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Toward the end of Jesus’ life – as he is being judged and about to be condemned – he stands before Pontius Pilate. And Pilate practically begs him to save himself. Say anything – tell me something. Anything. And then finally Pilate asks Jesus a question.
Quid est veritas? What is truth?
A question that Jesus didn’t answer at that moment – at least not in words. But rather answered with his life – by his love – and by his death for us.
What is truth?
Like us – Pilate lived in a world where there wasn’t a whole lot of truth. Not because it didn’t exist. But because we – as people – we’re not always so good at seeing it – or sharing it. But we find it – as did the disciples – and the early church – in what Jesus teaches us. In what he says and does.
The Gospel, we learn again and again, is in the business of telling us the truth – so that we can tell it to the world. And today’s truth is about community.
We belong to each other. All of our texts today focus on this truth – on how we belong to each other. And the underlying assumption Jesus is making – is that we belong to God – and to each other.
Jesus grew up in a context where each person’s individual survival was wrapped up in the family and tribal identity of the larger group. Even for Jesus – everything he did reflected on his parents – on his people. He was killed, in part, because the chief priests and scribes were worried that the entire Jewish people would be punished because of his actions.
Earlier in the Gospel, he was mocked because of where he came from. And his family members were rebuked because they couldn’t control him. Jesus lived in a profoundly different context. One in which there was no sense of individualism. Of individual work. Or gifts. Or identity.
You were who you were because you belonged to a family – and to a people who all lived the same way – who followed God and God’s law.
These people were profoundly community oriented. And they understood that the effects of one person’s actions were visited on the larger whole. So everyone was responsible for the survival of everyone else. No one got to be out on their own. They were each accountable to the whole community.
Which is why it’s no wonder – that in Jesus’ words today – we get a deep sense of his expectation that we, too, will live in community – and that sometimes this is complicated.
Our Gospel text focuses on conflict. Probably, in part, because Jesus knows that whenever a few of us – pesky human beings that we are – try to do much of anything together – we’re going to disagree. And sometimes those disagreements don’t turn into “conflict” necessarily – but often, in church – they do.
In fact – there’s an often told joke around the church about how whenever two or three are gathered – there’s a fight. This text is not just about conflict though – its about reconciliation. And ultimately – its about accountability.
Jesus is telling us about how very accountable we are to one another.
We have to keep in mind that when Jesus uses the word “church” – he’s talking about something very different than what we think of.
“Church” for us – when you say that word – what do you think? About the hour or so we spend together on Sunday morning? About the building? Or about a particular program or ministry? Maybe you think about communion?
Whatever it is – unless you’re thinking of the whole structure of your life. Of the people with whom you share your life. Of the witness you bring to the world about who Jesus is and what he’s done for you – Then you’re thinking too small.
When Jesus says “church” – he’s talking about a community of people who live, eat, and breathe together. Who spend the bulk of their time together – worshipping God – and reaching out to the world. Who follow the law together. Jesus is imagining a very different life-order. One in which the actions of one – can have a huge effect on the whole. A life-order in which our actions outside these walls have concrete effects on our life inside these walls. But Jesus also understands that our actions inside these walls are important, too. It’s not just about how others see us outside – and whether or not they think our conversion is real. It’s also about the ways in which we live together inside these walls. So are we quick to anger? To be frustrated with one another? And when we are frustrated – what do we do? Do we still treat each other with respect? Do we talk about folks behind their backs? Do we encourage conflict?
Conflict is always present in the church. And conflict isn’t always a bad thing. It can sometimes lead to tough situations and rough feelings – but if conflict is handled well – it can also lead to growth. And honesty. And intimacy in relationship. Trust, even. And that’s some of what Jesus is getting at here.
Jesus is flat out telling us how to deal with conflict. That we can’t avoid it. But that we have to address it carefully – honestly – and with some sensitivity. Having done that, though – Jesus walks us through the steps of accountability. Reminding us that we are responsible to one another. And so these steps are designed to remind an individual – more and more dramatically – that they need to step back into the bounds of community. Back within the bounds of how love requires we treat one another.
