We have a tendency to romanticize the life of the early church. Deep down we feel that ordinary Christians were just basically different from ourselves–that they were somehow better than us–more faithful, more virtuous. They were more committed. After all, many of them ended by giving up their lives for the gospel. By contrast, we think, we seem to have lost all that great enthusiasm and courage which so characterized the early church.
Well, who were these followers of the way?
By the time Matthew’s gospel was committed to paper, they were a really diverse crowd. They came from all walks of life but were predominantly poor. This should be no surprise to us. After all, Jesus consistently reached out to the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed. He deliberately turned his attention to the sick, the poor, the hungry, slaves, servants, and women. But Jesus’ hospitality extended even beyond that. He welcomed the hated and despised: tax-gatherers, soldiers, foreigners (that’s just as well as for me), prostitutes, the mentally ill, and even criminals. He was supported in his inclusiveness by some of the religious and wealthy people of his day.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers continued in the same vein. And as time went on it became clear to them, as indeed it had become clear to Jesus, that were no limits to God’s love or inclusiveness. The gospel was intended for all people no matter what race, religious background, social or even economic status. In fact, it seemed that God is not much interested in money or status or even nice church buildings like this one, but is passionately concerned that we should care about each other.
Now that sounds all very wonderful, and we might well ask how early Christians achieved such a life. We are told they shared all their money, took care of each other, sat down together at meals and, in general, committed themselves to the rigors of a common life. Most of us, by contrast, feel rather like a friend of mine who says that guests, like fish, tend to stink after three days. And yet here we have all these people sharing all their lives—hundreds and thousands of Christians sharing space, food, and resources all the time. How on earth did they manage that?
Life in community is the greatest challenge, and Christians are not renowned for being better at it than others—though we should be. Just look at the world in which we live–it’s divided on every front. We are encouraged to flee to our neighborhoods to be with those like ourselves, to choose schools free from people unlike ourselves, to belong to clubs which define membership in such a way that only certain types of people (people like us) can join. Sometimes we even flee our own families and friends. Sometimes, sadly, we flee even our own precious self. We continually categorize people. We like to talk about “people we want to be with” or “people to be avoided.” “People like us” and “people not like us.” We comment endlessly on the lives of other people. No—we do not live together in peace and love. Most of the time we are too busy defending our agenda to even begin to consider creating space for another person, let alone the ultimate act of taking that other person into our hearts.
But the good news is, it really was no different in the early church! This morning’s gospel is a clear exposition of what to do when things go wrong. Not if, but when things go wrong. We are told to talk to each other when we feel hurt or wronged or excluded. To speak directly, face to face, one on one, with the person who has sinned against us. Now there’s a terrifying idea!
It is so hard to find the courage to speak to the one who at that time feels like your enemy. But, if you have ever tried it, you will know that it can have the most powerful result of any action you may take in your life. I have literally seen amazing things happen when people are finally lovingly and carefully honest with each other. If that doesn’t work, says Jesus, “Don’t abandon it, don’t go away.” Go back. Take two or three people with you to help the conversation. Try to make this hurt right. And notice something else that’s very important–that we would probably rather not read–that the community, if this person cannot respond to heal the hurt, is to be told of the hurt and the community is to hold that person accountable. If the person refuses to respond, then we are to treat that person as someone to be ignored.
Now that is practically the opposite of how we conduct ourselves today. In our world it’s the squeaky wheel getting the most attention. Think of all those whispered conversations, the extraction of promises to tell no one else. Statements such as “Don’t tell anyone about this” (usually the other person). we tend to hide information from the community because we don’t think the community can handle it. I daresay most of us would never come to church again if we felt our meaner side might get confronted and exposed for all to see.
But let’s go back and look then at what’s happening.
