The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Think about that. That’s powerful. If we take him at his word, if we believe it when he says it, then Jesus is here – now – among us who gather in his name. And in his own words he just spoke to us about the challenge and the wonder of being in community.
The early church experienced themselves as “sisters and brothers” in the faith. They believed that everybody has been adopted into the family of God in Christ. And as we all know – and many of us have experienced – sisters and brothers and brothers and brothers and sisters and sisters disagree, argue, and even hold grudges that interrupt any communication between them. We sisters and brothers in this family of God are no different. Sadly, disagreement can cause hurt feelings and the fracturing of relationships. Being a Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. but dissension should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire community or family. So, Jesus teaches us about how to live together.
What we also know about when two or three gather is that four or five or more opinions may surface and people can feel very strongly about their opinions. Jesus saw it first-hand in the way some of his disciples challenged each other and argued, like when they asked who was the greatest among them. The early church communities experienced discord over all sorts of issues like circumcision and the care of widows. The councils of the Church that codified doctrine –what we say in the Nicene Creed –were rife with hostility and disagreement. My patron, St. Nicholas, is reported to have slugged another bishop in a heated debate. (I do not take after him!)
Humans are just susceptible to opposition. It has ever been thus and you and I now live in a time where strong and divergent political, ethical and religious ideologies have created great tension and even resulted in the ending of friendships and severing of family ties. “Unfriending” someone on Facebook is a common occurrence.
In the Gospel of Matthew today we get a glimpse of how the earliest communities dealt with the difficult issues of determining when dissent becomes a disruption that requires action. Jesus sees the harmony and peace of the community as an essential building block of our life in the church because the primary work of the church is about reconciliation and healing.
The remarkable Taizè Community in Burgundy, France, was born from one of history’s darkest chapters. Brother Roger began this community in 1940 after Germany defeated and occupied France, leaving his native Switzerland for a small, impoverished village just south of the demarcated occupation line, with the intent of helping victims of the war. Word spread quickly that the community was a safe haven and took in refugees of all kinds. There were some Christians among them, but many of those sheltered there were Jews, atheists, and others escaping danger.
The signature worship style of Taizè in its simplicity, silence, and short hymns, as well as its ethos of peace, reconciliation and social justice, has attracted thousands, especially the youth of the world, to spend time there week after week. It is a model for the life of a faith community.
In the end, when crisis strikes us at our core, what do we have if not each other and our life in community? The process described in the Gospel tells us that we need to do everything possible to maintain community, avoid divisions within our midst, and deal honestly and directly with disagreement. When we offend someone, do we seek to reconcile with them? When we are the one offended, how to we respond to overtures of reconciliation?
The Gospel today is a lesson in the building and maintaining of a functional, resilient and healthy community taught by the One who is the best teacher. While very helpful as a guide to reconciliation with others, we know that, as much as we might try to follow the prescription Jesus offers us, some prefer negative attention and like to soak in a tub of bickering and complaint. That’s why Jesus includes the piece about needing to walk away and give the other a time out, a sabbatical.
The power of Jesus to work in the Church is promised to any group of his followers, large or small, that is aware of his presence and receptive to his leading. Our relationships with each other are both fragile and holy. Graceful cooperation and growth can maintain the bond of affection within our fellowship.
Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says it well: “Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are confronted, tested, and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or flee from God’s presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.”