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The selection of the Gospel today comes from a section of Matthew that is referred to as the fourth of the great sermons, and it is about church order. And at the heart of what Matthew is presenting is that the church order is build not on cutting anyone out, but it is built on reconciliation, and the heart of reconciliation is the ministry of love.
But if you look at the two readings – the first reading by the prophet Ezekiel, and the second, the gospel we heard, the gospel of Matthew – we find that there is a certain starkness to it. The first reading, Ezekiel, is made responsible for the behavior of others. In the third reading, there is the sense that if the person doesn’t listen after efforts have been made to make that person aware of the need for reconciliation, they should be then cut off.
I think to be able to really reconcile these two readings, and how they apply to our lives as Christians, you need the bridge. And the bridge really is the second reading, from Paul to the Romans. It’s a very interesting reading, in that particular section of his letter to the Romans – it’s almost coming to the end of that letter. And in that particular section, Paul does something very interesting. He says you have all of these commandments, but all of them come down to one: love one another.
What is Paul saying? I think if you look at all of Paul’s readings, and all of Paul’s writings, you come up with one word that summarizes them all and that’s the word, “freedom”. Paul, we have to remember, was a very observant Jew. Matter of fact, he was in the leadership of the community – so much so he was a persecutor of that first group of believers. And why did he persecute them? Because they were not following the Law. They were not observant of the commands, particularly the commands of Moses. And so he felt that they were in a sense undercutting the religious faith of the people.
But Paul goes through, as we know, a great conversion. And that conversion is really about discovering God’s love in his life. It had to be a very amazing moment for Paul, one who had been so adamant in his hostile behavior towards others. Because again of observance of the Law. This great conversion that he finds himself – we all have that image of Paul getting knocked off his horse by the light, embraced and covered in the Light, and he is overwhelmed by the love of God.
And that changes him – it radically changes him. He goes from someone who is in a sense constrained by the rubrics of the law, to the freedom of a child of God. If you listen carefully to that selection from the second reading, from Romans, that is what Paul is talking about. It is because we are all constrained by the Law – we’re rigid about it.
(And again we are not talking about Civil Law, because that is a whole other issue that people have to be concerned about in other ways. That is why we have lawyers among us who help us find us through that mystery which is Civil Law.)
But he is talking about religious law. And he is saying we have to grow from a restrictive approach to understanding religious law, to the freedom of love that gives us the ability to go beyond the law. Because Paul saw law not as what binds us, what puts parameters around us, but law gives us freedom. And the freedom it gives us – is that we come through law to understand the way of God, the direction of God, the path of God. And then the Love of God frees us to live, not by the law, but to live by the path of God, to live by the will of God.
And so when Jesus talks about the order of the Church, he’s talking about that, he’s talking about the reconciliation that has to be the continual ministry of the Church. And it is a reconciliation of corrective behavior. But what are we correcting? We are correcting our sinful way of life, that we might be a community of law, that we might live by the law of God’s love. And that’s the direction, the order of the Church, continually at work, continually at work – not in the work of condemnation, but in the work of reconciliation. The work of, in a sense, bringing us from restrictive to the unconditional love of God.
Let us pray, then, in our liturgy, which is an ongoing act of God’s reconciliation. Let us pray as the Eucharist reconciles us in that continual journey, growing ever more fully in the light of Christ, that we take that gift and bring it out to a world, a community, families, that are desperately in need of reconciliation.