Being in the Church can make life difficult. Having to throw in your lot with such a mixed bag of characters presents us with unpleasant possibilities: difficult fellow pew-dwellers, boring ceremonies, unwelcome teachings, constant demands on our charity… It’s hard not to sympathise with those who choose the more peaceful and exalted path of ‘spirituality’ over against the mundane demands of ‘religion’. For those who want individual enlightenment and solo salvation rather than put up with the messy reality of Church life, ‘spirituality’ presents an easy path.
An easy path, maybe, but not the path of life. Jesus makes it abundantly clear in this Sunday’s gospel reading that following him always includes being actively caught up in the network of relationships we call ‘the Church’. ‘If your brother sins against you’, says Jesus, you must not simply abandon him and trod on towards your own personal nirvana, rather you must take your relationship seriously and correct him – alone at first, and then in the presence of one or two others, and finally in the presence of the local Church. And if the offending brother refuses to listen at each stage, then he is considered equal to ‘a Gentile or a tax collector’.
There are two implicit commandments of Church life in this scenario. The one is to correct one’s brother, and the other is to listen to one’s correctors. Ultimately both of these actions are aspects of the glue that binds the Church together: charity. If our Church-relationships are weak in love, we will easily avoid the hard tasks of advising our brothers and sisters, on the one hand, and listening carefully to their advice on the other.
Perhaps some reflection on the Golden Rule, cited by St Paul in the second reading, can help us face up to these duties of Church life: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. If you know yourself in the light of your sin and God’s grace, you know that you are weak – even if well-intentioned – and in need of constant help and encouragement on the homeward path to heaven. Loving your neighbour as yourself, then, means offering the help and encouragement your neighbour might need.
Church life, especially correction and obedience, can be difficult, but it is the arena in which our charity is tested and grows. We Christians are not solitary spirits, kitted out with blinkers. We are pilgrims on the same path, invited to come home together, with none of our brothers and sisters left behind. This is the reality of religion, this is the Church, this is charity, this is the pilgrim path of Jesus, who has gone ahead of us without leaving us behind, ‘for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.
Gospel Reflection for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 18:15-20)