The Commandment of Community
Today’s readings remind me of that hair shirt that you have heard me reference in the past. The hair shirt that some monks and hermits used to wear. The continual scratching of the animal hair against their skin reminded them of their need to always be aware of the presence of God in their lives.
So it is today. The common theme of today’s readings is our responsibility towards the salvation of others in our community because they are God’s children and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are the “keepers” of our brothers and sisters, for each one of us is important to all others in our faith community. This individual responsibility in a Christian society includes, as today’s readings remind us, our responsibility for each other’s actions and words.
Perhaps the most painful obligation of watchful love is fraternal correction as well as the generosity in forgiving and forgetting injuries. In the first reading, God tells Ezekiel that he is a “watchman for the house of Israel,” obliged to warn Israel of moral dangers. If Ezekiel should refrain from speaking God’s word intended to convert the wicked, God will hold Ezekiel responsible for the death of the wicked. In the second reading, St. Paul points out that the love we should have for one another should be our only reason for admonishing the sinner. Love seeks the good of the one who is loved. Thus, we should watch over and, if need be, teach one another so that we all may repent and grow in holiness. In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that true Christian charity obliges a Christian not only to assist his neighbors in their temporal and spiritual needs with material help and prayer, but also with correction and counsel for an erring brother or sister who has injured one if his or her sins are public.
Now that is a tall order and perhaps even one that many shy away from. There is in many the attitude of “minding our own business” or “not getting involved.” Yet, that is not what we are asked to do.
Nowhere is that more important than in this small community of faith. Whether it is the tiny English speaking community of San Juan Bautista or the larger community of Panamanians and North Americans that is the Church of San Juan Bautista.
Looking at the smallest portion first – the English speaking community. – we must stop and realize that we are involved in a once in a lifetime opportunity. Just like those early Christians who gathered in homes or underground, we – because of our size – are given the opportunity and the obligation to take care of and to love one another. To do so in a way that this community grows and grows. We are very much in the same situation as those early small gatherings of Christians who were building their church and their own community of believers.
Scripturally, they were and each of us is commanded to become the “keeper” of one’s “brother” and “sister. We are our brother’s/sister’s keeper and this is even more critical in a small community. There are those who tend to think that they have no right to intervene in the private lives of their fellow believers. Others evade the issue saying, “As a sinner, I don’t have the moral courage or the right to correct anyone.” But Jesus emphatically affirms that we are our brothers’ keepers, and we have the serious obligation to lovingly correct others. Have we offered advice and encouragement to our friends and neighbors and co-workers when it was needed, and loving correction in private for a personal offense where that was possible? Correcting, caring and promoting are the ways of applications.
The key of course is the manner in which it is done.
There is the story of the woman who was bitten by a rabid dog, and it looked as if she was going to die from rabies. The doctor told her to put her final affairs in order. So the woman took pen and paper, and began writing furiously. In fact she wrote and wrote and wrote. Finally the doctor said, “That sure is a long will you’re making.” She snorted, “Will, nothing! I’m making a list of all the people I’m going to bite!”
Or there is still another way. Years ago, I was given the distinct honor to be appointed by President Ford as a Civilian Advisor to The United States Military Academy at West Point. In one of my conversations with the Superintendent of the Academy, he told me this story. He said there was a general understanding among the cadets that they were all working hard to make the entire Army better and sometimes that meant confronting others. He told me that it didn’t do much good to say to someone: “You messed that up” because all it did was shame the cadet. Instead he would say: “You didn’t perform to your abilities.” That acknowledged that the cadet was capable, but came up short this time. Instead of shaming the person to admitting he messed up, this allowed the cadet to try harder and live up to his own abilities. That’s the course that needs to be followed.
Last Sunday, at the 11:00 Mass, I said in Spanish that I believe the Lord brought me here to San Juan Bautista so that, in the last years of my life, I could minister to a people whose love of God was so great. I then went on to say that I love this Church and its people – that includes both English speaking and Spanish speaking. While the Panamanian community is much larger, we are one community – one community of people who love Jesus Christ.
We gather in Jesus’ name and we can work miracles: Today’s Gospel reminds us of the good we can do together, and of how we can do it. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” If any group of us gather, work, and act with the Holy Spirit guiding us, we will become much more than simply the collective number of people we are. Today, Jesus makes it clear how important we are, one to another. One in Christ, our community can use God’s power to make His healing, life-giving love more effective among His people.
In John 17: , verse 21 really pounds this point home. He quotes Jesus as saying:
“My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father — that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me.”
We MUST understand that to live within a fractured or a conflicted relationship with another believer – to another brother or sister in this Church – gives license to the unbelieving world to dismiss the reality of Jesus and the mission he was given from his heavenly Father.
Somehow, we must overcome our hesitancies to reach out, we must love each other, no matter how we disagree, so that the mission and the ministry of the Christ continues and returns to the forefront. We must allow our agendas to take a backseat to the LORD’s calling for us. This is the path to a true practice of the faith.
If we do this, then this beautiful Church of San Juan Bautista – North American and Panamanian – will be the shining light on the hill that invites others to become one with us – a people dedicated to the love of God and to each other.