Proper 18 Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
What makes someone a Christian? Some might say that you have to pray a particular prayer, and, as the common phrase goes, accept Jesus into your heart. Others might point to baptism, as we do, often held as a sacrament but if nothing else seen as an initiatory rite. Our canons define membership within this body of Christ, requiring one to receive communion three times a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if you just simply got a different answer from every single denomination you ask. And usually, they will also be happy to explain to you how others are not Christians, or how other churches fall short of being ‘true Christians’.
Humans seem to like to create structure. We do it in almost every interaction we have with another person. We ask them what they do or where they live or perhaps where they went to school. The information we learn about them helps us to decide who is above the other. Even children, without a lot of prompting or training create hierarchies on playgrounds. Certainly as an Anglican priest, as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I will am not exactly going to condemn structure. I like structure too.
But when it comes to the life of Christians, when it comes to all the commands that we are given and all the ways we are to live our lives, our reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans helps us by summing up the point of all of it. “Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” That is the greatest commandment given to us by Christ, and everything else he teaches us, everything else he calls us to is in pursuit of Loving one another. When you take up your cross, as last week’s call was, you do so out of love for others. When you study scripture, when you prayer, when you come to this holy altar to partake of the blessed sacrament, you do it all to deepen within yourself a knowledge and resolve to better love.
Yet, I’m going to be a bit bold in saying that frankly, we suck at it. You hear from me time and time again a reminder that failing to live up to Jesus’ commands is no excuse for giving up, and that God knows and I’m pretty sure we know too that we are going to fail. But we have to keep working at it. There is a well known quote from famed Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti who says, ““People think I'm disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.” Devotion to the way that Christ calls us to, means striving for that love, using all the tools at our disposal to find ways to harness it.
When Jesus, through Paul’s admonition, calls us to love one another, it is not an invitation to an easy route by saying, “I love you, because Jesus says I have to, I just don’t like you very much.” This isn’t about gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to begrudgingly love another. It is both the goal and the fruit of a life dedicated to Christ. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of work. It takes work with your own internal struggles and it takes work externally when applied to the relationships around you. Every single human being is a child of God, and Christ calls you and me to love them. To really truly love them, not just tolerate them.
Loving others does not mean though, that we just accept everything they do or say. While I am firmly convinced that Jesus teaches pacifism, while I point again and again to the Garden at Gethsemane when he takes the sword from Peter’s hand and reattaches the ear of the soldier as the way of refusing to harm others to save yourself, Jesus also makes it pretty clear how we are to deal with problems that arise amongst ourselves. Our Gospel lesson today shows us that Jesus knows conflict still will exist between people, and so there must be ways to resolve it.
The first thing I want to say about this Gospel reading today is to explain the sixth word in that first sentence. Church. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you”. Before we go any further we need to define that because this passage has been used and misused a lot over the centuries. Interestingly, most translations use the term ‘brother’ instead of ‘member of the church’ to translate the Greek word used. The important thing to understand from this is that there was no ‘church’ as we think of it in Jesus’ time. That hadn’t happened yet, even though our translation from the New Revised Standard Version wants to use that word. Jesus is talking about the people in your life, whether those people are the closest to you or the kid that bags your groceries every other week. This applies certainly in different ways when it is someone within an insulated circle, but the core teaching applies universally.
Jesus is calling us to be responsible for mending the connection between ourselves, making us responsible for enacting that in loving ways. Matthew 18 is about humility, about being willing to have those difficult conversations with the hope and aim of resolving conflict. When it comes especially to the body of Christ, our community here, it is even more pertinent. St. Paul reminds us that one part of the body cannot say to another part, “I have no need of you”.
Of course in this day and age, our church communities are complicated by the way society functions. In its purest form, one would be right to say that the church is not a, “voluntary association of like-minded individuals that regulates its corporate life by the will of the elite, the powerful, or the majority; it is a fellowship of believers unite with one another in Jesus Christ under his headship.” as Charles Hambrick-Stowe writes. But Hambrick-Stowe also acknowledges the other side of that coin: “In contemporary North American church life, these hurts are commonly dealt with by one or more people leaving the church in anger, join in another church down the street or dropping out altogether. […] God’s grace is thwarted among the very people called to extend that grace to the world.”
We must do everything we can to extend that reconciliation. The path that Jesus lays out is not there to be used as a bludgeon against those we don’t like, it is offered as a way to lovingly return to communion. But what happens when it doesn’t work? What do we do if we just simply cannot seem to get that other person to reconcile, to see the division, to acknowledge the deeper issues? Jesus says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
Again Jesus says something that has been taken a few different ways throughout history. It’s like that’s a theme or something. This passage in particular has been used repeatedly throughout history and in many different Christian cultures to justify shunning, expulsion, or just plain cutting somebody off. But I wonder, when Jesus says to treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector if he has in mind how he treats those folks. Jesus’ ministry is reviled over and over by the religious authorities for his transgressing the lines, for eating meals with Gentiles and tax collectors, for talking to them and equals, for respecting them, for loving them. The Gospel this comes from is even named after a tax collector, the Apostle Matthew.
Hambrick-Stowe writes, “The rest of the world writes people off when things reach a certain point. Jesus’ saying, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heave, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, is susceptible to multiple interpretations. […] Jesus could mean this: if we in the church do not forgive and heal, who on earth is going to do it?”
What Christ calls us to is hard work, through the Love he commands, and in pursuit of the reconciliation we know is to come in the Kingdom of God. This is about the most loving and open of reconciliation. This is about us struggling against our own feelings of hurt, our own tarnished pride from being wronged, and loving anyway. Of opening our hearts, our lives, our homes to those who would refuse to reconcile with us. This teaching of Jesus shows us the power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall, when we fail, when we stumble or hurt. This is a tough directive for us, and it will push us past the comfortable, easy boundaries we like to rest on.
Jesus never said any of this was easy. Perhaps in light of this passage and the one to come next week, you’re more ready to opt for that cross, that symbol of death, we talked about last week. All too often we forget what it means to be a Christian, we focus on the tasks that point us in the right direction, but we don’t want to move that way because we know the work gets harder the closer we get. The words of the 1960s hymn written by Fr. Peter Scholtes kept running through my head while I wrote this sermon. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”