Charlie Plumb was a jet fighter pilot during the Vietnam war. He flew 75 combat missions until he was shot down by a surface to air missile. He ejected from the plane and parachuted to the ground. Landing in enemy territory, he was captured and spent 2103 days in prison.
Now a noted speaker on his war experiences, Charlie tells a story of how one night he and his wife were in a restaurant when a man approached him. “You’re Plumb! You flew fighter jets in Vietnam from the Kitty Hawk. You were shot down.”
Surprised, Charlie asked how the man knew. “I packed your parachute,” he replied, “I guess it worked.”
Charlie tells his listeners that he could not sleep that night. “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform — a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back, and bell bottom trousers,” he said. “I wondered how many times I might have passed him on the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or anything, because I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.”
Plumb continues noting that he thought of the many hours the sailor had spent at the long wooden tables in the bowels of the ship, carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the sills of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he did not know.
After he tells the story, Charlie asks the audience, “Who’s packing your parachute?”
The story reminds us that bonds are created among us. For Christians, these are bonds of love. They are formed by God himself through his Son, Jesus. We are united with one another and with God in a communion of love. Jesus refers to this communion as the church, his body.
The Gospel of Matthew provides most of the Gospel passages used in the liturgy this year (Cycle A). During the past few weeks, we have been hearing from a section in the Gospel that deals with life in the church. Today we have another such passage, one that begins with what scholars call the “fraternal correction” teaching.
Jesus gives several specific instructions on how to handle a situation when “your brother (that is, a fellow Christian) sins against you.” He exhorts the injured or offended party to reconcile and to heal the wound that has been created. The course of resolution should be between the two parties. If that does not work, then other members of the communion should be brought in to help resolve the situation. If that still does not work, then the person should go to the church to seek resolution.
The point-by-point instruction serves to highlight the bonds that are created within the communion and their importance. In short form, every effort should be made to reconcile and to preserve the bonds of love before any drastic action should be taken, such as treating “him like as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
The requirement to correct the fellow Christian when they have erred echoes the Lord’s teaching through the prophet Ezekiel. The Lord warns the prophet: “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” Again, the point being made is that the bonds created by the covenant, whether the first covenant or the new covenant, require all the members to care for each other — even correcting each other when we go astray or do serious wrong.
The bond of communion we share with each other is so important that Jesus says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He spoke those same words earlier in the Gospel to Peter, in his role as the “rock” upon whom the church is built. The final saying of Jesus in this passage again highlights to bond of communion we share in him: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The invisible bonds of love that unite us together in Christ are made visible through the actions and interactions among the members of the church. Love and mercy demand that these bonds be preserved, strengthened and healed when damaged. In the story above, Charlie asks, “Who packed your parachute?” enticing his listeners to examine the bonds of the human community in their lives.
Jesus asks us today to consider those relationships in the bond of communion, the bond of love, that is the church.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.