The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), September 10, 2023

August 1, 2023 | by Paul Nancarrow

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Exodus 12:1-14 Psalm 149 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20

In the Gospel reading for this day, Matthew shows Jesus giving instructions for how to settle disputes and reconcile relationships among members of the church. And while it is arguable that such reference to the “church” is anachronistic for the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the matter of reconciliation and renewal is central to the whole of the Gospel message, and therefore central to the life of the community gathered around those who follow the Gospel message.

And what is important to this Gospel passage is the realization that reconciliation does not just happen in the lives of the faithful. Reconciliation must be attended to. Reconciliation of relationships, redemption and healing of hurts, restoration of shared life, is of course a gift from God. It is only by God’s grace, God’s active presence in the concrescence of our moments of experience, that we can be freed from the limitations of past errors and hurts and hurtful actions. But that grace must be acknowledged, it must be appropriated, it must be woven into our own self-constitution of actions and experiences in our feelings toward others and our conduct with them. For this reason reconciliation must also be a practice, it is a discipline with its steps and stages and dispositions that allow God’s grace to come into effect among us.

The steps and stages Jesus describes involve widening circles of accountability and support for mending relationship. The first step involves private conversation between persons whose relationship has been damaged by hurtful action and sin. The one who has been wronged is encouraged to “point out the fault,” to be honest in naming how the other’s action has hurt them and damaged their relationship – but to do so in a way that is not intended to get revenge or to hurt back, but instead to clear the way for restoring relationship. If that is enough, if the other acknowledges the wrong, and responds in honesty about where they are hurt as well, and acts to redeem the relationship, then “you have regained that one,” and reconciliation begins.

The second step, if the first one does not lead to reconciling action, is to “take one or two others along with you,” to widen the conversation with the counsel of impartial observers. The language Matthew uses here seems juridical: “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of … witnesses.” But I tend to think of this less as “evidence” of “witnesses” and more as interpretation by good listeners. In my pastoral work, as well as in my own therapy and spiritual direction, I have often been profoundly aware of how a careful word from a listener can clarify issues and feelings and dynamics swirling around a situation of hurt or disruption of relationship, and can thereby open a way toward restoration and reconciliation.

In the third step, if assisted conversation cannot bring reconciliation, Matthew shows Jesus instructing the disputants to “tell it to the church.” This also has a juridical ring to it; and indeed there are cases where ecclesiastical court proceedings are called for, as in cases of clergy misconduct, financial malfeasance, or sexual misconduct. Many Christian denominations have forms of canon law or disciplinary rubrics to address such cases.

But “taking it to the church” does not always involve such court-like structures. At the very least, this step in the process points to the church community as providing the kind of support system in which reconciliation of relationships is a value held in common, a goal that all agree is worth working toward. Whether “taking it to the church” is interpreted as speaking to a pastor or pastoral counselor, or as asking a prayer circle or discernment group to assist people in resolving their dispute, or engaging in a ritual practice of confession and restoration and “amendment of life” together, at root this step involves setting personal hurt and relational rupture into a wider context of accountability and support within a community that is already and overarchingly dedicated to redemptive relationship as its very life. It is a reminder that personal offense is not only personal, but is always taken up into the larger reality of God’s work to bring all entities together in the Adventure of the Universe as One.

If even the accountability and support of the church community is not enough to redeem the offense, the fourth step is to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This may sound at first like a final rupture and cessation of all attempts at relationship. But it is worth remembering that Jesus spent a good deal of his own time with tax collectors, and that his Great Commission to his followers was to make disciples of Gentiles. In other words, the fourth step is not simply to cut off relationship, but to go back to square one and offer to begin a new relationship. Sometimes the offense may be too deep, the hurt too complete, for any new relationship to grow; not all the tax collectors listened to Jesus, and not all the Gentiles became disciples; but the openness to and offer of the possibility of new relationship remains the basic stance of the one who would follow Jesus’ Way of Love.

Each of these steps in the practice of reconciliation involves setting the hurtful offense in a wider context, opening the situation to new influences that can recontextualize the injury, the sin, and open the way to a relationship that is big enough to hold the pain without being destroyed by it. Whitehead’s philosophy describes a process of “transmutation” by which “contradictions” are turned into “contrasts.” In this transmutation, two experiences, two perspectives, two interpretations, each constituted out of their own prehensions, their own distinct feelings, are set over against each other as contradictory and irreconcilable – until a third set of prehensions, a wider range of feelings, is introduced. This wider range of feelings recontextualizes the contradictory perspectives, revealing them to be parts of a larger system, in which they are contrasting element of a larger whole.

