a sermon on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20
preached on September 4, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Six years ago last Sunday, I stood in front of a worship service down in Oxford, Mississippi, and answered yes to nine questions before becoming a minister. One of them is incredibly beautiful and almost deceptively simple:
Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
Many of you who have been ordained as elders and deacons here have answered that same question, and I think it really describes the kind of attitude we are to bring to service in the church.
This week, as Lisa and I were working on outlining, writing, and editing a couple of documents that are required by recent changes to the Book of Order, we found a strange variation on this great question. One of the checklists of the things that needed to be included in our new document asked if we were doing whatever task with “energy, intelligence, and imagination” – but not love. Who decided that we could do anything without love? Obviously the authors of this checklist had forgotten the great wisdom of the Beatles:
I’m not sure that the apostle Paul would completely agree with Ringo, George, John, and Paul, but love sure seems to be all we need based on the portion of the letter to the Romans we read this morning. Here Paul brackets many important commandments by summing them up in the single action word “love.”
Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
The one who loves has fulfilled the law.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
Love is the fulfilling of the law.
For Paul, love is the center of the way of life for those who follow Jesus – it shapes each and every day as we try to make our lives more and more like the way of life that God intends, as we set aside the old ways that leave us in darkness and take up a new way that brings us the full way of life and light in Christ. That love is what we signify today as we bring one of our children for the Sacrament of Baptism – the love of God that goes before us, beside us, behind us, in us, and through us to show us the way that God intends so that she might know and grow into the light of new life as the new day nears.
For Paul, love sure seems to be all that we need, but as usual, Jesus gives us a dose of reality. In our other reading this morning from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus talks about what to do when love isn’t quite so present and people do wrong against one another.
It’s a pretty simple process that he proposes. First, directly confront the person who has done you wrong in private. If that works, great – you’re done. If that doesn’t work, go back and take one or two others with you so that no one is alone. If the other person still refuses to come clean about what he or she did wrong, bring the issue to the gathered community. And if that still doesn’t work, send the offender on his or her way. Jesus even says to treat the unrepentant “as a Gentile and a tax collector” – but he himself was notorious for welcoming Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners of every sort into his presence when no one else would!
Jesus continued by suggesting that the disciples had a great deal of power and authority to bind and loose things on earth as in heaven and to make things happen by simply agreeing with one another. He concludes these instructions with a well-known saying that gets used pretty often around small churches like ours: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
But the focus here is less on making a small group of the faithful feel comfortable and more on recognizing the importance of community, for throughout this section Jesus makes it clear that we need one another. We need others to correct us in the ways of love when we go astray. We need others so that we can learn from one another’s right actions and mistakes. And we need one another so that we can see Jesus in our midst, for we can’t see Jesus in the mirror, but we can see Jesus in one another. As pastor Jin Kim puts it, “We are not free from each other; we are free in each other.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 48)
And so when we put it all together it is in one another that we see the love that we so desperately need, the love that is all we need – not just a romantic love that fulfills a deep carnal desire, not just some halfhearted love that takes and takes and does not give anything back, not just a love that will make sense one day – but when we are at our best we see in one another the love that we see in Jesus Christ – a love that does no wrong, a love that offers honest and real and direct confrontation when things go awry, a love that shines light into the darkness of the world, a love that becomes clear whenever and wherever we gather faithfully as the community of those who love and serve and follow Jesus Christ.
We show that love today in the sign and seal of this water. We show that love whenever and wherever two or three or thirty or forty gather. And we show that love each and every day in our lives in the world, living out the love we have seen in Jesus Christ and in one another as we fulfill the law and love our neighbors near and far with energy, intelligence, imagination, and, yes, love.
May God give us all the love we need – and continue to show us all the love we have seen in Jesus Christ in and through one another – so that we might never leave out love until all things are made new.
Lord, come quickly!