How do you translate eklesia?

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  —

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time —  September 5-6, 2020

This weekend we made a little history, we think.  We made that history with one other community called Inclusive Catholics.  Our Mary of Magdala Community is based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, USA and Inclusive Catholics Community is based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  We celebrated Eucharist together on zoom which means we prayed together in real time – for us it was 8PM Saturday and for them it was 11AM Sunday.  What an event, what a Spirit of celebration and connection, what a gathering in Christ.

By no mechanism of planning or even taking a look-see in advance of the Readings of the Day we chose this Sunday, the 23rd in Ordinary Time.  Did you read the Gospel for this weekend?  Its closing verse is, are you ready for this?, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”  So, we gathered in our twos and threes until we became just about 60 of us.

To get started, then, there are two things I would like to point to in this Gospel from the 18th Chapter of Matthew vss.15-20.  The first has to do with translation and the second involves application.

First, translation of the word eklesia.  This passage is about a process for reconciliation between two members, one of whom has committed a grievance against the other and has left the membership over it.  The New Testament scholar, John L. McKenzie, in the Jerome Biblical Commentary points out to us that these two paragraphs are specific to Matthew.  He allows for the possibility that a phrase or two within it may have a history in Christian oral tradition of the Sayings of Jesus.  But the passage itself is a construction of the gospel writer.

When I read the passage and investigate this process for reconciliation I see 10-12 phrases that refer to 1 or 2 persons interacting with each other, 1 or 2 witnesses who may be brought into the process, 1,2, or 3 persons referring the unrepentant one to the larger Christian body.  Usually the term for the larger Christian body is “church.”  Now, I find the use of the word church an unfortunate choice here.  That word has become so loaded with intimations of bureaucracy, organization, hierarchy, distance and impersonal structures that, I believe, the term becomes useless and counter to the meaning and direction of the interpersonal procedure that is being advised in this passage.

Which gets us to the translation of the Greek word eklesia, the actual word used when our familiar translations say “refer the matter to the church (vs.17).  Why, I think, would I want a very personal matter be referred almost immediately to this overloaded thing called church?  Especially when the original Greek word, eklesia, only meant the gathering of the citizens of ancient Athens to do the work of democracy.  (in light of what the word church has come to mean, I say, How Ironic!)

Yes, doesn’t it make more sense that the 1, 2, and 3 persons would want to take the matter to their local community?  Their community who means the most in living out one’s faith in Christ?

That is why I have taken the liberty to translate this part of the directed process as  “If your sister or brother refuses to listen to them, refer the matter to the community gathering.”   My question, then, for our/your consideration today is, “What is local community, anyway?”

The same John L McKenzie writes enlighteningly as he continues his commentary: He writes, “The whole assembly of the Church has the power that is given to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 and it should be noticed that the acts of the Church in the Book of Acts are always the acts of the whole Church, not of its officers.  The apostolic Church was a true assembly.

Once one accepts that it is the community who forgives as we, each one of us,  claim for ourselves the Gifts of the Spirit then the translation of eklesia abandons the English word “church” and renders its meaning as “community.”

After translation,  the second thing I would like to say about this Gospel passage is about application.  Going back to this specific direction for reconciliation that appears only in Matthew I submit that interpretation has already been applied to what we read here.  If interpretation, then also the deeper question becomes possible, especially the question, “What is the purpose of this advice and this procedure?”

This takes us beyond grievance resolved and widens the view to ask why would one want to be reconciled in the first place.  Why, is because we seek unity in the community; we seek to care for and to love one another.

To apply purpose to our life in community – now that expands this passage that we thought was only about resolution of grievance.  Maybe you have also seen the video clip of Chadwick Bozeman’s commencement address to the 2018 graduates of his Alma Mater, Howard University.  The African-American actor, star of the global phenomenon, “Black Panther,” challenged them to find their own purpose in and for their lives.  He rightly, and advisedly, pointed out that with purpose in hand they will be equipped to journey with integrity through their lives with failures and rejections that surely will come their way.  These, as it turns out, were no small words for the megastar.  In 2018 he had already undergone 2 years of treatment for colon cancer, something, many of us only now know owing to his recent death, that is a virtual death sentence for too many African-American men.

So, let’s ask what is the purpose of this Gospel passage?  I submit it is to realize that community happens in the 1,2, and 3 of human life; that love, peace, reconciliation is best practiced face-to-face and in the context of what we call local community.  God knows that systemic injustices must be confronted and resolved among us.  I just find it hard to believe that individuals who have not truly cared for and loved, and reconciled with, 1 and 2 and 3 others, that these people ought not believe they have some ability to provide solutions to systemic and institutional sin in our society.

Do you translate eklesia as community gathering?  And do you, thereby, claim your Gifts of the Spirit – you, as we read in Exodus 16:9 and 1 Peter 2:9, the royal priesthood, you nation of priests who serve your God?

A Prayer   (JR)

We praise you, Holy & All-Loving One for this new day.

We draw comfort from undeserved blessings and unanticipated joys.

It is you who speak words to our hearts and act with love on our behalf.

We do not know how these blessings came to be in this world

that is too often a place of weariness and emptiness.

We open our hearts, our minds, our spirits, to you and to all  whom you love.

We are obliged to care for the creation which is your gift to us.

We are to give comfort to those who are weary.

This is the purpose of your Word.

May we not weary you with our judgments about who you love the most

and the best.

Rather, let humility which is the purpose of your revelation

encourage us to live as you did –

Through death to resurrection.

We pray in your Name, Jesus Christ, now and forever.   Amen.


Acknowledgment of Country

We began this Service with this Acknowledgment of Country which we received from our sister community in Australia (Melbourne), Inclusive Catholics.  One thing we all share in is that we live on taken land from the First Peoples.

Australia        We respectfully acknowledge the first inhabitants of these two lands

                        where we live.  They include the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the first inhabitants of this land where we meet.

USA               They also include the tribes and nations of Ojibwe, Potawatami,

                        Ho Chunk, Sac and Fox, the first inhabitants of this land where we meet.

All:                 We give thanks and we honor them for custodianship of Mother Earth and trust in the providence of Great Spirit – all is sacred.  We pay tribute to the unique role they play in the life of our regions on the other side of Earth from each other, this “third rock from the Sun.”


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