Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23] rcl yr a
Sunday, September 10th, 2023
EXODUS 12:1-14; PSALM 149; ROMANS 13:8-14; MATTHEW 18:15-20
I am there among them
During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, some wealthy American Christians met with Mother Teresa, who was opening an AIDS hospice. When Mother Teresa asked the wealthy American Christians for financial contributions to her AIDS ministry, they apparently replied, “it’s great work that your doing, and we’d love to support it, it’s just that this would be too controversial for our supporters.”
So Mother Teresa asked them to pray. So they prayed.
After which Mother Teresa said, “so how much is it you’d like to give to this ministry.” And the wealthy American Christians said, “We’re so sorry, but like we said, any donations to you would be too controversial for us. Is there anything else we can do?”
Mother Teresa said “let’s pray.”
So they bowed their heads and prayed together, after which Mother Teresa said, “so about that money for the AIDS ministry.” The wealthy American Christians said again, “We’re so sorry if you’ve misunderstood, we’d love to help, but our donors wouldn’t understand.”
So Mother Teresa said, “let’s pray.”
At which point the wealthy American Christians said, “alright, we’ll give you the money already!”
I love this story so much that I am entirely unwilling to google it out of fear that it never really did happen the way I’m telling it. For today, though, it seems perfect for our reading from Matthew: it’s a story of Christians in conflict and the reconciliation of those Christians (though more accurately some Christians coming around to doing the right thing for the sake of the poor); it’s also a story about two or three gathering together in Christ’s name.
And this is what we have in Matthew’s Gospel today, a series of sayings on repentance and forgiveness, and on Christ’s place in that sort of reconciliation. It does feel though a bit like Matthew had a handful of cue-cards left, some leftover Jesus sayings on them, and that he didn’t quite know what to do with it all or where to put them in his Gospel, but facing a tight deadline he just decided to just string them all together because they kind of sound like they might belong together—we’ve all been there—“if only I had more time I’d do such a better job on this ….”
So maybe these sayings don’t totally belong together … But then again when we read them, they speak to one another. And interesting things arise when we do read two of these sayings together: the longer proposal for conflict resolution in a community where someone has sinned against someone else; and the saying about what it means for two or three to be gathered in the name of Jesus. What might happen if we allowed these two sayings to speak to one another?
This little bit of Matthew, the bit about “two or three are gathered in [the] name [of Jesus],” and that when two or three are gathered in [the] name [of Jesus]” that “[Jesus himself] would be there among them,” this was an important bit of Scripture for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because in this small gathering, in this gathering of two or three in the name of Jesus, Bonhoeffer saw church-community.
The church is, of course, a gathering of people far bigger than two or three—the church reaches across neighbourhoods, across nations and continents, and around the world, but for Bonhoeffer it could be as small as two or three, gathered in Christ’s name, and where Christ is present. And the reason for this is that the church isn’t an institution, or a matter of bureaucracy or hierarchy, or canons and constitutions, or even denominations. Church-community is a relationship in which members of the body of Christ can offer themselves to one another in mutuality.
Bonhoeffer’s vision of church-community is very much in the spirit of what St. Paul writes in Romans. This week Paul writes that fulfilling the law is simply about loving one another; two weeks ago we heard about St. Paul’s vision of the church, where he calls it the body of Christ, where members of this body offer themselves to one another, like Paul wrote in our reading from last week, “lov[ing] one another with mutual affection.” The church here isn’t a bureaucracy, it isn’t an institution, it isn’t a hierarchy. Church-community is simply where members of a body love one another, and offer themselves to one another; where, just as Christ offers himself for others, we the members of the body of Christ offer ourselves to one another; and as the body of the Christ who offers himself for the sake of the world, we offer ourselves for the sake of the world.
And so church-community doesn’t have to be bigger than two or three gathered together, so long as those two or three are—on account of Christ’s own presence—offering themselves to one another in prayer, in sacrificial offering, and importantly for today, in reconciliation, in repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
And so what I’d like for you to for a moment, is to imagine that what Jesus is speaking about here, when Jesus is saying “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” that what Jesus is speaking about is two or three people offering themselves to one another, in a mutual-self-offering that is possible by grace—that is, the mutual self-offering of the two or three is possible because Christ is present, and where our own self-offering is made possible only by his own-self offering, including in the forgiveness of sins.
And this gets interesting when we imagine that when Jesus is giving his counsel on how conflict resolution might work in a community, he isn’t just speaking of conflict resolution, but about how to sin can be the opportunity the graceful building of church-community.
It’s very practical counsel, and I’d encourage you to use it—if you feel that someone has sinned against you, first bring it to them privately. A whole lot can get sorted out when we talk to people directly. But what if things don’t go well when you approach someone? Next, if needs be, you bring a witness or two along. An additional perspective can help both parties be honest, and help to decide if the intervention needs to go further. Next after that, if needs be, bring it to the whole assembly. And after that, if reconciliation still hasn’t taken place, let that person “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Are you noticing yet what’s happening? Jesus is saying “gather as two, seeking reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness. Because in repentance and forgiveness, I am there and sin will be transformed into church-community. And if that doesn’t work, gather as three or four, seeking reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness. Because in repentance and forgiveness, I am there, says Jesus, “and sin will be transformed into church-community.”
Jesus suggests, finally, if things don’t work out with witnesses, this relational sin is brought to the whole assembly. Hidden relational sins and hurts can affect whole communities. When someone hurts another person, this can and often does impact the whole assembly when it remains unaddressed. The opportunity remains the same, though; when we gather as a whole community seeking reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness, and reconciliation is given in Christ’s name, sin is transformed here, too, by grace, into church-community.
There is though a worst-case scenario—reconciliation doesn’t happen even when the whole community is involved, and we are told to treat the one who will not repent “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” But this is a pretty good worst-case scenario. Because this would mean treating the unrepentant as one for whom Christ has already given his life.
Jesus was called, after all, a friend to tax-collectors, and more than a friend—Jesus found Matthew, one of the first disciples, sitting at a tax booth. Jesus offers himself for the sake of the world, including Gentiles; and according to Matthew’s Gospel it is not only the tax-collectors but the prostitutes too, who will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders that try to catch Jesus out.
And so we are left, again, with a gospel of grace. And grace today in two ways. First in the body of Christ where we offer ourselves to one another, where we are reconciled to one another through repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s own name. That is, there is grace in the transformation of sin into church-community, something we could never do on our own.
That’s the best case scenario. And the worst case? The worst case is that there is one more sinner, one more prostitute, one more tax-collector, one more excluded person—one more like us, sinners whom our Lord has come to love, to reconcile, and draw closer towards himself by the grace of his own self-offering.