Trinity 13 – 6 September 2020: : Romans 13, 9-end; Matthew 18, 15-20.
Revd. Canon Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens
In all of the four gospels Jesus only uses the word ‘church’ twice. The Greek word is εκκλεσία. In ancient Greek the word is used for an assembly of citizens and the word comes from a verb that means ‘to shut out’. So an ekklesia literally means an assembly where those who are not its members are shut out.
Both times this word ekklesia is attributed to Jesus occur in the central section of St. Matthew’s gospel. The first occasion is where Jesus gives to Simon the additional name of Peter, the rock on which Jesus says he will build his church, his assembly of members, his ekklesia. There is something very prophetic in this message from Jesus as after his death and resurrection small communities of faith in the risen Lord began to emerge from Judaism in Jerusalem and the whole Mediterranean region, many visited and encouraged by St. Paul.
The second occasion ekklesia occurs in St. Matthew’s gospel is in the reading we heard this morning. It is basically a passage about resolving conflict, suggesting a protocol for those who feel sinned against by fellow members of the assembly (ekklesia) and how it is to be resolved.
As this is conflict resolution in an already existing ekklesia I think it unlikely that we ascribe this saying to Jesus directly. The protocol is not so different, in fact is very similar, to a typical Jewish process for resolving disputes. This could so easily be a protocol for the conduct of a Jewish synagogue, with a cultural and social setting in Jewish life. The process described is easily translated into the life of the early church. As the primitive Christian communities had no ready-made house rules (the German theologians refer to this as haustafel), then a pre-exisiting process for the synagogue seems convenient. Why re-invent the wheel?
Christ’s church is not exempt from conflict. A skim reading of history makes that very apparent. Local churches are not exempt from conflict – in many places our bishops and archdeacons spend many hours in conflict management situations within congregations.
The church, universal and local, is made up of people, and people get themselves into situations of conflict – rarely is this deliberate. If it were deliberate it would be deeply sad, because the Christian fellowship is made up of ordinary human beings who seek to be transformed by the love of God.
In the Romans letter today, St. Paul says, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13, 9-10). In this encouragement Paul is setting his Christian conviction about love firmly on the foundation of the Ten Commandments, and the Jewish Shema. ‘Hear O Israel. The Lord your God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
So our Christian communities are founded on this, but because of the human sin of pride, arrogance, stubbornness of heart, gossiping, envy, greed etc, etc – our community of love so easily falls into situations of conflict. By the way, it is not just churches where this happens. Nations are like this against nation; political parties against political parties; families against families. The difference is that we aspire to be communities transformed by love. At our centre is not worldly wealth, nor power, nor possession, nor one up-manship over another, but rather our centre is ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.’
The protocol of Matthew 18 is a pattern to be commended for the Christian church where there is conflict. It shows the value of being together as a community in which love is the presiding principle. However, the mark of a church strong in faith is not how well people manage to get on with each other, but how we react and respond when there is difference. It is how we manage to differ in opinion that is more challenging than when we agree. The church, the nations, families all need to learn how to live in love even when there is difference. The church’s behaviour should be exemplary for the world in this respect. We are called by Christ out of the world, in that sense we are truly ekklesia, to be light and to be salt for the world. This is a cosmic, universal, catholic and ecumenical calling of Christ’s church in every place where she is manifested.
The COVID pandemic has deeply challenged all of us individually, emotionally, psychologically, financially, and politically. It is also a spiritual challenge. Like so many others St. Paul’s absorbs and reflects this global crisis. In a few weeks we will have our Annual meeting. More than ever we need members of our Church Council to be exemplary in how we conduct ourselves. In relation to the gospel protocol of Matthew 18, the Church Representation Rules that determine how each congregation is governed, are detailed. There is a high expectation of mutual co-operation, and that the Council members will govern church life responsibly. However there is an equal need in the current crisis for the Council to be bold, creative and imaginative about how we move out of the negative consequences of the pandemic. Those same Church Representation Rules give no clue how we deal with challenges or differences. This is why today’s gospel reading is so invaluable to us.
There is a well-known saying ‘if you always do what you’ve always done you will always get what you always got.’
This is not an option. Things will have to be different, and it is how we negotiate our way into a different unknown future that will be the mark of our faithfulness. How will we live with difference in opinions in a different uncharted world, and unfamiliar church life? Discerning God’s will for us in the present and in the future will require great skill and understanding from us all.
Please read again that passage from Matthew 18, 15-20. If you like, this is your μαθήματα, your homework for today. Pray for our Annual Meeting, for the new Council it will elect, for the Wardens, and for me; pray for all places where there is conflict that shouts out for resolution; pray for better relations between Greece and Turkey. Remember that we are called to be salt and light, and that where two or three are gathered together genuinely in the name of Jesus, he will be there among us.