Sermon by The Rev. Kathy McAdams
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
St John’s Episcopal Church, Franklin, MA
First be reconciled. Before bringing your gift to the altar; before Communing with God and each other, first settle your differences. First be reconciled; at peace. How we treat each other is important to God; how we conduct ourselves with each other.
The Ten Commandments given to Moses were intended to contain an unruly crowd, wandering for forty years in the desert. It was important that they had some guidelines about how to get along; how to order their society. Don’t kill each other; don’t lie or steal or cheat; don’t covet the things that your neighbor has - get your own; respect your elders. Things like that are pretty basic to an orderly society.
But what happens when we break these commandments? Because, we are human, and therefore fallible. We will mess up from time to time. And God doesn’t prevent us from failing. God gives us choice - free will - and we wouldn’t want it any other way. We can choose to follow God and his commandments, or we can choose to break them. Or, more likely, it’s not so much a conscious choice, but we are led astray, often by our illnesses and addictions. We are tempted by societal standards that say we have to have the brightest, the best and the newest of everything. We start to measure ourselves by those standards, rather than by God’s. God only wants us to be honest, faithful, just and loving human beings. It doesn’t matter to God what we drive or where we live, or the clothes we wear; just that we love God and each other. That’s how Jesus summed up all the Jewish laws and commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor.
So what happens if we break those commandments? In early Christian society, such a person was placed outside the community, basically ex-communicated, as if they weren’t a Christian at all. Such exile must feel like Hell, to be separated from everyone you know and love, not to worship with them or celebrate holidays, or to share Communion in Christ. But this was only temporarily. There was a process for them to rejoin the Christian community, which often took place during Lent. It involved repentance and restitution, and it involved forgiveness by the community. Then, on Easter, the penitent rejoined the community, the Communion, along with the newly Baptized.
Even our Gospel today speaks to how we deal with conflicts that arise between members. And in the same spirit, we seek to make amends before coming together for worship, before approaching the altar. In fact, we share the Peace of Christ in the service, as a sign that we are so reconciled with each other. And then, receiving Communion together is the sealing of that deal, the forgiveness of the sin. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, and take Christ’s body and blood into our own bodies, we become one with Christ and with each other.
Love God and love your neighbor. The burden of reconciliation is not just on the penitent, not just on the one who breaks a commandment, but on all of us. Our challenge as Christians is to see each other the way God sees us; not tarnished as we may have become, but shiney as the day God created us. It is to look beyond the hurtful actions to see the real person, to find Christ buried in there.
So why am I dwelling on this idea of reconciliation in Christian community? Because we are a group of people. And even in a group of Christian people, we make mistakes, and do things we wish we wouldn’t have done. We feel ashamed, and we suffer because of it, and so do our families. But we are still children of God, still loved by God, and should still be loved and accepted and supported by this community of Christians, as should our families. We let the legal system do its work, and we stand by each other while it does. It is not our job to judge what another has done or not done; only God has all the facts on that. Just as we would visit someone in prison, who has already been convicted of a crime, so too we sit with someone who is on trial, and not yet convicted or acquitted. This type of presence doesn’t say, “What you did is alright with me, or I believe you’re innocent.” It only says, “You are loved by God, and I am a witness to that.” That is the message that every one of us needs to hear, and that I challenge each one of us to say to each other: “You are loved by God, and you are welcome here.” Let us share that message today when we share the Peace of Christ with each other.