The reason this advice seems so contrary to us is that we seem to have lost sight of something the early Christians had not. That the gospel is very urgent business. We do not have eternity to live into community. We have a limited life span. We only go round once. And it’s in this life, in this community, in this city, in this place that God has called us that we are to live committed to the gospel. The gospel intends to lift you and me from the mire of fear and prejudice so that you and I may know life in all its fullness and glory. And it so happens that we can’t get that by avoiding the truth about other people or the truth about ourselves. We are an ornery lot—God has been dealing with that since the beginning of time, and now God is saying, “Get with the program.”
First, we were never made to be an island unto ourselves—we can only achieve but so much by our single efforts. Our humanity is actually fertilized and challenged through our contact and relationship with people who are very different from ourselves. That’s the way God has made it. It is not negotiable, and we are stuck with it whether we like it or not. In fact, as individuals God has made it so that you and I can’t become fully human without meeting with the demands of life together. It is not an accident that God elected, created, a church, a community, a body of people, to work out our salvation. The fact is, we are going to go up or down together.
St. Benedict of Nursia, who created the rule of life that governs most monastic orders today, wrote in the sixth century that although our focus is to become one with God, to be united to the love of God, we could take comfort in the fact that for all our lives we will only ever be beginners—our “opus dei” is to be the work of loving God. And that work is so big and we are so small that we can know ourselves always (thankfully) to be at the beginning.
Second, not only are we not an island, but we are called, as St. Paul writes, to a life of hospitality. We are called to see everyone, every single person we encounter, as being sent to us by God. This is not easy and it’s not a neutral exercise. Hospitality is the act of offering a space, an unrestricted space, into which someone may come, be safe, and be themselves. Now we have to be careful here. It does not exclude you being yourself and neither must it be an attempt to make the other person be like us. Instead, we are to acknowledge that the other person is in fact “wholly other” and that is good. Diversity is there precisely to challenge us to grow in love. It doesn’t mean we become doormats. Instead it turns us to the work of identifying in ourselves what is good, generous, holy and true about us as a person, being willing to offer that to the community, and defend that within the community, while allowing that same space and privilege to another person.
As we prepare to embark on another program year in this church, to gird our loins for the rigors of the fall, we could do worse than to consult the Book of Common Prayer. So I would like you to turn with me to page 304. This happens to be one of my favorite parts of the prayer book. And it’s the part we use to renew our baptismal promises when another Christian is joined to our community. Now these two pages, 304 and 305, are the basic deal. This is the basic deal. It’s the deal we made at our baptism, and we need to read it every now and again. Especially I would recommend you reading it every Monday morning.
After confessing the nature of our beliefs, at the bottom of the page you see that we promise that we will show up, we will come here and share with all these people, who are different from ourselves. We promise we will fight evil in this world, we will repent of that in ourselves, and try again. We promise to be as like Christ in our own life as best we can. And then these last two promises, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” It would be easy for us to allow these words to trip off our lips on Sunday and not to apply them to every breathing moment of our week. But as Christians we promise that there is no moment in our existence when we are not on the lookout for God’s work. There is no moment when we are excused the fight. There is no moment when we may rest on our laurels. For as long as there is sin and evil, hatred and oppression, jealousy and all the other forms of sin, we are called to strive for God’s justice.
This struggle is also our hope. It is the sign of our community. It is what we claim makes us different–that we will praise God, love God, love our neighbor, fight evil, respect the dignity of every human being. It is the covenant. Every time we say these words we bind ourselves closer to the Creator who is behind them. They ask us, “Do you really want to be part of this community? If you do–then do them!” How beautiful would be our world if we could do just that. So God asks us to try this fall to make this world a more beautiful, a kinder place. And when we fail, as we will, we are to turn to the gospel for today, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Simple isn’t it?
Well, not really, but we’ve promised to keep trying because we know it can set us free from pettiness and even despair. You know, as Anglicans we are often accused of “doing theology to the sound of church bells” as though that were somehow a weakness. But if coming here, loving God in our worship and taking care of each other is “doing theology to the sound of church bells” I’m all for it. Aren’t you?