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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Formed into One

Forgiveness is the fundamental shape of the Body of Christ into which we’ve been formed, but it is one of the hardest things we ever do; only because we have been formed by the forgiveness we have received in Christ Jesus can we live in such love.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 23, year A; texts: Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14; Ezekiel 33:7-11

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Wow. Kind of a tough set of readings framing today’s liturgy: Hellfire and brimstone from Ezekiel, and excommunication from Jesus. The first reading and Gospel on the surface seem to call for more toughness on the wayward and the sinners, to hold the line on those who are sinful. But no one wants hellfire and brimstone anymore. Wouldn’t it be better to be nice, and friendly?

As a matter of fact, the readings aren’t about being either tough or nice. Our readings today, especially the Gospel, and we can’t forget Paul’s powerful words to the Romans, aren’t talking about cleaning up the Church, or straightening up and flying right. But they aren’t talking about being nice, either. They’re talking about a critical mark of the Church: forgiving love like the love of Jesus. They’re suggesting that we are formed into one Body and the central characteristic of that Body – which we did not make but into which we were brought in Baptism – is forgiving, sacrificial love. Not being tough, or nice.

Because it may sound odd, but forgiveness isn’t nice at all. Forgiveness as Jesus describes it today, and as it plays out in the readings for the rest of this month, is difficult, painful, challenging. It’s self-giving. It is one of the hardest things we’ll ever do as Christians. Which is why we aren’t that good at it. And why these words from Matthew 18 are much more often thought of as a way to get people out rather than keep them in.

But today Jesus (with help from Ezekiel and Paul) suggests that the end of forgiveness – restored relationships – is so important that forgiveness is central to being Christian. It’s what we were formed to do. It’s how we become one with each other in Christ.

So we need to reject both of the common extremes Christians seem to prefer, judgmentalism and niceness.

A pastor once said to me that excommunication is the favorite indoor activity of Christians. I don’t know if that’s so anymore, but this text certainly has been used that way. When someone sins in a way that offends another enough, you’re supposed to work through this list – confront them, then bring the pastor or other leaders of the church, then bring them to the whole church. And then, when they don’t listen, you get to kick them out.

One could argue that isn’t done much anymore. I don’t personally know of any congregation which literally walked through these steps from Matthew 18 and ended up setting someone outside the community. Which is maybe a good thing. But that means we still aren’t understanding what Jesus is getting at in this Gospel.

Being nice is far more our style, at least in our culture shaped by many of our northern European stoic ethnic heritages. We don’t want to make a scene. We don’t want to fuss. So let’s just ignore all this stuff from Matthew 18. We’re conditioned to be accepting and tolerant – at least publicly – if someone offends us, hurts us, or dare we even say it, sins against us. God forbid we would ever criticize another for their actions. Who are we to judge? Live and let live, that’s become our motto.

But this means we are living a lie as the Church of Christ because we don’t know how to take seriously the sin and wrongdoing that we do against each other. Of course, it isn’t that we don’t notice when someone sins against us. We certainly do. It eats at us, crawls into our hearts and keeps reminding us of our righteous indignation. And though we might never admit it or do anything about it, we sometimes don’t truly ever learn to forgive others. These become the grudges we carry with us for a lifetime. And once again, we’re not getting close to understanding what Jesus is saying here.

What we need is context: what’s going on here before and after that can help us understand our Lord? Jesus makes it clear in the preceding verses of this chapter that God’s will is pretty simple: God does not desire that any “little ones” are lost – and Jesus doesn’t mean just children. Any who are weak, or struggling, and need the love of God – that’s who Jesus means. Sounds like every human being to me. God’s will is that no one is lost to God’s love and grace. And next week we’ll hear the call to forgive as we have been forgiven. Today’s Gospel falls in between these two important texts.

