Since we’ve been away from following the lectionary this summer I’ve been curious to see what the scripture readings would be when we picked back up starting today. I’ve enjoyed the change of pace in following the theme of the summer and selecting scripture passages that fit around each topic. With a topical kind of approach like this, one can choose just the right passage that illustrates what one would like to say about the subject at hand. But when following the lectionary, the scriptures choose you. They’re there, already selected, laid out in that three year cycle that so many different churches follow together. Rather than allowing us to focus on just what we find most intriguing at the moment, the lectionary makes sure that we cover a wide variety of stories and teachings.
In reading through this week’s scriptures, I found them to be….difficult. Matthew 18. Conflict in the church. A process for how to relate with someone who has sinned against and injured another person. Hmmm. Tough stuff. Not sure if I want to go there. But the good thing about the lectionary is that it offers choices. Along with the gospel reading there’s also an epistle reading. Romans 13, Paul’s instruction to the Roman church that they are to fulfill the law by loving their neighbor. Coming just on the heals of his instruction to “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.” Hmmm. The divine right of governmental leadership. Really not sure I want to go there.
What the two passages share in common is that they are addressed to those living in the midst of conflicted relationships – conflict with other believers, and conflict with governing authorities and institutions. What they also share in common is that they have been abused texts throughout church history, with both being used by those who have power – church leaders, kings – to maintain a certain kind of order that tends to harm those most vulnerable. They’ve been used as “Stay in line, or else…” kinds of scriptures.
So, with church history on my mind and an inward desire to avoid talking about conflict and controversy, I did an internal Jonah and ran in the opposite direction of the texts. Mentally sailing toward the opposite side of the world, away from relational tension and the complexity of relating with government, I reached the far shore of peace and quiet and isolation. Ah, surely something worthwhile to talk about over here. Looking around a bit however, I found myself looking at a strange scene. I met up with Simon the Stylite.
This past week marks the anniversary of the death of one of the more eccentric characters in church history. Simon the Stylite died on September 2nd, in the year 459, at the approximate age of 70 years old. He died perched on top of a pillar in the Syrian desert, where he had lived for 37 years praying, sleeping, preaching to those who would venture out to hear him, and eating the meager diet of water and bread that was handed up to him by admirers.
Simon was a part of a stream of people of his time seeking to be faithful to God by moving away from the centers of civilization into the desert. With the power structures of the church becoming more developed and at times corrupted, some sought the pure experience of God through the life of isolation. Away from church and civilization equals away from conflict and controversy. Simon was one of these solitary seekers and in his young adult life entered a monastery and dedicated himself to fasting and prayer. Not content in the monastery he asked to leave and lived alone in a hut for three years. After this he confined himself to a narrow space in a mountainside, but by this time he was becoming well known for his holy life and people came seeking him for counsel and prayers, interrupting his prayers and meditations. So he went away from that place, discovered a pillar in the desert that remained from some ancient ruins, built a small platform on top, and decided to live his life on top of the pillar. It’s estimated that the first pillar he climbed up was twelve feet high, but over the years people constructed higher pillars for him and eventually he was perched 45 feet up in the air, on a platform about 12 square feet.
He lived this way for 37 years. In his own, rather bizarre way, he found a way to live in solitude for most hours of the day. He was only a few miles off of a main Roman road and would preach twice a day to people who came to hear him, get food from those who would climb up a ladder to give it to him, and give counsel to those who asked. He was called Simon the Stylite, with style being Greek for pillar. Roughly translated, his name would have been Simon the Pillar Guy. He inspired other stylites to follow in his example of being the solitary spiritual seeker who gets closer to God in a literal sort of vertical way.
There’s not a whole lot left of Simon’s pillar these days as pilgrims have taken little pieces of it as relics over the centuries. In my travels in the Middle East in 2000 I was able to see what’s left of the pedestal and the church that was built around it in honor of Simon.
I hadn’t thought about Simon a whole lot until this week when my imaginary travels away from the challenges of church and societal relationships took me back to him. He’s kind of the perfect image of what you get when you choose to escape conflict. He definitely had his own challenges, but he set up camp on the opposite shore of where we live on a daily basis. In my encounter with Simon, I’m pretty sure I saw him standing on top of his pillar pointing back in the direction where I came, telling me to go back. This is the world where I and Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship are called to live.
So now that we have this bizarre picture of isolation and solitude in our minds, here’s another bizarre image to take its place – the one that these two scriptures from Matthew and Romans speak to. As strange as it is to think of someone experiencing God, by himself on top of a pillar for most of his adult life, it is also strange that we believe we can experience God through our relationships with each other. That somehow through the church, and all the idiosyncrasies of the people who make up the church, and through how we relate with our neighbors and our government, that God is present with us and that we are the Presence of God to each other.
