A reflection Proper 18, Ezekial 33. 7-11, Psalm 119. 33-40, Romans 13. 8-14, Matthew 18. 15-20 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers
I wonder how many of you have gone out to bring into line a member of the church who has gone astray, either as an individual or as part of a gang of two or three?
I think perhaps the clergy end up doing this as individuals quite a lot of the time, usually to resolve a dispute between members of a congregation. After all, sitting down for a cup of tea and a chat can be very constructive and productive.
Why does it usually fall to the clergy I wonder?
Well, perhaps the clue is in the text of Matthew’s gospel – or rather the differing translations of it!
The original Greek uses the word ‘brother’ to describe the person that has caused offence. This is not unreasonable – earlier in this chapter the word ‘child’ has been used and then ‘little ones’. The implication is of course that we are talking about ‘family’. More recent translations use ‘brother or sister’ or ‘member of the Church’. After all, the church is family and even in times of conflict we are all part of the same body – we belong to each other. In Wales we often refer to family members as ‘belonging’, we say ‘she belongs to me’, or we talk about ‘our Paul’, meaning ‘my brother’, or ‘my son’. I suppose the reason clergy often end up in the firing line, patching up disputes between individuals is because, rightly or wrongly, we are seen as ‘the head of the family’, or at least of the local congregation, and so act as the ‘go-between’ trying to reconcile members of the congregation who are in dispute. If we the Church are one body then surely the responsibility lies with us ALL.
It is not an easy thing to go and say to someone ‘you have hurt me’, ‘you’ve upset me’ or ‘you have wronged me’ and then to sit quietly, both parties, and talk it through – yes, there are more sensitive ways of wording it, but ultimately that is what we are saying. It places you in a vulnerable position and open to abuse from the other side. Even then, if a calm conversation can ensue, then you might find out that you are wrong, when you thought you were right. When you listen to the other person’s side you may begin to understand and perhaps find more good than you expected. As members of a family we grow up with our siblings, we fight, we make up, we grow together, learn from each other, and learn about each other. The same is true of the family of the Church. But still, it can be difficult, where there is conflict, to really LISTEN to one another.
If talking one-to-one fails then it seems we are advised to progressively ‘gang-up’, to take one or two other people along to observe, to act as witnesses to what is said and done and to offer advise – in effect to mediate. If that approach fails then the task falls to the whole church.
How would you feel if one day you opened the door to find the whole church standing there pointing their fingers at you?
Well, perhaps the text doesn’t really mean that. In Jesus’ time communities were small, people would have known each other, people would have taken an interest in local disputes and also taken responsibility in resolving them, rather than turning a ‘blind-eye’. There was perhaps a collective responsibility to resolve anything that upset the ‘status quo’. There is plenty of evidence for that, consider how easy it was to gather a crowd to stone someone – that may be one way to resolve a dispute or deal with someone who in your eyes has done wrong, it is not something most of us would condone today and Jesus leads us away from that. Ultimately, if all else is lost the offender is simply excluded completely from the community. Not that that need be the end of the story, there is always hope of reconciliation and for the ‘prodigal’ to return.
Whatever decisions we make about what is right and what is wrong, however we resolve disputes, we should look to each other for advice, guidance and help in dealing with a situation to ensure that every member of the family is taken care of, respected and included.
I can’t help wondering how this works out on the global stage and within the Anglican Communion as a whole. There are many disputes within the communion, not least those surrounding women priests, women bishops, gay priests, gay bishops. I wonder is exclusion of one of the parts really the answer? Is exclusion really being used as a last resort, or simply as a way to avoid addressing the issues?
In all things we must remember that no decision must be taken alone, it must be the decision of at least two. If we read the text literally then there is only a requirement for two to be in agreement before a request is granted. That suggests to me that all things are possible, it is usually easy to find one person who agrees with you. That gives me great hope. I don’t think we will get resolution to all conflicts in our time, although all things are possible with God we have no say in when our requests are granted.
One to one contact increases our understanding and trust of one another, but there must also be a readiness for the church to act together, to pray together and to forgive. There are no boundaries and no limits, for when two or three are gathered together Jesus Christ himself is present and that makes all things possible.