Saturday, September 6, 2008

17 Pentecost

September 7, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18. 15-20

A few Sundays ago in our Gospel reading, we encountered a wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. At that time, in Matthew 16: 16, Peter professed his belief that Jesus was the “messiah, the Song of the Living God. In verses 18 and 19, Jesus said to Peter: “I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In that reading, there were several different interpretations of what all this meant. One of the more popular beliefs was the Roman Catholic belief that Jesus was, in fact, founding the Church on Peter whom they claim to be the first Pope and giving to him and his successors the power to bind and loose. And for people who hold that view, the Roman Church and the Pope have full authority to bind and loose. I stress here that not everyone who believes this way is a Roman Catholic.

Earlier this summer, I read a fascinating book I picked up at Nashotah House called Anglican Papalism (by Michael Yelton). In this book, we find several interesting characters in the Anglican Church who, although Anglican, looked longingly to the Church of Rome for authority and purpose. In fact, some of them believed wholeheartedly in a Roman Catholic interpretation of what Jesus said in our Gospel reading from a few weeks ago. One of the typical Anglican Papists of this era was a priest by name of Leighton Sandys Wason (1867-1950). Wason was always an Anglican and, in fact died one. He never converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Still, he was described in this book in this way:

“He saw himself as a priest of the Catholic Church, of which the Church of England was a very small part, and to him the final authority of what went on in the Catholic Church must be the Pope and the Holy See…To him if you were Anglican you were a Catholic and you held Catholic faith—undiluted and in all its fullness.”

Anglicans like Wason believed that Jesus truly did found the Church on Peter and that, if we are to be members of the true Church, we have to believe that Jesus’s command continues on in Peter’s successors, the Popes. They felt that all Anglicans should submit to this belief and put themselves under the authority of the Pope, while still remaining Anglican. And for people who believe in this interpretation of scripture, maybe we should.

But in today’s Gospel, we find that the power to bind and loose was not given just to Peter, but to all Jesus’s followers. After talking about how members of the Church who have disagreements with each other should resolve their differences, he goes on to say:

“Truly I tell you [and he is speaking to all his followers at this time] whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

He goes on to say: “Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is very important to us. Because when Jesus gave that power to bind and loose to all his followers, he didn’t just give it those followers who were with him that day. He gave that power to all Christians, throughout all time. He gave that power to us, as well, here and now. And because there are, in fact, more than two or three gathered here this morning, Jesus truly is in the midst of us—his Church. We, being the Church, have that power to bind and loose and it is quite the power.

Take a moment and just think about what it is Jesus is giving us authority to do. What we bind on earth, will be bound in heaven. And what we loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. This is some incredible power. The Church has the power, in a very real sense, to control not only what is here on earth, but the control carries over into heaven.

Still, it’s confusing, this concept of binding and loosing. What is it Jesus is talking about when means binding and loosing? Probably the best way to try to understand it is to put it in the context of Jesus’s own time. For Jewish rabbis in Jesus’s time, "binding" the Law meant they were able to apply it to a particular situation. They “loosed” the Law when it was not able to be applied to situation. There were some situations that the Law was clear about, and they could not be loosed. But there were also grey areas in life where the Law wasn’t so clear and, as a result, the rabbis had to figure out if the Law could be applied to it. They made the decision about whether it was binding and loosing.

For us, this passage isn’t quite so clear. For us, “binding” and “loosing” don’t mean the same things as they did to Jesus’s followers. Still, we are able to grasp, in some way, what Jesus is getting at.

The simple fact is this: what we do here on earth, really does make a difference with God. And that, as Christians, as the Church, what we do has great power. Because when we gather together, Jesus is in our midst and what we do together becomes an act of Christ. We have been given the power the bind and loose—however we might understand those terms. And we can use (or mis-use) a power like this. We could apply it any number of issues that are plaguing the Church right now. We could use it to condemn those who have differing views than us in the Church, or to give credit to our own positions.

