21 September, 2017

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - The church as our context

Matthew 18:15-20 
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
Giotto - Pentecost
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.

Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making. 

But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.

Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.

Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.

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