This was our homily for Sunday, September 6th – Pentecost 14:
Today’s gospel is part of Jesus’ teaching about our life together in community, how it is that we are to live and love within the Christian community, especially when things go wrong. And because we are talking about human beings living in community, we can be pretty sure that things will go wrong.
Our Biblical story is quite realistic when it comes to the ability of human beings to get along. Even two people living in paradise can’t seem to manage it very well. Not only do they sin against God, they also turn on one another, playing the blame game. Once they sin, a gap opens up, not only between Adam and Eve, but also between themselves and God. In their shame, the human beings try to hide themselves with fig leaves from the gaze of their Lord, symbolizing their distance from the God who used to walk with them and talk with them in the garden. The effect of sin makes it hard not only for human beings to look each other in the eye but also for them to encounter God face to face. And sure enough, as the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God makes fewer and fewer face-to-face appearances. Moses gets to see God, but the after-effects of that encounter are too much for the Hebrew people to bear. It just becomes too hard, too painful for humans, with all our failings and flaws, to look on the face of God and live.
But that distance doesn’t keep God away. That’s one of the reasons God came among us, in human form, to be with people face to face. Imagine the healing power present in the moment when Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Peter, do you love me?” When he cupped in his hands the face of the woman caught in adultery and said, “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” When he healed the man born blind and the first thing the man saw was the face of Jesus looking at his own with eyes of love. When he appeared, face to face, with the women outside the tomb on that first Easter morning and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
The face-to-face encounters of Christians with Christ were not to end when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. One of Christ’s gifts to us is the gift of community, where we meet one another heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and face to face. Christian community is that place, that way of being, where we know, and are known by, the love at the centre of it: God, a life-giving, sacrificial, persistent love that calls us to reach beyond ourselves, to realize we are connected, woven together into one body, the family of God. Together, in the Christian community, we can share grief and joy, sorrow and victory, sadness and celebration. Christian community is a gift.
But it’s a gift we don’t fully accept. Living in community is hard. As that growing sector in our society, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks might put it, “Churches have too many people to deal with; we’d rather just be spiritual on our own.”
But Jesus taught that faith is not a private matter. Spirituality is not something we do individually. Our faith is not something we can go off and enjoy by ourselves all alone, sitting by a stream or walking in the woods. Those things and times of private devotion can feed our faith, but our life in Christ is when we are gathered together, even just two or three. That’s when Jesus said he would be with his disciples – not when they are off alone in isolation!
Isn’t it easier sometimes to feel holy when there is no one else around? Life, as Christians, living together in a Christian community is not always easy. We are human, after all, and while we may have God as our Ground and Guide, the Almighty never-ending source of love, for whom nothing is impossible, we forget and fail, and fall out of love with God and with each other.
That’s why Jesus taught, and Matthew wrote this eighteenth chapter of the gospel. It’s about how to deal with the fact that we fail. What ought we to do, what would Christ have us do, when someone in the community sins? When someone does something harmful to themselves, harmful to another, something that puts a distance between themselves and God, or between themselves and the community?
The first step is to tackle them, face to face. Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus’ teaching here is first about reconciliation, restoration of a brother or sister to the community. It is not about pointing out sin for its own sake. It is not about making us feel better or proving a point. It is about regaining a brother or sister. It is about living together as one family.
In some families, the illusion of harmony is more important than anything else – where confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. In some families, the way hurt is dealt with is to pretend nothing happened, to sweep it under the carpet. In some families, silence is golden. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, and if there’s a problem, then keep it to yourself.
Jesus’ instruction for his family is very different. In the Christian household, when your brother sins, you go and talk with him in private. And if that doesn’t work, step two is to keep going back, taking other people along the next time, and step three is going back yet again. Do everything in your power to get your sibling back.
If the person repeatedly does not listen, then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. If the person won’t let go of the sin, of what’s causing the harm, of what’s endangering the individual or the community, then we are to recognise that one of our members has left the family. We are to notice and lament that our brother or sister is missing from the table. There is distance between us, and we should best admit it, rather than pretend not to notice, or let that person fester in our midst like an open wound.
Hard teaching – correct? Straight forward enough, but hard to act on – exactly? Often we prefer a love that is out of focus, bathed in soft light and hazy, not the holy love that takes action and risk and is willing to confront, in love, a brother or sister in Christ. And to confront someone, even in love, is scary!
There is risk in meeting each other face to face. We might prefer to hide behind fig leaves or whatever is close at hand, rather than take the risks Jesus did. But the story of Jesus and his teaching shows us there is power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall when we fail, and when we stumble or hurt. God, who knows every one of us, our weaknesses, our faults and failings, longs to draw us closer to himself and to one another. Someday, maybe, we will even know the joy of seeing God face to face, without fear or shame. In the meantime, we can turn to face one another, and meet Christ who promises to be present when we meet face to face in his name.