Raleigh Mennonite Church
Jan 22, 2017
A few years back I was at an ecumenical conference where each morning we sat at large round tables and introduced ourselves to the other participants. One morning I sat next to a Baptist woman. She asked me a little bit about the Mennonites, particularly about our preaching.
For whatever reason, she was especially interested in how long I preached. I told her my part of the sermon was usually 12-15 minutes. She was taken aback. “Our pastor preaches 30 to 45 minutes each week!” she exclaimed. “He could never get away with a sermon that short!”
I told her that our preaching lasted about that long, as well. She looked at me curiously.
Then I told her about sharing time. I told her that each Sunday we have a time in our service when we respond to God’s Word, preached among us. I told her how interpretation of the Bible doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to us, to God’s people.
Each Sunday the preaching begins here in the pulpit. But that’s never where it ends. Each Sunday preaching extends to you, the other priests in this church. Each week we’re given the opportunity to wonder aloud, was the Word preached? Did you receive the Good News? And if not, what work do we still have to do? How does the Good News becomes real here, at this time?
This is a long rooted practice in Anabaptism, a practice called zeugnis, or “testimony” in German. Because we believe that every person here is gifted, that each of you is a priest, each of our preachers needs you to confirm God’s Word, to listen beside us, and to help us think through what we’ve said. We trust that God is coming to decision through us, together.
For me, this is by far the strangest, most out-there way we live out being Mennonites. We believe that in our communal decision-making lies the authority, that our decision is what sticks in heaven and on earth.
We hear that in today’s Scripture. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. It’s a strange thing to say, so strange, in fact, that when we’ve read this we may have shrugged our shoulders and moved on to something more manageable.
But this was an essential verse for early Mennonites. Here Jesus makes the incredible suggestion that, when Christians gather, the decision and interpretations on which we come to consensus somehow sync up with God. What we decide here, when we make space for the Holy Spirit, when we affirm the Spirit among us – what we decide becomes God’s decision as well.
It’s rare for the word “church” to appear in the Gospels, but it pops up in today’s Scripture. This word about binding and loosing, it’s so important for the church that Jesus takes a moment to instruct us, the future church, about our common life. In Matthew Jesus is already providing some ways for those who will be left behind to think about how they are to manage this shared life.
When the Holy Spirit comes to God’s people at Pentecost, She will bind them together as one, all able to understand one another. But Jesus knows that this holy, peaceful moment will only last a second.
Conflict comes up quickly for the nascent church. So right away, we get to see this binding and loosing looks, in the very first moments of the church’s life recorded in the book of Acts. We get a window into how the very first Christians did this thing of interpreting Scripture.
The problem before us: should new Gentile Christians have to be circumcised as Jews were circumcised?
Conflict level: 10 out 10. Circumcision was the sign of faithfulness to God’s covenant, going all the way back to Abraham. It was a sign made in the body, a permanent sign of God’s covenant, a sign of a people set apart. Never is there an indication in the Old Testament that circumcision might be optional or negotiable or temporary.
The opposing sides: In this corner, Christians represented by the brothers from Judea who are going out and teaching Gentiles that you cannot be saved without circumcision.
And in this corner, Paul and Barnabas, the ones sent to tell the Gentiles about Jesus, who are teaching the opposite, that circumcision is not required to be a follower of Christ.
The arena for debate: Jerusalem, the first ecumenical council of the Christian church.
They gather together, talking and reading Scripture, listening and sharing, telling the stories they’ve heard from Gentiles, remembering the words of Jesus, talking and listening, shouting and sharing.
The results of their decision are announced in a letter. “We came to consensus in sending out this group of people to tell you what we decided. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to make following Jesus any harder than it already is. We decided together, listening to God’s spirit, that you keep away from pagan religions in the ways they worship, even if those interfere with your social life. If you do that, you will do well.”
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That’s how they decided. There is no lightning bolt from the sky. They are given no prophetic word from an anointed leader. There is no Scriptural puzzle constructed to reveal what they should do. They have the Holy Spirit, they have their stories about Jesus, they have the Hebrew Scriptures, and they have one another. And that is all they need.
They decide together, by consensus, listening for the Holy Spirit. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
If you have done this sort of work, as I know many of you have, you know it isn’t always easy. It’s work that is often bound for failure and readdressing and rebuilding and starting again. I’m guessing that’s why the church got out of the habit of binding and loosing.
Over time the church decided it would be better if only few people interpreted the Bible on behalf of everyone else. It would be safer that way—to protect the Scriptures from common people, to keep the holy text away from unholy hands, common hands. We created a special class for the experts. We gave them a special role in the church. We said that God could only speak through these men, through the priests. We decided we needed to protect God’s Word. If we could do that, then we could keep ourselves pure, and we could by-pass a lot of trouble, a lot of confusion.
The church went further. We made sure to protect the Bible itself, to be sure it was only available in Latin, the language of the learned and elite. We protected the Eucharist, declaring that only the priests could say the words of institution. We kept putting up walls, protecting God from us, protecting the Bible from us, protecting us from another.
These were the sparks that set the Reformation ablaze, the sparks that eventually led to a day much like today, a day in January in Zurich when three men gathered in a small house and baptized one another, becoming each other’s priests. They looked at the Scriptures and said, “for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is one of the origin points of Anabaptism.
That’s still the work we’re given to do here, to figure out how to come up with a way of life that makes it possible for to come to consensus. Jesus reminds us that this isn’t going to be easy. When we’re scared or unsure, some of us buckle down. Some of us struggle with hearing the voices of others, of listening for the Holy Spirit in voices other than our own. We’re human beings so we want to be right, and we get scared. It’s hard not to be in charge, to think we could be wrong.
For some of us, it’s hard to speak up, to be in the one who says, “I’m not sure about this.” We don’t like conflict, we don’t like to be the one to raise a fuss. We want everything to be all right and we’re afraid of what happens if we say something unpopular.
And, yet, we are called by Scripture to decision.
A friend told me a story of witnessing Anabaptist consensus in an extreme situation. He was spending the day with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an Anabaptist-rooted organization that works towards engaged peacemaking in places of conflict. This CPT team was located in Hebron, on the West Bank of Palestine. They were tasked with walking little children to and from school, children who had been harassed and intimidated by soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force.
On this day someone somewhere—maybe a couple of the elementary-aged children in this caravan to school–threw a few rocks at the soldiers. In response, the soldiers began to shoot canisters of tear gas at the long line of children. The scene quickly became frantic with children coughing and crying and screaming.
What would they do? What was the plan? They weren’t expecting this and they didn’t know what their next move should be in this tense moment.
My friend expected someone to announce a decision, for someone to take charge, tell everyone what to do. Instead he saw the CPT immediately move into a huddle. CPT is committed to consensus decision-making, no matter what. And that’s what they did, eyes stinging with tear gas, holding frightened children in their arms. They talked and listened and figured it out, right there in the middle of crisis.
Because how we go about our decision-making matters as much as the decision itself. That’s why I’ve found that some of the holiest moments of church life happen not in worship but at meetings. That’s when we truly show each other who we have become.
It’s easy to confuse this with everyone getting their way. But Acts doesn’t describe utopia. Instead, the work of consensus, the work of Scriptural interpretation is much more difficult. When we reach consensus, we mean it, even if that decision is made through our trusting the decisions of others. We mean it and we’re willing to live it fully, even when others speak a truth we cannot yet believe. We live into these decisions borne out of our shared life, out of our listening, out of listening to those at the margins, out of trusting each other.
This is the work of the church, the work each of us has been given to do, because together we are the body of Jesus, alive in the world today. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”