When two or three are gathered … it will be difficult.

Proper 18, Year A: Matthew 18:15-20. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Lake Jackson.

It has been noted that when two or three are gathered … it will be difficult.

We laugh at this twist on today’s scripture because it’s true! Even people who love each other and get along most of the time will occasionally do something or say something that will emotionally injure or offend another. It’s part of the human condition.

For this reason, I sent my youngest child to college with an Apology notepad. It’s a humorous and playful design with boxes to be checked to acknowledge the action or inaction, along with apology and commitment not to offend again.

If only it were this easy! But often it’s not, for an endless variety of reasons. From everything from early childhood trauma to chronic sleep deprivation to racism, life is full conditions and opportunities for us, as the gospel notes, to “sin against” one another.

The good news is that Jesus pledges to be with us when we gather in his name. To bestow grace and accompany us. To empower and equip us in our Christian vocation of loving one another and the world. Indeed, this is good news! Because it can be difficult work, and that work begins with and within ourselves.

Here’s where this binding and loosing language in Matthew (18:18) comes into focus for us. We’re familiar with Peter having the authority to bind and loose sins — this is what we mean by the phrase “the keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). In paintings, statues, and stained glass, Peter is quickly recognized because he holds the keys.

Perugino, approximately 1450-1523. Christ gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55925[retrieved September 20, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Entrega_de_las_llaves_a_San_Pedro_(Perugino).jpg.

So, note here in Matthew (18:18) — the keys are given to us. The responsibility and authority to loosen and to bind rests partly with us. We are part of this process. Because we have free will and are not puppets on a string, this responsibility and authority to bind and loose comes with the call to self-examination.

It’s easy to rattle off the list of persons who have wronged or offended us. It’s much more difficult — and a sign of a mature person and a mature Christian — to acknowledge one’s own fault or blindness in the relationship. To take responsibility for one’s own role in a dynamic. To take responsibility for one’s own action or inaction. And we are able to do so through God’s grace.

As one commentary notes, “We are more skilled in justification than we are in self-examination. […] What is helpful is to have a history of repentance.”[1]

To repent is to turn toward God, turning away from sin. When we pray the Confession, confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, this is a necessary part of the process. Repentance is foundational to the reconciling work that is core to our faith.

But something must undergird all of this: God’s unconditional love for each and every human being.

When we are reassured of God’s unconditional love for us, then we can rest in safety. We can walk this life knowing that we are safe in God’s love, no matter what is happening. The security of this love creates a safe space for self-examination and repentance.

And, as the Rejoice Plan that was recently featured in St. Timothy’s Worship this Week email states, we are able to say:

As a child of God

I appreciate myself as God’s creation,

I do not put myself down in any way,

I love people.

I forgive those who have hurt me.

Forgive me, Lord, for the pain I have caused in others.

I am in harmony with all living things.

Through the grace of God, the binding of oneself to God’s love and the loosing of sins — our own and that of others — leads to healing, reconciliation, and connection. It frees up energy for goodness, ministry, and mission! For we are no longer trapped in hurt and negativity, drawn into gossip, name-calling, and slander.

Instead, we are free: to love and to live as God desires for us on earth as in heaven.

Yes, where two or three are gathered, it will be difficult.

But it will also be okay!

Because God is present, loving us into abundant life and equipping us for this ministry together.

Perhaps you’ve noticed: The Church is one of the last remaining places in our society where people of differing opinions and politics still come together — to truly walk the road of life. Where generations laugh together and cry together. Where we listen and discern how we are to love God and neighbors right here, right now, and into the future.

The world needs us to practice, model, and share our faith. For our faith teaches us the way of peace. It teaches us a way forward, through reconciliation. We need that. Let us practice this together. Grounded and safe in God’s unconditional love, honest and vulnerable in our self-examination and confession: we can be part of not only our own healing, but also the healing of our community and our society. 

You are safe. You are loved. The community needs you. I need you. We need one another.

Today is the day. With God’s grace, we have the keys.

Piper, John, 1903-1992. Symbols of Peter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57544 [retrieved September 20, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Peter,_Babraham,_Cambridgeshire_-_East_window_-_geograph.org.uk_-_333992.jpg – John Salmon.

[1] Shae, John. The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Matthew, Year A — On Earth as in Heaven, p. 269-70.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4558

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