Proper 18, Year A
The Good News that you heard included an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ.
The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes an awful lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.
Welcome to the church, folks. We only just encountered the concept a couple of chapters ago (in Matthew 16:18, the only other time in the gospels in which the Greek word ekklesia occurs), and now in Matthew 18, we're being introduced to church conflict.
In this Sunday's gospel, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us (yeah, I know that the "against you" part isn't in all of the manuscripts, but it does seem like a very helpful addition). The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. Without others around, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.
That's crucial, as at each stage of this process, the goal is reconciliation. The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary preliminary to a wonderfully juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Indeed, any more public confrontations that follow are about getting the parties directly involved to return to the table, where real conversation and real reconciliation can take place.
In other words, church conflict, if we're seeking to follow Christ in the midst of it, doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission.
Let me unpack that. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do in the Church can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world ...
I'm saying that church conflict, as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, can actually be sacramental.
And at this point, I can understand it if you're saying to yourself, "well I could do with a lot less sacrament then." I know what you mean. If you take a peek ahead to next Sunday's gospel, you'll know that Peter knows what you mean too.
The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a "school for souls," in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me (after long enough -- I'm a pretty slow learner): we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.
So when you meet someone who's really difficult, someone who pushes your ability to stay present with them, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love, rejoice and be glad in that day: you get to love them, in the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and folks looking on get to see how much you mean what you say about the church being entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation.
Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can only further your ministry and the ministry of reconciliation to which your congregation is called.
... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
-- Romans 12:9-21
Thanks be to God!
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Thanks for the thoughts.
Posted by: Jamie Arpin-Ricci | Aug 31, 2005 7:43:03 PM
Thanks, I always appreciate your insight into the texts. Love the imagery of conflict as sacrament. I'm going to spin that one around in my mind.
Posted by: Mark | Sep 3, 2005 8:37:46 AM
Thanks for reminding me, in the midst of an awkward, 'Sacramental' moment of my own, of the constant, living reality of the Gospel.
By the way, it is not hard to view conflict and personal pain as Sacramental if you consider the context of our Sacramental meal, which is both a reminder of the covenant inherent in the rescue from Egypt, and a symbol of the covenant of reconciliation in and through Christ - both events being steeped in pain and sacrifice...
Posted by: Jeff | Sep 4, 2008 9:15:29 AM
Thank you, Dylan -- your blog was a great help this week in finding a concrete way to connect the sermon into real parish life...preaching the Good News rather than preaching scripture!
The passage always gave me the creeps -- seemed so easy to misuse the practice Matthew lays out in order to bully people into agreeing with you. That St. Benedict sense you bring out helped me see other facets
Posted by: Devin | Sep 6, 2008 9:44:51 PM