(Romans 13, 8-14; Matthew 18, 15-20)
I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to what the other demands.
Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The New Testament reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans reflects on how the Old Covenant, based on the law given to Moses, is still applicable to the community of the New Covenant; and the Gospel reading is about relationships within that new covenant community, the Church.
In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, a thing which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice, arrived at after prayer and thought, is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.
We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart says: “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.
What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them, or if what they want and need may make life more difficult for you. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.
I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England. But it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.
The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus replies by taking a child and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable – if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.
Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders to take particular care of children, young people, and those who are new to church attendance). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.
The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.
After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.
So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved. It is a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ; and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.
Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try, (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.”
Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard those you think are sinners as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven. So this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context, the crucial verse is not this one about cutting people out, but the verse about the joy of regaining a member for the community. As Paul reminded the Romans, love is the fulfilling of the Law.
Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and following his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, and particularly for the weak and the vulnerable: the characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.
Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power; and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.
Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant to the church. When was the last time a local church you were part of formally disciplined anyone? But at the institutional level, in national Anglican churches, and at the international level, in the Anglican Communion, it has become more and more common for one group to demand that another group or individual be disciplined, and expelled from the church over certain issues, especially over different approaches to gender, sexuality and marriage. And for me, in the way that this is being done, there doesn’t seem to be much reference to the words and the example of Jesus we read in our Gospel passage today.
What is more relevant to us at the local level is not the formal legal processes which happen at the level of the national and international institutions of the church, but how we resolve differences between individuals and groups in our congregations, between PCC and clergy, and in multi-church parishes such as ours, between different church communities.
Our passage from Matthew (written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure for resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of true discipleship in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right. The only thing that is really important is that we act in the name (that is with the character) of Jesus, and that love for all is the guiding principle of anything that we do.