Jesus doesn’t promise us that there will never be any conflict. But instead gives us the opportunity – when there is conflict – to honor each other and the whole community – by talking with each other – openly and respectfully. Jesus gives us the model this morning to seek reconciliation – and invite whichever person with whom we’re struggling – back into relationship. In fact – Jesus, here, is requiring that we seek reconciliation. Because that’s the crux of what it is to be in community.
We don’t always agree. We won’t always agree. And inevitably – we all get it wrong every once in a while. But the job of the community is to call us back to accountability – to relationship – to a place where we are aware of how intimately we are connected. And how profound an impact our words – and actions – have on each other.
This way of thinking is diametrically opposed to what our post-modern American individualistic society would have us believe. It is a reality in which we are deeply in need of one another. And most importantly – of one another’s love – and from time to time- forgiveness.
It is this love…this relationship we build together – in which we are accountable to one another…that makes us church. That makes us vessels for Christ. So that when two or three of us are gathered – we can know – and feel – and sense that Christ is gathered with us.
Paul talks about this law in his letter to the Romans this morning. The full essence of the law – that gives us our identity – that binds us up as one people – as God’s people – is that we love one another. This love is intimately bound up in how we treat one another. Not just when things are going well – but when we disagree.
When we find ourselves getting frustrated. When we aren’t sure where we’re going. Or when we’re upset. The choices we make – the words we use, even the body language we use – to either dismiss the person we’re talking to – or to love them – is important. A strained – or broken relationship – between two members has an effect on the whole body– On the way we come to the table together – and how effective a witness we are in the world.
It’s very easy with this text for us all to think of “those” people – the ones who we think stir the pot. Or fail to meet their responsibilities. Or engage in conflict more than necessary. And so it’s easy to dismiss this text and think ONLY about how this is a method we can use to bring others back to accountability. But if we do that – we again, aren’t thinking big enough.
We all – from time to time – will find ourselves the ones stepping out of bounds.
And we have to recognize that these actions – however large or small – end up having a huge impact on the larger community. We all need – from time to time – for someone we love – for someone in our family – for someone in our church – to choose to reconcile with us. To invite us back in. To remind us of our responsibility to each other.
We are all in need of grace.
And we are all in need of a community that loves us enough to call us back.
There is love in this process that Jesus gives us. It’s not some kind of warm and fuzzy – hippy kind of love where we’re all just okay. Love that is real requires more of us – and learning how to love like this is part of how we build a community in which all people feel welcome.
I think the Gospel is also telling us one more really important thing - We also have to be unwilling to leave someone behind.
Even when Jesus says – let this one be to you like a Gentile or a Tax Collector…Remember – Gentiles and tax collectors were unpopular – to be sure. And they very often found themselves outside the lines of community – because they were living outside the law. Because the tax collector was skimming money of the top for himself – or because the Gentile was eating food that wasn’t allowed – or because they weren’t living and worshipping God according to the law. Then – someone who was part of the community, because of their behavior – might have found themselves outside.
But with Jesus – there was always a way in.
With Jesus there IS ALWAYS a way in.
Jesus was the one who ate with tax collectors – and Gentiles – and sinners – and he told them the truth. About God – and about themselves.
So this is not a giving up hope – this is not a permanent banishment – this is a change in status. Until such time as someone wants to step back into the bounds of the community. To repent. And to come to the table. We don’t leave anyone behind. We don’t make that choice.
But we do ascribe and pursue a certain way of living together. And that way is directed by our law – what Paul calls the law of love – that which holds us together – and makes our life together possible.
And we do all this – we risk all this – because of the last line in the Gospel. We work at loving each other. We work at being community - at being "the church." We brave conflict – and address it – and hold each other accountable – All of this risky – hard – dangerous work – because when we do – Christ is with us.
Because the truth – and grace – and the life that we want – is all wrapped up in Christ’s presence. And our getting to be with Jesus. And our learning to be better disciples.
Because the goal of the Christian life – if we can put such a fine point on it – is to be with Jesus.
And the truth – the answer – the real thing – is right here – at the end of the Gospel.
When we gather in his name – when we do what he asks – he is present with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.