I’m an optimist, by nature. Yet I also realize some things are inevitable. Jesus says the poor will always be with us, and they are. Another thing – some churches let sinners join. I’ve seen it happen. They can make a church messy. Some are annoying people who will blame you for their problems. Yes, God’s people can disappoint us and let us down sometimes.
The world watches how we treat each other, or as Jesus says today – what we do with our sin. Our primary work is to learn to love and forgive. Jesus says if someone sins against you, arrange a private meeting. Without judging him, point out what’s happened. The person may not realize what they did. If that doesn’t go so well, try again, bringing two or three others as witnesses. Let them help you both see your blind spots and maybe forgive and reconcile. And if that fails, call a church meeting and air your concern. And if the person still won’t come around, treat them as a Gentile or tax collector – in other words an outsider. I don’t think Episcopalians do that much anymore. We’re nice people, you know – at least we pretend to be.
Jesus calls us out because these inevitable moments can escalate and jeopardize the health of Christ’s Body. In God’s world rather than demand our own way, we serve, love and forgive one another. Our goal is not assign blame, or point out who’s right or wrong, but to heal and mend. To do that, we’ll need God’s gift of humility. So before we jump to conclusions, we humbly remember we can be wrong, misread a situation. Being Christian is more than being a church member. We are the Body of Christ – so our relationships within and outside this body matter. We embody Christ’s life in ours. We learn forgiveness by practicing forgiveness. We even promise to do this in the Baptismal Covenant. If someone says you’ve hurt them, welcome them and listen from them. Consider what they bring you. You’ll learn.
I’ll be the first to admit that is pretty daunting, but we promise we will. I can overthink it: “Did he just sin against me? Am I making too much of this? What if I talk with the person and they get mad?” We don’t want to hurt feelings. So we can easily talk ourselves into silence. But it still hangs on. We’ll deal with our inner pain with a cold shoulder approach, like two church folks I once noticed passing each other in silence at the peace. I guess they thought that was okay. The church became annoyed with their behavior, and visitors got confused about what God’s peace means. I think Jesus wants us to attempt the reconciliation and peace with others we want from God. Fighting sin with sin – overt or covert – isn’t a strategy God recommends. Jesus wants us to get over ourselves and create healthy, open and loving relationships. Following him can be tough – draw us out of our lesser selves. That’s also called resurrection. Getting there can cost us.
Let’s say you try and fail, taking the steps Jesus recommends. Reconciliation may not always happen. I’ve met some pretty tenaciously-stubborn and self-protecting people. Sometimes, I’ve been one. Relationships can be messy, bend and break. I once knew of a New Friendship Church and a Greater Friendship Church – all on the same highway. All this “friendship” came from the original Friendship Church which sat on the same highway in between them – three churches of people who couldn’t get along. Treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector – shun them so they’ll go away – that’s what they did in Jesus’ name. That doesn’t seem too hospitable. Or is it? Jesus welcomes and dines with Gentiles, sinners, and tax collectors. So if someone doesn’t forgive or respond, forgo a superiority complex. Take a page from Jesus’ hospitality book – love them and be with them anyway.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are the ends toward which Jesus points. We see this in his cross – the heart of our relationship with God. In that larger story, God makes us living tabernacles of divine presence by Jesus’ resurrection and in our baptism. His life is raised into ours. When we know that, we love and respect ourselves as God does. We can also realize God is present in the midst of our sin and failures. When we see sin in others, then we know the same applies for them. We see Christ in them, and treat them as we would Christ.
Think of someone who has really hurt you. What would they have to do to earn your forgiveness? Would you give it? I believe those who know what it’s like to be forgiven, both get it and can give it. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” which by the way means sin. On Sunday mornings we should come here singing, “I owe. I owe. So it’s off to church I go.” It’s cost God so much to love and forgive our messy selves.
Many participate in social networks these days – some, where we can “unfriend” folks. The church is not one of them. Soon we’ll be talking more about what sort of church we are going to be. And remember, we are not alone. Jesus says: “When two or three of you gather in my name, I am there among you.” So watch out. Christ is always present in us, between us and among us. Our task is to be present to him. His energy forms us into loving, forgiving people, growing in authentic respect for and accountable to each other. My hunch is that’s the sort of people and church we want to be. However we got here, it’s Jesus who’s called us to each other.