Trinity 12; Proper 18A; Matthew 18: 15-20

Sunday 07th September, 2014

One of the most astonishing characteristics of the early Church was its incredibly flimsy organisation basis. Unlike nascent Islam that tied religion, law and politics very closely together from the outset, Jesus didn't draw up a formal constitution for his followers to guide them when he was no longer physically present with them. He left no document containing a set of written rules governing the aims of the organisation, how it would run and how its members would work together. There was no instrument setting out a checklist pertaining to the name of the organisation, its objects, its powers, its membership, its officers, its meetings, its committees, its financial arrangements and governing its dissolution. Instead, Jesus left a community of disciples with just the promise that he would be personally present with them through his Holy Spirit until the end of the age.

Rather, the new community of the People of God were to be marked out by their relationships rather than rules or any legal formalities. Indeed, the Greek word that our reading translates as 'church', is ekklesia, from which we get our word 'ecclesiastical'. The French eglise, or Welsh eglws,, makes the connection clearer. The word ekklesia refers to an assembly or a gathering together into a group, rather than an institution. The word ekklesia is only mentioned in two places in Matthew's Gospel. In chapter 16, where Jesus tells Peter that he will be the rock (the cephas) on which Jesus will build his ekklesia against which the gates of hell will not ultimately prevail. And here in chapter 18, where Jesus hints, rather contradictorily , that the ekklesia may not at times be as stable as its rocky base would suggest.

Those two sections in Matthew's gospel that contain the word ekklesia are drawn from material which doesn't appear in any of the other gospels. Scholars think that when Matthew sat down to write his gospel, he drew upon three sources: the Gospel of Mark, the first among the four to be written; another documentary source containing material common to Luke and Matthew (labelled 'Q'), and a third source containing material peculiar to Matthew's gospel (called 'M'). The two sections containing the word 'ekklesia' derive from the 'M' source, that is, Matthew's local community, and therefore reflecting the particular circumstances of that community. Scholars think that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Syria, about forty years after Jesus' crucifixion, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. It was, they believe, a time of turmoil because the Matthew's community was a largely Jewish-Christian community which was growing apart from other Jews with a burgeoning Gentile membership. And I think what faced this increasingly cosmopolitan community was the challenge about what to do when Jewish and Gentile Christians fell out with each other.

And what I think Matthew's community provides here is a mechanism for restoring relationships when they've broken down, or threaten to break down, between Jews and Gentiles. There's a logical progression. Firstly, if you feel you have been wronged, bring it to the attention of the wrongdoer. Sometimes people hurt us inadvertently and sometimes we just need to clear the air. If that doesn't do the trick, then find one or two people you can trust to go along with you, so that others can see that you're not making it up. If that doesn't work, then it becomes a community matter, and this, in extreme circumstances, can lead to the expulsion of the wrongdoer. The language is very strong. The Church is to treat him as a complete outsider, in the way that pious Jews in Jesus' day treated tax-collectors and Gentiles. The ecclesiastical equivalent of "you're barred". Gentile miscreants are to be treated as they had been by Jews before their inclusion in the community. Jewish Christians likewise.

However, in our modern, less deferential, age, the idea of church discipline rather sticks in the craw. Who the heck is the church community to tell me what to do? And anyway, its impractical, isn't it. If you feel that the 'proverbials' are grinding you down in one church community, you can always shop around for another, and start again. The trouble is that sinful human beings have a way of bringing their old bad habits into their new relationships, often causing dissension and discord in their new situations. So isn't it sensible to have some measure of discipline, some decision-making mechanism to check bad behaviour?

Church order, whatever form it takes, provides a framework within which relationships can flourish. In a church of England parish, such as our own, we have a Rector, appointed by the patron or a bishop. We have churchwardens, elected by the whole Parish, representing the laity, and the PCC - the Parochial Church Council - elected by members of the electoral roll on which many of your names appear. Although the Rector has ultimate responsibility for the ministry and mission of the Church, the life of the Church is a collective enterprise. This book containing the Church Representation Rules defines the principal function, or purpose, of the PCC as "promoting in the parish the whole mission of the Church".

Last week, I went to the Greenbelt Arts Festival which I attend every year. There were a number of very interesting talks enquiring whether the Church of England has a future led by Professor Linda Woodhead at the University of Lancaster. She made three structural points which had a bearing on the questions. Firstly, she argued that the Church of England is too priest-centric, that too much of the life and activity of the church centers on the priest. Secondly, the is a vast amount of lay expertise which pays dividends in the secular workplace, but isn't deployed in the churches, which remains a rather dog-eared, amateur institution. Thirdly, Christianity is caught, not taught, people will only come to church if they find it attractive, not because they are told to or feel any sense of obligation. In short, it is the quality of the relationships within the Church that will ensure the future of the Church as an identifiable institution in the world, and the Church needs structures which facilitate that. That is, I think, the point of our gospel passage.

There is also a deeper pointhere. I said earlier that after his death, Jesus appeared to leave his disciples to get on with it. However, there was this difference. He promised to be with the disciples provided there were two or more of them as an ongoing living presence: "where there are two or more gathered there in my name, there will I be amongst them." This is all of a piece with Matthew's Gospel as a whole. One of the Gospel's central themes is that God is with us. It is there at the beginning. Jesus is Emmanuel which means 'God With Us' (1:23). It is there at the very end of the gospel: go out into the nations making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and surely I will be with you until the end of the age (28: 19.20). And here, to repeat, Jesus promises to be with us at the very heart of community, where two or more are gathered in his name (18:20).

This tells us something of fundamental importance about God. God continues to be personally present with us in our community life. Reconciliation within the community matters to God, not just because he wants people to be reconciled per se, but because the life of the reconciled community itself reveals to the world the very character of the God of reconciliation. And that witness is badly damaged when members of the Christian community fall out with each other. "Love one another. By this means the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Church order matters, not because it gives church leaders an instrument of social control, but because it provides a practical framework within which the church community attempts to express something of the love of God.


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