Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Every time we have a baptism here at Trinity, we put a white robe on the newly baptized (or a prayer shawl, if that person isn’t a baby). It’s a visible sign of what Paul describes in today’s letter to the church in Rome: that all who are baptized into Christ have PUT ON Christ. We are clothed in the armor of light. Similarly, and not by accident, when we have a funeral here, we put another white cloth over the casket or urn. These two garments are like the open and closed parenthesis around our days, reminders that Christians are clothed in Christ from beginning to end.
But what does it mean to be clothed in Christ? What is the armor of light? Does the armor of light protect us from storms and fire and earthquakes? Does it save us from heartache and loss? For the victims of storms, for people of color who are attacked by white supremacists and political moves like repealing the Dream Act, for people who identify as LGBTQIA who are repeatedly called everything but children of God, what good does baptism do? It takes a lot more than a white shawl to address such calamities.
The good news is that we don’t put on our armor of light alone; it’s a group uniform. As Jesus says in today’s reading from Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered, I am right there with them.” The whole Christian family is clothed in Christ, and we know that together we can do much more than any one of us can do alone. Weeks like this one make me grateful to belong to the ELCA, since our national church is made up of millions of little Christs, clothed in light for the sake of the world. We pray together, learn together, and serve together. We consolidate our financial gifts and our advocacy voices for those who are in need.
Among other things, our offerings pay the overhead expenses for groups like Lutheran Disaster Relief, so that when a crisis strikes Texas or Louisiana or Florida or India or Bangladesh or Montana or Oregon or Mexico or anywhere else, every dollar donated for those catastrophes goes straight to the people in need. My $1 bill and your $1 bill and all the $1 bills from around the nation can do so much more good together than any one of us can do alone. Together we are much stronger than any one of us is alone.
And yet, I don’t want to negate the value of that white robe for each one of us. Claiming our own identities as children of God is what empowers us to approach others with compassion and confidence. The first step in loving others is remembering that we ourselves have been made in God’s image and clothed with Christ. We are worthy of respect.
But we have to keep the balance. Yes, each of us is precious and light-filled, but we are not the only ones who matter. Luther admonishes Christians to claim our dual identity as those clothed with Christ: we are simultaneously lord of all, subject to none, and we are lord of none, subject to all. That paradox sounds good, but it forces us to deal with the reality that sometimes we must be in relationship with and of service to people we don’t especially like. It is not only possible for two or three or twenty or two thousand to gather together in God’s name and participate in God’s work without liking each other all the time, it is inevitable. And conflict is a normal part of living and working together.
For that reason, Matthew lays out what Jesus says about how we can keep paying the debt of loving God and our neighbors when it’s really hard. Jesus begins with, “IF your sister or brother sins against you…” and follows up with: “IF your sister or brother refuses to listen….” Anyone who has a sister and/or brother knows that these two things are not IF’s—they are WHEN’s. And that’s true not just of our siblings (biological or our family of faith) but all our other relationships too.
So Matthew lays out procedures for navigating the minefield of rocky relationships. The first step, when you are having a hard time with someone, is to approach them directly with your concern. It sounds so basic, but it’s much harder to do than, say, talking to someone ELSE about how we have been offended. The fact that avoiding a tough conversation is easier than having one doesn’t make it an acceptable option. Sometimes we have to initiate conflict in order to fix it. I know, we’re Midwesterners—we like to be nice—but being a follower of Jesus means taking up our cross and following him. And sometimes that cross resembles having a tough face-to-face conversation with a person we’d rather not talk to.
Once we’ve taken that challenging first step, Matthew records Jesus telling us that IF that person doesn’t listen (as we all know is sometimes the case),there is a procedure to follow here in Matthew 18. It doesn’t allow for sitting and pouting, nor for complaining to someone else. The next step is bringing in someone else to help facilitate the conversation. If that fails, the problem has to be taken to the whole congregation. No relationship—in its beauty or its dysfunction—is composed only of the individual people in it. We gather together for Christian weddings and baptisms in a communal setting because every relationship has a ripple effect; tensions or joys in one part of the community affects the whole community.
In the ELCA, we have Matthew’s procedure for dealing with conflict in our model Constitution, but it’s not the only tool we have for living together. Jesus clothes us in light not only once, at our baptisms, but repeatedly. We’re given gifts at this table enabling us eat together, side by side, no matter what else is going on in our lives. Together we can hear the words that we are loved, forgiven, empowered, called and commissioned. Since we will never be able to navigate our relationships without struggle, God graces us with this truth we can hold in our hands and taste with our mouths: Jesus is with us even in the most challenging times.
Communion doesn’t just unite us with God, but also with the people who are beside us or in front of or in back of us. Where two or three gather, God is truly present. The real presence of Jesus is given for us, offered to us, whether we feel loving or not. The real presence of God is in our midst when we are charitable and open, and when we need to repent for being self-absorbed and careless. The real presence of God is not withheld from people who are sinners, but is extended to all in order to create healing where now there is only hurt. We may not be perfect, but we are accepted.
Wherever you are right now in your relationships, whatever the circumstances are in the world around us, wherever we find ourselves going this week—including to school, to work, to hospitals or gyms, to friends’ homes or to public meetings—we are clothed with Christ. And since we are wrapped up in that protective love, we can reach out to others. Together and individually, we can move from this safe space into a world where people are hurting, where creation is groaning, where there is so much that is broken. We can do God’s work with our hands because we know we are held safely in God’s arms now and always.
Thanks be to God.