A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by David Barton on 10th September 2023
Our life and our death are with our neighbour……..
At first sight today’s readings are a bit of a dry set – warnings, behaviour, discipline. No nice little parables to lighten the load. But stay with it, and unpick it a bit, and all this turns out to be about something central to Christian life.
And the Gospel is interesting.
We used to think that Jesus couldn’t have spoken what he did at the start of that passage, when he speaks about “the Church,” because there was no “church” in Jesus’s day. “Church” only really exists after the resurrection. So, (we thought) this is Matthew putting in the church discipline that belonged to his church in Antioch some sixty or so years later. But in fact, its now pointed out, the reference to Gentiles and Tax collectors could only have meant what it means here in Jesus’ time – by Matthew’s time it was all quite different. And also, the word here translated as “Church”, could equally be translated as something much more ordinary – a small, gathered group of people. The kind of group that might come together in a town or a village after Jesus had been spending time there preaching and healing and teaching. In fact this passage might be evidence that Jesus was going round Palestine establishing little cells of people, loyal to himself, right under the nose of Herod and keeping in touch with them. This was part of his advice to them
And Paul did exactly the same thing. Paul’s whole mission was about planting and maintaining little groups of Christians right across the eastern Empire. And in this epistle the plant was Rome, a capital whose major theme was that Caesar was the Lord – and no one else. Dangerous stuff.
And the basic rule by which these little groups were to live was the law of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are utterly central to christian life. Always a struggle, but always a law.
You can see the way all that works out in what Jesus says: no sweeping something under a carpet or ignoring it, hoping it will go away. Two people in dispute should talk together and try and find a way forward. If that fails, someone else should join them to try and find common ground. And then the net is cast wider. And if all that fails, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” And don’t think that means they should be pushed out and shunned and made into a non person. Far from it. In fact, nothing changes. Remember what Jesus says about loving our neighbours? About trying to remove the tiny spec in someone’s eye, when there is a plank in your own? About forgiveness – till seventy time seven? All that matters here.
We should never assume the right to judge. We should never assume that we have arrived at the kind of spiritual maturity which allows us to point out another’s sickness. There is a telling story from the Desert Fathers which is worth remembering:
There was a monastery where a brother had committed a fault. The other brothers were offended, so they called a meeting, and they wanted Abba Moses, a saintly and much respect hermit who lived nearby, to join them. He refused to go. But they sent again. So Abba Moses got up, and he took a leaky jug and filled it with water – precious of course in the desert – and he set off, carrying it with him. The others came out to meet him, and when they saw him they said “What is this Father? What are you doing with this leaky jug?” And the old man said “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them. And yet, here I am, coming to sit in judgement on the mistakes of someone else.” And when they heard that they called off the meeting.
There is something troublingly recognisable about someone committing a fault and everyone else calling a meeting. But that apart, the story is very revealing. Its not, you’re bad and I’m bad, so all is OK. These people took sin deeply seriously because it led to the possibility of separation from God. But they also took seriously that the only way we move forward in the christian life is with each other, and not apart. “Our life and our death is with our neighbour”, St Anthony, the most famous desert Father said. “If we win our neighbour, we win God. If we cause our neighbour to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.” Note the language here: our neighbour has to be “won”, not defeated. Healing and forgiveness come for others and for ourselves in equal measure: we are bound together, all of us.
And we should remember: the church only exists because of something that happened which makes the entire process of self justification irrelevant. God’s truth and love appeared in Jesus. And the grace poured out from the cross is forgiveness and love, abundant enough for all of us. Paul makes that utterly clear earlier in Romans , Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The task of being in the church, the task of being a Christian, is to receive that grace and forgiveness in such a way that we are transformed into the new creation that God intends us to be. And that is a lifetimes work. But its resource is always at hand for us – even when we think of ourselves as starters in the Christian life, as we all do. God’s grace will always show itself, even in the smallest of our words and actions.
Another story from the desert makes that point beautifully. Some men came to see Abba Poemen and they said to him: Father, we see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up? And he said As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.
That mirrors God’s gentleness with each one of us.
In a world as troubled as ours, the wisdom and gentleness of the Christian faith are badly needed. Our numbers are shrinking, our churches are closing. But the Christian message of care for one another and for our world, of patience and gentleness and above all forgiveness, can always be shown in the way we live our lives. In just the ordinary things we do and say. We need to park the fuss about the future, and just get on with living it all out, as Jesus and Paul tell us. Know what the time is, Paul says. Now is the moment to wake from sleep.