9/7/2014 Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text for today’s sermon is Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is Rally Day. For us, that means that it is time to gather around the cross of Christ – to renew the family bond. It’s a day to greet familiar people who have been away vacationing and resting, and to welcome new people into our midst. It is time to begin anew as individuals and as a community of faith.
When we look to the cross, we cannot deny the mercy and grace of a God who is giving and forgiving, a God who is inviting us to come to him and sending us out into the world to be his hands and feet to our neighbors. This God does more for us than we can dare to ask. For out of his love for us, he sent his Son in to the world in order to wipe away our offenses and make us one with him and each other. As brothers and sisters in Christ, connected through baptism, we are to follow the example of Jesus and to owe no one anything, except to love one another. Paul tells us that this love “does no wrong to neighbor.”
Ah, if love were only that simple, but truly, there is nothing simple about love. We mess up all too often because we are human and not divine. Unlike Jesus, we are prone to make mistakes and to allow our emotions to get the better of us. We take offense when none was meant, and we offend others without ever realizing what we have done. So, we need God’s mercy to spill over us in our dealings with others, so that rage and revenge do not overcome forgiveness and love.
Every day, our news is filled with the devastation caused by angry people losing control. From the Middle East to a small town in the Midwest, from road rage to shootings to beheadings, we hear about angry, frustrated, frightened, stressed-out people – people who are at the end of their ropes, people who act first and think later, people who vent their rage upon innocent parties and undeserving victims. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate and proper for us to get angry, angry in response to evil and injustice, the things we call sin. Anger itself is not bad. How we deal with our anger, and what we do with and to people who hurt us, is key. Do we live by the eye-for-an-eye philosophy or by God’s grace?
In order to help us, Jesus gave us instructions as to how to treat one another. Jesus gave these instructions because he knew that, although believers would be part of a community whose mission would be spreading the message of forgiveness, there would be differences and offenses amongst the people. He knew that hot issues could lead to disunity, contempt, hatred and sin. He knew that this could cause the outside world to see the church as broken, and the message of forgiveness could be lost or seen as useless and empty by the very people to whom the church is to bear witness. Fragile faith could crumble under the weight of dissention and people could run away from the church, the very institution created in Jesus’ name in order to provide support and to nurture those drawn to him through the cross.
As followers of Christ, we are in the business of forgiveness. But forgiveness is not condoning negative, inappropriate behavior. Forgiveness is not tolerating abuse, violence, aggression, betrayal, or dishonesty for the sake of peace. Forgiveness is not something we do because we are better or superior to others. Forgiveness is our calling. It is a decision, a process, an attitude, that is essential for healing. It is something Christ expects from each and every one of us and something which we need to live in community with others. It defuses rage and refocuses our lives what is important as followers of Jesus.
So instead of allowing a hurt or offense to rub us sore like a pebble in a shoe, we can deal with it constructively through the process which lessens the chance of false accusation and punishment, a process that cuts down the gossip and the chance for minor offenses to grow into major dissention. It is a process that is meant to bring people together while things are fresh in the mind – for an offense can go unnoticed and pain can persist unless communication is swift.
Perhaps it is the confrontational style, the method by which the offended speaks directly and openly, one-on-one with the offender that causes most churches and members to shy away from this process. Confrontation is not easy or pleasant. But the understanding and forgiveness that can result when issues are dealt with quickly, in an open, honest fashion, is life-changing and reflective of God’s grace.
This method of dealing with sin and offenses mirrors the ministry of Jesus. Jesus came into the world bringing a message of love from God. But his message is confrontational in that it calls upon us, and the entire world, to stop and look at ourselves, our lives, and our relationship to God and to each other. This self-examination is to begin, not with our neighbor, and not even with ourselves, but it is meant to begin with God and his love for us. Love is the key to the process laid out by Christ.
Love, my friends, often involves confrontation. If you don’t love someone, you don’t care if a relationship remains strained or broken, so you don’t take the time to speak up and provide an opportunity for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The purpose of speaking with one another before things fester is to bring health and wholeness, not only to the relationship, but also to ourselves, our neighbor, our community and our world. When things work out and forgiveness is given and received, the world which is set to judge God and the faith of the church by the actions of its people, will be surprised, as it will see that the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord reigns.
For, there is a partnership between the community and God. That’s why we are told that wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, there Christ is in the midst of them. God is present as we join together in prayer and worship and in celebration of his grace, but he is most actively present as we live out his love and forgiveness in our relationships with others, even those who would do us harm.
May we learn to take the first steps along the path of reconciliation and walk in the light of God’s love whenever we are offended or are hurt by the actions of another. For no matter how hard the path may seem, it provides the way to health and restoration in Jesus Christ. May God be present with you as you strive to follow the example of Jesus who was not afraid to speak up. May the Lord grant you the strength to endure whatever lies ahead and the courage to stand firm in his love and salvation. And may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.