Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Dr. David Marshall

A community of grace and truth

(Romans 13:8-14 & Matthew 18:15-20)

Today’s readings from Romans and Matthew both prompt us to reflect on the life of the Church, how we live together within the Body of Christ. In these readings we find two rather different visions of the Church: on the one hand, the Church as a community of grace, of love, acceptance and welcome; on the other hand, the Church as a community of truth-telling, inconvenient truth-telling, and moral challenge. Grace and truth. Acceptance and challenge. How do these come together in the Body of Christ?

Writing to the Christians at Rome, Paul stresses that love is the very heart of the Christian life. God has revealed many commandments to put our life with each other on a just and peaceful basis: no murder; no stealing; no adultery, etc… But, just as Jesus had done, Paul teaches that underlying all these negatives is the positive command: love your neighbor as yourself. What could be simpler or more attractive than this vision of a community of people who love one another? The Church seems a comforting place to be.

But the Church is also a challenging place to be. This is because for Christians the simple command to love one another has always been set within a wider picture of what it means to be truly human, what it means to flourish as human beings. We are called to love one another within a community that has a vision of the kind of people God is calling us to become. And this also matters intensely to Paul, which is why he changes tone quite sharply, from gently telling us “love one another”, to ringing in our ears like an alarm-clock the morning of a hangover, as he urges us to wake up and put away a whole range of behaviors which have to go into the garbage can like useless old clothes because they simply don’t fit with the new life in Christ into which we have been baptized.

Love one another, says Paul. And then he says: you’ve all got to wake up, live in the light, be transformed. Love and challenge. Grace and inconvenient truth.

The reading from Matthew is very different but a common thread is that in its first verses we drop straight into a world of moral challenge. It’s a discussion of how, in the Church, we should set people right when they sin, when they stray from the path of obedience to Christ. We are told to start with a private, one-to-one challenge; after which we should involve more members of the Church in addressing the person who’s going wrong; if this person still refuses to listen, he or she should be rebuked before the whole community.

I guess we might find these suggestions for relating to fellow-Christians alarmingly intrusive. These verses may be hard for us to hear in the modern world, particularly, I suspect, for contemporary North Americans and Europeans, because of how our societies have come to emphasize personal autonomy, privacy, and the individual conscience. Probably Christians in many other parts of the world today would find much less, if anything, to struggle with in these verses. That cultural difference is an interesting issue which there isn’t time to explore this morning. But whatever we think about the specific guidance here about how wrong behavior should be addressed in the Church, the underlying assumption is that the Church is a place of profound moral challenge and that we are all responsible not just for our individual lives but for each other, because we are members of one another. And that assumption pervades the NT. We cannot really be part of the Church unless we are prepared to be changed; the Church engages repeatedly in the collective practice of repentance, acknowledging that our lives are not as they should be and that we need to be changed. What exactly does and does not need transformation in our lives, and how we can appropriately encourage one another along the path of transformation into the likeness of Christ, are questions on which Christians may disagree. But for the NT it is a given that the Church is a place of moral challenge and that we should expect to receive that challenge through each other. Maybe we can think of times when someone has challenged us, in love, about behavior that was hurting someone else, or damaging ourselves. We may not immediately have appreciated this; we may have been very angry. But later, perhaps, we were grateful. There is a time and place for hard, challenging words, in the life of the Church.

The heart of the matter is that the Church is called to be a community of grace and truth, because it is the Body of Christ, who is himself “full of grace and truth”. Christ is in himself the revelation in a human life of the grace of God that welcomes and forgives, that says “Come to me all you who labor”, and “Whoever comes to me I will never turn away”. Christ is also the revelation of the truth of God that summons us to change, to conversion. But Jesus Christ is not a two-faced, schizophrenic deity, tenderly welcoming one moment, hard and uncompromising the next. He embodies the God who loves us totally and whose will is our total transformation. But although this is one undivided divine reality, we do need to reflect on its two aspects, asking ourselves whether we so emphasize God’s gracious acceptance of us that we play down God’s call to transformation, or conversely whether we are so preoccupied at our failure to become what we are called to be that we do not live out of the underlying message of grace that is the only basis for lasting change.

So, as the Body of Christ, we are called to be a community of gracious truth and of truthful grace, where all are welcome and loved, and all are called to transformation, a life of ongoing conversion. And of course, we never get it right! And we often get it very wrong. Paul’s letters show how he struggled with this central dynamic of the life of the Body of Christ, urging the churches he served to embody truth and love. “Speaking the truth in love”, he wrote, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Again: “We are to speak the truth to one another, for we are members of one another …” while we are also to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave us.”

Every church, every local expression of the Body of Christ, needs to reflect from time to time on how it is growing up into this grace-and-truth reality. For various reasons, including a complicated trans-Atlantic family life, I’ve only worshipped here at St Joseph’s occasionally. But I have gained some impression of a rich life of prayer and quality of fellowship here, and a serious commitment to welcoming and serving the poor. Christ is clearly present in and working through his people here. But God always has more for us to grow into, and it is for you who worship here regularly to be praying and reflecting together about how this community, which is already the Body of Christ, can become the Body of Christ more fully. How do those of you who worship here regularly experience the grace and truth of God in Christ, grounding your lives in unconditional acceptance, while also unsettling and energizing your lives with the call to wake up and be changed? How do newcomers to this church experience the grace and truth of God in Christ? And local people who never pass through the red door into this sacred space, how might they become aware of the grace and truth of God in Christ, through the worship and witness of St Joseph’s church?

Those questions feel slightly presumptuous on the lips of someone not deeply involved in this community. But they are meant in a spirit of affirmation and encouragement, not of criticism. These are questions for all churches to ask of themselves, and indeed for each of us to ask ourselves. They are also questions which we must handle carefully, because they can, if asked in the wrong spirit, plunge us into despair. How ridiculous that I (knowing myself as I do) should be called to reflect the grace and truth of Christ. How ridiculous that communities of sinners like me should together bear that same calling. Strange but true. The calling stands. And whenever we fail, we have to get up and get on with it and help each other live it out. And we are encouraged to do so by the closing words of today’s Gospel, which remind us that where two or three of us very imperfect disciples gather in his name, Christ will be present, in all his grace and truth.

So we pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name: do not forsake us, O Lord our God.”