In the Genesis Creation story, for instance, “darkness” and “light” are given as contradictories, mere opposites, until they are introduced to a third set of prehensions, the larger system of the diurnal cycle, in which they are revealed to be contrasting “night” and “day” in ongoing relationship.

So the stages of the practice of reconciliation seek to provide larger and larger contexts, wider sets of prehensions, in which the rupture of relationship can be recontextualized. This is not to say that the sin, the hurt, is dismissed or ignored or glossed over. But it is not allowed to be the only or dominant element in the relationship. The wider contexts are intended to provide a sense of the relationship that can acknowledge the pain and sin, but at the same time acknowledge the good elements of shared experience, and the desire to remain in relationship, and thereby to begin to heal the hurt in new relational action.

As God is the Poet of the world who uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage to make new possibilities for good, so the grace of God acted out in the discipline of reconciliation uses what is mere hurt to make possibilities for deeper love.

Opening possibilities for deeper love is the real goal of the work of reconciliation. It is not simply about restoring relationships – especially relationships that have lurking in them the structures of hurt and offense – but about recreating relationships, about going beyond the status quo of mutual interaction, including and transcending existing relationship, to co-create with God and each other new ways of flourishing and healing.

Co-creating new ways of flourishing is a gift of God’s grace, and at the same time it is a responsibility, even a duty, of the faithful community. In the Ezekiel passage, the prophet is warned that if God sends a message of repentance, and if the prophet fails to proclaim it, then the prophet will be responsible for the death of the unrepentant. The prophet is assured that God’s will is for life and flourishing – “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” God says to Ezekiel – but that the prophet also has a positive duty to make God’s will known and lead the people in enacting it.

Likewise in the Romans passage, Paul calls the Christian community to action by assuring them, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” The “night is far gone,” Paul says, and in this moment the faithful have a responsibility to practice new relationships for the flourishing of themselves and their neighbors. Paul subsumes the requirements of the law – commandments against adultery, murder, theft, and all other commandments – under the single call to love, inasmuch as “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Co-creating new ways of acting together is both the gift and the duty of believers, as they “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” by prehending the wider range of his love into their experiences.

Even the instructions for how to prepare and eat the Passover meal are aimed ultimately at co-creating new relationships for flourishing in God’s love. The meal is food for the journey, eaten in haste because the departure from oppression is so urgent – and the promised end of the journey, the “land of milk and honey” for which this present meal is only a preparation, will be a place where God’s people can live new lives in relationships of justice and peace. The “day of remembrance” and the “celebrated festival” are not only for God’s victory over Pharaoh and judgments executed “on all the gods of Egypt,” but look beyond these destructive occasions to the creation of a new community grounded not on principles of imperial domination but on divine guidance in right-relationship and mutual flourishing. In this sense the Exodus is not merely leaving one land for another, but is entering into a new condition of life, in a new context of divine prehensions, that will empower relationships of deeper love.

We also, as people striving to live a life of faith in this present world, have a responsibility and duty to practice reconciliation and new relationship in our situations and circumstances. This is important for both our relationships within the church community, as suggested by Matthew, and our relationships in our other social contexts, as suggested by Exodus and Ezekiel and Romans. Our social moment is characterized by deep fragmentation and polarization, by hateful rhetoric and performative spectacle, by inflated culture wars and a kind of ideological puritanism that regards any cooperation or rapprochement with “the other side” as a betrayal of all that is right and good and true. In areas as disparate as environmental policy, trans rights, reproductive health, freedom of speech, educational access – to name only a few – real possibilities for constructive change and creative opportunity are stymied by insistence on a single interpretation or an uncompromising agenda. In too many instances, the “perfect” – at least, that which is deemed “perfect” from one particular perspective – is allowed to function as the enemy of the good, especially the common good. In too many cases, the Christian church is party to, and cause of, the bitterest polarizations.

But Christians are in fact called to a different way. The way of reconciliation, the way of addressing hurts and harms and sins and breaks in relationship by recontextualizing them in larger sets of prehensions, wider perspectives that transmute contradictions into contrasts, deeper love that finds common flourishing beyond the hurt – that is the way that Jesus shows. To the extent that the church’s institutional forms have an influence on social life – and we are living in a time when the influence of the institutional church is waning on all fronts – those of us within the institutional church have a responsibility to model and to advocate for ways of reconciliation in society. But beyond institutional life, in the daily lives of faithful people in the practical world, we also have a responsibility to practice reconciliation. In our own political associations, in our economic and ecological decisions, in our participation in social forums, in our interpersonal relationships, we can be mindful of conducting our relationships within wider contexts of influence from divine love, transmuting contradictions into contrasts, and discovering together new ways of co-creating flourishing and well-being. From the ground up, as well as from the steeple down, we can offer the possibility of love as Jesus offers, because Jesus has promised us, “I am there among you.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.