So, we can say that the painting is perfect as a work of art, but open-ended in narrative and meaning. She speaks to us, but her message takes on new news as time goes by. Her unity of form is undisputed, but how she became that way and what her finally resting place is, no one can say.
Could it be that that is what Jesus is talking about in our gospel today – that we are a unity of form that is never quite finished? A heavenly assembly of saints here on earth? Why is listening to one another, as Jesus mentions in passing, so important for forgiveness and conflict resolution? What is it that makes unity come alive in community?
Ekklesia, the Greek word we translate as church, means literally, the assembly, the assembly, in this case, of the faithful. And it is within this assembly of the faithful, according to Matthew, that listening, discerning, forgiving, reconciling, and modeling a life after Jesus, best begin to find their traction.
The method of forgiveness and reconciliation is more intimate than abstract. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault while the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. It’s not just the “alone” part that I’m thinking about, so much as, the “brother or sister” part. Whoever it is, the first step is to go to them personally. Triangulation, it would seem, was as much a problem in Jesus time as it is in our own! How often do we, through anger, or jealousy, or spite, go to another one of our friends to complain about the wrong we’ve been done? There’s a difference here, of course, between just talk amongst friends, and, a divisive kind of gossip that turns into harming the third party. In the gospel, Jesus is talking about how the unity of the realm of heaven can take root in our communities. About real forgiveness and reconciliation, and overcoming the sin of separation.
Okay, so maybe it turns out the, one-on-one thing in private, doesn’t work. You’re stuck in the same place after doing the right thing, initiating a conversation and trying to listen and hear each other out. Then what? “Take one or two others along with you,” Jesus says according to Matthew, “so every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” And if the “brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ekklesia.” Now, you will have the wisdom of your faith community, the assembly of the believers, with you. “And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
So, that’ll take care of it! Now, after going through the process, we can shun them, right? They don’t belong in the kingdom of heaven! Well, not so fast! Gentiles and tax collectors were actually included in the kingdom and realm of God, by Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus met the Syrophoenician, or Gentile woman, at first he reminded her that he was called only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and not to the foreign nations. But after his encounter, Jesus found that she had faith as great as anyone in Israel, and so healed her daughter without delay, as one deserving of God’s grace too. And, as for “tax-collectors,” that’s pretty much a no-brainer! St. Matthew, we know, whom the gospel is named after, was the disciple Jesus called when he was still a rejected tax-collector himself.
Even those who have sinned against us are not shunned from the assembly, the church, but are to be treated as “Jesus” treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. They are to be honored and given the chance to demonstrate their faith again; they are worthy of our love and concern, even in their tax-collecting, devious ways. So, through, the love of Jesus, which is best demonstrated by the assembly of believers in unity – they, like all of us in the church who are ‘recovering sinners,’ may learn to take responsibility for their actions, and live a new life in Christ. They are to be welcomed in the realm of God, and penultimately are welcome in the ekklesia, even when brokenness and sin remain so real.
Here is the amazing part about how Jesus describes handling “sin.” If, in going to “the brother or sister,” they listen to you,” says Jesus, “you have regained that one.” In each step of the process, Jesus is talking about a ‘discussion’ in which both parties, and eventually the whole ekklesia, speak and listen to one another; hear each other out, in a mutually safe environment. “If you are not listened to,” Jesus continues, then, you have to try again! First take one or two others. And if that discussion doesn’t produce reconciliation, then you have to involve the whole darn assembly in the process of listening to each other.
And so what Jesus is talking about, is a congregational discussion! A discussion in a community of trust, that reflects the realm of God – “on earth as it is in heaven”! The ekklesia is a unity-of-form that is alive, its narrative and meaning not quite finished, still changing, but continually informed by the living word of God, here in this penultimate assembly of the faithful. Like the Mona Lisa, the ekklesia is, a unity-of-form that is alive and speaks to us. Unity does not mean that we are clones of one another, thinking the same thoughts, agreeing on everything. But, we are Unity, a diverse, multi-colored, living and breathing whole that derives it’s oneness -from Christ.
And, on this Labor Day weekend, we celebrate and lift up all the diverse ministries and vocations among our ekklesia. We ask God’s blessing on all the gifts you offer in your lives: teachers who edify, janitors and cleaners who help us respect the environment we work in, nurses, physical and message therapists and doctors who heal, programmers who assist in our technological world, musicians and artists who bring beauty to light, students who learn and make our future brighter, lawyers and judges who bring justice and order to society, home-makers that care for families, bankers and investors who lend and provide mortgages, factory workers who help in production, and so many more.
In all our vocations and gifts we offer, we are called to learn the way forgiveness and reconciliation. Though not easily accomplished, they are a thing of beauty. Not a, Models of Project Runway beauty, but a Mona Lisa beauty, a unity-of-form-and-purpose beauty. Listening to one another in trustful discussions, we have unity, because ‘where two or three are gathered, or assembled in Christ’s name, Christ is present among us.’ Unity, which is our namesake, is a trust we have in Christ, and which is a living, breathing, on-going discussion of listening to one another -- that we continue faithfully.