During the service, we offered prayers for Education Sunday and World Suicide Prevention Day, and we were joined by Salma from One Roof Leicester, our charity of the year for 2022/23, who came to tell us a little about the work our fundraising will support. One Roof provide accommodation and support to single people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, ultimately hoping to "eradicate homelessness through positively transforming the lives of people". Changes to benefits and asylum support mean referrals have increased, and the money we raised will support those with no other access to funds. To find out more about One Roof and how you can support their work, visit their website.
Matthew 18:15-20 (NLT)
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offence. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Romans 13:8-10 (NLT)
Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbour, you will fulfil the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfils the requirements of God’s law.
One of the benefits of following the lectionary, as we have been in recent months, is that we get a sense of continuity and of the narrative as a whole. However it does occasionally jump about and skip ahead, and this week’s reading does not follow directly on from last week’s. If you look back a little way, you will see that we have missed the Transfiguration, when Peter and James and John see Jesus in glory on a mountaintop, shining like the sun in bright white robes alongside Moses and Elijah, with a voice from the clouds declaring “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” It’s a really important scene, and the lectionary only misses it because the church calendar gives it its own special day. We’ve already seen the disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God and we’ve already heard Peter declare that he is the Messiah, so in some ways the transfiguration does not give them any new information, but it is an affirmation of what they are already beginning to understand, and it must have increased and enlivened their faith in the miraculous teacher they had chosen to follow. I wonder what transfiguration moments we may have had, what moments have strengthened or illuminated our faith.
The lectionary has also jumped over the scene in which the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and he tells them that they must "become like little children"; Jesus’ rather stark words about not causing others to stumble and removing the causes of our own failings; and Matthew’s version of the story of the lost sheep, which Jesus concludes by saying “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish”. The passage we heard this morning follows directly on from these bits of teaching, and so I think we need to hear it in that context. There is something here about right relationships. By becoming like children we become like siblings, not worrying about who is greater. By taking care not to be stumbling blocks we take care of one another, lessening the harm caused by sin. And by understanding the importance of each sheep we become more like the shepherd, protecting the whole flock.
This passage about dealing with sin then continues this theme. It is not about judging or nitpicking the behaviour of others, but about maintaining good relationships. Some translations simply have “if another believer sins” but many have "if another believer sins against you", which further highlights that this is personal, it is about making amends where hurt has been caused. As my daughter has been singing on loop since watching Matilda, “if it’s not right, you’ve got to put it right”. Although having said that it is personal, I don’t think that excludes defending others or addressing systemic sin, especially where power dynamics mean that those who have been hurt are unable to seek or are unlikely to receive redress.
Last week a group of us joined an affirming Christian presence at Leicester Pride, a few in the march with our church banner, and a few on the side of the parade route with signs declaring God’s love and our belief in church for all. Having done something similar in Leeds, I already knew that the banner that always draws the most attention is the one that says “We’re sorry for the hurt. God loves you and so do we.” The church has sinned against the LGBTQ+ community through discrimination and exclusion. That’s not right, so we have to put it right, by standing in the gap with a message that seeks to challenge those who have sinned, and apologise to those who have been sinned against.
But back to the specific scenario imagined in the passage, and the one who has sinned is to be challenged privately, and then with two or three witnesses, and then before the whole church. It sounds like quite an intense process, but we have to be honest about how we have sinned and how we have been hurt, and we have to be willing to have the hard conversations, and surely the hope is that reconciliation takes place in the first instance, in private without judgement or retaliation. The point is not to be punitive but to be restorative. Jesus speaks about winning the person back, and I think we have to hear that in the context of the story of the lost sheep, and recognise that this is about reconciliation not winning the argument.
If none of this works, Jesus says "treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector", but here we must remember that Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors as friends and potential disciples, and that says to me that this is still not about punishment or rejection. The person who has failed to repent and reconcile may have a different relationship to the community, because they have chosen not to participate fully in it, but they are not cut off and they may still choose to engage again.
Soon after this passage, Jesus says we should forgive seventy times seven times, and I think that only strengthens this sense that we can still keep trying. “Seventy times seven” is surely a turn of phrase, and I don't think we're meant to keep a tally and stop once we’ve forgiven four hundred and ninety times, but rather the point is that we keep forgiving as many times as we have to. But what does forgiveness look like? From hard won experience, I believe I can say emphatically that it does not mean things have to return to how they were before the thing that needs to be forgiven happened. Where there is genuine repentance there may be genuine change and genuine reconciliation, and that is a beautiful thing. But sometimes the person who has hurt us does not repent or change, and then there cannot be reconciliation.
We are allowed to place boundaries and step away from destructive relationships. We do not have to keep putting ourselves in a place where we can be hurt. But the good news is that even where there cannot be reconciliation, there can still be healing. There can be a different relationship or there can be release from a relationship. We can reach a point where even though the hurt we have experienced has not been acknowledged or resolved, it ceases to be a wound and becomes a scar which no longer causes us pain. That is not easy and it takes time, and that is why we must forgive seventy times seven times. We might not be forgiving new offences, but forgiving the same offence over and over again, making a conscious decision each time to release the grip it has on us. If this is resonating for you this morning, may you trust that there can be peace.
Coming back to this morning's reading, Jesus says that if two agree on something, God will do it. It's one of those passages I simply do not know what to do with, because it is so demonstrably not our experience. And how could it be? Two could agree on one thing, and two could agree on something else, and we could end up with something like the chaotic scenes in Bruce Almighty, where Bruce replies yes to every single prayer in his inbox. I'm really not sure what Jesus is saying here, except that it is followed by the promise that "when two or three gather together as my followers, I am there with them", and so I think it is an assurance that God is with us and God listens to us and God acts for us in ways we do not fully understand. It might not be the promise of instant satisfaction, but it is enough for me.
We'll bring our reflections on the gospel text to an end there. As those of you who remember the series on Colossians and Ephesians may remember, I am not always entirely in agreement with Paul, but once again I want to let the passage from Romans simply speak for itself. Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbour, you will fulfil the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfils the requirements of God’s law. What we owe one another is love, so may we love that we might do no wrong, and might we do all that is in our strength to make amends where wrong has been done. Amen.