Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Matthew 18: 15-20
‘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. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 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.’
Most preachers will avoid the first five verses and home in on the familiar final two or three verses. This morning I will look at the first five verses and trust the Holy Spirit to speak to us.
What are our options?
If another member of the church sins against you just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you call a group of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you send them a nasty email. Copy in the clergy, and possibly the Bishop. If another member of the church sins against you don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Un-friend them on Facebook and, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church.
No, when we read these negative responses we know deep down that they are wrong.
In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks directly to his followers to tell us what our fellowship is to be like. If a brother or sister in the faith hurts you, angers you, saddens you, or does you wrong in any way go and talk to them about it directly, one on one. If we are honest most of us will avoid confrontation and seek an alternative way of dealing with the problem. But this is what Jesus told us was the best solution. "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend." Matthew 18:15 (The Message) A theme picked up by Paul in his letter to the Romans. ‘Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.’ We could stop here, but there is a bigger issue to address than just a one to one disagreement.
In the late 1920s a Hungarian author, believing that technology was shrinking the world, wrote a story based on the idea that any given two people on the planet would be connected by no more than six jumps of acquaintance. I know Sarah, Sarah knows Bill ,Bill knows Phillipe, Phillipe knows Pedro and so on, until I am somehow connected to someone on the other side of the world I’ve never met or heard of. This idea was carried forward by network theorists, mathematicians and sociologists in the 1960s, and taken up by writers in the 1990s. Eventually the phrase “six degrees of separation” was coined to describe this phenomenon, which is also known as “small-world theory”.
A worldwide web, a social network, exists not just because of technology, but simply because of human relationships – people know people who know people. It is this sort of connectedness that lies at the heart of the Gospel today. On the surface, Jesus suggests what appears to be a rather dull legalistic process for dealing with disputes. If we look at it carefully, though, it is a reminder that the church community is just that – a community connected. Relationships matter not only to the individuals concerned, but to the whole, and it is the business of the Church to seek to build bridges and restore relationships wherever possible. A personal dispute that remains unresolved is talked through by a smaller group and then a larger group, not simply to remind the offender that he or she is accountable, but to remind the complainant that he or she is also is part of a wider group. Both parties stand before the Church because the body of believers cares for both of them.
Jesus tells his hearers that one who refuses to listen to the Church is to be, “as a Gentile and a tax collector”. At first sight, this seems harsh. The one who offends is to be like a social outcast because Gentiles and tax collectors were outside the Law and so avoided. But then we must remember that Jesus made a point of eating with tax collectors and sinners, and healed the Gentile centurion’s servant. This puts a different complexion on the statement. Even those who offend us, those we complain about, even those who do not share the same views as the Church are not beyond the love of Christ. In other words they still matter to Christ, they are worthy of our attention, respect and love.
Few of us can imagine being connected to all 7.5 billion people on the planet, but in spite of the current restrictions we face we still pass in and out of the lives of many people all the time. Most of us have family, friends, colleagues and neighbours both in physical contact or by telephone or by social media. We also interact with shop assistants, the person who delivers the post, fellow drivers on the road, people on public transport, even telephone sales callers, if we stay on the line long enough! We have circles of acquaintances and networks of connection be it large of small.
Unless we are housebound with no visitors we have to engage with people, but how we interact with others is a choice we make every day and in every encounter. St Paul reminds us to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” The commandments of God are summed up in “love your neighbour as yourself”. Even those who annoy us, frustrate us and contradict us are to be loved. Even those who are beyond our friendship circles, beyond the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable in society, are to be loved – just as Jesus loved tax collectors and Gentiles. How can we love them, if we don’t actually know them? By supporting with our prayers and our pockets, praying for justice, equity and peace and helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
We have seen and heard of countless acts of kindness during the current pandemic, people reaching out to strangers, reaching across religious and ethnic barriers to help strangers and friends alike. Sadly it took something as drastic as Covid 19 to spur many into action. As we gradually emerge from lockdown perhaps remembering that we are all connected, means at the very least, speaking gently and acting kindly to strangers as well as friends. We might never know what people are dealing with and how our words and actions affect them. Perhaps striving to live out the command to love our neighbour means recognising that every single person we encounter in the day is loved by God gives us the opportunity to treat them accordingly.
Having looked at wider issues I return to the problem in the church. Some of us will have seen church life undone by backbiting and whisper campaigns. It can be devastating, not just to attendance and finances but it is devastating to the Christian witness of that parish and the wider church. For when that happens, the church ceases to be a place of forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world?
There is a story of two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons and told them. "I am too old to work any more." "I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends."
When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then the brothers had an argument and refused to speak to one another for many years. One day a carpenter came to one farm looking for work. After a few minutes thought he told the carpenter to build a fence on his property near the stream that separated his farm from his brothers. He left the carpenter to get on with the fence. When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence there, he had built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to take a look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side and said, “after all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can't believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back.” He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.
The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter asking him to stay as he had more work for him. The carpenter answered, “I’m sorry but I can’t stay I have many other bridges to build.”
Jesus has given a clear blue-print for how our communities might be holy places where holy relationships might flourish. This is something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living any other way.
Because, for Jesus, there is no other way.