Revised Homily for September 7, 2014
Year A. Matthew 18:15-20.
(first posted September 4, 2011)
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading calls for honesty, humility and confession. It reads as a deeply troubling text which breaks open a festering wound within the body of Christ, a wound not easily addressed or healed.
Here we are confronted by the words of Jesus, who is deeply concerned with how we treat each other and how conflict is to be resolved within his newly transformed community. Therefore, this text also confronts us with the truth that following Jesus, as we have said over and over again, is supremely something to be done, not just something to be thought or studied.
One way of understanding the faith as something to be done, and one clear way into an understanding of this present Gospel reading, is to remind ourselves of how Jesus and the early church understood the place of the moral law coming from Moses.
The New Testament reading for today is very helpful in this regard:
Brothers and sisters:Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery;you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."Love does no evil to the neighbor;hence, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Far from tossing aside the law and replacing it with some sort of license, “It’s my Jesus and I’ll do what I want to…” Jesus and his New Testament followers believed that they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit to actually fulfill the calling of the law.
Not doubt, they remembered this passage from Ezekiel:
Therefore, give the exiles this message from the Sovereign LORD: Although I have scattered you in the countries of the world, I will be a sanctuary to you during your time in exile. I, the Sovereign LORD, will gather you back from the nations where you are scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel once again."When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their detestable idol worship. And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their hearts of stone and give them tender hearts instead, so they will obey my laws and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. (Ez.11:16-20)
and they believed that GOD had brought it to reality through the work of the Christ and through his sending the Holy Spirit.
Said differently, they believed the Holy Spirit empowered them to walk the narrow way. They believed that the indwelling Spirit empowered them to live-out the moral law which Jesus summarized as loving GOD with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
But, and here is the distinct question that moves us toward today's Gospel reading: Specifically, how is this to be done?
How are we to love our
neighbor as we love ourselves?
In the New Testament reading St.Paul lists practices that comprise the act of loving our neighbor: No adultery, no murder, no stealing, and the one that hits we Americans right between the eyes -- no coveting.
Likewise, in today's Gospel reading Jesus offers us an additional way to love our neighbor as we love ourselves -- the practice of making forgiveness and reconciliation the key that guides our relationships with those in the body of Christ.
Let me say that the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation maybe the most neglected and the most needed action for those who claim the Christian faith.
Said another way, the social fracture we see that divides our churches and denominations is at least as difficult and maybe even more so than that which exists within in our political discourse or say within our fractured families, and we know how much brokenness resides there!
Or, said still another way, Christians know well how to hate each other, and how to express that hate.
The Body of Christ has shattered its fellowship. It has laid waste to its unity, and in so doing it has surrendered its right to be heard. Remember what Jesus said:
"Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (Jn. 13:35)
Well, in today’s text Jesus adds meat to the bones of loving the other:
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone..."
What is in view here, primarily, are interpersonal relationships within the family of GOD. Jesus, by raising this issue implicitly, acknowledges the reality that we live in a fallen world where conflict is inevitable. The LORD knows only too well that the human condition is fraught with jealousy and ongoing animosity.
Still, Jesus envisions a path that leads to forgiveness in the midst of conflict, and he actually sees this as the practical norm between believers on the Jesus-way. He sees the term brothers and sisters as more than a mere verbal designation. He sees it as reality. We are family and he expects us to act like it.
So much occurs within the moment of conflict, doesn't it? The loss of trust, misunderstandings of intent, assignment of motives, the talking past the other, and Jesus stiffly pushes against this outcome, leading us to prevent a rupture of relationship by practicing forgiveness.
In fact, so important is this to the Master, that he actually assigns this as a Church matter:
"If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector."
and then, still to the church:
"whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,"
which speaks to the churches, as we said a couple weeks ago, of the calling of those responsible leaders to insure what should and should not be done by church members. This means, ultimately, someone (or someones) is responsible to ensure that the faith once confessed maintains fidelity in practice to the ways taught by the Christ.
Said differently, the church is to create a climate for reconciliation. It is to be a clear and present emphasis so that the unity of the Body of Christ is maintained within the bond of peace. In fact, so important is this idea to Jesus that he tells the church leaders, those responsible for binding and loosing, to put out of the church, outside of the fellowship, one not willing to be reconciled, as a means to lead them to reconsider their stubbornness, and to come to unity.
This is stunning, really, and we must all of us confess we have not done much good here. In fact, it seems as denominations and church bodies, we have been all too eager to go the other way, to choose sides and war against each other.
Even individual church bodies who have authoritarian systems of government, where presumably action is taken more easily, have mostly failed to practice this type of church discipline. And, this is especially difficult for those of us who are not so sure of our own spirituality at times; those who first desire to take the log out or our own eye before we take the speck out of the another’s.
What must be said is that this failure of nerve is not without repercussion.
First, we are presented with the rather severe consequence that our prayers will be hindered:
"Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father."
And second we find that our unchecked conflict also hinders Christ's presence within the church:
"if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
I take this to mean that part of the reason our prayers are anemic and the power of the risen Christ is so diminished in our midst is that we have failed to practice unity in our individual churches and among different denominations.
Said bluntly, where unity is practiced the Spirit of the Christ is present and prayers are heard. I take this as a clear and living promise from the living, risen Christ.
But there is more.
The ultimate consequence of the broken body of Christ is the loss of Jesus’ reality to the watching world. In what is called Jesus' High Priestly Prayer we discover what was most on the Master's heart just before his execution by the Romans. Would it surprise you to learn that his primary concern was the continued unity of his followers:
"And now I am coming to you. I have told them many things while I was with them so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not. I'm not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They are not part of this world any more than I am. Make them pure and holy by teaching them your words of truth. As you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself entirely to you so they also might be entirely yours. "I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony. My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father -- that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me. "I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are -- I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one. Then the world will know that you sent me and will understand that you love them as much as you love me. (John 17:13-23)
Notice verse 21 again:
“My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father -- that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me.”
To live within a fractured or a conflicted relationship with another believer gives license to the unbelieving world to dismiss the reality of Jesus and the mission he was given from his heavenly Father.
Somehow, we must overcome our hate and mistrust, and love each other, no matter how we disagree, so that the mission and the ministry of the Christ continues and returns to the forefront. We must allow our agendas to take a backseat to the LORD’s calling for us. This is the path to a true practice of the faith.