(Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14)
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 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. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
In my reflections this week, I came across a quote from the 19th century French author, Henri Stendhal, which stated, “One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” What a profound statement! “One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” Think about it. It’s a profound statement on a couple of levels. First, it’s a bold statement of encouragement and support. Its saying we can get whatever it is we want if we just focus our energies on getting it. It’s saying that nothing is out of reach from a person of determination if left alone. A person can get wealth and fame and status and experience and wisdom and knowledge and even love, albeit self-love, if they’re just left alone. One can have it all if the world would just mind its own business!! Well…almost all of it. Unfortunately, this is also a statement of warning. One can get it all in solitude EXCEPT character. To acquire character one needs to come out of solitude and be around other people.
Of course, if you’re like me, at this point you might be asking yourself, “What is character?” Dictionaries vary but the most applicable definition I came across for the noun of ‘character’ is a person’s ‘moral or ethical quality; qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity.’ To have ‘character is to have integrity, courage, and honesty, a moral or ethical compass in your life. Character is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do and doing the right thing sometimes requires courage or honesty or bravery or fortitude.
Now we might think that character is something that comes from within ourselves. We might think that character is self-generated. But actually character is built from interacting with others. It is when we interact with others that we’re able to show integrity or be courageous or be honest. Character is defined by the interactions shared between people. It is true that a person might become the wealthiest, wisest, strongest, or fastest person but be completely void of character unless they interact with people. It is the interactions between people that help define character. Stendhal’s statement beautifully captures this wisdom. Character is formed and nurtured by our interactions with each other.
What makes Stendhal’s statement particularly relevant to us is that it is meant for a people living in isolation. Unfortunately we live in a very isolating society. America is a country that, ever since its inception, has placed a high premium on rugged individualism. America is a county with great opportunities for those who are willing to work hard and show initiative and intuition. America is a country that WANTS you to be an individual, living outside of the community, thinking outside of the box. We want our individualistic heroes who defy conformity because WE want to be individuals, living our lives however we want to. We want to believe we can be successful by the sweat of our own brow, so to speak. This individualistic mentality has driven us and our country to great success. But not without a cost. The cost of beating to our own drums, of sustaining an individualistic society, is that we’ve lost touch with our communities and inadvertently isolated ourselves. We no longer gather in communities in the way we used to. We gather in communities with selfish, self-centered intentions. We gather in communities looking to gain something for ourselves or our loved ones. This is a reflection of the larger society in which we live. We enter into the larger American community very selfishly, ready to battle over resources for ourselves or our loved ones. Why not enter our church communities very selfishly, ready to battle over resources for ourselves or our loved ones?!
Well, because this is NOT how Jesus wants us to gather in HIS church community. In HIS church community, character is formed and nurtured. In HIS church community, ALL are fed and no one must battle over resources. There is MORE than enough to go around for those in his community, as we saw a few weeks ago with the feeding of the 5000.
Today’s readings help us understand how Jesus’ community works and how it forms a distinct character in us. The prophet Ezekiel received an interesting command from God: “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” God goes on to warn Ezekiel that if he doesn’t share God’s warning, then the blood of the wicked will be on Ezekiel’s hands. God is in relationship with all of us, both good and wicked, and God is just and righteous with all of us. God’s community is grounded in steadfast justice. Fair warning illustrates God’s abounding mercy should the wicked choose to forsake their wickedness. God’s community is built on love and forgiveness.
As we read in the psalm, God’s community is structured around God’s statutes, teachings, commandments, and decrees. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s community is not a man-made community like governments and economies. We should long to learn how God’s community works as David longed to learn. Fortunately for us, we have a wider understanding than David had of God’s statutes, teachings, commandments, and decrees with more full Scripture readings and the fulfillment of Scripture in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not to say there is more understanding to be learned of God’s community so we must maintain an eager desire to learn more.
The apostle Paul reminds us that at the core of God’s community is the commandment to love our neighbor. All the other statutes, teachings, commandments, and decrees are summed up with the command to love our neighbors and be in community with our neighbors. When we love our neighbor and join together in community, we reflect the love that God has for us and the community shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The very nature of God exists in and through community. The love of God comes out of community and only through the love of God is true community possible.
We know this because of what we read in Matthew 18:20–“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where there is Jesus, there is love. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love. God’s love is a forgiving love. Ezekiel was commanded to warn the wicked of God’s wrath and in so doing open a way for God’s forgiving love. Jesus tells us to approach those who sin against us in order to open a way for God’s forgiving love. God’s community is built on forgiving love. If we want to be a part of God’s community, we must allow for God’s forgiving love to come through in our interactions with each other.
God wants us to know and be a part of a loving community. This is why we were given Scripture. This is why Jesus gives us the church. We gather together in the name of Jesus so that Jesus may be among us. I see more than two or three gathered here today in the name of Jesus so I’m certain Jesus is here among us! With Jesus comes the love of God for each of us. We may have come into this gathering selfishly but we’ll leave here with God’s unselfish, forgiving love in our hearts. We are to go out and share God’s love selflessly as God’s love is shared with us.
And God’s community got a little wider this morning as we welcome back our Sunday school children, youth, and their families, as well as many visitors among us. Thank you for coming to gather in Jesus’ name and helping to bring Jesus among us. All morning I have seen Jesus on your faces and in your interactions with each other and what a blessing it has been to witness!!
Our community, gathered in the name of Jesus, gives each of us character. We might not have acquired anything else in our gathering but we most certainly acquired character! When we’re apart, we don’t know our integrity nor God nearly as well. In his book, Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear, Max Lucado astutely notes, “Questions can make hermits out of us, driving us into hiding. Yet the cave has no answers. Christ distributes courage through community; he dissipates doubts through fellowship. He never deposits all knowledge in one person but distributes pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to many. When you interlock your understanding with mine, and we share our discoveries, when we mix, mingle, confess and pray, Christ speaks.” Some of us have been away but our community is enriched by having you back. We give God our thanks and praise for getting you back in the fold!