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The Presence of Christ There was a cartoon that I came across some years ago, reprinted in a book or article, if I remember rightly. The cartoon pictured a young minister at an imposing podium in a huge Gothic cathedral, preparing to read from Holy Scriptures. The young minister said, "I know this is going to sound rather authoritarian, 'Thus saith the Lord . . . '"

Most people regard this cartoon as mildly humorous, even if it is not easy to explain that there is an incongruity in a church apologizing for sounding authoritarian when speaking the word of the Lord in a time when the phrase, "How dare you try to impose your morality upon me!" has become a cliche. So people find it necessary to apologize, "I know this is going to sound rather authoritarian, 'Thus saith the Lord . . . '" My, how times have changed. It is said that once the church was a powerful force and authority in the world. History tells us that a king once stood for three days, barefoot in the snow, to beg the Pope to see him and to lift the ban of excommunication. Now churches are afraid to offend anyone, even those who are never seen or present. Ministers tell of congregations afraid to list as inactive members those who have not been active for years or decades because those absent might be offended, and, instead of merely not being present, would not be present because they are offended.

What has happened to the church of Jesus Christ? When did the idea become gospel that the church is a place where no one is offended? I am not quite sure what has happened, but I think there is some connection to the rise of the consumer ethic in our society which has come to regard almost all phases and dimensions of life, including religion and politics, as commodities to be advertised to a mass public in mass competition for mass cost effectiveness and mass consumption. There are a few problems with this approach, such as being held hostage by the chronically dissatisfied, the mentally or spiritually disturbed, the ignorant, the belligerent, the control freaks, not to mention the truly evil, not to mention the dilution and trivialization of the Gospel. The results can be tragic in the wounding of the body of Christ and its effects on the world.

When did it become gospel that the church is a place where no one is offended? Some years ago, the mild-mannered and shy Robert Montgomery Knight, basketball coach at Indiana University, told his favorite newspaper reporters that, as a United Methodist, he was embarrassed by a sports scandal reported at a United Methodist institution of higher education. There were few who thought that Bobby Knight, after years of residence in Bloomington, knew where the local United Methodist churches were, but he said he was offended and embarrassed, and it made national news. Bobby Knight said that he did not go to church because he had problems with "organized religion," an oxymoron or contradiction in terms, if I ever heard one, that ranks with "jumbo shrimp," "Velveeta cheese," "military intelligence," or "United Methodist" in inconsistency and contradiction. Well, Bobby Knight is in good company in his problems with organized religion, he and the bishop and every minster and everyone who is active in belief and faith and worship. I am even sure that Mother Theresa has her problems with organized religion, and I am beginning to suspect that only peripherally connected by absence and blessed benign ignorance are unoffended by the church.

When did it become gospel that the church is a place where no one is offended? Is there any other organization or institution that has such expectations? I grew up in a family. We loved each other, but we offended and were offended on a daily basis. I went to school. It was not like family except there was offense so regularly that one would think it was part of the curriculum. I served in the military, and do not let me get started on the catalogue of offenses. As the main character in the movie Platoon said about being an infantry soldier or "grunt," "We were grunts, and we could take anything." I have worked in a number of settings. I have traveled. I have walked down streets. There is offense everywhere. Why should the church be different?

When mental health counselors find a couple who claim that they have never had a disagreement or argument, the counselors know they have found an unhealthy situation because it is not natural for independent individuals not to have differences of opinions. If there is no difference of opinions, or if such differences are denied or ignored, then there will be repercussions in the emotional make up of that family, which can explain why very nice people can have children who explode all over the country.

Differences of opinions are healthy in their own right. It is how differences are perceived and understood that can be the problem. As a modern American rabbi points out, differences are like sparks that can be creative, as in an engine where a spark causes a controlled explosion that drives a vehicle, or a spark can be destructive, as in a room filled with gasoline fumes. The difference between creation and chaos is small but vital. What is the difference between discipline and totalitarianism?

