Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What Scripture Says About the Congregation - The Gospels

I’m afraid what was going to be one post is now becoming three, because to look at what the gospel holds on this, it will take a full post.

Honestly, there is one place to go to find out how God Himself feels about the gathering of believers, and whether they need a pastor: Jesus’s conversations with Peter. There might be other things to point to….but these are enough.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:13-19

Now this confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” is important. Plenty of people believed that Jesus was the Messiah. It was the confession of Christ being God that was so important. Many who believed that He was the Messiah ran away when He referred to Himself as “I Am” It was that confession of Peter’s that Christ was looking for, and on nothing else could His church be built.

Then, right after that it goes on:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” vv.21-23

The man who was so recently told that He was the rock upon which Christ’s church would be built is now rebuked as Satan. That’s a good lesson for all of us. “Christ, the Son of the living God,” only came to die on the cross and defeat death for us. That was His purpose from the time that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb – actually, from the very first promise that God gave to Adam and Eve. If the church forgets that, and becomes about anything else than that – about healing, about socialization, about mercy to the extent of forgetting forgiveness, about liberation theology, about self-esteem, about making Christ a buddy, or a good teacher…..the church no longer is of God, it is of Satan, even if the “mission” seems good.

But the church is not meant to be this nebulous spiritual connection between believers who are living in their own separate worlds, coming together by twos or by threes to pray and chat. When the issue of dealing with a problem with a brother comes up, Jesus instructs:

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.”

Matt 18:15-17

“Take it to the church.” These are to be real people who gather together and have real authority. Notice, Christ uses the word “brother.” He’s not talking about Andrew. Our brothers are Christ’s brothers those who believe.

He goes on immediately to say:

“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 (that promise that Jesus first gave to Peter, He is giving to the other apostles as well). 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.”

Matt 18:18-20

This is real authority. We Lutherans call this the “Office of the Keys.” The disciples are given real power over Christ’s flock, who will gather together to learn from them in Acts 2.

Verse 20, the “Where two or three are gathered” is used in lots of contexts. It is used to justify the gathering of believers, it is also used by those who do not want to come together in the context of a congregation, to rationalize just hanging out with like-minded friends. But it is not responsible to take a verse out of context and quote it where you will. Even Satan can do that, as He proved in the desert while He tempted Christ. Scripture interprets Scripture. It is in the context of dealing with bringing someone to repentance.

One of the purposes of the church, and those who shepherd the church, is to call us to repentance. If we refuse that call, our sins are bound to us. If we are just gathering with those who are close to us, we are often seeking to surround ourselves with people who will not call us to repentance or encourage us to grow in the faith, or to fight against our Old Adam. Of course when we pray with friends, Jesus is there (unless we are in a state of unrepentance), He has promised to be there even when we are alone. In fact, we pray the “Our Father” even when we are alone because we know that Jesus is praying with us and for us to His Father, as He promises.

No, Jesus is using "Where two or three are gathered in My name..." to emphasize that if a believer is called to repentance, and the person does not respond to that call, after even the church seeks to have them come to repentance and be forgiven, then Christ is there with them, blessing their decision to cast the person out and is part of that decision (after all, Jews would not even go into the home of someone who was a Gentile. It would make them ceremonially unclean).

Nowhere is this so driven home than in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. But whatever is loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. He also blesses the forgiveness of one who repents. This is a very clear statement that Christ is giving real authority to those who are over a flock to forgive and to hold sins; that this is His will that they have authority over the flock – over the church. We are not talking about the invisible church – the sum total of all who believe, but over real people that are having real problems that are before you – that you worship with, interact with, partake of the Sacraments with.

Now, back to Peter….we know that He denies Christ three times, even going so far as to say “I never knew the man.” In Luke 22, there is a frightening statement that Christ makes to Peter when He predicts Peter’s denials

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.(vv. 31-32)”

Even though Christ knows that Simon Peter is going to deny Him, run when it might be time to die with Him, but He still says “when you return, strengthen your brothers.”

I wonder if it is not that phrase there that keeps Peter from despair….that Jesus still gives Him a role to fulfill and provides hope of forgiveness. I wonder if Peter thought that maybe somehow, he could make it up to God.

Then, when Jesus is raised, and meets them on the beach in Galilee, Jesus performs the miracle of the net full of fishes, and then makes breakfast for them (note: the fish Jesus is cooking, is not the fish that they caught).

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” and he said to him “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him “Feed my sheep.” Luke 21:15-17

“Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” Three denials, three affirmations of love, three statements times of placing the care of Christ’s church into Peter’s hands. Peter could not prove that He loved Christ. He could only say it. He knew only too well that his actions could be used against him. Not only did he run like the others, he actually said “I don’t know the man.” But yet, God is calling Him to care for His church. Like Moses, he did not deserve this attention. Like Moses, he was humbled enough to know that he had not earned it. But it meant that he was forgiven, and I doubt that he ever forgot that as he showed mercy to everyone else.

What does Christ call those who belong to Him? His flock, His sheep, His lambs. A very recurring theme in Christ’s teachings.

I grew up out West, where there is lots of land and a climate similar to Israel. Many people raise sheep, and while in the era of barbed wire and electric fences, you do not see the shepherds out there with them as much, I have as yet to see sheep that were not kept in a flock. Sheep gather together naturally. They gather for protection. Yet they need the protection of a safe place, and someone to make sure that things are safe. They graze heavily, leaving nothing behind in their wake, so they need to be constantly guided to new food (the ranchers in Utah called sheep “range maggots). They are not smart enough, fast enough, and I am told by someone in the know that they have “a worse attention span than a seven year old boy amped up on cotton candy at a carnival.” They can wander into very dangerous situations. Ranchers who keep sheep probably don’t abide by Christ’s parable of the Good Shepherd who, when he realizes one is missing, leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one. That’s not good business. The occasional sheep is going to be attacked by coyotes. That’s life. Christ is the one who gathers His flock together, and goes after the one lost one, and bring it back to the flock.

Jesus didn’t pick sheep as His metaphor on a whim. It fits us. We need to remain in a congregational body under a good shepherd because we need to be protected. We need to strengthen and encourage each other. We need to be led to good food – Scripture and Christ’s very Body and Blood. We need to be corrected and we need to be brought back when we wander.

Even when the disciples scattered, they came together to hide and find strength in each other, to mourn, and so were together to rejoice.

Christ would not use the words “church” in association with a legitimate function of a congregation, a concrete gathering of believers, if He did not intend for it to be a good thing, a necessary thing for believers to do. If we were meant to be an animal that could be kept alone or together, we could’ve been cows or pigs (well, given the context, He wouldn’t have used pigs). But sheep have very specific needs that can only be met in the flock under a shepherd. I have as yet to see or hear of a shepherd or sheep rancher who thought that it was wiser to keep sheep in groups of two or three in small little pens or tiny pastures. I’ve seen that done with cows and pigs….but not sheep. Christ knows us well…He created us and redeemed us. He knows what we need better than we know ourselves. Even in this sinful world, it is safer to be with fellow sheep than to face the wolves alone, without each other, and without His protection through the shepherd that He puts over us and promises to work through.

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