A Sermon Preached on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our lectionary today puts before us two passages of Scripture that address one of the most difficult tasks of human life: dealing with other people.
St Paul, as he approaches the end of his Epistle to the Romans, spends a few chapters offering advice about how members of the Church should interact with the wider world. He urges the Christians in Rome to live in peace with their pagan neighbors, to obey the local authorities, and to respect the powers that be. “Owe no one anything except to love one another,” says Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.”
Likewise Jesus, as he prepares to begin his long, final journey to Jerusalem, takes time to give his disciples instructions about what to do in case of controversy between brothers and sisters in the Church. “If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he begins. From that intimate, personal starting point, Jesus gives increasingly public and community-based directions for doggedly pursuing a path of reconciliation.
What could be more purely practical than the passages we have heard this morning? Here we have, from the great Apostle to the Gentiles and from our Lord himself, two texts tailor-made for leading us through the thorny thicket of personal relationships. Paul’s words read like a checklist—Jesus’ words like an instruction manual. They seem to take one of the greatest challenges of life and break it down into something manageable, straightforward—even easy.
Until, that is, we turn to read the record of our own lives in the light of these passages. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but these verse make me quake. “Owe no one anything but to love,” says Paul. Why then is my love so fickle and my heart so faithless? “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. Why then are my efforts at reconciliation so half-hearted and my drive to forgive so anemic?
When I lay them upon my own life, these apparently practical verses suddenly begin to read less like instructions and more like indictments. The command seems so simple. The injunction is so straightforward. And yet history—either the two-thousand years of Church history, or the two hundred years of Trinity’s history, or even the passing years of our own personal histories—show how seldom these words are heeded.
And yet what if the meaning of these passages were to be found in something other than their practical purpose? What if, in order to read Paul’s advice and Jesus’ instructions aright, it is necessary first to set aside our self-centered fretting and our gloomy guilt? What if the words of Scripture that we’ve heard this morning are not simply speaking to us but are, in the first place, speaking about God?
Our first clue comes in the middle of the passage from Romans. After exhorting the Roman Christians to love, Paul suddenly tells them “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Paul’s instructions about love—about the fulfilling of God’s law—are rooted not in mere morality, but in eschatology: not in the blind striving to be good people, but in the watchful expectation of Christ’s imminent return.
This is a critical distinction. Paul founds his instructions not in who the Romans are or in what they can do, but in who God is and what he has done already—and is doing still. Paul is not placing before the Romans an impossible goal or urging them to struggle after an unreachable dream. Rather, he is inviting the Romans to become what they already are in Christ.
“The night is far gone, the day is near.” The Roman Christians cannot, by their loving behavior, speed along the coming of Christ any more than you or I can rush the sunrise by sheer force of will. But what Paul wants for them is that they should live consistent with a reality that God has already wrought, and that he is bringing to light according to his own gracious time. God desires it for them—God commands it of them—because God is accomplishing it in them.
“Owe no one anything, but to love one another,” says Paul, because the God of love is at work in and throughthe Roman Christian community. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,” urges Paul, because the new life of grace has wrapped itself about his companions like a garment. Even now, in the midst of their failures and imperfections, the call comes to dwell within the life of the Lord who will come to drive out their darkness and make whole their brokenness. And not only is that Lord coming: behold, he is already present in their midst.
For this is the astonishing promise we hear at the end of this morning’s Gospel lesson: in the person of Jesus Christ, God continually dwells in the midst of his people. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.” This abiding presence is both the rationale behind and the starting point for Jesus’ instructions to his Church in the midst of conflict.
For conflict must needs come. The Church is made up of fallen, broken men and women—people like you and like me, brothers and sisters. We fight. We argue. We gossip. We hurt one another, and we cherish the hurts dealt us by others. This is true of any human community, and in this regard the Church is no different from any gathering of people at any time or place.
But what Jesus reminds his followers today is that the Church is indeed unlike any other human organization in the history of the world. For while it is composed of hapless sinners and halo-less saints, it is a community called and formed by the very will of Almighty God. And what’s more, that same will dwells with and acts through the Church. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
How startling—how offensive—the pronouncement that the works of this assembly will echo through eternity! How fearful—how outrageous—to announce that the Lord of heaven and earth dwells here with us in our midst. But that is precisely the point of the passages we have heard today. Our Scripture this morning is given not simply that we may know what God expects of us, but so that we may see again what God has done for us.
For the same One who calls his Church to seek out and pursue the wayward and the lost member is the very One who came himself to enlighten the Gentiles and to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The same One who calls his people to fulfill the Law through love is the very One who fulfilled the Law through his own person, and who revealed perfect love in the laying down of his life on Calvary. The same One who calls this world out of the darkness and destruction is the very One who has destroyed Death and conquered Sin in the bright light of his Resurrection.
So it is that these passages today are, at last, not our condemnation but our consolation. For in our worship today, the God who sought us while we were yet his enemies comes to seek us again. In our learning and fellowship today, the God who revealed himself to us when our darkened eyes could not behold his shows his glory once more in the life of his people. At this altar this morning, the God who loved us and rushed to hold us while we were yet unlovable comes to embrace us now in the fullness of our humanity in the gifts of bread and wine. Through our Scripture this morning, the God who came to dwell among us and to reveal his glory in our flesh proclaims that he is present here in this congregation and whenever two or three are gathered in his Name.
In this knowledge and confidence, beloved, let us indeed owe no one anything but to love—for God has first loved us. In this sure and certain hope, dear people, let us risk forgiveness and reconciliation—because in Christ Jesus we have been forgiven, and are being reconciled to God the Father.
Thanks be to God. AMEN.