One of the themes running through the readings over the last few weeks has been about how we behave towards one another. The sections from Paul’s letter to the Romans have given wonderful advice on the quality of the relating. Last week we heard the appeal that love be genuine, to hate evil, rejoice in hope, be empathic in weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice, living generously, not being haughty (Romans 12:9-21). Today love is to be the defining quality that we live by and this fulfills the law, living honourably, quarrelling is to be put aside, debauchery shunned (Romans 13:8-13). And the reason all of this is mentioned is because these things were only too fragile and at times absent – otherwise why would Paul appeal for them? And then our Gospel reading (Matthew 18:15-20) gives us a disciplinary code for how complaints and grievances are to be escalated. Start one-to-one, take a couple of witnesses to press home the charge and then if all that fails it’s the whole church which is called in.
The section this gospel reading is taken from is about living peaceably together. The chapter starts with the disciples being haughty and puffed up, arguing about who is the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5). Power politics is never pretty and least so in a group which should not be interested in such things. But we are human and have our insecurities and vulnerabilities like everyone else. When someone tries to make me feel that they are clearly important and wants to get one up on me I often find there is a vulnerable, insecure person hiding behind this mask. And depending how confident I am feeling I will either brush it off or feel stung, with one of my buttons found and pressed. The most impressive people are the ones who make us feel special without their own qualities getting in the way. Jesus’ response to this little game of the disciples is to put a child in front of them and tell them that if they are going to act like children then they really need to learn that the humble are the ones who are closer to getting what he is about than the powerful are.
Then there is a warning about stumbling blocks (v6-9), and a call to look out for those who have strayed and are lost (v10-14). And so it is with this run in, this build up, that our gospel reading today has Jesus talking about what they should do if someone offends them. First point it out and try to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, take a witness or two who can also try to persuade them that they have caused offence. This witness is not a passive observer or peace keeper, their role is to help the offending one realize that they have overstepped the mark. Presumably some kind of investigation has already taken place and found which way guilt lies – not always as clear cut as this in my experience. If that fails, it’s to be brought up before the whole body. And if that fails, well, they join the ranks of those who are outside; they are treated as if they are not converts, those on whom the Good News has not stuck.
The ranking of the miscreant with tax collectors and Gentiles is interesting because this is not being consigned to outer darkness and written off. Jesus ate with those groups and a couple of weeks ago we heard of a Canaanite woman whose faith was commended by him over the holy people of Israel (Matthew 15:21-28). So these people are not shunned, but rather seen as those to whom grace expands and longs to call them home. In the game of spiritual snakes and ladders they go back to the start.
It is interesting in this small section that the initiative is taken by the one who has been offended. There is no sense of waiting for the offender to apologise; the offended makes the move and approaches them. There are times when this requires an incredible amount of courage, not least if the power dynamic is weighted against them.
During August I went to a show at the Edinburgh Fringe called ‘Kafka and Son’. It was a monologue where a Canadian actor played the Austro-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka and it explored the letter he wrote to his abusive father explaining his pain and why he couldn’t say all this to him because the damage made it so hard for him to express it, even form the words. It was incredibly powerful and deeply moving. The real letter was never delivered, so we can’t know what the actual outcome would have been. The writer of the play scripted his father’s reply, with mitigating arguments and counter claims. But the relational justice at the heart of this play’s outpouring was of the injured confronting their abuser.
Well some find a way of doing that and it produces a reconciliation of kinds. Some find it is rebuffed and they get nowhere, even more injured. Some can’t summon the strength to even begin – it is just too difficult and may be we can see the other witnesses mentioned in the gospel as being there to support and hold the hand of the weaker party. In grievance hearings a friend or colleague can be needed to support the one who brings the claim. One of the jobs of the church over the centuries, when it has not been concerned for status and power, for privilege and honour, has been to be the voice of the voiceless, to stand with the poorest and most vulnerable so that power and those who would easily ignore them have to hear them. It is what Archbishop Justin Welby was doing this week with his article in the Financial Times about how there is something sick at the heart of the way our economy is functioning for those who are losing out. It was on behalf of an interim report issued by a working group for the Institute of Public Policy Research. He was attacked by some who didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but he was and is right to speak out.
This appropriate adult status of the other witnesses shines a different light on the famous passage about when two of three are gathered together there is Christ in the midst. This is often taken as an encouragement for small congregations or prayer groups. If only a few turn up, it remains valid and that is true. But given where this statement comes in Matthew’s gospel, this is a reminder than when we stand giving voice to the voiceless, and the poorest, we have Christ alongside us. So even if the aggressor is very powerful and very frightening we can take comfort and be strengthened in our stance. The church is not alone when it stands for justice, for a righting of wrongs; Christ stands with it.
The readings today bring qualities for living well together with grace, generosity and in love. When that breaks down or is injured we have a grievance procedure for spiritual health. It comes with a reminder that the church is called to support the abused, oppressed and to give voice to the voiceless. The aim of this calling to account is not annihilation but to reconcile for justice and peace to flourish.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th September 2017