The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2017

The Epistle – Galatians 5:16-24

The Gospel – Luke 17:11-19

Article 33 – Of Excommunicate Persons and How They are to be Avoided

 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

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Article 33 is on our plate today.  Of Excommunicate persons and how they are to be avoided. (Sermon series)

 

The Church is said to have three primary functions….

 

 

 

1. To preach the Word of God faithfully…or as the Prayer Book states it, “to set forth God’s true and lively Word”;

2. To administer the Sacraments rightly and duly;

3. To provide discipline to it's members fairly but clearly.

 

Of the three, the third, Church discipline is probably the one that is least adhered to.

 

Yes there are times when someone needs a talking to, or they need to perhaps even leave if the are disruptive.

 

But a more severe use of discipline is not all that prevalent in the Church today.

 

To read this Article might give you the impression that this is another one that is perhaps a bit outdated. 

Some may hope that it is outdated so they can avoid its implementation.

 

But if rightly used, it is a great benefit to everyone in the body of the Church….both to the offender and the other members.

 

Cutting off people or excommunicating them is a concept found even back in the Old Testament.  This is not a new practice, nor is it a Reformation or even early Church practice…in its origin.

 

It has been used in those periods, but its beginnings are found much earlier in the early days of the Israelite people.

In the Old Testament, to be excommunicated seems to have meant death by the judgment of God where God would pronounce that He would cut off that person from the people.…or by the hand of man….where a person was disciplined by another.

 

The Jews evolved this into a cutting off of a person from worshiping with them for a month or two.

 

They had a second more severe level where the person would be banned from having any sort of interaction with another Jew.

 

 

 

They could only purchase food from them but they were not allowed to have any sort of more intimate and prolonged interaction with them.

 

The third level, would involve a total and complete cutting off from any and all interaction with another Jew and worship practices.

 

In the early Christian Church people were cut off from the body of the Church for a while.  Penitential acts were assigned to the offender.

 

There is evidence that some were disciplined for a while but after continued offences were committed, the Church finally excommunicated the person all together.

Taking their cue from the Israelite people, the early Church also implemented certain forms of excommunication.

 

Those crimes that were deemed “lesser” included a separating of the offender from participation in the Eucharist.

 

They could be there for Psalm singing and the reading of the Scriptures, but would not remain in the service for the primary portion of it, that being Holy Communion.

 

Then there were greater offences that would get the offender fully excommunicated from the Church all together.

 

Not allowed in the Church.

Not allowed interaction with others…avoided…

Not allowed Communion.

 

The crime had to be fairly severe for the more harsh punishment to be meted out.

 

Later, popes would and did excommunicate kings and other officials.

 

Public penance was also included many times in the process of working an offender back into the community of the Church.

 

Here is a quote from Harold Brown in his commentary on the Articles.

 

“Besides…public confession, the early Church used to impose a term of public penance on those who expressed contrition for their sins, and desired to be restored to communion.

The performance of penance was anciently a matter of considerable time, in order that the sincerity of the repentance might be tested, and that full evidence of sorrow might be given to the Church.

 

Accordingly, penitents were divided into four distinct classes, called respectively flentes, audientes, substrati, and consistentes. The flentes, or mourners, were candidates for penance, rather than persons actually admitted to penitence.

They used to lie prostrate at the church-door, begging the prayers of the faithful, and asking to be admitted to do penance.

 

When they had been admitted to penance, they became audientes or hearers; because then, though not restored to communion, or the prayers of the Church, they might hear the Scriptures and the sermon.

 

From this condition they passed into the state of substrati or kneelers. These were allowed to stay in the nave of the Church, and to join in certain prayers, specially put up for them, whilst they were on their knees.

 

 

Lastly, they became consistentes or co-standers, persons allowed to stand with the faithful at the altar, and join in the common prayers, and to witness, but not partake of the Holy Communion.

 

During the term of their penance, penitents were obliged to appear in sackcloth, with ashes on their head, to cut off their hair, to abstain from all feasting and innocent amusements, to show liberality to the poor, and to make public confession of their sins.

 

How early this distinction of four orders of penitents was made, and the special rules concerning their penance were laid down, is not indisputably certain.”[1]

 

Brown thinks this was probably as early as the 3rd century where mention is made of these distinctions.

 

Now what is striking about this whole process of excommunication and Church discipline is how extreme it sounds to us, first of all…but also how far we have gone from this sort of practice…

 

….or any real sort of calling someone to account for his sins.

 

Furthermore, what is also striking is just how serious both the Church and the penitent took the crime committed and how important it was to each member…(maybe not all)…but those who desired to return and be restored.

 

Today do we take our sins this seriously…that we would be this penitent?

 

Today, would anyone be able to hold up under such rigorous treatment and penance?

