Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor
One of the most unique things about the church is that we meet as people whose paths would likely never cross in daily life. In the world around us, people tend to stick with those who are similar to them…hanging out with those who are like minded, of the same age, with the same job. But in the church we gather because of our faith, a part of us that is deeper than where we work or how old we are. Despite our differences, we come together, as one people, the Body of Christ. And while this is undoubtedly an amazing aspect of what it means to be the people of God, it also leads to challenges and often conflict…which is exactly what Jesus speaks about today.
Our Gospel reading is part of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus brings a child forward and uses him as an example of what the disciples are to be like, they must change and become like a child, because the least will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus then moves into a larger discourse about sin. He states that if anyone causes a little one to stumble, they should be punished. Jesus is calling those who are powerful to ensure that the well being of the smallest amongst them is given priority, that one’s approach to life takes into account the impact on the least in a community.
It is at this point that our Gospel reading begins. As Jesus continues to talk about sin, he addresses what to do if one person sins against another. First, the two must have a private conversation to try and resolve things. If this doesn’t work, then they need to bring in another party. If this still doesn’t work, the church needs to be included. And if this still does not work, the person who has sinned is to be treated like a tax collector or Gentile…now, just to note, Jesus doesn’t mean that they must be cast out and shunned, but that they must be included and loved in the hope that there will be a resolution. Finally, Jesus speaks some familiar words, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, if two of you agree on earth, it will be done for you by my father in heaven, for where two or three are gathered in my name I am there amongst them.”
While Jesus’ language, especially bind, loose and gathering as two or three, is often thought to refer to prayer, he is actually speaking about how we interact with each other when conflict arises. Prayer is not his focus, but he is addressing interpersonal relationships. Jesus is drawing on ancient Jewish political language, where binding someone meant to forbid or prohibit them and to loose someone meant to permit or forgive them. During this time, the synagogue had the power to admit or expel members according to Rabbinic law. So, Jesus, shaped by his Jewish background, speaks of the church as being like the synagogue, having the authority to exercise disciplinary procedures when there is unresolved conflict.
Our experience of the church is not typically like what Jesus describes, but his overall message has immense value. Because we are so diverse and different, it is inevitable that there will be conflict. Today, Jesus gives us the tools to deal with this. Although it is easier to ignore conflict and run away from it, Jesus is calling us to face it. He is reminding us that we must engage with each other from a place of love and grace, and as we gather, two or three, trying to sort things out, he is with us through it all. Being the church is not, then, about being an institution, but it is about living immersed in the presence of Christ, embodying what we were created to be—God’s agents of reconciliation.
Reflecting on this, there is no question that Jesus’ call for us is extremely difficult to live out. Our culture is shaped by individuality, a sense that it is all about me and my beliefs. However, to address conflict we need to let go of what binds us, our preconceptions, our narrow lenses, being willing to see things from another person’s different perspective. We need to realize that if someone doesn’t fully agree with us that is completely, 100% ok. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we do have to love each other and when we really, truly, struggle to get along, that love needs to win. The gift that results from doing the work of loving each other is the realization that beneath our superficial differences we have so much in common…we are all broken, fragile people trying our best to make it in this world. Despite our differences, all of us have value, all of us have something to offer, gifts and talents that are all needed to grow the body of Christ. Our diversity, even with the challenges it brings, is also our greatest strength.
Richard Ward comments, "Consider the immense need in our [world] for communities where simple virtues are practiced—respect for the dignity of each individual, humble servant leadership, understanding and exploring racial and cultural differences with curiosity rather than fear, taking responsibility for wrongdoing and offering and accepting forgiveness, and empathizing with the pain and isolation of another.” When people come together, bringing their differences with them, there is no question that conflict will arise. But instead of ignoring it, Jesus calls us to face it. When we do this, we will grow as the Body of Christ, we will become God agents of reconciliation not only to each other gathered here, but also, as Ward states, the world beyond these walls, the world that God loves so much. And this is something that the world undoubtedly needs right now…it needs to see that it is possible to embrace difference, work through conflict, and to do all of this from a place of love, grounded in the knowledge that Christ is with us.