In The End, Love Wins (Romans 13.8-End, Matthew 18. 15-20)
People eh? Aren’t people annoying and a mystery? People are inconsiderate, they’re rude, obnoxious and sometimes their behaviour, well, other people eh? That’s not just a list of my attributes. They do things like sit on their phones at the cinema and rustle their popcorn, they park badly or cut us up on roundabouts, they’re impatient disrespectful and cruel, some of them don’t even attend Evensong! Some of them think we shouldn’t even be doing Evensong!
They are sinners. I don’t mean the people that don’t like Evensong, though some of us might think that! No I mean the people who act in ways that are less than how we should act.
But what if I told you, that those people are loved by God? What if I told you that we sometimes sin too! Even me! Yes, even me! All joking aside the two passages we heard this evening are all about love, God’s love and what it means for us to live as Christians within that love. The law of Christians is love, and I’m going to try to unpick what some of that means.
There are just those people aren’t there that really tick you off, they know which buttons to press and they do so, either intentionally or unintentionally, sometimes people do things that are so unacceptable in a community that action has to be taken against them. I don’t mean things like using the coffee spoon in the sugar at coffee time after church, or little things, little grievances that we’ve all committed from time to time, but bigger stuff, stuff that infringes on the flourishing of others in the community, stuff that puts barriers in the way of someone’s relationship with God. Stuff that profoundly hurts another person. Paul lists some of what these things might be, quarrelling and jealousy, covetousness, things that cause our souls to rot.
On the face of it the passage from Matthew seems quite harsh in some ways, particularly on those who sin, but the point of this passage is not the sin that was committed, that’s expected, we all do things that hurt another person from time to time, nobody is blameless. This passage is about repentance and not sin. ‘Those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.’ When we sin against another person or cause them harm, then this is a violation of the love that God has shown us.
Forgiveness and repentance is particularly important for the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, we have a responsibility to forgive others, and the nature of the forgiveness we show will be the nature of the forgiveness we receive from God, but there is also a responsibility for the perpetrator to be willing to reconcile, to be repentant of the harm that they have committed. So Jesus is saying here, that if someone sins against us we need to make an effort to reconcile with that person. If they sin against the church we don’t just chuck them out, we should make every effort to try and reconcile with them, first individually, then with two or three others, and then as a whole church. If that person is still unrepentant, then they should be treated as if they are outside the community.
Reading this passage though, I think that the lectionary for this week stops in the wrong place, as the verses that follow are extremely important.
Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus replies “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Jesus denounces here rigidity and absolutism. Forgiveness like love must be limitless, because the law of Christians is love. Loving your neighbour as yourself means not only forgiving people, but lovingly confronting behaviour that harms others, or when they harm you. It means having the humility to accept when we’ve hurt others and bring sorry for it.
It is our primary obligation to love others, as a reflection not only of God’s love for us, but also God’s love for the other person. God even loves the people we don’t like, the people we disagree fundamentally with.
Love your neighbour as yourself, one of the most famous phrases in the Bible is found in Mark 12, and Matthew 22. Did you also know that this phrase is also found in Leviticus 19:15-18. Jesus is merely quoting what it already said in the law. This shouldn’t be a new thing to reconcile and to love other people, but Jesus affirms the primacy of this commandment. We live in the law of love that Jesus commanded us to keep.
Paul also affirms this argument in his letter to the Romans, as we heard he says “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
To be children of God means that we should have the character of God, and the pre-eminent nature of God’s character is to be loving. This love flows out of the heart of God to us, regardless of how worthy or unworthy we might be. As Paul says in Chapter 5 of this letter ‘God proves his love for us that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ So no fault in anyone else and no self-sufficiency excuses us from the love of God. If we share that characteristic love which is found in God and cultivate it in ourselves, then the law is fulfilled.
In our broad church, we must seek to love other people who are different from us, but also we must stand against discriminatory and un-loving behaviour. It’s a difficult tight-rope to walk, but love does no wrong to a neighbour, and practices that do psychological or emotional wrong to others should be challenged, but in and through and with love.
“Owe no-one anything, except to love one another.” This is our quest, to love those who we come across even when they do us wrong. To be willing to reconcile with that person, as the nature of the Cross shows us. The ultimate reconciliation between God and humanity, the ultimate indication of God’s character. God’s love was so great that he died on the cross and screamed words of reconciliation as the nails were hammered in.
In the end, Love wins.