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Toshiki Toma

Lost and found… and together again!

Flutt 13. nóvember 2017 · í enskri messu í Breiðholtskirkju

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

1.
Freedom of religion is considered as one of the fundamental human rights today, even though it is not necessarily guaranteed in the whole world, yet. In the context of modern human rights, one’s religious attitude is supposed to be decided by each person as an individual, not by others.

But this doesn’t mean that, for example, being a Christian is a personal matter, having nothing to do with the people around that Christian, or with the community to which he belongs.

When we listen to Jesus in the Gospels, he emphasizes the importance of the individual in a community of believers. More precisely, Jesus places a lot importance on a person who has lost his way, separated from God and his community.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches how we are supposed to treat a person who has departed from the teaching of God our Father, in our community of believers. But now, instead of picking through every word in the text, I want to focus on the context of this teaching, in what context Jesus says those words to his disciples, and I want to seek the message for us today.

2.
Before Jesus instructs us on how to deal with a sinner among our brothers and sisters, he relates a metaphor about one lost sheep separated from a flock of 100 sheep. If one sheep among 100 gets lost, the owner would go to look for the lost one, leaving other 99 on the hills.

And Jesus says: “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Mt. 18:14)

So Jesus puts much value on one person’s existence. OK? And then he continues, talking about a sinful guy among us who is not following the teachings of God. What should we do about such a man?

Jesus says: first “go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” (Mt.18:15) Then “take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” (Mt.18:16)

And if the person doesn’t yet repent of his sin, then “tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt. 18:17)

First talk only between two of you, and then with two or three others. If it still doesn’t work, then talk to the church. So the point here is that Jesus is trying to connect the person, who has lost his way, to the congregation or the community of believers. Whatever the result, it is ultimately a matter for the whole community.

And I say once again, the whole thing is based on the fact that we don’t want to lose even one single person from the community of God our Father.

3.
When I talk to some Icelanders who have been to Japan before, we often say this: “Japanese put more importance on the group to which he belongs, while Icelanders put higher priority on an individual than his group.

A Japanese person doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the group, but an Icelandic person insists on his rights even though it bothers the whole group.” As a general tendency, I think this is true, quite apart from whether one tendency is better than the other.

But in Jesus’ community, both individuals and the community as a whole are equally important. Each person is highly important. And these highly important people get together and make a community for themselves. A sheep cannot live alone. It needs to live among other sheep.

Remember the illustration of one lost sheep and 99 other sheep. It’s not only about one lost sheep: it’s about one lost sheep and 99 others that have stayed together. The lost sheep was not only found, but it was brought back to the group again.

In the same way, a Christian person needs to be with other Christians, his brothers and sisters, a community to which he or she can belong. And that community is the church.

4.
In today’s Gospel, the word “church” is used twice. I am afraid it might be a little bit confusing for you, since when Jesus was on Earth with his disciples, there was no Christian church yet.

The word that is translated here as “church” means basically administrative “assembly”, religious “gathering” or “congregation”. The meaning of the word church, as we use it today, only came about later.

Here are two very important points. The first point is that the basic meaning of the church is, even today, the gathering of believers, our communion or the living relationship that we make between us. “Church” means us, believers and this community life that the believers make together.

It is not about the church house or building. It is basically not about the religious institution, such as the National Church of Iceland, that is officially registered as a religious institute with laws, regulations or an organized system.

Please don’t get confused. Yes, we can call this house here, for example, a church in Mjódd. We can call our church “the National Church of Iceland”. It’s not wrong. But what I am relating now is that in the first meaning, in the most basic meaning, a church is its people and their community. Not the house or organized institution. Please remember this.

5.
The second important point is that the church in its original meaning has two manifestations. The original meaning of the church is, as I said before, about us believers and our community. So we are here together now, and we are the church, not this building.

And here are two dimensions of the church. One is the church as a gathering of us, sinners on Earth. And another is the church as a gathering of forgiven people, a gathering of saints and holy fellows. This might sound complicated and difficult to understand, but it’s actually quite simple. Let me explain.

We believe in Jesus. We want to follow him in our everyday lives. Nevertheless, we are still imperfect human beings. We still contain weaknesses within us, and because of that, we might hurt someone near to us, behave selfishly or have conflicts with others. Those are results of our sins.

But since we undergone Holy Baptism, if we admit our weakness and repent it, God our Father forgives us; and moreover helps us and strengthens us by sending the Holy Spirit upon us. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can sometimes do good things for others or behave as Jesus teaches us. At that time we are showing the holiness in the name of Jesus.

And at that point, we are one of God’s heavenly crowd. It’s not because we are fantastic in ourselves, but because of the grace of God. He uses us as tools to manifest his love to the world. After a while, we find ourselves just same guys as before, sinners with human weaknesses.

I often say this: One of our legs is already stands in the kingdom of God, but the rest of the body still belongs to this secular world. We are holy when the kingdom of God shines stronger, but we are the same sinners in this secular world.

We are always between those two, the kingdom of God and this reality on the Earth, until we move to the kingdom of Heaven completely at the end.

6.
The same thing could be said about the church. The church also has two dimensions: a gathering of us sinners on Earth, and the gathering of forgiven, holy people. It’s a very natural thing, since the church means basically the community of us, the believers; and we are all living in between two worlds: the kingdom of God and this secular, sinful world. As a consequence, the church also has these two dimensions.

So please don’t think that everything is done in the church must be good and holy. Please, don’t make the mistake to think that everybody in the church must be kind and warm like an angel. If you expect such a thing, you will be disappointed.

The earthly church can make mistakes. Scandals can happen even in the church, and priests can commit wrongdoing just like other people in society. When it comes to those cases, the church should bear fair criticism, just like any other institutions in society.

But the point is, that is not all about the church. Even though the church has weaknesses as earthly institution, though it has sin as a community of sinners, if the church repents and seeks for the forgiveness of God our Father, God does forgive the church and pours the Holy Spirit onto the church, so that it can work as a tool of God to reveal the grace of Jesus and his glory.

At that time, the church is again the assembly of the Holy saints. But why can we be convinced of that?

7.
Jesus says: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt.18:19-20)

“If two of you on earth agree about anything…” The word that is translated as “agree” is “symphoneo” in the original text and it means also “to correspond”. The word “symphony”, or symphony orchestra, is derived from this word.

And here is the promise of Jesus. Even though our church, our community is a gathering of sinners on earth, if we try to agree on some wish, if we pray together for something in common, then God our father will listen to us. Jesus is with us then.

Even though each of us is nothing but a cheap and broken instrument, when we play together in the name of Jesus, we can even be a beautiful symphony orchestra. The accompaniment of Jesus makes the difference. Because of Jesus, our gathering as sinners can be transformed to the Heavenly crowd of God.

But remember one thing. Jesus says to us: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” It’s not enough if I am there alone, or if you are here alone. We need to be “two or three” or more. We need to be with our brothers and sisters. Jesus says so.

Therefore we come to the church. We meet Jesus together with our brothers and sisters. We are not alone. Let’s take good care of each other.

The Grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Amen.

Text

Matthew 18:15-20

(“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
Matthew 18:12-14)

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.
If they listen to you, you have won them over.
But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

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