The scriptures we heard today from Matthew quoting Jesus on church discipline are words we would probably not have to deal with. We know how these words can be and have been abused, but we need to know that the church does a responsibility of love to deal with sin and evil. The key word is "love." The apostle Paul says that love does no wrong, therefore love is the fulfillment of the commandments. That is a powerful insight because no list of rules can be all-inclusive or ironclad. We need to remember, as Benjamin Franklin said, that things are not harmful because they are sinful, but they are sinful because they are harmful. There are good vital reasons for morality as a guide to healthy living in love to self and others, which is a vast difference from sour morality which acts only from fear or control. Those who follow Christ do have a responsibility to put on Christ as one puts on clothing, and then to act in love. Paul gave such advice to the church because he thought the world would soon come to an end, but the advice is still good because the effect of acting in a loving Christlike way is because it changes the world for the better in ways that we may never fully know or understand, and it does bring about the will of God's love which brings about the kingdom of God on earth.

It may be that perceiving the church as a place which creates no offense is instrumental in the perception of Christ and of love as weak and ineffectual. In the teaching and example of Christ as opposed to the myth of redemptive violence, the myth that violence by good people can destroy evil, Jesus did not go forth to the blaze of glorious martyrdom, but into something else, suffering and obedience that does not kill evil but transforms it by the power of God's love.

Jesus tells us we have responsibility for others. If we see a good friend doing something destructive to self and others, would we not talk with them out of love? If we see a world that is in trouble, would we not do what we can, in some small way, because Christ loves sinners? A minister tells of being in South Africa in 1987 and seeing a fourteen-year-old boy in a school who was organizing children to protest against apartheid. The boy told the American minister that he was optimistic about the future. When the minster asked the boy if he thought apartheid would even end, the boy told him, "I shall personally see to it."

Jesus tells us we have responsibility for others, but also that we have power, even if different from what the world recognizes as power. Jesus says that when even two or three are gathered together in His name, there He is in their midst. That means that together with Christ, as weak and sinful and mistaken as we can be, we can have the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God to change the world. Have you heard about the junior high school student who did research on child labor in the third world, and is now an advocate for children who labor without power or a voice? Against all odds, a child has become a moral authority in the world that international corporations and governments must reckon with, only because he speaks truth from love and compassion. I suspect that his power comes from beyond himself.

We have this awesome power that can stand and change the world. In every congregation, every group of two or three can act out of love with Christ. That is all a church is: clumps of sinners come together to form a critical mass of love with Jesus Christ. That is what makes the church a miracle. We deal here with such vital issues of meaning and being, of life and death, of good and evil that it is easy to become so stirred up by what is so important to us that we can easily forget that we are to be a critical mass of love through Jesus Christ and that the presence of Jesus Christ among us gives us power for God's love and will.

The church always messes up, every century and every generation, but it is still the expression of the love of Christ for the world. Miracles do happen. Good is done. Sinners are touched by the love of God. Sins are forgiven. New life and hope arise from despair and death. The fourteen-year-old boy in South Africa must have seen to it personally: apartheid is gone. Bobby Knight's wedding was officiated by his friend, the United Methodist bishop of Indiana. God gives us gifts and hope to give love and meaning to those God sends to us that Christ might live in new homes and hearts. We, as individuals, are here for a reason. We, as a church, are here for a reason. The presence of Christ is among us now because we are gathered in the name of Christ. Let us live in the love of Christ that the world that God created and loves might be transformed and redeemed to be what it is meant to be. We can make a difference because we have Christ to love us.

The church offends me, just as I find wrong and sin and offense in every place where humans are, including my own soul, but I wonder how much of that offense has to do with my own lack of comprehension of the depth of the power of God's love. The church offends me, but God loves me, Christ redeems me, and the Holy Spirit flows through the church into the world, and miracles happen. Christ is with us and Christ will go with us into the world until the end of the age. Feel the presence of Christ and take it with you to all in need. Amen and Amen.