The Reverend John Allison
Christ Church, Hudson
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is part of a larger section known as Jesus’s Fourth Discourse or his Discourse on Community. Essentially, it’s about the difficulties of being in relationship with one another. Our passage today specifically offers a three-step plan for how one is to deal with a rupture in relationship. For the community to which Matthew was writing, tension between various individuals and factions within the group would have been a very real problem. He was writing toward the end of the first century, and his audience would not have been the homogeneous group we perhaps imagine. In fact, much like I mentioned last week regarding Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we know there was a certain amount of conflict between the Gentile followers of Jesus and the Jewish followers of Jesus, and there was often a great deal of disagreement as to how their rapidly developing faith in Jesus was to be lived out among these two very different cultures—how these two could live as one.
With this background in mind, I’ve surprised myself this week as my reflections on the passage have continually been drawn back to my own experiences as a Christian from a not very diverse background who has largely worshipped with people who looked liked me and largely thought like me—or at the very least shared the same cultural background and were of a similar demographic. Even with all that similarity conflict arose—conflict arises. As a young person of a relatively passive temperament, that often meant walking away. As a very young person that meant leaving the church altogether and trying to find God on my own. As a slightly older person that meant changing churches when tension or conflict arose. At some point, I fell into what I now call the “take my ball and go home” syndrome where if my beliefs were challenged or if I felt tension around worship it was easier to walk away. Spirituality seemed much easier as a private affair. For a long time this was an excuse for not being in relationship with a spiritual community.
But this is not what we are called to be. As the Body of Christ, as the Church, we are called to be in relationship. We cannot escape it. And yet, why is it so hard? Why is it such a commonality among us that even two thousand years ago, Matthew has Jesus laying out precise instructions for how to repair broken relationships. I can say in hindsight why it was hard for me in the past. I may even have some insight into why it’s hard in the present. I may be able to say I like to do church in a particular way. Or, I may say I want to change this but not that. Deep down, I may even be able to get myself to admit that I don’t like compromise, that I want it my way. And we live in a culture that largely reinforces that ethos. We live in a culture built on the idea of the rugged individual, a society in which self-sufficiency and determination of the individual will is lauded.
And yet, Jesus teaches us differently. As Christians we are called to a different way of life. Indeed, we are called to live into the truth that life is a gift. All that we have, all that we are is a gift. To acknowledge that is to be in Thanksgiving, for these gifts do not come to us in isolation. And we are not called to hoard these gifts for ourselves. But here’s the hard part: to give, to offer, even to receive is to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to rejection. And so to protect ourselves we retreat, we isolate ourselves from one another— sometimes physically but, more often, emotionally.
What Jesus offers us today is a way, a plan to be intentional in relationship, specifically, to be intentional in maintaining relationship in the midst of conflict. You see, Matthew knows, is well aware of, a particular truth about conflict: what starts simply as a matter between two individuals can quickly infect a whole community and risk fracture. What Jesus gives us in Matthew’s Gospel is a way to deal intentionally, to be intentional in responding to the hard feelings, the passions that can occur in community. What he offers is an honest acknowledgment that conflict is bound to happen and this is how we can deal with it in a loving way.
For many of us the first impulse in a conflict is to react angrily. Or, maybe, to stuff the hurt feelings or anger deeper inside, to barely acknowledge the pain so as not to make ourselves more vulnerable. But true reconciliation, which is what Matthew really seeks in his Gospel, is about acknowledging the hurt, or whatever the difficult feelings may be. It is incumbent on us to open ourselves to share what we feel in a healthy intentional way. It is not lashing out and trying to inflict pain on the other as it was inflicted on us. I try to imagine what such an initial encounter might look like between two individuals, how it might happen in a way that love is the impetus rather than anger. And that is perhaps the key, that the impetus to reconciliation is love and not anger or the motivation to win. It is about the sincere desire to restore relationship, for it is through relationship that we are enlarged.
Two weeks ago, a few chapters earlier in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we heard the apostle’s words, “we who are many are one body.” Some of you may recognize that, with the addition of the words “for we all share in the one bread” as an anthem that is sometimes used just after the priest breaks the bread. In that, there is something important for us to notice. Christ is present to us in the breaking of the bread—in the fraction. You might even say in the fracturing. In seminary, my liturgy professor used to say that that point of fracture, which you’ll see in just a bit in the Eucharistic Prayer, that point of fracture is full of promise. As I’ve remembered that this week I’ve thought about it in relation to the promise revealed as Jesus calls his disciples to seek loving reconciliation out of brokenness: The promise that though broken we are one. Our sharing of the Eucharist, our reception of the bread and the wine, the gifts of creation, is the sign that points us to the larger reality that we are all one. That’s what a Sacrament is: an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. That’s what we are about to do together, and it points us not only toward the transcendent Father up there but also toward the imminent God with us, Jesus—Jesus who is with us as neighbor. That’s the meaning of Incarnation and it’s not something we only celebrate in the Christmas season but, rather, a way of living God’s command to love in our everyday lives. As I said last week, the love to which Jesus calls us doesn’t stop when we step away from this table. Through us, through our participation in God’s love, it extends beyond these walls, to our families and friends as well as our enemies; to the clerk at the grocery store as well as our colleagues at work. It extends to the ends of the earth.
A favorite symbol of mine that was common in the early Church is of a wheel. Imagine it: a central hub with spokes radiating outward. The center is representative of God. The spokes that radiate outward are us, each spoke an individual person. You might say each spoke is an individual member in the body of Christ, separate but united in a common center. The farther the spokes radiate from the center the more distant they become from one another. In Eucharist, in Thanksgiving, we are called to remember our common unity in Christ, our common origin in the center. We enact this reconciliation here—at this table—each week. And that’s essentially the reminder we carry with us as we continue in relationship with one another. That is the underlying assumption we carry with us when we go to our brother or sister, in love, to seek reconciliation. That is the point toward which we are all traveling together.
May we all be blessed with strength and mercy as we seek to act from a place of love in our journey to that point of union and completion in Christ.