Sermon for September 7, 2014 @ First Churches
I love this text. I was excited to see it as the featured Gospel for Gathering Sunday, because today as we gather ourselves for a new beginning of the Fall Church Season; we hear the good news!-Christ is among us today! We missed out on meeting the real Jesus, hearing him preach and shaking hands with him at coffee hour, liking his stuff on Facebook. We were born too late. But don’t despair, because when we meet in his name, his spirit is here and we know him. So we are gathered, Jesus is alive among us-NOW WHAT?
Here’s the rest of the Gospel text: “If you bind or loose something on earth (or at church council?), then that same binding and loosing occurs in heaven! If two of you get together and agree on anything, then the Father in heaven will make it happen. What do we do with that? As a blogger for a website called “The Hardest Questions” puts it:
I wouldn’t even want that to be true. I don’t want God taking instructions from me and my knucklehead friends. What does it even mean that something is loosed in heaven...How are we to take seriously Jesus’ claim that the Father in heaven will do anything we ask as long as there are two of us doing the asking?
As many atheists point out, this is what is wrong with religion-too many people assuming their misguided notions are coming from God’s lips. We go around telling God what to do. Quite a few religious people seem to agree that evolution did not happen, women shouldn’t have birth control and can’t decide things for themselves, gay people should not marry, we should not help the poor, ancient land disputes should be settled by rockets into Haifa and invading neighborhoods with tanks in Gaza and what the world really needs right now is a new Muslim Caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq, beheading people with swords along the way. (Don’t they know drones are so much more effective?) Just ask Liberty College, the Christian school that trains the most drone pilots in America.) Clearly we need to be careful with this text. People agree on lots of stupid things.
What does it mean to bind and loose things on earth and into heaven? I found an answer in the 1906 version of the Jewish Encyclopedia (so thanks Google, but stop spying on me!) http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3307-binding-and-loosing In Jesus day, this was a common term for the scholarly practice of deciding if a particular biblical commandment was applicable to a contemporary situation.
Jewish rabbis “bound” the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they “loosed” the law when they determined that a word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.” http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/ordinary23gospel-2/
In Jesus day there were two competing rabbinical schools, those who followed Rabbi Shammai and those who followed Rabbi Hillel. There are over 300 recorded examples in the Talmud of their disagreements, though tradition says they had great respect for each other. There is an ancient joke explaining their differences in saying: “Shammai binds, Hillel loosens.” In other words the struggle between those who read the Bible literally and those who believe the context matters has ancient roots.
Here are a couple examples from scripture of Jesus doing this, right here in Matthew Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22), Jesus says, 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, [a] you will be liable to judgment.” So Jesus is taking the 6th Commandment “you shall not murder: and binding it to daily actions when we act in anger towards those whom we love. Don’t even start on the road to violence. Today I could imagine Jesus saying the sixth commandment against murder should apply to getting some reasonable gun laws so we don’t have 10,000 murders annually, so that we don’t live in a society where for every death of soldier in Afghanistan, 18 children are shot and killed. When Gov. Duval Patrick quoted Leviticus “Welcome the stranger among you,” in support of immigrants, he was binding that scripture to a contemporary situation. Now you may agree or disagree, but I think you see what binding a text means.
Jesus also loosened certain commands of scripture.
“In 12:9-14, Jesus looses the prohibition against performing work on the Sabbath with regard to works of healing and then declares, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The latter pronouncement would potentially allow Sabbath prohibitions to be loosed in a great many other instances as well.” http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/ordinary23gospel-2
We loosen texts today when we do not believe we are bound by ancient dietary codes such as not eating shellfish, nor the seven passages about homosexuality that were to protect boys from sexual exploitation by adults, so we loosen people to love and marry regardless of sexual orientation. When a politician calls poor people moochers and takers and cuts the food stamp budget, they are loosing scripture and saying that all the hundreds passages on feeding the hungry and doing justice do not apply in society today.
What is Jesus telling his disciples? (According to Matthew.)
Consider this. It is the Chief Priests in the Temple and the Pharisee elite who claim to have the power to bind and loosen in the interpretation of scripture and the law. Jesus is putting that power to interpret scripture into their hands. That is what our early Congregationalist and Baptist fore-bearers believed. The truth is known most clearly in the gathered people, because the living Spirit of Jesus is present in our gathering as we study scripture we are called to bind and loosen. (Shameless plug here to attend Bible Study, small group later in the Fall, and Annual Meeting.) What is really amazing is this: when we finally get it right, what we bind and loosen on earth breaks through in heaven and God works to create and renew the world with us.
I hear in this text a call to be a binding, loosing community. We are a binding community when we provide a clear moral compass, not letting people off the hook regarding scriptures calling us to justice and compassion. We are a loosing community when we remove the undo burdens placed upon people by negative religion. When we free people to love, we are loosing. When people feel judged and shamed by the church for past actions, we seek to set them free because God is love and overflows with amazing grace.
And how will we know when we get it right? In this world of competing values, how do we know we are anywhere near the truth? Remember those to Rabbis, Shammai who binds and Hillel who loosens? The Talmud tells that a gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it." http://www.jewfaq.org/sages.htm
What Jesus adds to this is his call to do this together, and God Spirit will move among us and through us.