It’s bizarre for us to believe this because these relationships can be so challenging and complex and at times unfulfilling. But that’s the strange place where each of us here is called to live. Finding our way, receiving our daily bread, even – getting closer to God – on ground level, mixing and interacting with governments, grandparents, friends, family, enemies, strangers, sinners and saints.
I imagine Jesus knew this well, as did this Apostle Paul. So what we get are some teachings from them, addressed to people in their own context, for what this may look like.
So let’s take a brief look at these two scriptures of the morning.
With the Matthew passage, the last verse gives a sense for where Jesus wants to go with things. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This is the closest thing we get to Jesus’ definition of church. Church happens whenever two or three come together out of a desire to fellowship in Jesus’ name. In other words, wherever there is relationship happening, even if its just one relationship between two people, then Jesus shows up some where in the middle of that and you’re having church. On Wednesday of this past week we had a Spiritual Leadership Team meeting in the evening and a couple of us arrived early and were sitting out talking on the church steps by Peace House. As often happens in this neighborhood, someone soon came walking by. He was a resident of the Find-A-Way building down the street and after we asked him how he was doing he took a seat next to us and talked for a bit. We had about five minutes with him before our meeting started, but I take it from what Jesus is saying here that before our meeting even started we had already been having some church together.
Now Jesus might as well also have said here that wherever two or three are gathered, there, eventually, you will have conflict. This is what he highlights in the preceding statements. It’s interesting that there are only two areas that mention the word “church” in the gospels. They’re both in Matthew, and one of them is here in this passage. On the rare occasion that church comes out of Jesus mouth, he’s already talking about how to work through some of the difficulties of relationships that can occur.
Jesus outlines a three step process. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two or you are alone.” If there’s not progress made here, you bring in several other members of church into the situation. If there’s still no progress, or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, it becomes not just a private issue but a church issue.
It’s been observed here that this process only works when there is a balance of power in the relationships. Unequal power calls for a different approach, which is often the case. The overarching theme of Jesus’ teaching is that wrongdoing should always be addressed and confronted, rather than hidden. The whole community benefits when we are up front with each other in this way. The goal is reconciliation, but if that doesn’t happen, or if the sin is so severe that it will take a long time to heal, then special attention needs to be given to the situation and to the offending party. You treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector, which, as Jesus modeled, means that you treat them with extra compassion, even as you expect them to change their behavior.
The church isn’t unique by having an absence of conflict, but hopefully we can strive to be unique in that we deal with conflict in a constructive and healthy way.
And what about in how we relate with government? Is there a healthy and constructive way to be found here? Romans 13 is one of many different scriptures that talk about how the early church was working out how to relate to the Roman Empire. Taken by itself it easily looks like these second generation Christians are losing their radical edge and going mainstream in how they relate with the governing authorities. Jesus gets crucified on a Roman instrument of capital punishment for being a threat to the stability of the region, and now a generation later Paul is instructing the church in Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” and not to resist the authority that God has appointed. He then goes on to describe a government that rewards those who do right and deals justly with those who do wrong. This is one of those cases when I have to scratch my head a little bit and wonder what’s really going on here. What’s going on with these Roman Christians at this time that Paul is writing that he’s having to tell them to chill out and not resist the authorities? It seems you don’t ask a group of people to allow themselves to be subject to the good of the law unless they’ve been getting out of line on a regular basis in inappropriate ways. While other New Testament writings show the dangers of power and authority and how wrong they can go, here’s a case where the virtues of government are being spoken of. It’s not all bad. Government does serve an important role.
In applying what’s being said here to our time, a phrase that comes in useful is “insofar as.” Insofar as our government is rewarding good behavior and dealing justly with poor behavior, let’s honor that and encourage it. Insofar as our tax money is being used for programs of social uplift, let’s honor that and encourage it. Let’s cheer on our elected officials for the ways that government is serving the common good. But insofar as government is being unjust and leaving behind those most vulnerable, we subject ourselves to a higher authority. The authority that calls us to speak up, address and confront the wrong, and call for another way.
The direction Paul takes this is the direction of us being continually committed to the well-being of one another. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (All) the commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If we keep engaging in loving relationship with our neighbor, Paul seems to be saying, then our relationship with governing authorities will flow out of this. If we realize that we are indebted to one another and each other’s well-being, then when the laws of the land serve this purpose we will gladly submit to them.
I would guess that we all have at least a little piece of Simon the Stylite in our make-up. There are times when we would like to escape conflicted relationships, find a peaceful quiet place, and let problems work themselves out without us. I would also guess that none of us are going to take the pillar option for a very extended amount of time. We get to live with our feet on the ground, trying to be church to each other, loving our strange and imperfect neighbors, and relating with the government as if our little voice and actions mattered. My guess is that in doing this, we’ll encounter conflict in all these relationships, and that we’ll also encounter Jesus , who said he’d be there, somewhere, whenever relationship is happening.