the Spirit we no longer see someone as trying to take some advantage over us (I would add: like the Corinthians did); we see someone living in pain and fear, just like we once did.”

Today, Holy Spirit, assist me through Paul’s insights to the Romans, to turn my love for God toward the human faces around me—especially the brothers and sisters of my own Christian community. 

Go and Tell Him His Fault (Matthew 18:15-20)

[Jesus]: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

Every three years, this reading comes up in the Sunday lectionary, and I will admit that, both as a pastor and a disciple, I cringe when it does. Tell me, Jesus, to go and make disciples of all nations or to pray and not give up, and I will happily try. But please don’t tell me I need to go to a brother or sister with my grievances against them or, worse, be expecting them to come with theirs against me. Every instinct I have in me for avoiding conflict rises to the top when I face this teaching. Honestly, I can, at times, fully sympathize with the growing majority of Christians choosing either to “worship” at home online or to go Sunday mornings to the large congregation meeting in a dark theater. Smaller, brightly lit churches (like mine and probably many of yours) swim against the swiftly incoming red tide of a desire for anonymity. Many Christians in America (at least) want to “go to church” where the least amount of vulnerability and accountability is required. Unless there are small group opportunities provided, they are good, and everyone takes advantage of them, the mega-church affords everyone the best opportunity for Christians to say to themselves, “I’m worshiping the Lord” without interacting, without even talking to anyone. I get it; I really do. And I can even understand that, temporarily, anonymity in a Christian community might be the right healing balm from the Lord for a hurting soul.

That said, as a permanent lifestyle choice for Christians,  we can hardly defend this trend biblically. There are too many passages in Scripture like this one, Galatians 6:2 (Bear one another’s burdens), or James 5:16 (Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed), all demanding we freely open our hearts and lives to another, admitting when we are angry and confessing when we are hurting. 

Today, Holy Spirit, you who give us the words of Jesus, help me, even in the case of this passage, to—as one of our Collects puts it—“love what you command.”      

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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