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Really Love Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Over one of the many canals which criss-cross the city of Venice there’s a bridge, built in 1600, linking the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the old prison. Legend has it that prisoners who’d been condemned to death would cross this bridge on their way to execution, and sigh at their last view of beautiful Venice – hence it was called the Bridge of Sighs. The legend may not be literally true, but the name has made the bridge famous. It was a name applied to Waterloo Bridge over the Thames in Thomas Hood’s poem of 1844 The Bridge of Sighs, about a woman who had flung herself into the river below and died. The poet imagines that she felt condemned in some way but isn’t interested in what she might have done. Instead he condemns the inhumanity of those who drove her to take her own life, and begs the reader not to judge her. Perhaps all in this sad case had failed to really love.

Famous Texts
From famous landmarks to famous texts. Both our readings today contain texts which we may be familiar with: “Love your neighbour as yourself;” and “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often take these out of their context and try to apply them as universal rules. But, as a well-known preacher once said: “A text taken out of its context can become a pretext.” Something taken out of where it belongs can be misused or applied wrongly. Perhaps “Love your neighbour as yourself” can be used more widely, because, as the Jews of the day taught, all their Law and Prophets could be summed up in that simple but profound phrase to which Paul alludes: Love God and love your neighbour! St Paul was writing to his Christian friends living in Rome about how to conduct themselves in the face of a suspicious and cruel regime. Pray for the secular authorities, obey them as far as you can, including paying your taxes. Don’t be in debt to anyone; owe no-one anything except to love one another, for that is something you will always owe and a currency you will always have plenty of.

The danger of love
Another famous saying that might be mistaken for being in the Bible actually comes from St Augustine’s version of the original. He wrote “Love and do what you will.” It sounds a dangerous recipe, but is only so if it is turned round the wrong way: “Do whatever you like, as long as you love!” St Paul had to quickly explain what he meant when he said that love was the fulfilling of the law. It did not mean that Christians could act in the ways he describes as the “works of darkness” because the only rule was the law of love. When one truly follows the law of love, then honourable behaviour, clear as daylight lives, flows from that. The rule of love does not do away with all other rules, it sums up what all those other rules are about: it is the essence, it is what living in good and right ways means.

Two or three together
The verse: where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them is often quoted in the context of gathered prayer or worship. We take it as a reassurance that the Lord is present when we meet in his name. But if you put it back into context, it is not about something comfortable like worship, it is about dealing with conflict in the Church. Jesus gave some guidance about how to overcome personal conflicts amongst his followers. Where you agree and act together, and when you seek to bring about reconciliation, then that is a mark of my divine presence with you. These two readings may seem unconnected, but the gospel lesson is about dealing with difficulties in ways which show how robust real love can be. If there is conflict in the Church, true love deals with it in careful and considered ways, giving a chance for those who have fallen out with each other to be reconciled. The Church is to be an example of reconciliation. Both Bible lessons are about the quality of Christian life. The followers of Jesus living under a suspicious Roman regime are to show the quality of their morals by being blameless and following the law of true love. That is how they are to deal with their external relationship to society around them. The gospel guidance is about internal relationships in the Christian community. In both outward and inward directions the law of true love is to be followed, like the guiding star. When Christians live up to their moral law of love they cannot be faulted. When Christians deal with each other in fair and firm love, they can be assured of the Lord’s continuing presence amongst them.

Above all we are to be a people of reconciliation. If we do not practice reconciliation within our own fellowship, we can hardly demonstrate that reconciliation between God and the world brought us in Christ. The one thing our world desperately needs these days is reconciliation. God’s presence will be more clearly recognised by the world if his people live by the law of love, the law which deals with difficult problems in fairness and firmness. Once we have practiced reconciliation within our own community, we will be able to work for it more profoundly in the wider world.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith