St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Canon Claude Schroeder (Matthew 18. 15-21.)
The idea that people should “self-isolate” or “social distance ” is something that not only runs contrary to the social nature of human beings, created for relationship with God and with one another, in community, but also runs entirely contrary to the understanding of the New Testament that salvation, our healing from the infection and wounding of sin, and our rescue from the power of death, is communal experience.
We may sin alone, but we are saved together.
This is what makes this season of “self-isolation” and “social distancing” doubly painful for Christians. Today as we celebrate the Holy Communion at St. Mary’s for the first time in six months, we are painfully aware of those who are not and cannot be with us.
In his famous and celebrated book on Christian community, “Life Together,” the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed under the Nazis, wrote, “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and Sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing…Yet what is denied them in actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus the exiled disciple of the Lord, (St.) John (the writer of the Book of Revelation), celebrated in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations “ in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation1.10) He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in the splendor of the Resurrection. He strengthens them and fortifies them by his Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.” (Bonhoeffer 18,19)
This is the fellowship into which we enter by faith and are united today.
Bonhoeffer went on to write, “What is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (Bonhoeffer 20).
Which brings us to today’s Gospel lesson, where in the 18th Chapter of St. Matthew Jesus is impressing upon his disciples the responsibility they bear in safeguarding the gift that has been given them in the Church.
Jesus does not for a moment imagine that “Life Together” is always going to be smooth and easy. The Church is under threat from false teaching, false shepherds, and persecution. But the threat which Jesus is highlighting here is that which comes from unacknowledged, unrepented, unforgiven sin, and unreconciled relationships within the Church.
While it is true that in baptism, God has forgiven and cleansed us from all our sins through our union with Jesus in His death, and has sealed us with the Holy Spirit, and has adopted us into His family as His beloved children, has made us very members of the Body of His Son and heirs of His everlasting kingdom, that doesn’t mean that sin has ceases to be an issue for us, a death dealing sickness for which need to seek healing.
“Spare Thou them, O God, who confess their faults.” (Book of Common Prayer, 5 ). This plea from the General Confession we offer both for ourselves and for one another, to which we might add the plea of the Psalmist, ”Cleanse, thou me from my secret faults…” ( Psalm 19.12)
What faults might those be?
The list is a long one, but according to the teaching of the holy elders, it includes gluttony ( a preoccupation with food), lust (the unchaste self-indulgence in sexual pleasure) , avarice (which is extreme greed), acedia (which is a spiritual discontent and apathy, a kind of listlessness), anger (which is how we react when we don’t get what we want), despondency (a sorrowful self pity, woe is me!), vainglory (that is a worldly desire for recognition and praise), and finally, pride (which is the love of self in the absence of love of God and others.) These are the principle spiritual plagues which afflict us, far more serious threat to the Church than any corona- virus, but which the virus has brought to the surface.
According to the teaching, sin isn’t simply an offense against God, or another person. Sin is an offense against the whole church. There is an old prayer of confession which is still used in many places today, which reads:
I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you brethren: that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault. Therefore, I beg blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, my brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God!
Well, that’s taking sin against the church to a whole new level, don’t you think?!
But what are you and I to do if a fellow member of the church sins against us? Where two or three are gathered, it can be hard to get along! Jesus tells the disciples, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” (Matthew 18.15)
What a concept!
Imagine actually going and talking to the person who has injured you, instead of…instead of just thinking about it… “I really need to go and talk to so and so about what’s happened, and what’s come between us…”
Go and talk to them about it!
This of course is something that requires some courage, which is no bad thing, because courage is a virtue which we need to cultivate.
But instead of going and talking to the person about, what often happens is that we go and talk to someone else about it! “You are not going to believe what so and so said and did to me the other day!”
Now you have someone on your side and it’s two against one, but meanwhile the estrangement remains…
And then what happens?
The person you talked to goes and gossips to someone else about it, and before you know it, there are hushed whisperings going around. What started out as a small issue becomes big, and big issues become catastrophic, tearing the congregation apart.
