Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 6th September 2020

Matt. 18:15-20 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=466402456

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about people and things that I disagree with. Not just because I’m a cantankerous old bloke – although that may well be true – but because I think that we seem to be going through a period when attitudes are hardening and people seem less inclined, in some areas, to try to meet each other half way and settle their differences.

You know, what do people think about some of the controversies out there today? What do people think about refugees? Immigration? Black Lives Matter? What about Cecil Rhodes – that one’s near to home for me, as I’m the secretary of the Oriel College alumni. Do people think the government is doing a good job? Does an MP represent all their constituents, or just the ones who elected them? I’m not asking you to express a view, but just to focus on the thought that these are some of the things that people disagree very strongly about today.

Jesus was telling his disciples how to deal with disputes in the early church. ‘Try to reason with someone; if they won’t come round to your point of view, take a couple of the others with you and see if they’ll be impressed by the fact that it’s not just you who thinks in a certain way, so they’ll realise they’re the one who’s got it wrong. If that doesn’t convince them, put it to the congregation, and see what they all think.

But of course, if the person still won’t change, you’ll have to kick them out, and once again they’ll just be like the great unwashed, not with us anymore; beyond the pale.

And if you follow this plan, you’ll be doing the right thing. However you play it, it will be made in heaven. Because whenever two or three of you get together for something to do with the church, I’m going to be right there alongside you.’

It sounds good. Just follow these simple ideas and all will be sweetness and light. But unfortunately, it isn’t. As well as the controversies that I’ve mentioned, what about the ones which are in the church itself, even today, about same-sex marriage, for example?

You might say, see what the Bible says. But finding a definitive answer is more complicated than just turning up our Bibles to find out what Jesus told us, and trying to carry out literally what we find there.

That’s partly because the Bible often needs some interpretation. Translations can get in the way. For instance here: ’Try to reason with someone’ – what sort of someone? Someone who, according to what we’ve just read, is ‘a member of the church’, who ‘sins’ against you.

Actually what the Greek original says, is, ‘If your brother makes a mistake’. In recent years we have adopted a translation which says that the word ‘brother’ in this kind of context, about the early church, means ‘brother or sister’, and that they were called that as a way of identifying them as Christians, members of the church.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter. But to me, the word ‘brothers’ (and certainly I would accept that ‘brother’ in this means also ‘sister’) means a relationship much closer than mere ‘membership’. I’ve paid my subscription; but do you know? I hardly ever go to that club.

What has the other member, or the brother, even, done? Have they ‘sinned’? The word is a Greek word (ἀμαρτήσῃ) which is often translated as to ‘sin’. It means originally to ‘miss the mark’, or miss the target. Theologians today interpret the idea of ‘sin’ not so much as a mistake, a missed target, but as a separation from God, which is much more serious.

If someone is up the pole, or has got the wrong end of the stick, you may well want to put them straight. But how can you convince them that you are right and they are wrong? Jesus suggests that there is power in numbers. If loads of you all think that black is white, maybe I should believe you.

People dig in and become stubborn when they think that fundamental truths are being challenged. But I just wonder what would become of some of those entrenched views, if we were a bit more tentative rather than always being dogmatic. Is it really so fundamental that if you don’t come round to my way of thinking, I may have to ditch our friendship and have nothing more to do with you? If it’s really a ‘sin’, maybe so. But if it’s just an honest mistake? Surely not.

Just in passing, this passage in St Matthew does have in it a phrase which came from the translations – it started in the King James Bible, or perhaps with Tyndale – which bugs me. That is verse 18 of chapter 18: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

What is this ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’? To ‘loose’ something isn’t even English these days. We might ‘loosen’ something; but the real sense of the word is something like to ‘untie’ or ‘release’ something. And I don’t mean that common spelling mistake where people write ‘loose’ when they mean ‘lose’. I don’t think that’s what it is here. And ‘binding’? The idea is the same as the making of an agreement or a contract, a symbolic binding – or indeed a throw-back to parchment scrolls, mementoes of old agreements, bound, tied up, with string – just as barristers’ briefs are still bound up with pink string today.

So it’s something serious, so serious that its documents are bound up in pink string. But the modern translators must have been having a tough day somewhere else when ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ came up. Those are no longer the right words. Something like ‘forbid’ and ‘allow’ is better. Not ‘loose’, please.

So – how are we to know, who is right or not? It makes me think a bit about what the Archbishop of Canterbury said about Brexit, that we should learn to ‘disagree well’. One commentator (the former Dean of Exeter, Dr Jonathan Draper, in ‘Modern Believing, 61.2 2020 at p.120, see https://doi.org/10.3828/mb.2020.7)’ has written, for example, that ‘The process of Brexit has exposed our failures to listen’. He’s saying that we aren’t agreeing with one another because we haven’t really listened to each other’s point of view. That sounds good. But surely there is no point listening, if what is being said is nonsense.

I’m a bit puzzled also by the words that, according to St Matthew, Jesus used to describe people whom we can’t persuade, who are therefore to be kicked out, beyond the pale. You must treat them as you would a ‘heathen or a tax-collector’. But surely Jesus was quite happy to hang around with tax collectors and sinners, wasn’t He? Maybe, given that he was talking to his disciples, who were Jewish, it made sense to use a description they would recognise of people whom they wouldn’t have anything to do with, such as unbelievers and the hated taxmen.

So what did Jesus say we should do, to resolve these knotty disagreements? I think that that’s the point of His famous saying about where two or three are gathered together.

He’s saying that as Christians we should act in the knowledge that He, the risen Christ, is there among us. And our churches should not shy away from confronting those things which are not consistent with his commandments of love.

Sometimes people do say, ‘What would Jesus have done?’ Or ‘What would Jesus do?’ And it’s not hard to know, really, if we feel him present with us, in His Holy Spirit. Then as St Paul put it, we are ‘in Christ.’ Christ is in us. So come, Lord Jesus. Two or three of us are gathered together in your name.