Sermon 6 September 2020
In my living room I have three shelves full of Christian books. And above my desk where I write sermons there are two more shelves. Why on earth would I need so many books?
In our readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have just heard the whole of the Jesus’ message summed up in one or two pithy sentences.
‘The commandments… are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’
Why then are there so many details added by the church throughout the ages?
Anything we as Christians are doing or proposing to do needs to be set along this standard of love – Is this action truly loving? Or am I more concerned about details of the law, which might have originally been meant out of love, but come with a hefty side-serving of judgment or smugness?
It’s for these occasions that Jesus urged his followers to take the log out of their own eye before attending to the speck in someone else’s.
Unfortunately conflict in society goes back to the beginning of time, and was certainly a theme in many of the Old Testament teachings.
This is why Jesus’ words are so radical for his time! Jews had been struggling to follow the law, the ten commandments, since Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain. Some had added more and more details and nuances and interpretations to the point where compliance was for its own sake, not for the sake of love. In Jesus’ day this group was represented by the Pharisees. Jesus
reserved his most sarcastic criticism for them – he accused them of being so legalistic about tithing that they even gave a tenth of the mint and cumin herbs in their garden, but didn’t follow the big picture – love everyone.
Our reading from Matthew’s gospel addresses situations where there is conflict between members of the church. The word used in the Greek is adelphos, which is brothers, or fellow disciples, so here Jesus is talking about a situation that arises within the worship community, between people who are committed to the Way. Some versions have the word ‘church’, but it’s really closer, more intimate than that.
It’s not really referring to conflicts between different denominations, though as members of a wide Christian community we should all strive to live peacefully with one another.
Jesus is talking abut the times when someone close to you offends you. Maybe you’ve been put on a roster on a day when you have specifically asked not to. Or maybe there has been a misunderstanding about whether an Alpha meeting you have invited your boarder to was offering a full dinner, or just a light tea. This really happened to me.
You know what I mean – wherever where are people there can be conflict.
Jesus tells us how to deal with it – go and talk to the person privately. Don’t tell everyone else, don’t go behind their back, just have a loving conversation. Who knows – this might just resolve the issue. Maybe both of you had got hold of the wrong end of the stick, and it can all be sorted out easily.
Our current society seems to thrive on drama – just see how popular Reality TV is, especially where people are arguing. One of my least favourites is Below Decks, where the crew of swanky yachts do more stirring and conflict-growing than ever they do sailing.
But the private conversation is the Jesus way.
How about when this gets you nowhere? Take a couple of others with you, and try again. This is a throw-back to the Old Testament way of justice, where witnesses help to establish the truth. Maybe your witnesses will have some hard words for you – they might be able to point out where the problem really lies, and a humble hearer will listen and make amends.
But, oh dear, there is still a problem. Step three. Take it to the whole assembly. This is inviting a whole group of people, whose peace is marred by undercurrents, to help sort out the problem.
Have you ever been in a church congregation where there is something going on, people are whispering in corners, and the atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a communion wafer, but no one is talking out loud and it feels really tense? I was in a church once where two members of the worship team were having an affair, and it caused a lot of problems. Maybe a solution won’t be found to a problem by having everyone give their opinion, but at least it’s out in the open, and the problem can be ring-fenced – only the difficulty at hand is to be addressed, and it’s not a free-for-all for every grumble you have had going back the last twenty years!
But – maybe we need step 4. Maybe the issue has not been solved, maybe those found to be at fault by the assembly have not repented and tuned back to the right path. What then?
This is where Jesus starts to sound very strict. ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector’, he says. 2000 years ago the very word Gentile meant Outsider, not people who were to inherit God’s kingdom, which was for the Jews. Tax- collectors were even worse – agents for the hated Romans, taking not only the tax Rome sucked out of the people, but skimming off more for their personal use.
Remember though that Matthew himself was a tax collector before he answered Jesus’ call.
Ooh, maybe Jesus is not telling his people, and us, to reject those ones completely, who refuse to toe the line. How did Jesus actually treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He loved them. He came when the Roman centurion asked him to heal his servant. He ate a meal with tax collectors.
This is a bit challenging isn’t it? What was looking like an escalating scale of more and more strict treatment of the bad guy, is turned upside down by Jesus’ loving example!
How then should we react when situations like this arise? We can come back to the other reading – ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’
Love triumphs over everything. We may need to distance ourselves from hurtful and dangerous behaviour, but we must never stop loving. If every Christian in the world concentrated on truly loving every other person, what a wonderful world it would be! People who are not yet Christians would be drawn to that amazing power of love, and we would all live in freedom and in God’s truth.
This week, in your prayer time, ask God to show you someone you may not have succeeded at showering God’s love upon, and let God lift away the hurts, and set you free.