For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that the Church is not just another ordinary human institution; it is at least that, but it is also infinitely more than that. The Church is the Body of Christ and it is comprised of those who have been united to Christ and who have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Church participates in the divine life of God: everything we do as the Church -- every prayer we pray, every good work we perform -- is at the same time an act of Jesus working through us as the members of his Body. Our conduct as Christians therefore takes on a profound significance: because we have been bound together by the love of Christ, our interactions with each other cannot proceed as if we were dealing merely with random individuals. The unity of God’s love is now the standard for how we relate to each other; we are directly accountable to it. When Jesus tells the disciples in John’s Gospel that “I do not call you servants any longer...but I have called you friends,” it means that we are now each other’s friends as well. To be brought into friendship with God is to be brought into friendship with the rest of those who are his friends also. “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” Jesus says, and “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” In other words, the friends of Jesus are those who love his friends: our relationship with Christ is intimately bound up in our relationship with each other; to be in this dual relationship with both God and each other is to be in the Church.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Wherever there are those in Christ who love one another, Christ will always be there since the love they share is nothing other than his love -- for the love of Christ is what gathered them together in the first place. And it’s a point that Paul echoes in the epistle today as well. As he tells the Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” for “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The one who fulfills the law of God is on good terms with God, but because the law of God is fulfilled by love, to be on good terms with God is to be on good terms with one’s neighbor as well.
Now, this is all fine and good, but what are we to do with the fact that we are not always on good terms with each other as Christians? Divisions and disputes can arise at any time within a single congregation, but even if everyone at Grace Church happens to be cool with everyone else at the moment -- and I’m certainly happy that by all appearances that seems to be the case -- what are we to make of all the disputes that we might have with other Christians outside our parish? With Christians in other denominations, perhaps, or even elsewhere within our own? And especially in our society right now, it’s nearly impossible to receive a gospel lesson like this one and not feel rather challenged by the extent of our divisions. We are in desperate need of some model of Christian unity, along with some method for working through our disputes -- whether those like Christ mentions which result from the “sins” that other Christians have commit against us, or those which are simply about disagreements over politics or social issues.
So let’s see what we can discover.
First, it’s clear that Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel directly concern a one-on-one relationship between two people that’s gone off the road a bit. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus is speaking only of a personal offense and then proceeds to instruct his listeners on how to go about resolving the issue should the first confrontation fail. And as we would expect from our Lord, it’s pretty impeccable advice for dealing with those inevitable dust-ups that happen in the Church or in any relationship, for that matter. But anytime we’re dealing with Scripture, particularly if it’s one of Christ’s teachings, we need to look beyond what’s on the surface and perceive the deeper truths that are always there to be found.
Recall again that to be a member of the Church is be in a simultaneous relationship with both God and neighbor. A “friend” of Jesus is a friend of Jesus’ friends. Which is why a sin that is committed by one Christian against another is necessarily a sin against the whole Church. When Jesus instructs the offended party to bring in a witness or two, he is pointing our attention to this basic truth of the Church’s life. The presence of the witnesses is a sign that they are fundamentally involved in the situation as fellow Christians; it is their business. If the Church is comprised of those who have friendship with God in Christ -- and the friends of God are those who obey Christ’s command to love one another -- then a sin that is committed against another is a failure of that love. It ruptures not only the human relationship between the offender and the offended, but precisely because their relationship was not merely human but was established by the love of God, it ruptures the offender’s relationship with God as well. So the offended party and his or her witnesses effectively represent the unity of the Church from which the offender has fallen; by being “two or three” in number, they bring the presence of Christ with them, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Their demand that the offender listen to their complaint is thus an invitation to be restored back into that unity.
Ok, so what about all the divisions among Christians in American society at the moment? We’ve all heard tons of commentary about the increasing “polarization” of our society, which American Christians are hardly exempt from. Indeed, most if not all of the intense conflicts that currently plague our social discourse are reflected within and among our churches as well.
First, our many divisions should be cause for humility on our part. Just because we might find certain congregation or denomination full of like-minded people we agree with doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re the “two or three” who are gathered in Christ’s name. We should restrain whatever certitude we might have that our preferred group speaks for God. But let’s go back to where we started this morning. Jesus said that “you are my friends if you do what I command you,” for “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” To which Paul added that we ought to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” for “love is the fulfilling of the law.” This law of love is to be the standard of our discernment both in our personal relationships with fellow Christians and in the polarization of our day.
And with regard to the polarization, specifically -- especially since we’re headed into an election season -- we have to bear in mind that just because so many of us profess to be Christians while engaged in intense conflict doesn’t mean that our divisions are insignificant and that everything would be fine if we all just “agreed to disagree.” There are profound issues at stake in many of our divisions that deserve to be taken seriously, because it is precisely our obedience to the law of love and our fellowship in the love of Jesus that could be in question. Some actions and ideas really are incompatible with the love of God and neighbor; when performed or expressed by Christians, they really do constitute a rupture in the Church. Which means that “division” between those who actively condone those kinds of actions and those who strive to obey the law of love is not necessarily a bad thing. Such a division could rightly divide those among whom Christ is found and those who have forsaken that presence. The peace of Christ can sometimes come with the sword, and, as our Lord himself says today, it is entirely possible that certain members of the Church are so resistant to the correction of the Church that they effectively remove themselves from the Church altogether.
So with all this mind, I’ll close with a general rule of thumb: first, remember that “conflict” is not in and of itself a problem; truth and goodness should be “polarized” against falsehood and evil. The question, as always, is how to determine which side you are on. And whether it’s in a personal context like a local church or in a social context like the deep divisions of our political life, Christians begin by returning again and again to the law of love. Second, because love will never do any wrong to a neighbor, we can identify the failures of love not only as those actions or proposals which do wrong to others -- particularly the poor and the oppressed -- but also as those actions or proposals which explicitly justify their wrongs by exempting themselves from the law of love and justice. But Christians know that there is no such exemption because the law of love is universally binding on all things -- it binds heaven and earth together in the name of Christ. Amen.