We could say that scripture is very clear regarding the place of women in the church. Scripture says, after all: “women should keep quiet in the Church.” But we can choose whether we are going to bind ourselves to this or if we are going to loose this scripture in our church. And by doing so, we can take some consolation in the fact that it then is bound or loosed in heaven. The same issue can be applied to scripture and homosexuality or divorce and remarriage or any other number of areas that we are still struggling with in the Church. In these areas, however, each of us walks a slippery slope. Scripture, as you’ve heard me say before, is always a double-edge sword. If we are going to use it cut, then we be better prepared to be cut by it. It will comes back on us and cut us eventually if we insist on using it in such a way.

Oftentimes, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of what is bound and loosed. Oftentimes, we can get nitpicky about issues and where to stand on them. And in those cases, we have lost the real spirit of what it means to bind and loose.

But, there is one motivating factor behind all binding and loosing. And we find this motivating factor spoken to us in our reading from Romans today. There we find the summary of this same Law that binds or loosens. The summary of this Law is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. And here we find the truly binding experience of Christianity. Our job as Christians is not to nit-pick about what should be bound and what should be loosened. Our job as Christians is to make sure that we love each other as we love ourselves. Love, after all, is the ultimate experience of binding. And Christian love, because Jesus has given us this power to loose and bind, has a power that few other loves have. The love we have as Christians is more than just a love for each other here on earth. This love that we love have is a love that binds itself even in heaven. And this is why we can’t allow anything else other than love in ourselves. That’s why we can not allow feelings like hatred into our lives. Just as love is the ultimate binding experience, hatred is the ultimate loosing experience. And hatred for others, or for ourselves, loosens us and that loosening experience is also loosed in heaven.

God does pay attention to what we feel and what we do. God does notice when we do not love—when we do not love others, or ourselves. And that is not God’s intent for us. God does not want us to feel anything other than love for others, and for ourselves. Because in loving each other, in loving ourselves, we are loving God, who is present in our midst—who is present with us and within us. And that perfect balance is what gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The Kingdom of God, as elusive and vague as it might seem at times, is a place of balance. This much we do know. The Kingdom of God in our midst involves catching a glimpse of the balance that comes when we love each other and ourselves. And we know that this kind of love is not just a love here on earth. It is a love that knows no boundaries. It is a love that crosses over to the other side—that crosses over into that other place in which we find God. Or rather, it isn’t a love that crosses over at all.

It is instead a love that causes heaven to break through into our midst. It is a love that blurs whatever boundaries separate us from heaven. It is a love that causes heaven to exist, here, in our midst. And that is why we are called to love each other and ourselves. And that is why, throughout scripture, we find a prohibition against things such as cursing. By cursing here, I don’t necessarily mean swearing or cussing. What is meant here is that we are told, again and again throughout scripture, that we should not curse anyone, because, as we’ve seen from our Gospel reading today, what we do matters. It matters here and it matters in heaven. As a Christian, as someone with that power given to all of us by Jesus himself, if we curse someone, then that person is cursed. Our curse does fall on that person. And conversely, when people curse us, we too are cursed. We bear their curse. There is a reason why scripture is clear about this. There is a reason why we are told, again and again, not to curse, even when we’re angry. We should not allow curses into our lives, because curses are done out of anger and hatred, not out of love.

Our job as Christians is always, always, always to love. Love should always win out over cursing and hatred. If we love fully, as we are commanded to do by Jesus, we have no place for cursing and hatred. So, because we, as Episcopalians, believe that Jesus founded the Church not just on the Rock of Peter, but on Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and because we believe that the power to bind and loose was not only given to the Pope, but to all of us who are Christians, we need to take stock of the words that come out of our mouths. We need to take stock of the emotions we carry within our hearts. We need to let love always win out. We need to know that if we bind we must bind in love and if we loose we must loose also in love. And by doing so, what we do in love on earth, will be done in heaven in love.

So love fully. Love others and love yourself as Jesus commands us to love. And if we do, we will find the words Jesus said to Peter in that Gospel reading a few weeks ago coming true in us as well. The gates of Hades will not prevail against us as Church. The gates of every ugly, evil thing in this world—things such as the power of the other’s curses—will have no power over us. Rather, with a love like that in us and emanating from us, the powers of darkness and evil will fall flat before us.

So, love fully. And let that love that is bound in you be bound in heaven and let that love loosed in you be loosed in heaven. And by doing so, you will be bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

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