Today's gospel passage is kind of strange and winding. It starts off reasonably enough, with good, straightforward instructions about conflict resolution. But then around the middle it takes a bit of an uncomfortable turn--especially if you happen to be a Gentile or a tax-collector. And then we've got not just Peter binding and loosing things in heaven and earth, as we read a couple weeks ago, but the Church given that responsibility. And finally the reading ends with Jesus' glorious promise that where two or three are gathered in his name, as we are now, he's there. He's here.
Perhaps that's what's oddest about what Jesus says: his words don't find their primary meaning in the context in which Matthew reports him speaking them. Instead, Jesus is looking forward. This is about the kind of community that will take shape in response to his death and resurrection: a community of trust, a community of women and men, young and old who are committed to helping to train one another up in the way of grace; a community in which the way we treat one another isn't just a matter of good manners, but (heaven help us) a witness to the movement of God in the world.
Together, Jesus and Matthew remind us once again, in this swirling passage, that no amount of good doctrine and moral teaching can help us, if it doesn't find expression in our daily lives, in the way we live and move and have our being. Once more, it's clear that the gospel isn't an abstract set of propositions; it's the embodiment of God's hope, peace, joy, and love in the world; it's our faith-words taking shape in all the ins and outs, the dust and wonder of our everyday lives. These words remind us that the Bible, and the gospel it proclaims, isn't just about historical or moral information, but about the formation of a people in the name and way of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and reigning.
Whenever Jesus speaks, he speaks words that won't be flattened into information to be used, or handled at arm's length, or imposed on others. When Jesus speaks he speaks life--intimate, abundant, incarnate.
Let's pray: Living God, by your word you created all things, by your Spirit you breathe dust into life. By your word and Spirit, shape us now, according to your grace made known in your word made flesh--Jesus, our hope. Open us to your stirring this morning. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds that they might be acceptable in your sight. In Jesus' name: Amen!
So we begin with some pretty straightforward instructions. They're not easy instructions, but they're clear. The Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it well when he says they are "severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic." Of course, that might mean that these instructions are more of a mixed bag than they seem, at first glance. Practical is good; we can use practical. Idealistic is a bit tougher. Idealism always seems sort of naive; it's a blue sky scenario, when all we see is grey clouds. Idealism isn't for folks who've been around the block once or twice. The world just doesn't work that way. But I think it might also be true that we often label things as "idealistic" when they're hard, so that we don't have to do them. I have to remind myself regularly of G K Chesterton's great quip, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult and left untried."
So, let's just imagine that Jesus is calling us into a bit of idealism. Let's just imagine that Jesus has some actual thoughts about what we should actually do in the face of sin, when there's a real threat to our relationships with one another. What's Jesus telling us about what the Church is, what it means to gather in his name?
He's telling us first of all, that you don't get a church without people. Christianity is more than an indulgence in a personal, private spirituality. The Bible is pretty clear: we need each other, if we're going to do this thing. Christianity cannot be done alone; it can only be done in personal relationship with God and neighbour.
And the trouble with putting people in the equation is that it's going to get messy. I know that Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you," but I don't think he's suggesting that it might not happen. We all sin and fall short of God's glory. Sometimes detractors will say that the Church is just a crutch of the weak, as if they're telling us something we don't know. We may not like it, but we know it. We don't always hit the mark; sometimes we're not even close. As St. Paul puts it, "I don't do what I should do and I do do what I shouldn't." And the next line is, "And therefore there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus!" The Church is to be the kind of community in which sin is acknowledged and dealt with--not because we're obsessed with sin, or anxious about it, but because it's real and we gather in the name of the One who has destroyed its power over us. If another member of the Church sins against you, tell them, confidently--and, at first, in confidence, intimately. Then, if you need to, lean on the community to help wade through the muck and mire of sin.
This is not, incidentally, an invitation to become nit-picky and moralistic. This is not about making people what we think they should be in order for us to approve, let alone love. It's a call to cherish our relationships, to be daringly open and honest with one another. It's a call to trust one another: to trust that we want each other to grow up in Christ, to be fully human, to be free of the stuff that weighs us down and keeps us bound. And it's a call to be faithful with that trust--not to use it as a tool to manipulate others, but to be open-handed and open-hearted with one another, generous in grace, lavish in love. These instructions can be awfully twisted if we forget in whose name we live them out.
