Pastor Michael Frye:
If you have ever watched famous stars walk the red carpet at the Oscar or Emmy Awards, you will see fashion reporters stop them and ask the inevitable question: “Who are you wearing?”
And you will hear such answers as Georgio Armani, Chanel, Christian Dior, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, and Donatella Versace, to name a few (Are you surprised I knew this? I asked Siri.)
The stars and the designers work feverishly to outdo one another so that their names are immortalized.
I guess it is only human to want such fame and recognition, but centuries ago fortune and fame and red carpets were far from Saint Paul’s mind when he said:
“Let us walk in loveliness of life, as those who walk in the day, and let us not walk in revelry or drunkenness, in immorality and in shamelessness, in contention and in strife.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ as one puts on a garment, and stop living a life in which your first thought is to gratify the desires of Christless human nature.”
Paul and the 12 disciples were dealing with converted Jews and Gentiles who were not used to advice such as “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
They chose to believe that one must live and die by the law, yet, many still found time to take pleasure in things that people of faith would find to be offensive and against the teachings of Christ.
Paul frowned upon this dualistic style of life and counseled Christians to wear Christ’s example and teachings like one would wear a dress or suit of clothes; in so doing, Christ’s very presence would surround them and lead them toward fulfilling God’s will rather than their own.
By keeping our hearts and minds on the practice of Christian love, we will find that the very purpose for which laws were created will be fulfilled.
Again, we hear Paul’s words: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We know this; we all know this, yet we find it difficult to live a life of love among difficult people and in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Even among fellow Christians there are times when relationships sour and people become at odds with one another.
I believe that is one of the reasons that Matthew penned this passage in our Gospel for today.
Matthew is recounting words of Jesus counseling his followers on how to deal with conflict among one another.
Those of you who have read the constitution of the church will recognize these words as being very much like the section on congregational discipline.
Since there was no organized church at the time that Jesus was teaching his disciples, Matthew obviously directed these words toward to the fledgling church that had arisen out of the evangelistic efforts of the apostles, and which was in need of Jesus’ advice on mending strained or broken relationships among those who have chosen to follow Jesus:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”
Jesus’ advice makes a lot of sense.
If a person feels that someone has wronged him or her, wouldn’t it be better that they share their feelings about that face-to-face rather than sending a letter (or to put it in modern day terms, an email or a tweet) which can be misinterpreted or misunderstood?
What would make matters even worse would be for the person to say nothing and allow those hurt feelings to simmer and possibly explode one day in an inappropriate and hurtful way.
Conversing face-to-face when there are misunderstandings with one another can best lead to healing and a restoration of the relationship.
Jesus goes on to say that if such an encounter fails, one should take one or two others in an effort to move toward reconciliation.
In order to avoid the appearance that two or three people are ganging up on one, it should be individuals that both parties trust and respect and who have no motive other than wanting to see that relationship restored.
You can imagine as you are hearing this how awkward and intimidating such encounters might be; but we must remember that these words are being spoken to those who have made the decision to put their lives in the hands of their Lord and Savior.
Unresolved conflicts among one or two people in a fellowship of faith can be devastating to the entire community.
That is why the next step in this process would be to go to the faith community itself.
It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love, and Christian fellowship that strained relationships can be restored and the faith community can be strengthened in its common goal to be one in the Spirit and in the Lord.
Here is where things get a little tricky and where, I believe, the developing Christian community may have misunderstood Christ’s intent for his followers:
“…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”
Now, the young developing church which became the Roman Catholic Church interpreted this to mean that such an individual should be dismissed or excommunicated from church fellowship.
However, we know from Scripture that Jesus treated both Gentiles and tax collectors with compassion and patience (he called Matthew himself to be a disciple, even though he was a tax collector; he dined with Zachaeus; he associated with Gentile men and women, when to do so was strictly forbidden by Jewish law.)
So, does it stand to reason that Jesus would condone cutting off anyone from the fellowship of believers whose mission is to seek reconciliation and restoration for all of God’s people?
When asked how many times one should forgive someone who has offended you, Jesus said seventy-times-seven, not as a definitive number, but as a reminder that one should never stop forgiving… that there is only one judge of us all, and that is God the Father in Heaven.
That does not mean that one should stop admonishing someone for doing wrong and encouraging that person to change, but it certainly doesn’t mean that we should stop praying with them or reminding them that they are loved by a gracious, loving, and forgiving God.
We never give up on one another, because as theologian William Barclay says: “God’s word can always find the human heart.”
I believe something must be said about these words of Jesus: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
Time and again Christians have prayed together in groups for healing or some other important matter to them and have not felt that their prayers had been answered.
Does that mean that God chose to ignore their prayers?
We have to understand that prayers are not always answered the way that we hope or expect them to be.
Sometimes what we pray for can be unrealistic or contrary to the way nature has been designed to work in the world.
For instance, someone who has chosen to stay in the path of a category 5 hurricane in spite of being warned repeatedly to get out of its path, may find that their prayers for safety were jeopardized by their failure to act on their own behalf.
Or, a football team’s prayer to be victorious in the game means that they are also praying that the other team will fail.
God may not give us an escape from our problems, but he does enable us to accept what we cannot understand, to endure what would be unendurable without him, and to face what would be impossible odds without God’s being present to guide us.
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a perfect example: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
“But let it be not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus wasn’t relieved from his burden, but he was given the power to endure it and to conquer it.
God’s answer may not always be the one we might choose, but it is God’s answer; and God would never jeopardize our well-being or our salvation.
That is why he has given us Jesus, who promises that wherever we are gathered in his name, no matter our size or our number, he is among us as a garment that warms the heart and calms the soul.
In Christ’s name, and for his sake,