How We Deal With Those We Believe are Wrong

Part of my morning prayer these days includes reflecting on Brendan Byrne’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today.

In the section I used this morning, Byrne comments on Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus provides “a carefully gradated structure of fraternal correction,” instructing his disciples:

If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as your would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Byrne writes the following:

The steps are designed to preserve the errant brother or sister as far as possible from public shame.  The goal is to “win” the brother or sister in the sense of bringing him or her to an understanding of the matter that will result in conversion and full integration into the holiness of the community – in contemporary language, to make the procedure a growth opportunity for all concerned.  If this does not work, then recourse must be had to more serious steps, bringing in two or three witnesses, then “the church”, and ultimately, if the person persists in refusing to listen, proceeding to excommunication – a last resort that was, on the lines of Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 5:1-5, intended to be remedial and temporary rather than final.

The first line of the passage I just quoted was the one that first jumped out at me, for it seems to me that today it is too often that our first step is one of public shame (a particularly easy first step given social media).  That makes me wonder if we have lost sight of the goal of bringing others into conversion and full integration, rather than punishing them.

Byrne acknowledges that the specific disciplinary procedure outlines really only works in a small local community, but I think the implications of the teaching: keeping in mind a goal of conversion and reintegration and making public shame a last resort, are still ones worth keeping in mind.

Postscript: This is the second of Byrne’s Gospel commentarys I am working my way through; I started with his book on Luke (The Hospitality of God).  I have found them very helpful.

Peter’s First Cure in Acts

This morning Fr. Dan Griffith and I co-presented an Adult Faith Formation session on The Spirit of the Risen Christ in Acts.  Fr. Dan opened our session by setting the context and talking about the opening episodes of Acts: Christ’s Ascension and the Pentecost event. I then focused on the post-Ascension mission in the early days of the church. Specifically, I addressed the several episodes that make up Acts Chapter 2 verse 14 through Chapter 3: the first cure effected by Peter (about which, more below), Peter’s first two speeches, and the description of the communal life of Jesus’ followers. Although these are descriptions of the early church, in Jerusalem, they speak very much to our lives. And so as I talked about the episodes, I suggested a number of questions for reflection.

We know that whenever sick people came to Jesus in faith, they were healed. He healed those who were spiritually sick and those who were physically ill. The early church continued to act as Christ did. As the apostles preached the gospel, they healed many people.  The first of those healings is recorded in the beginning of Chapter 3 of Acts:

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer. And a man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple called “the Beautiful Gate” every day to beg for alms from the people who entered the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.” Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the one who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him.

Peter, who blew so many things during the life of Jesus, is confident of the power of the name of Jesus and the Spirit of God working through him. And, through the great spiritual power released through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit, the man is healed.

We have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Do we walk with the confidence Peter did?

There is a short beautiful line at the end of the third chapter of Ephesians that speaks of God’s ability “to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us.” And the equally beautiful line in the fourth chapter of Phillipians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Do I believe that? Does my way of being in the world reflect that belief?

But more than the actual healing, in this description of Peter’s healing of the cripple there is an incredible model for us in how we deal with those we encounter.

Peter and John, going to the temple heard the man crying out. They listened to him, letting him know he was heard.

Then Peter looked intently at him, as did John. They didn’t glance on their way, but they looked at him, letting him know he was seen.

Then Peter touched him, taking him by the right hand. I can see someone without them knowing they are seen, I can hear someone without them knowing I have heard them, but touch is always mutual. And there is such power in touch, the kind of touch that conveys comfort and compassion. (When we touch someone in pain, we don’t catch their pain from them, but we do transmit our comfort and compassion.)

Then Peter spoke to the man and said Rise up and Walk – healing him.

Most of us don’t have the power to cure illness the way Peter cured the man’s inability to walk, but we can heal their suffering by our encounter with them. And be the cause of their praising God.

Do we hear those crying out?

Do we see them – really see them – look at them?

Are we willing to touch them?   

The Bread That Comes Down from Heaven

Today’s Gospel is an excerpt from the Bread of Life Discourse in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus, the true bread of life sent down from heaven by God which gives life to the world.

Many, many words have been written about this passage and about the Eucharist.  One of my favorites comes from Michael Himes’ book, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism, which I have referred to here before and which I often recommend to people.  It is the first passage that comes to my mind when I read this portion of John’s Gospel.

Himes offers a beautiful way to think about what Jesus as the bread of life means for us.  He writes

Not only does the Eucharist make us who we are, it tells us where we are going….The eucharistic celebration centers on bread that we believe becomes the body of Christ and on wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ.  Consider that bread for a moment.  There is no intrinsic difference between the bread which becomes the Eucharist and the bread that we popped into the toaster at breakfast or that we will use for sandwiches for lunch.  There is no intrinsic difference between the wine that will become the Eucharist and the wine that we drink with friends at dinner.  If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread?  If this wine can become the blood of Christ,why not all wine?  If bread grown from soil and nurtured by sunlight and watered by rain, if grapes tended by vine-dressers and grown with the help of the sun can become the presence of Christ, then why not the sun, the soil and the rain?  Why not the vine, why not the wheat?  In fact, if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe?  And that is, of course, precisely the point.