Which is why I think things get so interesting, when Jesus tells us that if a person refuses to acknowledge and repent of whatever the issue is, even with the witness and support of the whole community, that they are to be treated like "a Gentile or a tax-collector." Most of the commentators that I've read tend to make this statement not really about Jesus, but about the community for whom Matthew was writing. The theory is that Matthew's congregation must have been made up of more conservative Jewish members, and so he could put a phrase on Jesus' lips like "Gentiles and tax-collectors"--folks who had long been considered outsiders and traitors, hopeless sinners and ne'er-do-wells--to make clear that folks who won't submit to the wisdom of the community should be shunned, even excommunicated. I suppose that could be true. It does kind of sound that way. But, with all due respect to folks who are much smarter than me, I can't imagine a much more boring explanation of what's going on here.
If nothing else, I have a hard time imagining that Matthew forgot what he had written and witnessed to before: the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus commands his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, turning their cheeks in radical defiance of evil, walking extra miles, giving up their dignity for the sake of love; or the fact that Jesus ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners and they seemed to like having him around (not, presumably because he spent all his time correcting them); or that at least two Gentiles, a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman, had been held up pretty recently as beacons of faith; or looking ahead to the Lord's startling declaration that prostitutes and tax-collectors will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the morally self-satisfied and religiously certain.
What if, instead of a historical witness to the closed nature of the early church, Jesus' instructions are a witness to the unfathomable height, depth, length, and breadth of the love of God in which we're being shaped in Jesus' name? What if this is Jesus' subversive reminder of the way we're called to live with one another--even those who sin against us, whom we're called to forgive because we've been forgiven, and we'll need forgiveness again. Could this not be a call to keep praying, keep loving, keep insisting on grace, even at the cost of our own dignity and pride? Maybe (and I know this is crazy, idealistic, even) it's a call to actually live with one another in the way of the One whose name we claim.
What if this isn't mostly about other people's conformity and submission to the community, but about grace, forgiveness, and love, as the default of a Church that bears the name of Jesus? Heard on its own, this passage is easily twisted to satisfy our natural inclinations to shape other people in our image. But if we hear it as gospel--Jesus' words, here among us--it can shape us in the image that we're meant to bear: the image of God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who does not treat us as our sins deserve, who does not cast us away, but loves us into new life; the image of the King whose kingdom is never shut.
I know that my natural inclination is to want repentance before forgiveness. Have you ever said, or thought, that if someone would just apologize, then you could forgive them? We tend to want at least that, if not some more significant restitution, before we're able to move on, let alone hold an offender in something that looks like love. Otherwise, we run the risk--so we're told and are often quite happy to believe--of being taken advantage of, of appearing weak, of letting people off the hook to easily. If we just forgive, then it's like other peoples' actions don't matter, that our hurts don't matter. If we default to forgiveness it's like our pain doesn't matter, and that's not true. It does matter; it matters to God.
But the thing about radical forgiveness, forgiveness at the root of what we do (forgiveness of things that really matter) is that it's not at all about being a doormat--it's a divinely sanctioned refusal to allow sin and death and evil to knock us off the course of grace. It's a refusal to meet hurt with hurt; and instead to overcome brokenness with good. It's to insist that the way we both act matters, and I'll commit to loving you enough that I'm not going to let your missteps trip me up. It's to actually treat others the way we want to be treated (the way we need to be treated!), not in a spirit of moral superiority, but as a witness to the One who really did pray forgiveness over his enemies, as they nailed him to a cross and rolled dice for his clothes.
And when we commit to that, I think we find ourselves much wider open, than when we're constantly on guard. When we commit to that, we begin to see the grace in which we're held a little more clearly; we claim a bit more of our image-of-God self. I think that has something to do with the perfect freedom that the Scriptures talk about. If we're always on the lookout to make sure that we're not being somehow mistreated, or that others are adhering to some kind of standard, then that can only produce anxiety. It turns us into uptight moralists who live as though the Christian life is mostly about keeping things in order, making sure that no one steps out of line.
Which is not to say that we sanction sin, or that we're indifferent to hurtful and negative behaviour. Of course, if we actually care about people, we want them to repent, we want them to grow in grace, we want them to be unburdened of the sorts of things that threaten relationships with God and neighbour. But to forgive in the name and way of Jesus, is to insist that a person's capacity or inclination to do that is not equivalent to the measure of grace they're going to get. As St. Paul says, the cross makes a mockery of the kind of authority that needs a pound of flesh from its opponents.
The evidence of our being shaped in the will and way of Jesus is not in our capacity to follow or enforce rules, or the eagerness with which we run around binding and loosing things we think ought to be bound and loosed. The evidence of our being shaped in the will and way of Jesus, humans fully alive, is in the overflow of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control). When that stuff starts to take shape in our lives, and pour out of us in our words and deeds, in our life together, then we know more and more surely that we are not bound by sin (ours, or others) and we're perfectly free to repent and forgive--and to welcome among us the One who comes as the boundless grace of God, the light that no darkness can overcome.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Thanks be to God.