September 4, 2011

Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

When Jesus walked through the towns and villages of Galilee, he taught and healed and helped the people that he met. And he had a consistent message wherever he went: “Repent,” he said to all the people, “because the Kingdom of God has come near.” And when Paul took up Jesus’ mission, he said pretty much the same thing.

In today’s passage from Romans, Paul uses the metaphor of night and day. He points out how much changed when Jesus came into the world like a light shining into the darkness. The change that has come upon the world was as swift and as unstoppable as the sun rising in the morning. And the Christians have got to realize that the night is over, and “wake up!”

Paul describes this time that we live in as that wonderful time when the darkness of night has dissipated, and the day is near. It’s the in-between time… between the dark night before Christ, and the full brightness of the kingdom of God. And it’s time, Paul says, for Christians to start living like it’s day time, like the kingdom of God is here.

“Let us live honourably as in the day,” Paul writes, “not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.” This short list of sins is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. But notice that the sins he mentions are primarily night time behaviours in the literal sense that they normally happen after dark, and in the metaphorical sense that they belong with the old age rather than with the new day that is dawning in Christ.

“Quarreling and jealousy” seem to be the exceptions on the list – the sins that don’t seem to go along with the others. One commentator notes that there are many churches where the first four sins on Paul’s list are unheard of, but the last two run riot. Underneath the show of politeness and even friendliness, there are all kinds of conflicts and disagreements and negative feelings that rarely come out into the light of day.

I get the impression that church communities (perhaps all kinds of communities) have always struggled with conflicts and quarrels like these. In other words, we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves when we realize that our churches are not models of perfect unity and peace. But we do need to face up to that fact, recognize that it is something that must change, and then commit ourselves to the difficult work of working through the conflicts and disagreements rather than letting them go unresolved.

Like Jesus before him, Paul explains that the long list of commandments can be summed up in the one instruction to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And when we love one another we have fulfilled the law.

Of course it’s easy to SAY that as Christians we will love another. But it’s quite a bit harder to actually DO the loving – especially when we’re in the midst of a conflict. Especially when we are sure that we are right and someone else is wrong. Especially when we are feeling hurt, or taken advantage of, or unjustly accused. That’s when loving one another can get to be extremely difficult.

In the NRSV translation, this morning’s text begins with these words: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” And we might assume that it’s an instruction not to get into debt. But the NIV translates it differently. The NIV says: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” In this context, Paul seems to be saying that the command to LOVE is a debt owed to everyone – a debt that can never be discharged.

And so when it comes to living together in Christian community, it seems that there is nothing that a person can say, or do, or fail to say or do, that can free us from our Christian responsibility to treat them with love. That’s a hard teaching, I know, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul is suggesting.

And the Gospel text this morning backs it up. Here we have a very practical text about what to do when another member of the church sins against you. If someone does something or says something that hurts you, embarrasses you, or offends you in some way, Jesus doesn’t say that you should just ignore it, put up with it, and be kind in return. No, Jesus is clear that when a problem arises in a relationship in the church, we need to go and work it out.

And the purpose of going to the person and talking to them about it is not to get justice for yourself. It’s not to make sure that they feel bad about what they’ve done. But it’s for the sake of repairing the relationship – for the sake of reconciliation.

It’s interesting to notice where this text appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Just before it, we have the parable of the lost sheep: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”

And just after this morning’s text, we have Peter asking Jesus about forgiveness. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” That’s how often you need to forgive your brother or sister who sins against you.

This morning’s text seems to be clear. If someone sins against you, you must go to them and point out the fault. If the person listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, you must take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses – so that two or three together may convince the one who has done wrong to admit the error of her ways. But if the person will not listen to them, and then you tell it to the church, and still he will not listen, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

“What does he mean by that?” I wonder. Well, in the bible, the word Gentiles refers to people who are not Jewish. Gentiles couldn’t trace their ancestry back to Abraham’s son Isaac. Gentiles didn’t follow all the laws that God gave through Moses. And many Jews in Jesus’ time did not trust Gentiles. Some Jews even hated Gentiles. They were different. They were outsiders.

Tax collectors in the area where Jesus lived usually were Jewish. However, they worked for the Roman Empire, whose leaders were Gentiles. The tax collectors had permission to collect more money than taxpayers actually owed. They kept the extra as their salary. Some tax collectors mad huge profits, and that made their neighbours pretty angry and bitter. Tax collectors wouldn’t have had a lot of friends among the Jews.

So it sounds like after three attempts to bring the offender back into the community, Jesus is saying we’re allowed to give up. If the person just won’t listen, you can treat her like a Gentile or a tax collector. You can avoid him, or mistrust her, or treat him like an outsider.

Three attempts is pretty generous, we might think. Except if we remember the shepherd who goes searching high and low for the sheep who has gone astray until he finds him… except if we remember Jesus’ answer to Peter about how many times we should forgive – seventy times seven times – that’s a lot more than three!

Jesus says that after the third attempt, we should treat the one who has offended us as we would treat a Gentile or a tax collector. But maybe he doesn’t mean that we should treat them as the average first-century Jewish person treated a Gentile or a tax collector. Maybe he means that we should treat them as he (Jesus) treated a Gentile or a tax collector!

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” [Later that day], as Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” [But] when Jesus heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of teaching pretty difficult. It seems nice in theory, but when it comes to a real person in my life that I have experienced as rude or unkind or unreasonable, it gets really hard to carry it through – to keep on trying to mend the relationship, to keep on working to forgive, to keep on attempting to be more than just polite, and to actually show love for someone who has hurt me. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of humility, and I know that I don’t always do very well at it.

And a part of me is sometimes arguing in my head, “If I don’t genuinely FEEL any love for that person, I shouldn’t just pretend to respect and love him.” Unfortunately, Paul disagrees. Paul says that the command to LOVE is a debt owed to everyone – a debt that can never be discharged, no matter how we might feel about the person standing in front of us.

“But here is the strange thing,” one commentator writes, “if you try to treat someone you thoroughly dislike as though in fact you cared very deeply for them – if you try to think of how it is to live inside their skin and walk in their shoes – then it may well happen that a genuine sympathy arises, and from that real affection, and finally an unhypocritical love. This is, after all, more or less what Paul is commending in our text today. The love of which Paul speaks is tough in the sense that since it doesn’t spring from the emotions but from the will, love will grit its teeth and act as if the emotions were in place, trusting that they will follow in good time.”

As difficult a teaching as this can be, sometimes it helps me to know that there are likely others in the Christian community who are working hard to love me also, despite the ways that I may have failed them or hurt them in the past or the present. And it also helps to know that God loves me, and God loves each and every one of us in that way. God does not love us because we have been so faithful and good and loving towards one another. But God loves us simply because we ARE, and simply because we belong to God. And when we fail or get lost in our mission to love one another in this Christian community, God goes searching for us high and low – like the one lost sheep that cannot be left behind. And God forgives us and draws us back into relationship not once, not three times, not seven times, but seventy times seventy times, or as many times as it takes.