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. (Matthew 18.18)
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is fulfilling the law. (Romans 13.10)
On October 19, 1945, almost two months to the day after World War Two ended, George Orwell published an essay, “You and the Atomic Bomb,” serving notice the Allies had won and brokered a “peace that is no peace.” He warned that ideological rivalry between emergent empire builders, the US and USSR—each equipped with potential to annihilate the planet—would grip the world in anxiety. His prescience greatly influenced post-War science fiction, much of which channeled global paranoia into scenarios of technically superior alien attacks—space invaders armed with death rays and whatnot. A few sci-fi writers, however, understood the gravity of Orwell’s predictions. They harnessed the genre’s fantastic elements to imagine a new breed of extraterrestrials—benevolent aliens that journeyed to Earth and offered the young planet wisdom they acquired eons ago. The first notably benevolent alien appeared fully intact in the low budget, 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.
If you’ve not seen the film or it’s been a while, it’s worth a look. With East-West tensions abated, the Christ parallels can’t be missed. Assuming human form, the alien takes the name “Carpenter.” By choice, he lives in a boarding house occupied by a widow, her son, and several social misfits. He conceals his identity and his presence generates widespread unease about his mission. He won’t speak to political insiders, insisting his message is for all people. He demonstrates command of the elements by shutting down the global power grid. When a suspicious acquaintance betrays him, he’s gunned down before being heard. A mysteriously powerful space companion revives him. His resurrection brings attention he uses to address all nations at once. What he says echoes Jesus’s words in Matthew 18.15-20 (today’s Gospel), and resounds with Paul’s counsel in today’s New Testament reading, Romans 13.8-14.
I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure… I came here to give you these facts… Your choice is simple: either live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
Earlier in the film, Carpenter explains the urgency of his mission. Newly armed with nuclear power, the Earth’s capability to destroy itself also threatens universal balance. If it abuses its powers to conquer other planets, it will foil a cosmic plan for harmony and peace. Learn to get along, Carpenter says, or forget belonging to the Big Picture. This is precisely what Jesus says in today’s passage, first spoken when everything He came to accomplish is due to transpire. The Earth will stand still at His execution. He’ll entrust His mission and message to His followers—Whom He collectively calls “the Church”—after His resurrection and departure. The same power that raises Him from the dead will remain with the disciples after he leaves, endowing them with capabilities unlike any the world has seen.
What the Church does with the Holy Spirit, however, rests on its shoulders. It can employ the Spirit's power to advance God’s kingdom on Earth. Or it can splinter into ideological rivalries that weaponize the Spirit and Scripture to build doctrinal empires. If the disciples go that route, Jesus foresees total anarchy. His mission will be in vain, His message reduced to ideals everyone admires, but no one lives by. Before responsibility for the Church gets dropped in the disciples’ laps, Jesus wants them to understand every decision and action they undertake is loaded with cosmic implications. They’re part of a divine plan that transcends human comprehension. But using these terms to set expectations the disciples will work together for His sake would sound like science fiction to them. So Jesus issues the Church’s first protocol in language they’ll readily absorb, speaking directly to conflicts and competing interests they’ve not dealt with until now.
The Peter Problem
The days prior to this conversation have been very strange. Everyone but Jesus has the jitters. He keeps talking about leaving them, after which Peter is supposed to take over. He as much as says their future depends on him when He promises to give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—i.e., absolute authority—to lead the Church. (Matthew 16.18) The idea of Peter stepping into Christ’s shoes is as terrifying as it is baffling. He’s the most mercurial person in the group. He makes a big deal out of everything. No sooner does he witness Jesus’s transfiguration than he goes off on a tangent about building memorials—a thing he’s neither trained nor equipped to do. He’s useless in crisis. When taxes come due, rather than organize a fishing trip to earn some cash, He takes Jesus’s joke about finding money in a fish’s mouth seriously. (It turns out Jesus isn't kidding; the first fish Peter pulls from the water pays the bill.) He’s the only one crazy enough to believe he’ll actually walk on water because Jesus says so. (Oh, by the way, Peter is the only human known to walk on water.) Then there’s his hair-trigger temper. Why, a few days ago, he got so unnerved by all the death talk he went off on Jesus! And he’s supposed to be their leader?
The Peter problem creates many other problems. James and John—a.k.a. the Sons of Thunder—campaign for Jesus to reverse His decision and put them in charge. (They even drag their mother into it, pushing her to broach the topic with Jesus.) Judas is acting weird lately. He’s unhappy with where things are going. He signed on to overthrow Roman oppression, not to save the world. Mounting dissension and increasingly bolder lunges for power prove all the more unsettling because either Jesus fails to see or He simply doesn’t care about what’s happening. Of course, Jesus sees and cares. Just when tensions among the disciples reach their breaking point, He explains how and why they must work out their differences and stick to His plan.
The Earth-Heaven Connection
If someone wrongs you, talk it out, Jesus says. Don’t risk losing them over issues you can resolve. If they won’t listen, invite one or two witnesses to confirm you tried your best. If that doesn’t work, take the matter before the whole group. If the offender still refuses to acknowledge his/her error, put her/him out of mind. With that, the disciples discern responsibility for the Church’s stability and unity belongs to them. And Jesus explicitly says so in Matthew 18.18-20: “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.”
The Earth-Heaven connection is where the keys to the kingdom reside. And the protocol for accessing them is so simple it’s a wonder we don’t follow it religiously. Only when we agree are we aligned with Christ’s plan and purpose. Only when we bind forces that contradict Jesus’s mission and message, only when we loose the Spirit’s power to unite and liberate us, is Christ’s presence known and felt among us. The importance of doctrinal disputes and sectarian quirks is wildly exaggerated. It’s not about being right or wrong, but doing what’s right to avoid going wrong. Our power isn't evidenced by controlling others. It’s proven by conquering our desire to seize control. We don’t need a lot of rules and restrictions to secure the Earth-Heaven connection. We need a mind-boggling revelation that penetrates what we think to reach the depths of our understanding.
In a stunning take on why rules aren’t enough to resolve conflicts, Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments… are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13.8-10) And there it is again: the only way to end our detrimental us-versus-them divisions in the Church is by making them our first concern.
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Carpenter warned people of Earth that leveraging nuclear power to deepen political rifts not only endangered their survival. Unchecked, it would put the universe at risk. What Jesus and Paul say in today’s texts is no different. The Holy Spirit is given to unite us in purpose and principle. Jesus issued the Church’s first protocol, explaining how and why we must resolve our differences, lest we sever our connection to His divine plan. Paul discredits all notions of legally enforced unity. Love for one another is what binds evil’s power over us and liberates our hearts. We’ve been given a choice and Heaven waits for our answer. The decision rests with us.
Lord, we have heard You loud and clear. We pray Your Spirit will empower us to accept Your Word. May it penetrate what we think to reach the depths of our understanding. Instill in us an insatiable yearning to resolve our conflicts wisely, compassionately, showing true love for one another. Amen.
The Holy Spirit endows us with the power to resolve our conflicts and advance God’s kingdom. Jesus even tells us how to do it. Whether we follow His protocol is up to us.