Love is the fulfilment

Love does no wrong to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law.

If love is the fulfilment, as St Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, then reconciliation is the sign we are on the way. It is the hard and courageous and incredibly difficult work of love. Holiness is not about clear rules, pure behaviour and protected doctrines, but is what becomes visible when God’s people embody Christ’s reconciling love, showing up in the messiness of everyday relationships and conflicts.

On the surface it may seem as though our reading from Romans is offering a far easier alternative- simply obey the law, obey the authorities, and get on with things in the best moral way you can. This sounds like the tidiest and simplest way to get through life- here are the rules, and here are the authorities we should obey. However, the closer you look at the context into which Paul is writing, the less simple it becomes. With Roman rule, Jewish temple authorities and taxes, laws around prohibited religious activities and a mixed audience of both Jewish followers of the way and new Gentile believers all trying to avoid imperial attention, it becomes obvious that we cannot simply translate these words to our own context. We can imagine, though, the hard (and messy) work of being part of the body of Christ whereby new members with very different cultural and religious traditions were being grafted together into the one growing body of the church. Perhaps this messiness is why this section of Paul’s letter begins with laws but ends up quoting Jesus saying that all the commandments are summed in the word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It is as simple, and as difficult as that. We all have the responsibility, with the help of the Spirit, to discern what this looks like in our own context.

Viewing behaviour and misbehaviour through the lens of crime and punishment makes things less demanding, but does not help us with the work of reconciliation to which we are called. In today’s Gospel reading we are given a rare piece of practical and clear advice about how we are to begin;

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

Confronting another person is never easy. It is a far less demanding route to find some higher authority who can mete out the consequences without us ever being involved. The one-to-one encounter which the Gospel suggests makes clear the demands of our call to reconciliation. It requires a reserve of mental and emotional courage and fortitude. It is not surprising that either complaining to our friends, or laying information against the person who has offended us are easier options. If we have been badly hurt, then we may need the support of others to find a way of honesty through the swirl of anxiety and strong emotion. We may also need the next stage of greater transparency and accountability by widening the circle to include others.

Of course, if we are on the receiving end of the confrontation, it is natural that our defensive self-protective systems will be on high alert and we may have trouble truly hearing the other person. Even when we commit to listening, we may listen in such a way as to better construct an argument and so not be really offering the vulnerability of our true attention. At other times we may rehearse our conversation, going in prepared that we may better create the outcome we want.  This is where we need the help of the Spirit. When we remain centred in God’s love for us, we can have nothing that needs to be defended… and so therefore can listen with openness. Our weekly practice of confession and absolution is a liturgical way that the body of Christ keeps exercising that muscle of self-reflection, humility, and relaxation of our ego-driven defenses. Our practices in worship are not ends in themselves but rather strengthen, empower and heal us that we may be about the reconciling work to which we are called as the people of God. Jesus is reminding his followers of the call which is both practical and sacred; to be a disciple of Christ is to mediate between heaven and earth in each act of peace, healing and reconciliation;

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

These words are not about bringing people together to ensure we get what we want, but rather about creating the miracle of forgiveness and love. In our hurts and frailties, Jesus comes amongst us, breaking down barriers and giving us back to one another. Christ by the Spirit makes present in our gatherings the possibility of the healing love of God which Paul Tillich once described as “the power that drives everything there is toward everything else that is.”[1] It is a statement reminiscent of many sayings of St Paul that identify Christ as the one through whom all things are drawn and held together, the love that breaks down dividing walls of hostility and brings to birth a new creation.

We are called, as Archbishop Justin Welby says, to be “forgiven forgivers”. But forgiveness does not entail forgetting about consequences or waiving justice. So often in reconciliation forgiveness is misunderstood and misused, doing further harm to victims who are manipulated to feel a moral failure if they cannot forgive, even where there has been no truth-telling, no repentance and no reparation. Always, we are called to recognise the power dynamic at play. It is no coincidence that here where Jesus is teaching us how to respond to conflict are found stories of wandering sheep and warnings to care for ‘the little ones’, emphasizing that no one is expendable or of less value.

We make a good beginning when we remain curious about the perspectives of the other, and indeed, curious about our own reactions. I find that the more I lean in and listen, the more complex the situation becomes and the more I need to pause before making judgements. Justin Welby, who has been involved in peacemaking endeavours in some of the most war-torn corners of the globe, stresses the importance of research. He comments that taking time to truly research all sides in situations of conflict muddies the water or perhaps, “enables one to see that the waters are very muddy indeed.”[2]

There are many wounds in our country and in our own communities which cry out  for healing. In this Season of Creation we pay attention to the suffering of the earth and the call to be better stewards of natural environments, learning and working that we may bring our greatest care and skill to the task. On a national scale, the immense present challenge is how we may be reconciled as settlers and indigenous peoples, imagining together how we may grow to full maturity as a country of truth and justice. And as we move day to day, caring for our relationships and attending to the hurts we cause and those caused by others, we seek to bring all of our integrity and humility to the task. The world is messy – not just on the global and national scale, but even in our communities and within our own families.  If we are to embody Christ’s reconciling love, then we are called to avoid swift judgements and over-simplifications that ignore the complexities that attend human conflict and struggle. We notice our own will to dominate and temptation to manipulate. We are to have the humility to learn, the courage to repent where it is needed and the openness to see Christ in the face of the other. Love does no wrong to a neighbour. Love tells the truth. Love repents. Love forgives. Love shows up in the messiness of this human experience, knowing that while we may feel inadequate for the task, we cannot abandon the work of peace and healing. Through the grace of Christ, we are strengthened and sent out to try again and again by the God who is drawing all things into a love that will not let us go.


[1] Paul Tillich as quoted in John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2004

[2] Welby, Justin. The Power of Reconciliation (p. 90). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.