Bread and wine alone may seem like little things.  But they convey the reality that, in Himes words, “[t]he whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh.  The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ.”  Thus, he suggests, “the Eucharist makes us who we are and reveals to us where we are going,”  and what when we say we are a “Eucharistic people”, what we are saying, in a sense, is that we know what the destiny of the world is.

By the Eucharist we are transformed.  By the Eucharist we become part of the transformation of the entire universe into the presence of God.


Attitudes That Exclude

Unpacking my bags from our trip to the Appleton/Neenah area, I pulled out my copy of the Sunday bulletin for the morning services at First Presbyterian Neenah I participated in on Sunday.  Flipping through the bulletin a final time, I recalled how moved I was by the Prayer of Confession that was part of the service.

Loving God, we admit to attitudes that exclude rather than embrace.  We prefer to associate with others who think and act as we do.  We turn away from those who are different from us.  We identify some as enemies to be avoided or even destroyed.  Forgive us, God, for seeking to limit your family.  Awaken us to the limits of our understanding and the narrowness of our dealings.  Show us the better ways you intend and make us bold to respond, we pray in Jesus’ name.

Perhaps as you read these lines, you squirmed a bit.  I know I did, forced as I was to acknowledge the truth that we do, in fact, act in ways that seek to limit God’s family.  The admission, though, is the first step to opening ourselves to God’s grace to grow toward greater embrace of all others.

(The prayer of confession is from Gathered by Love, The Pilgrim Press)

(Almost) Ten Commandments of Food

I spent time over the last two days at First Presbyterian Church of Neenah – giving a retreat day on Saturday and preaching at morning services on Sunday.  I noticed on a bulletin board in the hallway a display titled 10 Commandments of Food.  Each week the Interim Pastor of the church has been sharing another one of the commandments.  They seemed to me worth sharing; perhaps there is one or more you would like to focus on practicing:

  1.  Give Thanks for the food you eat.
  2. Eat food grown as close as possible to where you live.
  3. Strive for all people o have knowledge about and access to affordable, nutritious food.
  4. Eat mindfully and in moderation.
  5. Do not waste food.
  6. Be grateful to those who grow and prepare food for your table.
  7. Protect the biodiversity of seeds, soils, ecosystems, and the cultures of food production.
  8. Reduct the environmental damage of land, water and air from food production and the food system.
  9. Support fair wages for farmworkers, famers and food workers.
  10. [Have to wait another week for this one to be revealed.]



He Vanished From Their Sight

This morning I will be the guest preacher at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, Wisconsin.  I couldn’t ask for a better Gospel to offer a reflection on: the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

I plan to make the case that the most important line in that beautiful text (one of my favorite of the post-resurrection appearances) is the five word line that follows the disciples’ recognition that it is Jesus they have been walking with.  After Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized him.  And at the moment their eyes were opened and they recognized him, “he vanished from their sight.”

He vanished from their sight. Just at the point where they recognized him. Just at the moment when his words erupt into an explosion of understanding. Just at the moment they discover he is risen – risen and present and sitting close enough at table for them to reach out and touch him. At that very moment, he vanishes.

It is interesting to me that the disciples don’t seem to be dismayed by the sudden disappearance. From a human perspective, you’d expect a “hey, where’d he go?” “What happened.” (Maybe a peak under the table to see if Jesus is hiding there, playing a joke on them.) But there is none of that. Simply the acknowledgement of their realization – “Then they said to each other ‘were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.’”

Jesus vanishes from their sight and the two disciples take it in stride.

What is Luke trying to convey to us here?

I think a simple, but very profound message: The community of faith that grows out of the experience of those who encountered the historical Jesus – the Jesus who people followed before his death and the resurrected Christ they encountered before the Ascension – that community of faith (the community we are part of) will not have the physical presence of Christ. But that doesn’t mean they (we) will not have him as a companion on the journey.

That is the message I will unpack in my remarks this morning.

Update: You can listen to this morning’s service, including my sermon, here.

Feast of St. Mark

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist.  Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the first of the four written (he is generally thought to be one of the sources used by Matthew and Luke) and his Gospel is the shortest of the four.

Mark records very few of the spoken words of Jesus, putting our focus on Jesus’ actions: calming the storm, walking on the waves, feeding the multitudes, curing the ill and raising the dead. Perhaps because there is less emphasis on words, we find in Mark vivid descriptions, with small details not found in the other two synoptic Gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is quite clear in his emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah. On the other, in the words of Fr. Joseph Mindling,

With an eye for detail not always recorded by the other gospels, Mark shows fascinating aspects of the human side of the Messiah as well: That Jesus liked to eat with his friends, that he used a litte pillow to sleep on in the boat, that he hugged little children and enjoyed being with them, that he did not always hide strong emotions, that he used mud in the performance of a miracle, that he listened carefully to the parents of a little girl who had died, and that he was fearful before he himself died. Individually, many of these observations may not catch our attention, but collectively they deepen our understanding of what it meant for the Son of God to take on our human nature and share our everyday life.

Fully divine, yes. But also fully human. And Mark gives us a vehicle through which to explore that humanity.