 

If someone were to be even politely asked to leave a Church for something, would we ever catch them lying at the doors begging to be let back in?

 

No. Today they just simply move to another Church.  No one will know what transpired and they can have a fresh start.

 

We have people nowadays who don't even commit a crime. 

They simply don't like something the pastor or someone else is doing….the way the Church is run….or they can't get their own way…and they pack up and leave.  

 

There are so many Churches today especially here in America and there is freedom to move easily from one Church to another with no trail left behind.

 

And unless someone has an unusually great amount of humility to admit their wrongdoing… and repent of it, they can essentially “get away with it” and start over.

 

To WANT to be admitted to Holy Communion…..

To WANT to make amends….

To WANT to be in Church so very badly because they see the importance and eternal consequences of not being an active and frequent member of a Church is sorely lacking today.

 

In times past, Christians, it appears from the penance assigned and the desire to be restored to full communion with the body of Christ was so extremely important that we can hardly fathom it today.

 

And this was after committing a sin.  Some skip Church for much less valid reasons.

 

But we have to move on here to the latter half of the Article, which mentions how these excommunicate are to be avoided.

 

The Church does have a mechanism to deal with those who do commit sin. Jesus gives us a pretty clear process to follow in situations where there is perceived or even blatant sin.

 

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, (this is not just a one on one sort of scenario, but this can include a sin against a larger group, like the Church as well.

 

So, step 1. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

 

 

 

Step 2. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

 

So this is not just limited to a one on one situation, a witness is present to establish corroboration that an attempt was made to bring a resolution.

 

Step 3. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

 

So the issue is brought to the priest, pastor, leadership of the Church.

 

Step 4. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

 

Yes, Jesus spoke with and ate with tax collectors and Gentiles.  But that was in a different context.  He spoke to them because He was drawing them unto Himself.

 

He knew how the Jews hated both categories of persons or with what disdain they held tax collectors and Gentiles in.

 

He was essentially calling the Church to hold that same sort of attitude toward a person in sin.

 

Yet we also wonder here, if you are thinking of other bible passages, such passages where we are called to be longsuffering…patient…kind…forgiving…

…Where we are to do all that we can to bring sinners to repentance…then isn’t this contradictory to this excommunicating and avoiding?

 

But if we think about this, the words of Jesus and His 4 step process to seek reconciliation, we are talking about a serious effort to bring about repentance.

 

We are not called to just throw a person out after they commit a sin. We are called to do all that we can to seek out the person in sin…whatever kind of sin….and compel them to seek repentance, and restoration.

 

 

 

But there is still a place for distancing the sinner from the Church if they become a persistent problem and are refusing to come to repentance.

 

St. Augustine’s mother prayed for years for her son to come to repentance.  She followed him in boats to other lands and prayed endlessly for his conversion.  And as we know, she got her prayers answered in the affirmative.

 

So in today’s Epistle from Paul…a continuation from Galatians from last week we should be able to see further reasons why St. Paul would continually harp on the behavior of the Christian.

 

“…walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. [18] But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. [19]

 

Then here are the works of the flesh…the works we are to avoid committing.

 

“…sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

 

That right there ought to give us pause.  Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

 

Not just will we have to answer for them.

Not just will they perhaps cause some harm to people and so we ought to stop doing them.

 

Those who make a purposeful practice of such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

 

This was the fear of the Church for her members that brought with it such severe punishment and a desire for penance through this excommunication process.

 

 

If you are allowed to do such things, you will not only bring strife to the Church body, but you will jeopardize your own soul and the Church says….you were bought with a price and we are not going to let you get away with it.

 

We cannot correct it in your soul, but we can certainly do all that we can to the flesh to preserve the soul.

 

Hear what St. Paul writes in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, “1 Corinthians 5:1-5

 

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. [2] And you are arrogant!

Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

 

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (ESV)

 

This was the desire of the Church.  Save the soul at all costs….but excommunicate and avoid was also an option for obstinate sinners.

 

Excommunication is a Biblical practice that the Church has always practiced to one degree or another.

 

Avoidance is also part of this formula.  It is never to be done out of spite…but rather with a spirit for the desire they feel the isolation, turn and repent.

 

As Harold Brown stated it earlier…the Church used to impose a term of public penance on those who expressed contrition for their sins, and desired to be restored to communion.

 

The performance of penance was a matter of considerable time, in order that the sincerity of the repentance might be tested, and that full evidence of sorrow might be given to the Church.

We might close with the Absolution Prayer from MP.  This is prayer, but can teach us the theology of the Church as well…..

 

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live; hath given power and commandment to His Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins.  He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.

 

 

 

Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.



[1] Harold Browns – An Exposition of the 39 Articles. – p. 978.