Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Philadelphia with Josiah and two German teenagers. We were walking back to our car, and came across one of those very common features of urban life, the construction site. This is one of those small tunnel like things where you walk under some scaffolding, and the passage is narrow, so sometimes you have to have just two lanes of walking traffic. There were these three girls, talking and texting and popping gum, all at once, which is a great talent.
What was interesting was that they were walking very slowly, perfectly happy with their pace, because ahead of them in the narrow passage was a very elderly woman with a walker, being accompanied by a nurse. As soon as they got to the passages’ end, they politely walked around the older adults, but while they were in the passage, in a sense ”trapped” by the flow of traffic, the younger girls slowed down so as not to make the others feel rushed.
Next time you are in a bookstore, take a look at the section having to do with etiquette. You’ll find there to be more books than you thought! There will be books of weddings—how to set the table properly and who goes next to who in the receiving line, and how quickly it is proper to send out thank you notes. There will be books for businesspeople—when you are in Japan, this is how you hand someone your business card, this is how you bring up a topic of conversation.
Many many books. Some things we learn, though, don’t come from books. Things like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything”.
“Don’t be impatient around people who move slowly.”
Calling people “sir” or “ma’am.”
Calling before you go visit someone.
We learn how to act around people from parents and elders. The books are for more complex social interactions, the simple ways of how to treat people come from experience and how we’re brought up. It’s how people know we’re decent people.
How do people know we’re Christian? Yes, there is the whole getting up on Sunday morning and all that, and the grace before meals, and the praying. But there is a whole sense that Christians, if they are truly led by the spirit, are to be somehow “nice”. What the Scripture passages today tell us is that there are ways to act to address issues between people, ways that Jesus has actually taught. The Matthew passage is in red letters in some Bibles.
What you can distill from these passages is that if you have a problem with someone, the proper, Christian way to act is to address it to the person directly in private. No public embarrassment. No end-arounds, so that everyone knows you have an issue except the person you have the issue with. Straight ahead, in private, with love. Or at least respect.
What this does, and this is the underlying ethic, is acknowledge the Christ within the other person. My old campus minister used to greet friends with the statement; “may the Christ within me greet the Christ within you.” It was her way of saying that God has created each of us, and even though you may look, think, or act differently than I do, you are still created by God, in the image of God. We are not called to deny each others’ potential humanity, but to assume it. If we treat each person we meet as a child of God, the spirit of God will carry us through social mistakes, and give everyone we meet dignity.
Those girls walking so slowly behind the elderly woman an her nurse were giving her dignity. They acknowledged her presence, and where impatience would have been a relationship complicator, their patience was a relationship builder.
What Jesus and Paul combine to teach us here is that Christians are called to be relationship builders. We are called to build dignity to every person we meet.
People may see that we claim to be Christian by the cross necklace around our necks, or our bumper stickers, or by the bible we carry. But they’ll know we are Christians by our love. By our respect for and curiosity about others; by our interest in others. Not for evangelism purposes, so as to claim another person on our personal score sheets, but instead to be genuinely interested in the people around us. Paul writes that “love does no wrong”. If we are the people of a God of love, then we are to do no wrong, either. John Wesley writes in his basic principles that Christians should “do no harm,” meaning that as best as we can, we should not contribute to the degradation of others. It’s more than being nice. It is giving all humans dignity. It is eliminating cruelty from one’s spirit. How does this look in modern life? Well, we can acknowledge that people have different ideas about politics, and respect them as equal to our own. It means you should disagree without making the other person look like an idiot. It means seeking to make people comfortable, sometimes by acknowledging their infirmities, sometimes by ignoring them. It means that because every person you meet has the spark of God within them, they must be greeted as people as special as yourself, even if they have a different skin color or speak a different language.
There’s another place in Matthew that says that when we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison and who are sick, then we have done the same to Jesus himself. If we live, and act in the world with the understanding that every person we meet might be Jesus, or an angel we are unaware of, like another Bible passage says, then it will certainly be true that we will be known for our love. And as Christians, what could be better