Sermon on Exodus 12: 1-14, Romans 13: 8-10, Matthew 18: 15-20 for September 6th 2020 – 13th Sunday after Trinity, from Revd Joy Boyce,

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Conflict is very much part of the human condition.  From childhood sibling rivalries to disputes between nations, we all experience conflict at some time.

Conflict resolution is something that nations and international organisations spend  time and money trying to achieve, whether it’s trade talks, peace keeping initiatives or stopping invasions and acts of war.  It’s also part of the corporate culture.  Staff are trained in resolving conflict and how to “leverage” (an awful corporate word) the energy of conflict to achieve corporate goals and get conflicting individuals working as effective teams.

And here we have a first-century church’s blueprint for conflict resolution.  This group of early Churches, founded by Matthew, are told how to cope with church members who have behaved badly and will not accept correction.

Because you are all familiar with scripture, I’m sure you have spotted disconnects.  Who is really talking here?  When the gospel writer says the unrepentant who will not accept correction should be viewed as “a tax collector or a Gentile”, we experience a little intake of breath – tax collectors, gentiles, weren’t these the very people Christ deliberately sought out?  We begin to suspect we’re listening to Matthew rather than Jesus, and it’s Matthew who is now the leader of a thriving early church, writing years later, (and perhaps sounding a bit like an Archdeacon on a visitation).  Matthew is attempting to provide leadership and structure to churches and a method for imposing necessary discipline.

Then there’s the difficulty of translation, the New Revised Standard Version, like other modern bibles, leans towards the use of inclusive language.  Here Matthew talks of a “church member”, sinning against you.  The original Greek has: “if your brother sins against you…”  a world of difference.  When we talk of brothers and sisters, we are already pre-disposed to a climate of love, this is not just a question of attending the same church, this is about togetherness, like siblings, perhaps falling out, but making up, understanding one another, loving one another.

The third difficulty is what the passage leaves out.  By stopping where it does, we get an austere view of the early church and conflict resolution, or perhaps I should call it reconciliation.  What is missing is forgiveness, the reconciliation that turns the tax collector and the gentile from one who is outside the pale into the one who is seeking God, who may fail and fail again, but who understands instinctively the very core of Jesus’s mission, his proclamation of divine love.  Read on and in verses 21- 23 we come to Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive – as many as seven times?  Christ’s answer, “not seven times but I tell you seventy-seven times”, points us back to the heart of the gospel, love.

In today’s passage from Romans we have a succinct “mission statement”, an overview of what Christianity is.  In three short verses Paul gives us the heart of the gospel.  Its simple imperative is that we love one another.  All of the laws, which mainly tell us what we must not do, they can all be summed up in one positive thing that we must do – we must love one another.

Because, if we love our brother and our sister, we will not steal from them, we will not lie to them, we will not commit adultery against them, we will not covert what they have, we could never, ever murder them or harm them in any way – we love them.

And in loving them as ourselves we eradicate arrogance, pride, any need to be superior.  We love everyone else as we love ourselves, and in doing that we are committed to justice, to equality, to breaking down barriers, to being with those we don’t necessarily understand but whom we see as a brother or sister in Christ. Reconciliation, justice, truth, all come from love.

And the Church that is inspired by the Holy Spirit and Paul’s imperative is truly alive, truly itself, no fudging, no evasion.

It means that the Church is, without trying, attractive to others, welcoming them in, being full of joy and laughter.  It means that justice and reconciliation are of paramount importance. It means being aware of the world’s hungry and that the rest of the world appears not to care.   The total wealth of the world’s four richest individuals is still more than the total wealth and income of the world’s 48 poorest nations.  Translate that into human misery juxta-positioned with a picture of human over-indulgence and arrogance.  OK, I know, Bill Gates is having a good stab at giving away much of his wealth, and many philanthropists are doing the same.  But if we truly love one another as we love ourselves, the result must be that we cannot stomach this blatant injustice, we cannot go on eating while millions starve.

Being truly alive to the Gospel and to Christ’s love means barriers must be broken down.  Being truly inclusive is about more than language, more than political correctness.  Breaking down barriers means opening ourselves to God’s love demonstrated through the incarnation – living out the redemption of humankind through Christ’s saving grace, not just our own acts and good works.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

If, by the simple act of two or three of us being together, not just physically there but together in his Name, in love and inspired to live the gospel – if by this simple act, HE is there, actually there, among us, that is an awesome prospect.  It means we have no excuse.  We simply open ourselves to that love, to that way of being, and Christ is among us, along-side us.  What possibilities, what wealth, what grace, what love are ours, openly and freely on offer to us.

Holy Spirit, inspirer, creator, lover.  Move among us and within us.  Show us who we truly are, who we can truly become.  Shake us and mould us.  Amen.

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