Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 10, 2017.
Exodus 12: 1-14
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20
Love and Living in the Light
We sometime picture the early Church as all sweetness and light and faithfulness under persecution. We read words like those we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans earlier: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” We read words like that and we can get a nice warm feeling about the early church and the deep and sustaining love that characterized their shared life. But then we come to the gospel reading we heard and you just know that there’s another side to it. [Jesus said]: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
You can be absolutely sure that those words were not written for a church where the love and harmony was so perfect that they had never faced a situation in which they might need to take that kind of action. This was clearly written for a church that knew that unless it came up with a fair and grace-filled way of dealing with hurts and disputes in the church, they were in danger of tearing themselves apart. And that is the reality within the church: it was then and it is now, in pretty much any church, and for that matter in any group of people who are bound together by common commitments to shared goals and visions. Individual tensions and clashes will flare up periodically, because although we are all committed to the ways of love, all of us still have a fair bit of growing to do before we can consistently live what Paul says here: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We do love one another, but we still do one another wrong because our love is still in its infancy. You don’t just become perfectly loving when you’re baptized – you grow into it gradually and often painfully as you continue to follow Jesus. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that although in my own mind and heart I’m committed to the ways of love, I much too easily find myself reverting to less altruistic and charitable strategies in order to get my own way.
For others among you it’s different. Your particular weaknesses may not be the same as mine, but each of us has our own buttons which, when pushed by someone, evoke responses in us that seem to override our desire to love.
Now all of this honest reality sounds a rather harsh note when we gather to worship. We gather in expectation that Jesus Christ will be present among us; that we can come together into the presence of God, be fed by the Word of God and be welcomed at the table where all creation is nourished for fullness of life. But you heard the context in which Jesus said, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” He has just described a step by step process for bringing about reconciliation when the love has broken down among us. It is in the spirit of reconciliation, in the restoration of unity among people that Jesus says our coming together guarantees his presence. This is hardly surprising since the scriptures repeatedly describe the community of faith as the body of Christ. So when Christ’s body comes together, Christ is made present. But if we are busily dismembering the body of Christ, what sort of divine presence can we expect?
We’ve already acknowledged albeit in a token sort of way that we neophytes in this divine love business, seeking to emulate God’s love after the example Jesus set for us, but still very much works in progress. But as I’ve said, this side of the fulfillment of all things, the repeated failure of love and the consequent fracturing of communion in the body are inevitable human realities, and though we can work for their healing and continue to grow into the fullness of love, we cannot help but fall far short of the ideal. And to pretend that it is otherwise would only add further failure upon failure and sin upon sin. And so in our worship we seek to take seriously these realities.
In the early gathering part of our liturgy we remind ourselves each week that we come to worship with all who trust in God, with all who walk in his grace, with all who hope for a world made new. We take ownership of our flawed natures and failing ways in our confession of sin. We know even as we gather with those who share our ideals and hopes and aspirations for a closer walk with God, together with our mutual missteps along that way, that our gathering also includes people who we have trouble getting along with. But we acknowledge that when the Holy Spirit gathers up all the worship from all the world into one great offering to God, that theirs is gathered up with ours and all becomes one sacrifice of praise. In our prayers of thanksgiving and petition, of supplication and intercession, we are reminded that we gather in solidarity with all who suffer in the tragedy of a world where the failure of love ranges all the way from indifference to neglect, from sarcasm to ridicule, from persecution to genocide.
As we approach God in worship and praise, in prayer and petition, we are reminded each week that our freedom to do so is solely on the basis of the love and mercy of Christ. We confess that we are entangled in sin and that our love has failed again and again and we have wronged one another. But then we hear the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we will not be cast out of the presence of God on the basis of what we have done. Instead we will be embraced in the loving communion of God solely on the basis of grace, grace rooted in the extravagant love and mercy of God.
There are however, moments in our worship together when this dimension of our gathering and our relationships with one another are more tenuous and more telling.
In some ways it’s easy and safe to acknowledge the unity of our prayers with those praying for peace in Myanmar and Sudan, because our union with them is not being put to the test. Sometimes it is much harder to face our unity with that person just over there a few pews away as we gather at the Lord’s Table. Because we know how that person actually let us down last week – or how offended they were by strong words of disagreement we uttered at a recent committee meeting. And now we have to face the fact that God is welcoming us both to the same table. We don’t get to veto the guest list. If we would come to the table we have to acknowledge that the reign of love is going to have to overrule whatever has come between us.
Because we are human and our love is compromised so often, it is not possible for us to always resolve every issue and restore every relationship before we meet together for worship or gather at the communion table. But what we are doing when we approach a time and place of worship, or of gathering at the table together, is declaring our willingness to be reconciled, our desire for reconciliation. It might still take quite a time and a lot of hard work to bring it to reality, but each of us comes to this sacred space and holy time knowing that God has called us – each and all of us – to follow Jesus together and that therefore we will have to work out whatever the differences are between us that sully and make less pristine the worship that we seek to bring to God.
The Internet brings such an abundance of information into our lives that hitherto would not have garnered our attention as it now does. As an example, in one of a number of blogs I follow, a minister serving a church of another denomination on the other side of the world, shared a small but significant change in their congregation’s communion liturgy that was instituted some time ago.
The minister writes, “And so now at this table – after the invitation is given, the Communion Hymn sung, the elders gather and the communion elements are brought forward and laid on the table – we exchange a sign of peace together. We bless one another, wishing the gift of Christ’s peace each to the other.
And in our liturgy we precede that by saying together:
‘Though we are a company of strangers, we welcome one another with the blessing of Christ.’
He goes on to say, “For no matter how well we know one another, no matter how fully we have become brothers and sisters to one another, we are still to a greater or lesser extent strangers to each other. Every relationship we have is still a dance of repeated estrangement and reconciliation and groups that try to deny the stranger in one another are usually trying to impose an oppressive conformity on one another. That defeats love just as surely as any open division.
Add so we say:
‘Though we are a company of strangers, in approaching this table,
we bind ourselves to one another to live in love and peace
from this day forth.’
“We don’t say it because it’s easy. We don’t say it because it is even close to being fulfilled among us. We don’t say it because we want to delude ourselves or others that everything is lovely in our little group. We say it because it is the hope to which we have committed ourselves, and we say it again and again, week after week, because if we don’t keep reminding ourselves how big the vision is, we very easily lapse back into a complacency that allows us to sweep problems under the carpet and settle for superficial fellowship and keeping things nice. We say it over and over to keep challenging ourselves out of the easy option of tolerating shallow familiarity rather than dealing with the pain of pushing beyond our comfort zones and out into the terrifying depths of love that lie beyond our past failures and hurts.”
So writes this minister / brother in Christ from halfway round the world, yet as close to us in spirit as our next breath.
The covenant we undertake in baptism underpins the reality that having been called together by God, we commit ourselves to love one another. Sometimes the prayer for peace for another is the only step of love we are capable of, but when it is the only step you can take, take it. It is no easy thing to wish the peace of Christ to one who has wounded you. Nor is it easy to receive a genuine heartfelt blessing of Christ’s peace from someone you know you have wronged. We might be able to say the words, but to act on them and to keep saying them until we push ourselves into active peacemaking is a tough road. But where two or three gather to take that road together, there is Christ in the midst of us. As we grow into those words and so can increasingly say them with a real desire to make them come true, so Christ is re-membered among us. And as Christ is re-membered among us, so healing is brought into our world, into the very creation itself. And so God’s plan is advanced towards its fulfillment, the reconciliation of the entire universe through Christ. Amen.