“Welcome Back…Welcome Christ”
Matthew 18: 15-20, Romans 13: 8-14 ~ Northwood UC ~ September 10, 2023
Welcome back Sunday…today, we are drawn into the wonder of a new church year. Ministry programs returning; building redevelopment; the excitement of new possibilities ahead. A luncheon after worship; a time for reuniting with long-time friends and the making of new ones. And quietly, you may all be wondering: so how long is the sermon today? When can we just ‘be the church’…sit at table and enjoy fellowship and reconnect with one another? Isn’t it time to just sit at table and enjoy the beautiful homecoming energy of September’s start-up? Isn’t it time to just let the magic of two or three gathered reveal Christ in our midst?
And, you are right; however, before we move to the reunion, a conversation on the texts that Dan read is important for us. It is important because the two passages are all about community…and not just any ‘community’, but the shaping of Christian community…the ways that we might navigate authentic Christian community in the year (and continued journey) ahead.
As we start off, we discover that Christian community contains (surprise-surprise) conflict. Reading through the stories of Jesus’ disciples…they argued; reading through the stories of the early church that Paul wrote to…the disagreed; reading through history and to present day, we know that conflict has been found throughout all Christian community. Conflict is part of gathering, isn’t it? Couples have conflict… families… groups… organizations. It seems that whenever there is more than one gathered, conflict is inevitable. Conflict is a given; however, the way one handles conflict is not. And while I don’t see Northwood or our United Church of Canada as being in a place of conflict, this morning’s two texts offer wise guidance for the journeys that we walk. How do you handle conflict? How do we handle conflict? Perhaps, as we are in time of relative harmony, it is good to consider wise practice in this area?
Starting with the gospel reading, it contains Jesus oft quoted teaching: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Over the years, many a preacher has quoted this one verse and used it to remind us of Christ’s presence in community. This verse has supported our need to gather as ‘church’; it has informed our need to gather in study and fellowship and outreach. And in the process of gathering, we feel Christ’s presence. And that’s (sort of) the meaning. Yet, the big part of this teaching pertains to Christ’s presence when we authentically gather in times of conflict. This passage was an example of Jesus teaching to communities facing discord. The confusion is understandable. Taken alone as single verse, we hear Jesus’ teaching: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Yet, this passage is all the more powerful when understood as being the conclusion of Jesus’ guidance for communities in conflict. Jesus is found amidst the gathering of community when they come together! How wonderful is that?
And as we consider this text, Jesus arms us with a wisdom for those times when conflict will erupt. Jesus offers to fill our ‘church tool kit’ with guidance that promises to further peace and vitality within our church. Those two tools for conflict are facing others in humility and welcoming the perspectives of others. These two tools could easily be the main focus for another discussion, but suffice it to say that Jesus advises differences never be left to fester. When one feels hurt or pain from another, they need to approach the other alone. This leads towards a humility and love and results in opportunities for confession, forgiveness and reconciliation to occur. The second piece of guidance was the value of outside perspectives. Jesus imagines this teaching to apply when the person refuses to listen. Approaching the pain and struggle with the humble wisdom of a few trusted others allows a greater perspective to be achieved and avoids later misunderstandings. Indeed, one of blessings found in community (when two or three gather) is the presence of Christ. However, the truest measure of blessing is found when a conflicted community gather and find the reconciling Christ present with them…guiding them ahead.
The Romans passage provides a powerful compliment to the Matthean text. We find ourselves continuing last week’s conversation with the earlier part of Paul’s writing on love. Last week we entirely focused on what I entitled “An Inquiry into Love”. And what we discovered is that for Paul, love has little to do with emotion. In example after example, Paul writes about love from a behavioural perspective. Love fulfills the commandments, for when love is found in our actions marriage vows are upheld. When love is in action murder is not committed. Love in action causes stealing or even coveting to cease. From this perspective on love, Paul continues in this morning’s passage about the one debt we have…the debt of love. In English, when we think about debt (and that’s a word none of us like to think about) it inevitably conjures up financial implications. Yet, the word being used by Paul ~ ophelio ~ refers to ALL obligations. When we approach others with the mindset that our one obligation to them is ‘to love them’, this shifts things entirely. How might it look if you were to consider that as the one debt you have when you begin your day? Your debt is not owing them other than to love them, as best you can, to love them. How might that free you to live? How might that shape your family life, your community, your world? To a stranger, your debt to them is to love; to a friend, your debt is to love; to an enemy, your debt is to love.
Some of the early Christian Mystics wrote about this debt of love. An interesting book surveys this thinking. It is entitled: “Great Mystics and Social Justice: Walking on the Two Feet of Love”. In her book Susan Rakoczy traces “the two feet of love” saying of the early Christian mystics. The mystics taught: “love has two feet” ~ the love of God and the love of neighbour. One foot is planted a life of prayer – what we do here. And the second foot planted in a life of lived love – what we call social justice / love in action / the church being the church.
So, let us head to the feast before us. Knowing that our only debt is the debt of love to others. Let us walk to the feast with one foot - loving God and the other foot - loving neighbour. Let us go to the feast knowing that there will be ‘trouble at the table’, pushing and shoving in the lineup to get to the egg salad, or some other conflict. Yet, as we gather in love, be they times of homecoming or times of trouble, Christ will be found amongst us. And that is good news indeed!