So neither extreme is faithful to what our Lord Jesus asks of us and models for us. Neither booting people out (which God doesn’t want), or the opposite, cheerfully tolerating every sinful behavior and choice in the name of niceness while silently judging them and treating them ill – neither of these are what Jesus is talking about. Or Paul for that matter. Or Ezekiel. For them, it’s a matter of integrity as a community of believers, as individuals, as children of God, that we learn true confession. And true forgiveness.

So that no one, no one, is lost.

Our challenge is to be who we are made to be, to have integrity with what God has made of us in Christ.

We are forgiven people, so we forgive. Living as who we are – that is integrity. We who are forgiven of everything by our Lord Jesus cannot be unforgiving and wicked. That’s what we’ll hear Jesus say next week.

But we who have been called to new life in the Spirit also can’t simply ignore our own sin or the sin of others and hope that we are doing the right thing by being nice. People get lost that way, too, when they face a lack of integrity between what believers say and how believers actually live.

And this is what is so important about Paul’s summary of the Christian life today: love undergirds everything in our lives, he says. Love is the fulfilling of our lives as Christians. Love like Jesus has. Love which has made us one in Christ.

The love Paul is talking about here, and which Jesus is thinking of in Matthew 18, is not some mushy concept, some vague niceness. It is love like the love of Jesus who gave himself up to death for us, who forgave even those who killed him. It is a love which loses itself in trying to reach others. Which tries everything, says Jesus, from first visiting the one who has offended, and gently trying to reach them. Then, if that doesn’t work, bringing other faithful believers to help, then bringing the church to bear. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, says Paul, even if they have wronged you, says Jesus. That is hard. That is truly love.

Were we to live as we are made to be together, we’d take the hard task of talking to each other when we are wronged, and we’d do it. We’d override our cultural programming with the programming the Spirit has given to the Body of Christ we are.

We’d also learn the incredibly difficult task of asking for forgiveness from each other. Of saying simply, “I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?” Instead of our usual approach: “I’m sorry, but here are the five reasons why I did it, and it really was because you did something first.” That’s the difference between apology – defending ourselves – and confession – asking forgiveness with no defense and no hope except in the Christly love of the one we’ve offended.

This kind of love in the community, the Body, is what Matthew 18 is about, and even Ezekiel’s call to accountability: that through reconciling and forgiving we learn what it is to live as the Body of Christ. We do this because we, like the God who loves us in Jesus, don’t want to lose anyone.

And even the end of Jesus’ advice isn’t giving up on anyone. It’s the opposite. He said if they don’t listen after all this, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Those groups were the dregs to faithful Jews, the true outsiders. Excommunicating is putting someone completely outside your group like that.

Now, we’ve said that God isn’t into an excommunication plan. Or even a silent treatment plan, for our enlightened age. God wants everyone. So what’s going on?

Well, do you remember what Jesus did with Gentiles and tax-collectors? They weren’t outsiders to him. They were the ones Jesus befriended, listened to, sought out. In other words, if you fail to achieve a reconciliation, Jesus says, your hard work of love is still ahead. Now this person is the object of your evangelism, they need to hear about God’s love for them so it can take over their lives and change them. They need you to be God’s love for them.

So that no one is lost.

No, forgiveness isn’t about being tough or nice. But it is who we are made to be. And it is love. So that God’s will of bringing everyone into the Body can be accomplished.

It will be hard to live this way. Such integrity to who we are made to be means if things are wrong, sinful, we face it. We don’t hide under the guise of niceness, or act in judgmental ways, because that’s not Jesus’ way. And we need to learn confession as much as we learn the hard job of forgiving.

But this is how we are made to live – that’s our hope and our life. That’s the love our Lord creates in us: Love that is willing to lose everything for the sake of restoring a relationship. Love that does no wrong to a neighbor. Hard love. True love. Love that comes from the love of Christ which is given us every time we are forgiven here, every time we come to the Table and receive the Lord’s body and blood for our life.

And it’s all so God’s will can be done, that all know and live in God’s love and grace. Because God doesn’t want to lose any of the little ones. Not even you.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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