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Church unity

August 12, 2015

Matthew 18: 15-20                                        Wednesday 12th August 2015

This gospel is about what to do when disputes arise within the Church. Do you recall how Moses faced dissension, at one stage getting angry with God and asking to be relieved of the burden of leadership[1]; and similarly, how St Paul was driven to distraction by the perverse and argumentative attitudes found amongst the members of his new churches, for example, in the Church in Corinth.

Sometimes you may hear this passage including the line ‘If your brother sins against you’. We have, I think, a better translation today – ‘If your brother does something wrong’. Biblical experts think that the longer version, ‘if your brother sins AGAINST YOU’ is a later addition made as part of a translation error. This gospel is not about personal slights between individuals. It is more general, it’s about members of the church community who are not ‘hitting the mark’, people who are ‘doing wrong’, or to put it another way, Christians who are ‘sinning’.

The sad reality is that we humans can get pretty argumentative as we struggle to interpret what God wants of us. We can get very sensitive if we think our fundamental beliefs are challenged, or if we are accused of not following God’s ways. People can bear grudges and if we’re not careful this can lead to divisions that last for centuries. If you look at some of the issues that have historically separated the Catholic Church from other Christian traditions, close examination of the issues in a calm, respectful way often reveals that often the differences have been exaggerated, zealously defended within opposing camps without actually engaging with ‘the other side’, increasing mutual distrust, but actually, stripped of the emotive language, there is virtually no difference in what we believe – often the historical ‘differences’  turn out to be based on a lack of mutual respect that has built up through over-zealous arguing over interpretation. This has been the case, to give one notable example, of the historical tension between the Catholic Church and Anglicans over the role and position of Our Lady. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), one of the fruits of Church reforms in the 1960s (and currently co-chaired by our very own Archbishop Bernard), after prayerful and detailed conversations found to everyone’s delight, that stripped of the divisive rhetoric and different traditions, that there is no dogmatic disagreement – it turns out all of us have always loved and respected our Lord’s mother, but with different emphases. And now we find very similar outcomes in the on-going dialogue between the Catholic Church and (wait for it)…. Lutherans! And again, there is a real hope of full communion being restored between the Orthodox churches and the Rome.

Our Lord knows that such doctrinal disputes – with different factions forming – would be a real threat to Church unity, and today we hear Him instructing His disciples on the course to take to avoid this happening. And it is immensely practical advice, based on ancient Jewish tradition.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus is talking about fallings out between fellow Christians: He says, “If your BROTHER does something wrong….” Your ‘brother’ is a fellow believer. So if someone who is not a member of the Church does wrong, this approach is not meant for them. They are beyond the internal discipline of the Church. This is about internal reconciliation and unity.

So the recommended approach we see here by Jesus is to address a crisis INSIDE the Church, between fellow Christians. It is is a gradual process that does not start with over-reaction, that does not humiliate. This arises from the Jewish Rabbinic tradition that a person is never to be shamed in public – the person responsible for publicly humiliating another would risk themselves being excluded from heaven.

Stage one is for a private, one-to-one conversation. This is an opportunity to raise concerns privately, and to seek early resolution, that may be based on simple misunderstanding. But what if the person who is not behaving as they should refuses to take this opportunity to change course?

Stage two…. The process also emphasizes the Jewish tradition of the importance of fair judgment and “the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain a charge.” This is Jewish teaching taken from Deuteronomy 19:15 – no-one could be convicted of a charge against them on the strength of just one witness; two witnesses are always required, to provide corroboration of the facts.

It is only at this stage, in the face of stubborn refusal to rectify the problem, after the case has been proved before two or three others, only then is the wider Christian community to be involved. The matter is to be reported ‘to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.’

This is where I think I might really surprise you. It sounds like the intransigent sinner is to be excluded from the Church doesn’t it? ‘Treat him like a pagan or a tax collector’.

  1. Let’s see what this means in practice? What does it mean to be a pagan or a tax collector? How do they get treated? The answer is that these are the very people who most require evangelisation, the people who need to hear the good news, to help them see the light, to lead them towards a new outlook on life. Yesterday, in the part of the gospel immediately before today’s extract, Jesus was talking of the shepherd leaving the flock of 99 sheep to pursue the single lost sheep, to bring that individual back into the fold. We don’t give up on lost sheep.

And what examples do we have of Jesus interacting with pagans (also called ‘gentiles’)? Gentiles and tax collectors receive respect and compassion from Jesus. He listens to them. He may even have his mind changed by them (and here I’m thinking particularly of the Canaanite woman who asked for her daughter to be healed; Jesus initially ignored her and said he had come to seek out only the Chosen People; but her faith, her persistence persuaded Him to heal her daughter. He also healed the Centurion’s daughter. Jesus eats with tax collectors – that is how He found and won over His disciple Matthew[2]; Jesus was known to enjoy parties (eg the Wedding at Cana), but He was also known to attend events with tax collectors and sinners.[3]

And todays the gospel emphasizes that this whole process is grounded upon faithful prayer:

I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.

What does ‘meeting in Jesus’ name’ mean? Remember what Jesus’ name means? The same as the common Hebrew name ‘Joshua’, it means ‘God saves’. But there was another title revealed by the angel to Joseph in a dream, right at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel:

And the virgin shall be pregnant and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.[4]

Emmanuel – ‘God with us’. Yes, Jesus has promised to be with us when two or three

Gather in His name. Jesus repeats this theme in the very last words of Matthew’s gospel:

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of time.”[5]

This is the central, key message of today’s gospel – unity in the Church between Christians is prefaced on Jesus being present in prayer from His Church. This is why you will find that in Catholic churches we regularly pray for unity within the Church. Maintaining discipline within the Church is essential if we are not to divide into myriad little congregations. And praying for that unity is essential. Our unity as the one Holy, Catholic Church is through our allegiance to the Bishop of Rome – he is the coming together of all the dioceses across the whole world. If you are in a diocese that has a bishop who is ‘in communion’ with all the other bishops through the Pope, you are a member of a Catholic church that together comprises the Universal Church. The fact that we are able to say we are Catholic here in the Archdiocese of Birmingham is because our bishop, Bernard, is in communion with Pope Francis. Sadly, history shows that once there is a break from acknowledging the special position of the Pope, repeated splits and divisions are certain to follow. And sadly, since the Reformation, when the idea of Papal authority was rejected by some national and church leaders, the reformed churches have suffered an endless series of splits and divisions.

For us Catholics, we cannot be self-satisfied or smug over the scandal of Christ’s Body being divided. Since Vatican II we have become much more aware of our own role in the mistakes of the past. Today’s gospel really does hammer home the message we’ve heard in the two previous days – we must resist the idea of excluding others from being welcomed back and having full participation in the Church. Sure, it’ll be hard work, and there will be difficult situations. But with tolerance and understanding, compassion, love, and above all, PRAYERFUL discernment of what is the right thing to say and do, we can bring healing and forgiveness to our troubled, complicated world.

[1] Numbers 11: 14-15

[2] Matthew 9:9

[3] Matthew 11:9

[4] Matthew 1: 23

[5] Matthew 28: 20b

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