Ezekiel 33.7-11; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20: Reconciliation
The news headlines at the moment are very stormy and shaky. Hurricanes of extraordinary power are hitting the Caribbean islands and heading for Florida, and Mexico has suffered a very strong earthquake. We’re aware too of brooding political and possible military storms over North and South Korea and of many communities being shaken to the core – besides the terrible toll on people in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other long-suffering countries, the latest tragedy is unfolding in Myanmar with the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority – now over 270,000 fleeing to Bangladesh. While people can do nothing but simply try to survive the extreme weather storms and earthquakes of nature, they can do something about ending much human conflict and suffering, by working at reconciliation more seriously. It’s not encouraging to learn of Presidents or rulers refusing to talk to one another – as I noted Qatar and Saudi Arabia have now announced and as yet another Donald Trump tweet about North Korea put it: Talking won’t work! “It takes two sides to make a lasting peace, but it only takes one to make the first step.” (Edward “Ted” Kennedy, well-known former US Senator).
At a very different level we might be aware of the reconciliation that is often needed between family members, work colleagues, between neighbours perhaps, but which is hard to effect without the willingness to face up to the problem and talk about it.
In the light of all this our readings this morning make interesting, if challenging, listening and thinking. The prophet Ezekiel is reminded by God of the responsibility that comes with being God’s messenger to his people. As we heard, however harsh the message might seem, God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked may turn from their ways and live”. God is in the business of reconciliation and always offers the first step. In the other two readings we heard from the Letter of Paul to the Romans and St Matthew’s Gospel, the theme of reconciliation and how to work for it is strong. St Paul points us to the fundamental and essential commandments of God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Loving one another, Paul writes, is the only thing you really do owe someone else, because in doing that you are keeping the law of God. For Paul there was something vitally important and urgent about living that way because by becoming a believer in Christ you have a responsibility to live in the light of your final salvation which is always getting nearer. So keen is Paul to encourage his readers to live the way of Jesus with him that he speaks of “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. If we can try to imagine what he means by that, he seems to be saying we are to take on the characteristics and Kingdom values of Jesus – so that people will see a family likeness among Christians and see that what we say we believe and what we do actually match up. Our confidence for this comes from our faith and belief that, as the Collect put it today, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the good news of God’s love that we have to share with others. Reconciliation and forgiveness were a key part of what Jesus taught and lived; and so are for us are the hallmarks of living the Christian life.
This morning’s gospel reading is part of a whole chapter which focuses on those who are lost becoming reconciled and restored and the responsibility for not putting anything in the way of this for them. There are some difficulties with some of the verses we heard though. You might even feel that they don’t quite ring true or sound like Jesus; (they could even be from a list of regulations of an ecclesiastical committee). Some of these verses about the Church and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven are hard to know how to interpret. The reference to Church seems anachronistic because Jesus would not have asked his followers to take a matter of reconciliation about a member who sins to the Church. The Church did not exist in Jesus’s earthly days; and it certainly didn’t exist in any organised way that we know now. The word Matthew uses for Church is only used twice in his gospel and is ecclesia = assembly. There’s another query we may have too: the way Jesus speaks about tax collectors and Gentiles here – if the offender refuses to listen even to the church assembly – let that one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector. For him to say they are in effect beyond the pale, with no hope, doesn’t seem to fit when we remember Jesus was known and criticised for being a friend of tax collectors and sinners, eating with Gentiles.
Maybe we should understand these verses about the way towards reconciliation of a fellow Christian who has acted wrongly or dishonestly, as meaning that: if anyone sins against you do all you can to get an acknowledgement of the wrong and get things right again privately between you first. It’s no good brooding over a wrongdoing, much better to face it and talk it out. And then if that doesn’t work take one or two others along who are wise and will listen and be able to help the process and also be a check on your own reading of the situation. If that doesn’t work out either, then speak with the Church community, who should judge, not in any legal sense but in a spirit of Christian love. Those words about whatever is bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven are difficult to interpret: are we meant to think that Jesus is giving an authority to the Church to pronounce judgments in such situations as being what God wills, or could it be understood that whatever the Church discerns prayerfully by the grace of God may be the right way forward in such a situation and in accordance with what God wills.
However we view this there is a challenge here to keep trying to win a person back and keep that open – and that is certainly in keeping with what we believe of Jesus life and ministry and of what we believe about God’s nature. Jesus’s parables about a lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, tell us that God never gives up on people and shows us the wounds of the Cross to prove it. It was there, we believe, the way to reconciliation was effected between God and humankind.
Today’s gospel presents us with the challenge to work for reconciliation where people have not loved one another, where wrongs have been done and trust has broken down. Yet there is a promise of hope too in the final verse of the gospel passage.
Jesus says “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We are not alone in our struggle to become the kind of nation, community, families, Church that Jesus is leading us to be. Through Jesus we can be confident that God’s presence is with us every day, alongside us in all that goes on; in our relationships, our failings and fallings-out with others, and in our desire to find reconciliation and the joys of rebuilding and strengthening loving relationships once again. And yes, because of this, we might dare to hope that political leaders may think again about the importance of taking reconciliation seriously.
Pope Paul VI – quote:
A love of reconciliation is not weakness or cowardice. It demands courage, nobility, generosity, sometimes heroism, an overcoming of oneself rather than one’s adversary … In reality it is the patient, wise art of peace, of loving, of living with one’s fellows, after the example of Christ, with a strength of heart and mind modelled on his.
Amen to that!