The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20
The bulk of the gospel of Matthew is made up with something scholars call the Five Discourses. Five sections of Jesus teaching his followers about the different aspects of being disciples. The first discourse is about what the kingdom of God looks like, and it starts appropriately with the Sermon on the Mount. The second discourse moves us into actually creating the kingdom of God. The third discourse moves us into the mysteries of the kingdom. And the fifth discourse leads us into the kingdom to come.
But the fourth discourse is about the kingdom of God as a daily and sometimes tedious practice in being in community with one another. And in today’s gospel, Jesus teaches us about how to be in relationship with one another as a church. Not the capital-C Church, The Episcopal Church or even The Christian Church, but the small-c church. The St. Luke’s church.
In today’s culture, being part of a church is a pretty unique experience. It’s almost subversive. Nowhere in our lives besides with family and maybe a few very close friends do we choose, over and over again, to be in relationship with one another. In other parts of our lives, if someone makes us angry or betrays us or even holds political views that feel particularly repugnant to us, we usually just unfriend them—either literally or we just stop calling, stop making plans, stop showing up.
But today’s gospel tells us that when someone in our church community hurts us, when they break our trust, when they don’t honor their commitments, we are called to do the work of reconciliation.
The word reconcile means “to bring together again.” “To bring back into unity.” What I love about this word is that it seems to express our longing for the Body of Christ. As Christians, we know that our default way of being is in relationship—to God and to our neighbor. To one another. We know, as Paul said, that “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” We know that we are, each of us, utterly dependent on one other. We may not always understand how, but our faith tells us this is true.
Again, this is subversive stuff. Our American way of being values self-sufficiency above all else. Go it alone. Only the strong survive. Rugged individualism. To be dependent is to be weak. It’s why it’s so much easier for so many of us to give than to receive.
It’s why reconciliation is so hard. Because when we prioritize being self-sufficient above all else, relationship is the price we pay. Love is the price we pay. The Body of Christ is the price we pay.
And don’t get me wrong, it is important to live fully into the gifts and agency God gave each of us. The Body of Christ is about doing your part, contributing all you can to the whole, but it’s also about knowing that your part is only one part.
Jesus, as we know, is all about love. Like we talked about last week, he said that all the law and all the prophets boiled down to two commandments: love God and love your neighbor.
So when someone sins against us, Jesus calls us to love. Because accountability without love is not justice, it’s vengeance. But he does call us to hold each other accountable. Not by shame. Not by inflicting pain as punishment. Those are easy responses, convenient ones. They sacrifice relationship for the sake of shallow relief. But Jesus doesn’t always call us to the easy thing. He calls us to love.
And real, deep, authentic love can be hard. It means valuing relationship over all else. Jesus tells us in these scriptures that if someone has sinned against you, you should first talk to the person directly and in private. Tell them how they hurt you and seek to repair the relationship. If that doesn’t work, bring one or two witnesses to help sort it out. And if that doesn’t work, it might be time to bring the whole community into the conversation and redefine the relationship. Not break it, but to draw new boundaries.
I know that you know that this isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to complain to your friend about what happened, never actually speaking to the person who hurt you, slowly letting the relationship whither under a pall of resentment. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to get a whole bunch of people on your side and then confront the person, casting them out.
But Jesus calls us to courage, to honesty, to vulnerability, and, of course, to love. When we give each other those things, the Body of Christ lives and thrives.
Week after week, we do an extraordinary thing: we at St. Luke’s choose each other. Over and over again. We are not bound by blood and in maybe a few cases we are not even bound by affinity or affection. But we commit ourselves to something bigger than simply liking each other. We commit ourselves to being the Body of Christ.
And what we do in this community, how we treat each other, how we practice loving and choosing each other again and again, reverberates through our lives. It changes the way we interact with people outside this place. It changes the way we regard those who hurt us or those with whom we disagree. In a very quiet and slow but real way, it changes the world. Amen.