This week’s theme: We have all been there. That moment in a solid relationship when someone says or does something that really hurts, and a chill descends. Sometimes there is shock, sometimes tears, sometimes yelling. But often silence and then withdrawal. And, if it goes on long enough, the story is tragic: Good friends don’t talk to each other anymore. Brothers stop coming to family dinners. Because now we are enemies. Now we don’t trust each other. At least, we don’t trust each other to truly care about the good of the other. It’s some of the worst pain we experience.
We’ve been in such moments and tried to solve the problem. We take initiative to make amends but it all goes sideways and we have no idea how it got off track so fast. We’ve been in such moments and tried to ignore the problem. We stay positive. We keep smiling. We act like nothing has changed. But eventually the ground shifts so irrevocably that we can’t keep up the charade.
Some of us have been in the room when such brokenness has met with the healing grace of God. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5.9). That was the work of Jesus, to make peace with God through his blood shed on the cross. We, who were, in the words of the apostle Paul, “enemies of God” (Romans 5.10) have now become ones whom Jesus calls his “friends” (John 15.14). This peacemaking work of Jesus is not just “vertical,” so to speak, not just focused on our relationship with God. It is also about our relationships with others. Paul writes that in Jesus and his cross, “the dividing wall of hostility” is “abolished” so that historic enmity between human beings over race may be overcome (Ephesians 2.14). That’s still a tall order, and it remains at the heart of the peacemaking work of Jesus.
Our theme today is “Agree on Earth,” a reference to what Jesus is saying as he discusses “binding and loosing” for the second time in Matthew’s gospel. Here he specifically addresses a Christian process for reconciliation and then turns that theme into a discussion of prayer. Remarkable. We so rarely put the two together, but the gospel does.
Two weeks ago, when we first encountered Jesus’ reference to “binding and loosing” – then in reference to the keys of the kingdom and Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ – we discussed how this has often been limited to what some call “church discipline” (Mark 16.13-20). In typical practice, the focus is on behaviors that are considered out of line for God’s people. In a church that practices this kind of discipline, it functions to enforce behavioral norms. If that sounds rigid and judgmental, it certainly can be. At the same time, we all recognize that some behavior expectations are worth enforcing. Years ago, on one of my men’s soccer teams, two guys got into a fight and it was clear that only one of them started it – one of my friends. I had to tell him he was off the team for the rest of the season. Fighting with teammates, no matter how much they frustrate you, is not accepted here. So, we’ll take a break for now and talk about putting you back on the team later.
The insight we lifted up two weeks ago was that “binding and loosing” in the life and ministry of Jesus is not primarily about behaviors but about relationships. This week, we see Jesus take this a step further. Binding and loosing is about a spiritual power that is released in prayer, and prayer has that power whenever “two or three” gather together and “agree on earth.” That is, the health of our relationships as the people of God allows us to pray powerfully together.
Over thirty years ago, I spent a summer in Spain doing mission work in one town. For two weeks, thirty young people from around the country got together to do intensive work introducing people to Jesus through a film series, street theater, and children’s programs. At the beginning of that time, the entire team, young people and adults spent a day of fasting and gathered that evening for worship and prayer. We were praying that the Spirit of God would be poured out on this town, that the love of Jesus would be manifested in power, that our work would bless the heart of God for the community. A mighty wind descended, somewhat like Pentecost. Power went out in part of the community. It would be easy to attribute the weather to the hand of God or the resistance of the devil.
Either way, I know what happened in that room that evening, even before the storm. Our prayers were heard by God, and answered. There was a profound confidence and joy because not just two or three but thirty to forty were gathered together in the name of Jesus and agreeing on earth in prayer for the souls and holiness of that town. When you pray together like that, it is an intimacy that is rarely matched. No wonder the biblical text on erotic love has been read historically in both Israel and the church as a guide to prayer. Praying together is the most intimate thing we can do, and the most powerful thing we can experience. But we can only do it as the reconciled people of God. The “keys of the kingdom” are a gift not just to Peter in the passage from two weeks ago. They are a gift to the people of God who “agree on earth” together.
Think about it in these terms: How many of you parents found it easy to say “no” to one child, but much more difficult to say “no” when all your children agreed and lobbied you together? When the children of God “agree on earth,” God listens.
But it is so hard to do, so difficult for us to agree on earth. Have you paid attention to politics recently? To the cynic, even “no brainers” seem impossible for politicians to agree on. Because politics is not only about solving problems but accumulating power.
People of God have similar issues, in case you haven’t noticed. We read the Bible differently. We vote differently. We disagree on principle. It is nothing new. I am so glad that the Scripture is honest with us about some of the conflicts in the primitive church. Paul and Barnabas, who have been on a mission trip together, are at odds over whether or not John Mark should accompany them on the next trip. John Mark had abandoned them the last time when things go tough and Paul didn’t want to have him around. “It’s either him or me.” What a demand for Paul to put to the guy who opened the door to give you access to leadership in the church! But Paul did it anyway. He and Barnabas parted ways. We don’t know if they ever got together again. But we do know that some years later Paul was able to make amends with John Mark, for whom the gospel of Mark is named. I appreciate the Bible is realin the way it addresses conflict.
Later, when Paul appeals to the church to live in unity, it is not an appeal to ignore differences. Instead, it is a reminder of what is most important: “There is one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4.1-6). Yes, it takes humility and repentance, confession and forgiveness. It takes love.And it takes emphasizing the ways we agree so that we can pray together with power, binding the power of evil and loosing the blessing of God on our world.
Let’s agree together in prayer for our children, teachers, and parents going through distanced learning. For safety, for health, for effective learning, for children with special needs.
Let’s agree together in prayer for people in our community who are moving towards independence and home ownership through Habitat for Humanity. For safety in construction, for friendships that nurture families for a lifetime.
Let’s agree together in prayer for those who struggle with substance use, particularly in the incredible emotional demands of life under a pandemic. For sobriety, for peace.
Let’s agree together in prayer for the racial conflict in our nation. For safety for persons of color, for safety for law enforcement, for protests to be peaceful, for structural changes that help provide equal opportunity for all.
Let’s agree together in prayer for our mission in this community. That men and women and children will meet Jesus and be transformed by the love of God; that our spirituality that is giving, faithful, and real will bear witness to Jesus.
Whenever two or three agree together on earth, God is listening. Find your two or three and agree in prayer with them. Bind the power of evil in your prayer and let loose on the world the love and blessing of God.
- Share a story of brokenness in relationship. How did you respond to it at the time? Try to ignore it? Try to fix it?
- Share a story of holding a friend accountable, like the friend who started a fight on the team.
- What experience do you have praying with someone? Mealtime prayers? Bedtime prayers? Something else? How has that experience bonded you?
- Who would you like to have as a partner in prayer? Ask them!
- “Loose” a blessing on someone. Send a thank you note!