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

Jesus said,  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Some years ago, in conversation with a fellow Episcopalian who is a member of a parish that at that time was dealing with some difficult conflicts, my friend said to me, “We go to church to praise God, and if all these conflicts keep me from being able to praise God, then I’ll just go somewhere else. “

Conflicts within our church family are enormously painful and disconcerting.  Is it too much to expect the church particularly to be a rose garden of loving, Christian fellowship?  It is not uncommon to hear:  I don’t really see the need to be in church; I can praise God wherever I am – on the golf course, or on a mountaintop, or in a fishing boat on the lake, or lying on the beach – just God and I.  Who needs all these other people – especially if I’m challenged to deal with conflict?

Yes, we need time alone with God, but that is not an end in itself.  We need that time alone with God so that we can listen for his guidance in how we are to live in relationship with our neighbor – how we are to obey God’s commands when two or three are gathered together.  Worship and praising God are not meant to be limited to a simple relationship between God and me.  Jesus said,  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  Worshipping God is about relationship – human relationship; in all human relationship we encounter conflict at some point.  So, where is God in our relationships and in our conflicts?  God’s presence is affirmed in a variety of ways.

First, building relationships with God’s people requires discovering a refreshing yet challenging reality about God’s law.  God’s law, so easily misinterpreted, is intended to guide our relationships with one another rather than provide impetus and opportunity for God’s wrath.  Remember, we are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.  When we sin against one another, thus violating God’s law, we disrespect human relationship and we should expect to receive God’s discipline.  As a simple illustration: human decency dictates that we don’t allow a child to bite another child without discipline.  We don’t “make up” this no-biting rule just because we want an excuse to punish our children; we teach our children to abide by this rule because it is imperative to healthy and safe human relationships.  It would be an injustice to allow the child to believe it was acceptable to go on biting his playmates.

A Florida sheriff being interviewed regarding hurricane evacuations stated, “We’re not requiring you to evacuate in an effort to punish you; we’re requiring you to evacuate because we want to save your life.”  God sends down his laws for us because he wants to save our lives – that’s a gift.

Each of our lessons this morning seeks to increase our understanding of the connection between God’s laws and our relationship with one another – to see God’s commandments as a gift – a gift of instruction to guide us in our relationships with our neighbor – our neighbors being our closest family members and farthest strangers, our fellow parishioners and those outside the church, the ticket booth attendant at the parking deck who hands us our change with a smile and the driver behind us at the traffic light blowing the horn.

Thus, Jesus is speaking about the essence of relationship and this is where we begin to better understand the essential role of God’s law in human relationship.

Secondly, God affirms his presence through his faithfulness, and that faithfulness is dependent upon and manifested in relationship.  To be faithful requires relationship.

Today’s Old Testament lesson of the Passover narrative from the Exodus is an important expression of God’s intent to be faithful – to keep his promises to his people.  All the blood and the smearing of the blood is a little gruesome, but the most important message of the blood on the doorposts and the lintel in not in the sign of the blood itself, but that it is the sign of God’s divine promise – the promise of life and vitality, which blood symbolizes – the promise of an eternal relationship of life and vitality.

Finally, the third consideration of the connection between God’s law and human relationship is that it is all about love.  In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul echoes the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is not that we dismiss the Ten Commandments sent down by God from Mount Sinai when we quote Jesus’ “greatest” commandments” – Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is that Commandments 5 through 10, which address our relationship to others, can be summed up, as Paul says, in these words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These six commandments are very specific:  You shall not commit adultery, murder, steal, covet, or lie, and you should honor your parents.  But, if we love without fear, love as Jesus has shown us to love, there is no need to name the specifics – these acts of sinfulness will not occur.  As we read today from Paul, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

As much as we try, we cannot legislate human relationships.  We can institute laws against violence and laws seeking to control actions that degrade and exploit the human family, but we cannot legislate the root cause of the anger that leads to shattered lives and relationships.  And, no legislation can erase the hurt and mistrust that are the cause and effect of broken family relationships.  Jesus charges us to strive for the ideal in seeking to mend the root causes of broken relationships – to experience the presence of Jesus Christ whenever two or three are gathered together.  This is our mission and ministry that is our focus of celebration on this Welcome Back Sunday.

We are encouraged to keep seeking the gift of God’s guidance through the joy-filled times and the difficult times; God’s Law is set down for this purpose.  God is faithful, and faithfulness requires relationship.  Through faith with God’s guidance, we learn to love our neighbors without fear – to abide in love – to follow the law of the new commandment – to listen for our own personal calling to ministry.

There will always to be those among us who are difficult to convince that it is the conflicts in our relationships that keep us looking to the gift of God’s law for healing.  We praise God in mending the broken relationships – not escaping them, and thus, making us stronger.  In our relationships with one another as the Body of Christ, we come together in worship to confess our sins against God and each other, looking to God’s guidance for healing.  We exchange the peace that comes from being forgiven and forgiving one another.  We come time and time again as one Body of Christ to His Table to receive the Holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

We come together for God’s guidance in mending and strengthening our relationships and we go forth from here with God’s guidance to love and serve the Lord in peace – seeking to mend the broken relationships of our world.  Where two or three are gathered – wherever there is human relationship – God through Jesus Christ is there.

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