When last we heard from Jesus, he was teaching us what it means for him and for us to have "lordly, son-of-the-living-God" power: Power that would make everything "on earth as it is heaven." Power that Jesus would exercise by "go[ing] to Jerusalem to undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Life-changing, system-transforming, son-of-the-living God power we have authority to exercise as we "deny [our]selves, take up [our] cross and follow." Life-changing, system-transforming, lordly, son-of-the-living God power.
Today Matthew envisions what a community formed by that power and using that power would look like. It would be an open, welcoming community of no less than two or three people with Christ in their midst in which each person would exercise that same life-changing, system-transforming, lordly, son-of-the-living God power by being responsible, by caring, by constantly seeking to appreciate, treasure, embrace and support one another. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus calls that kind community "Church."
That description begs this question: How're we
doing? How are we doing in being Jesus' kind of Church?
My own short answer is simple: Better than we used to, especially on the first part, on being an open and welcoming community. On that question we're not our grandparents,' parents' or even our older selves' church. Too slowly, to be sure, but decisively, never-the-less, we have become precisely the community Jesus envisioned in the Gospel - welcoming all, embracing all, celebrating all, caring for all. God used some of us to make this happen by using the same relationship-building tools Jesus describes in today's Gospel. We are no longer officially in the business of judging people; or shaming people; or excluding people; or insisting that they feel guilty before they can feel welcome. We ' welcome,' gather,' treasure, celebrate and use the gifts of all, because the Holy Spirit has convinced us that through Christ God has welcomed, gathered, treasures, celebrates and uses us. All are welcome because "Gentiles and tax collectors (along with not a few Jews) are us." The church others -- with good reason -- shunned and complained about; the Church we were ashamed to be a part of; the "organized church;" the "institutional church"
that most despised and rejected isn't here anymore. It may be elsewhere, it may continue to have an all-too-public persona and presence. But that church ain't us. It's time for us to say this, to claim our renewed identity, not as something we did on our own, but as something God has worked in us and in many cases, through us in the whole society.
When did this transformation happen? I think we began to rediscover our identity and the motivating nature of our authority and power at same time we remembered how essential in is to celebrate Christ in our midst the way Christ promised to be among as Word and Sacrament. In other words, about the same time we were led again to every Sunday Eucharist.
On the second point, "each person would exercise that same life-changing, system-transforming, lordly, son-of-the-living God power by being responsible for, caring for, and constantly seeking to appreciate, treasure, embrace and support one another" I think we have a distance yet to go; a distance for God to lead us.
We're better at doing this one-on-one; better at
listening, better at resolving slights, better at "regaining" one another than we use to be. We see it that in a myriad of ways all the time. But when it comes to the whole body we call the Church or, more precisely, our Church, there is an obstacle, there something that gets in the way. One of those obstacles is our inability to see and celebrate how God has so radically changed us. Another is our continued -- and I believe -- unsupportable distain for "organized religious" and "the institutional Church." Many of us remain convinced that they will sully themselves if we get too involved in the organized, institutional Church. Many are still convinced that, no matter how much we've been transformed by the Gospel, 'organized' and 'institution" are the direct opposite of the Gospel. To use Jesus' vocabulary, that organized institutions "binds on earth as in heaven" what Jesus "loosens on earth as in heaven." So it's OK to come to worship and have my needs met and then go elsewhere to serve others, but anathema to see service within the church as important or even essential. Such an attitude fails to discern the transforming power of the Gospel. To that, I have an experience and a story to share with you.
I've served in a transforming Church for nearly forty years and my experience tells me that, while our practice is not yet perfect, our motivation has surely changed. At least in this place, most decisions and actions from our all-embracing welcome to our institutional policies is motivated by the Gospel. This isn't my grandparents', parents', or my younger self's church, organized and institutional though it may be. And here is my illustration, an illustration that comes out of last Wednesday morning's regular, weekly staff meeting, arguably the most organized and institutional gathering in this parish.
Last Wednesday we were discussing two proposed policies -- a space use and a media use policy -- to help us accommodate all without giving up our identity as a community of faith. Right in the midst of that policy discussion -- as institutional and organizational as one can get -- Sam Hutcheson pointed us to the way we are motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "In my limited experience at Saint Peter's," he said (and we all laughed since his experience is almost 20 years) "we can make all the policies we want. Yet in the end, when we are face to face with another, when we are listening to another, we always find a way to accommodate. We always
do whatever we must to do so that all who come here will feel at home." And there, as promised, Christ came into our midst.
That's what regularly happens at this and every churchly table -- a brunch table, a meeting table, a serving counter, a staff table. Jesus Christ shows up to transform the gathering, to exercise authority, to give us power and invite us, for the sake of the church, the city and the world, to use it.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York