What Jesus says here is not to be understood as an encouragement to fault finding, where we go around pointing out to people in the church what’s wrong with them, and having exposed their faults to “cancel” them.
Isn’t that just how the world works?
What Jesus is on about here is preserving, healing and restoring relationships that has been broken through sin.
How does this happen?
It happens when the person being spoken to listens to what the other person says. Jesus says, “If that person listens to you, you have regained that one!”
Such it seems is the power of listening to restore a relationship, and perhaps clear up what at first seemed an issue, but in reality was a confusion and misunderstanding, or simply “hurt feelings.”
But listening, and listening to understand, if you have ever tried it, is hard work! We spend a lot of time and energy talking about each other rather than to each other. So much of what passes for conversation these days is often people just taking turns talking. I wait for you to finish making your point and telling your story, so I can make my point and tell my story.
Listening to one another is a most precious service we can offer one another in the church.
It’s a healing practice.
But what if the person doesn’t listen to you?
Then post it on facebook, or “take to twitter”, as they say, and where you can publically shame that person before the whole world!
“Not quite,” says Jesus. Take another run at it. Bring one or two others along with you. Give listening another chance. And if they still don’t listen, then tell it to the church, including Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and the brethren, and let them deal with it. Maybe then they will listen, and if not, then, and only then, “Let them be to you as a Gentile and tax collector,” which is to say, an outsider.
Talk about a long drawn out process! Does Jesus really expect us to do this? Such is the premium Jesus places on relationships within the Church.
But as one commentator suggests “an examination of the narrative context (of Matthew 18) suggests that what Jesus is giving us is not so much a universal three step process for conflict resolution, as model for how to walk alongside and protect those who have been hurt or abused, enabling them to speak so that others may hear.” (Audrey West, Working Preacher)
Earlier in Chapter 18, Jesus called a child and placed him in the midst of the disciples and said, “Unless you become like this child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18. 2) and “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better off for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and drowned into the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18. 5,6). “See,” says Jesus, “ that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18. 10) Then just before our passage today, Jesus connects “the little ones” to the parable of the sheep, for whose sake the shepherd leaves the 99 in order to seek the one who has been led astray. (Matthew 18.12-14)
All of which is to say, the focus of the church’s attention needs to be on “ the little ones” , which consists not only of children, but others who have no voice, the least power, the most to lose, and who find themselves in a dangerous or vulnerable situation. The process of truth telling and accountability enjoined in this passage best takes place with careful attention to the church’s call to protect the vulnerable and walk alongside in solidarity as they speak up about the harm they have experienced. (Audrey West, Working Preacher)
The experience of abuse, whether physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and sexual is a sad fact of life in this world that has fallen away from the love God. It happens in marriages, it happens in families, in happens in schools, in happens in summer camps, it happens in sports and in the arts, it happens in government, in the military, and in our places of work. I would be very surprised if anyone listening to this sermon did not have some story to tell about the abuse they experienced at a time of weakness and vulnerability at the hands of someone more powerful than they.
Given what Jesus has taught us concerning the place of “the little ones,” in God’s kingdom, that such a person should experience such abuse in the Church, is simply unthinkable. But our passage today is a sober reminder of what we know alas happens to be the case.
So where is the Good News in all of this?
The Good News is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and by His stripes we, the victim and the victimizer, have been healed. (Isaiah 53.5)
The Good News is that “ if two of you, the offender and the offended, agree on earth about anything you ask, that this hurtful matter be put to rest through the power of God and the shed blood of Jesus Christ, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. “ (Matthew 18. 19)
The Good News is that where two or three are gathered together in my name, seeking forgiveness, seeking healing, seeking restoration, there I am in the midst of them. (Matthew 18. 20)
However much you may not have been listened to in the past, the time has now come for you to find a listening, compassionate, and forgiving ear, so that this thing that has been troubling you all these years, through the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ, can be finally laid to rest.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life Together. New York: Harper Collins