“I wish you would stop quarrelling!” I can hear my mother’s exasperated tone as she tried to stop my two brothers, my sister and me from endlessly fighting and arguing with each other.
I sometimes think St. Paul must have felt the same thing about the young churches which he was trying to build up into Christian maturity. You only have to read his letters to get a sense of his exasperation: “Stop arguing!” he says to the Philippians, “…do everything without murmuring and arguing.” And to the Galatians, “You bite and devour each other – there are quarrels and dissension and factions.”
And in our lesson today, his First Letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “You are not spiritual people because there is still jealousy and quarrelling among you – you’re behaving according to human inclinations – and that’s not what God’s calling you to.” For Paul, Christians arguing and quarrelling was a very serious matter – not just because, like my mother, it annoyed and upset him, but for profoundly theological reasons.
A clue to that is found in our Gospel reading today. In Matthew 5:24 Jesus says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there, before the altar, and go: first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus was talking about what went on in the Temple. The Temple was essentially the place for sacrifice. The idea behind sacrifice was very simple. If a person did a wrong thing, that action disturbed the relationship between him and God, and the sacrifice, which was the gift brought to the altar – was meant to restore that relationship with God. However, no sacrifice, no gift could be effective unless the person was first reconciled to his neighbor.
The picture Jesus is painting is very vivid. To bring your gift to the altar was to go to the Temple with your gift, your sacrifice – perhaps a lamb. You presented it to the priest. You put your hand on the animal’s head and pressed down as you confessed your sin. As you pressed down on its head you were transferring your guilt onto the animal, which was then slaughtered by the priest. But if, while you were doing this, Jesus says, you remembered any breach with your brother, any unresolved conflict between you and another, you must stop the sacrifice, and go immediately and seek reconciliation. Otherwise the sacrifice is not effective.
Jesus is quite clear about this basic fact: we cannot be right with God until we are right with our fellow men and women. We cannot hope for forgiveness until we have confessed our sin to God and mended our broken relationships and sought reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.
That is why quarrelling and dissensions among the young churches caused Paul such distress, because theologically it so damaged their relationship with God. Our relationship with God and with our neighbor is intimately connected – which is why the two elements are so bound together by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
“Leave your gift,” Jesus says, “and go and be reconciled first to your brother and sister.” That is such a challenge. To take that step of reconciliation towards someone we hate, or who has done us great harm, is very costly. It takes courage. But without that, the gift of forgiveness which we are asking of God can often be what Bonhoeffer famously described as “cheap grace.” But if you have the courage to take that first step, to put out your hand in peace to the other, wonderful things can happen.
There is a true story which I love, and which to me is a wonderful example of courageous reconciliation. It is a story which took place in the fifteenth century in Dublin. Two clans were locked in bitter conflict: the Ormonds and the Kildares. There was a lot of violent killing, and there came a point where the leaders of the Ormond clan locked themselves inside the Chapter House of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to escape death. For many weeks the Kildare clan waiting outside, swords drawn, besieging them.
But one day something amazing happened. The Earl of Kildare came to himself, and said to himself, “This is foolish. We are two families: we believe in the same God, and here we are acting foolishly.” So he walked to the Cathedral, approached the great oak door of the Chapter House, and shouted, “Let’s call this off. Let us shake hands.” But there was no answer. What he did next has gone down in Irish history. With his sword, he began to gouge a hole through the wood of the door. When the hole was big enough, he thrust his hand and his arm through the hole. (On the other side there were desperate men with swords.) And his hand was grasped by the hand of the Earl of Ormond. They shook. The door was flung open and the feud was over.
An extraordinary act of courage, risk and sacrifice – a great act of reconciliation, and, of course, an image of the great act of reconciliation wrought for us by God. For in Jesus Christ, God thrust the divine hand of friendship, forgiveness and reconciliation through the great door separating us from God. We grasped the hands of Jesus, those hands of love, and hammered nails through them, and hanged him on a cross to die. Yet, out of that offering and costly sacrifice, God reconciled us to himself.
And it is to that ministry of reconciliation that each one of us is called. Go, Jesus says, go first and be reconciled to your brother or sister. Perhaps those words are meant for you in a particular way this morning. Perhaps there is someone in your life from whom you are estranged. Maybe someone who has hurt you – or whom you have hurt – or even someone about whom you’ve said, “I’ll never forgive you.” Perhaps there is some group of people, political, religious, ethnic, that I can’t stand. I want nothing to do with them. They are the other. Perhaps there is something within yourself, some part of you that you cannot accept, an unreconciled part of who you are – that you’re not on speaking terms with. And what if that unreconciled relationship with another or within yourself is actually harming your relationship with God – that even as we gather to offer our sacrifice of worship and praise, God is longing for us to leave our gift and first go and deal with that unreconciled relationship.
Pluck up your courage, take a risk, reach out your hand in friendship, and try to be reconciled. Something new and wonderful might happen – something quite new.
“For if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has passed away – see everything has become new. It’s all from God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ.
We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled!” (II Corinthians Ch. 5)
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