We do not belong to ourselves, individually: we are one together in Christ for our good and for the good of the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 24 A
Texts: Romans 14:1-12 (13); Matthew 18:21-35
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In the beginning, when God began to create, our hebrew forebears say God didn’t think it was good for us to be alone.
God made more than one human, so we wouldn’t be alone. God constantly encouraged human beings to love each other. Because we need each other to live. So we form communities, families, build relationships. Now, all of us need alone time, too, to varying degrees. But none of us would survive long all by ourselves.
And the necessity of human community is the first key to understanding the forgiveness and restoration in our Scriptures today.
The second key is to remember that communities shape the people in them.
The truth that forms a community, their reason for being together, can lead to people who do good and people who do evil. Today the power of evil emanates from all kinds of communities who are bound together out of fear, or out of hate, or out of greed, or out of prejudice of all kinds. In those communities, people are formed to the evil that gathers them.
But a community grounded on love, or centered on justice, such a community can also transform the people within it. If you belong to a group who shares values of wholeness and mercy, who works for justice among people, you will be shaped by that community to those values.
Our community is bound by Christ.
There are lots of differences between us, and lots of similarities, how each sees the world, understands themselves, lives their life. We’ve had our differences over the years, some serious. Some here you might call your friends; others might irritate you. But that’s OK, you probably irritate someone here, too. But none of this is as important to this community as what joins us: we are baptized into Christ, called into the Body of Christ to be loved by God and learn to love each other. In this community you and I have found welcome, and home, and companionship, and love, and grace. And it has shaped you and me for good.
And now we’re ready to hear about the Romans.
The Roman church was a messy and beautiful church just as our vicar described last week. They were a group of Christian congregations connected to Paul, perhaps founded by him. There are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians together. But they’re seriously at odds.
It seems at this time the Jewish Christians have less influence, they’re weaker. The Gentile Christians seem to be in charge. The Jewish Christians keep kosher, follow the Torah. The Gentiles – never having been Jewish – do not. They eat all kinds of foods and don’t keep the Jewish festivals.
And they’re fighting with each other. Each group mocking the other, calling them wrong-headed, unfaithful. They’re not loving each other. And Paul is deeply dismayed.
You see, Paul had a beautiful vision he got from Christ in his calling.
In this vision of the church, diversity is beloved, cherished, a gift of God. All who come to Christ can keep their cultural treasures, their patterns and blessings, their ethnic distinctions, even if others don’t share them. Jews can be Jews, Gentiles can be Gentiles, but all are called together under the greater unity of Christ.
But this vision barely got off the ground. The communities we know in Scripture, such as Rome, Corinth, the Galatian churches, all seemed to struggle mightily with it. There’s scant evidence it survived Paul himself; we see very little in the history of the Church.
But it is Christ’s vision for the Church. And it’s still possible with the grace of the Spirit. Today Paul explains it again: In your community of Christ, love each other in your differences. Rejoice in them. Respect them. If you have to do your thing, good. But don’t do it for you. Do it for Christ. If all serve Christ with their habits and life, a community of love and grace can exist in joyful diversity.
Paul says we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. That’s the key.
And that, Jesus says, is why you and I are called to forgive. Why we’re given the task of reconciliation. Why restoration of community is the heart of how we live as Christ. Because we’re bound together in Christ. And we’ve been changed here. Forgiven infinitely by God.
Jesus’ parable brings this home: the whole community has a stake in forgiveness.
It isn’t just about the slave who’s forgiven millions who couldn’t forgive a thousand dollars in turn. At the heart of this story is this line: “When the other slaves saw what happened, they were greatly distressed.” This breach, this absence of forgiveness, affected everyone who knew them. Threatened the community.
Forgiveness and restoration are crucial to our community because if any are at odds, everyone is hurt. If you withhold forgiveness from another person here, another sibling, all of us suffer.
And in this community of Christ, gathered together by the Triune God’s sacrificial, death-breaking love, our whole life depends on being God’s forgiveness to each other.
But there is a deeper implication to Jesus’ parable and Paul’s plea.
Our love for each other, our forgiveness and restoration, or lack of it, will be our witness to more than us. The Church is meant to be a blessing to the world. So are you. So am I. And if we’re not – and you know this because you see it happening in our world and despair – if those who carry Christ’s name carry it in hate and spite and wickedness, then the world will be greatly distressed at it, or worse, see our witness as fraudulent and harmful.
So we do not live to ourselves even here. If, with the Spirit’s grace, we are changed here, learn to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to be a part of God’s restoration among us, it is so that we leave here to be a part of the same outside, with whatever diverse people we can form a community with who share our values of justice and peace and mercy.
And just imagine what might happen in our city or world when God sends us out on the road.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen