Matthew 5:21–37, 1 Corinthians 3:1–9
St Thomas’, Glen Carbon
From today’s gospel: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” These are the words of Jesus, and if we pay attention closely, it might seem strange to hear him talk about “offering your gift at the altar,” because, while Jesus was a practicing Jew, that expression pretty much makes perfect sense in a fully-developed Christian context, as when we place our offering in the plate as it comes by, and, in most churches, representatives of the congregation bring the bread and wine up, and it’s all—money, bread, and wine–offered at the altar. Well, as it turns out, Matthew’s gospel is the most “churchy” of the four. He doesn’t do it in this passage, but Matthew is the only one among the four evangelists to actually use the word “church” in his gospel.
And in this passage, as is the case in the other passage where the word “church” comes up, “Matthew’s Jesus” is concerned about church unity—or, more precisely, about the clear fact that there is disunity, that there is strife within the Christian community. This shouldn’t come as a shock to us, because, two-thousand years later, there is still disunity and strife, both between churches—that’s why we have something called ecumenism—and within churches: witness the last decade-and-a-half of quarrelling and lawsuits among Episcopalians and recently former Episcopalians in this country. And, nobody can deny that there is disunity and strife within local congregations: turf battles over who gets to do this or decide that, people getting entrenched in particular roles for decades, with nobody quite knowing how to challenge the status quo, inability to be direct and open about conflict, so there’s an abundance of whispering and secrecy, people using leaving and the threat of leaving as a manipulative tool, or just as a coping mechanism, because they literally don’t know what else to do. This is all truly scandalous, of course. It’s the biggest single impediment to mission and evangelism that we face.
St Paul wrote two letters to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth, a church that was no stranger to disunity and strife. Paul’s awareness of divisiveness among the Corinthians is evident in the passage we have this morning. He tells them he cannot even address them as “spiritual people,” because there is so much “jealousy and strife” among them, that they are not proper Christian adults, but are “infants in Christ.” It’s not apparent in today’s selection, but dissension in the Corinthian church affected even their observance of the Eucharist; Paul spends quite a bit of time on that later in the letter. As a pastor of more than thirty years’ experience, speaking in a congregation whose pastor has more than fifty year’s experience, I would not be telling the truth if I did not say that the communities I’ve served, like the Corinthians, have been made up of too many people who are also … too many of us are also “infants in Christ,” who can only be fed spiritual “milk” because they’re not ready for “solid food.” Three weeks ago, using different material, but also from Matthew and I Corinthians, I suggested that the antidote to disunity is shared discipleship. (You can find that sermon on the diocesan website if you’re curious.) Today, I want to affirm what I said three weeks ago, and also point out that yet even other resources available to us to combat strife and disunity among Christians. Among these resources are what we already have—each other. We have the discipline of the church’s communal life, our life together.
Now, when I say “discipline,” I don’t mean principally things like rules and regulations—you know, canon law. I’m talking about something rather more natural, more organic. You know, of course, how each of our lives is constrained, channeled, by the particular circumstances of our life. Thirty years ago, I played first base on a church softball team. I could competently field ground balls and dig out hard throws from the shortstop from the dirt, and hit the ball out of the infield a decent percentage of the time. I haven’t played competitive softball since that time. There’s certainly no law or regulation saying that I can’t. And, while, in my fantasies, I still could, in reality, I realize that, at age 68, I can’t anymore. My life is naturally constrained, organically disciplined, by my age and health.
Our decision to live with one another in the Body of Christ, a decision flowing from God’s own decision to include us in that body, constrains and channels us in certain ways. A couple of decades ago, I was a huge fan of the TV series The West Wing, as I suspect some of you were too. Quite often, I found myself envious of the characters in that show, because they were able to do something I cannot do, and that is, to use a metaphor, “play hardball.” They were able to use skullduggery, chicanery, manipulation, and blatant exercise of power, to do what they needed to get done. As a Christian, and still more as a Christian leader, those tools are not available to me. I have often wished they were. But I have countless times vowed to live otherwise, to seek and serve Christ in all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. My life is constrained, channeled, by my Christian identity. I realize that I desperately need those with whom I feel myself to be in conflict. They are the very means through which God will work to save me, to convert my soul to him. My perceived enemies are also my saviors, because God uses them to bring my holiness to perfection, to call my wandering heart back to him. We all live by those same constraints, and when we honor those constraints, it becomes a lot more difficult to be at war with those whom we know we need so desperately.
And then, to put a fine point on it, there’s the Eucharist. In a very powerful novel called Hurry Sundown, that became a movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Caine, there’s a scene that takes place at the communion rail of an Episcopal church in the south during the Jim Crow era. There are actually two churches involved—one for whites and one for blacks—both served by the same (white) priest. A new priest is being ordained for this cure, and the liturgy takes place in the white church, but there are members of the black congregation present. A black woman makes her communion from the chalice, and then, when it’s presented to the older white man next to her … he spits in it. I found that moment utterly shocking when I first saw this movie fifty years ago, and, to tell you the truth, I still tremble a bit even telling you about it. The truth is, those who commune next to us at the rail are our sisters and brothers. And, as you know, we don’t get to choose our siblings, either our biological siblings or our spiritual siblings. I can have worthy opponents in the councils of the church, but once I have shared the Peace of Christ with them and joined them in receiving Christ’s Body and Blood, they cannot be my enemies. They are family, and it’s my duty to love them even if they drive me nuts. Our mutual participation in the Eucharist with those who otherwise afflict and trouble us forms us in holiness. It fosters the demeanor and character that we need in order to be able to live in God’s nearer presence without being turned to dust.
Accepting these gospel truths can sometimes be more than a little bit uncomfortable for us Americans who live in a culture that cut its teeth in radical individualism, personal autonomy. We don’t like constraints of any sort! But gospel truths they remain, whether or not we like them.
The church, my friends, is a community that breaks us. The late New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller, in commenting on today’s passage from Matthew, says: “The better righteousness that the kingdom of God requires covers not only overt behavior but also inner motive. God’s demand for obedience is absolute and total, claiming the whole person in the entirety of his or her relations.”
We are not free to give rein to our petty narcissism. I am not free to play hardball. The Eucharist itself compels reconciliation. And it is precisely in the Eucharist that we find the grace which alone can put us back together as the re-membered Body of Christ. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.