notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Matt 18 - Dealing with our differences
Good Shepherd 4/9/2005 (Communion Service)
Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20
What's your favourite sign on a church notice-board?
Seven days without prayer makes one weak.
The carpenter from Nazareth seeks joiners. 
Here's a good one, which fits in with today's gospel reading:
TRESPASSERS will not be prosecuted, they may be forgiven.
This is a good reminder that the Church is first and foremost a community of forgiven sinners. To many people, church-going is so closely associated with respectability that anyone who is not strictly law-abiding might well feel out of place in such company. But if we have even the tiniest sense of God's grace working in our lives then we know the reality is, thankfully, quite different. Another church notice-board asked passers-by to consider,
Who would you rather spend an hour with this Sunday morning: hypocrites who are going to heaven or hypocrites who aren't?
You could replace the word hypocrites with any other word for wrongdoing, because all wrongs God longs to right. And God is happy to have a church full of wrongdoers who long to be righted.
That's not to say that when we do wrong, when we do wrong to each other, we shoudn't try to right it. Jesus made it clear to his followers that they should deal with people who wrong each other within their community of believers.
So how should the Church deal with people who wrong others when they are found within its community? Should it openly condemn the sinner or, by keeping silent, seem to condone the sin? Neither, suggests this Gospel reading, quoting the practical instruction Jesus gave to the Church about ways of dealing with wrong-doers and restoring them to the fellowship of forgiveness.
The author of Matthew's Gospel, steeped as he was in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have known well what the prophet Ezekiel wrote: that those who did wrong should be directly confronted with their faults. It was a solemn responsibility of the community to warn such sinners to turn away from their wickedness. If they did not, the community itself would share the blame.
The Gospel prescribes a three-stage process. First there should be a personal, private opportunity afforded for the culprit to be confronted openly with the reality of the offence.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
Notice it says, confront the problem. Don't go away and hide from it; don't go away and complain to your friends about it while doing nothing to put things right.
In recent years there have been some shocking stories in the press about how even cases of sexual abuse within the church community have been hushed up for fear of causing scandal. In the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence, a spotlight has been thrown too on the extent of domestic violence found even in some church-going families, whose victims have kept quiet about it. [Now it's hard, if you're in that situation, to speak up about it - it could put you at more risk. But a trusted friend could perhaps be told...] As the title of a recent WCC report puts it, such cases should be 'No Longer a Secret!'
If a one-to-one conversation fails, then the Gospel suggests that two or three other people should be invited to come and listen to what is said and try to discern all the facts of the case, which can so often become twisted in the telling. Following Jewish custom, there should be at least two independent witnesses to such a conversation.
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Notice why the person who has been wronged, or who has seen the wrong, takes two other people with them next time - not to 'gang-up' on the sinner, but to find out the truth. This is so important, because we are always tempted to to place blame and to find a scapegoat, and we need to get others on our side to make that happen. Jesus isn't telling us to get people on our side to gang up against someone who's done us wrong. He's asking us to accept our responsibility to put things right, by inviting others to use their judgement to find out the truth. 
If that doesn't work, then the whole community should be drawn into the discussion as a final decision is made as to whether the wrongdoer can be restored to full fellowship.
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
Gentiles and tax-collectors were outside the church; this verse means that someone who refuses to repent puts themselves outside the church, needing to rediscover God's mercy and grace all over again.
All believers in Christ have been given the solemn power of absolution, by which in Christ's name they have the right to give or withhold forgiveness. This is serious business, it means we have to take each other seroiusly, care for each other deeply, live close to God so we can judge things right.
We all know well the last verse of this passage:
'... where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.'
It's a pity that these words have become one of the most frequently misused texts in the whole of Matthew's Gospel. They are quoted so often as a word of consolation to those who may be feeling disappointed when fewer people have turned up to a service than they expected. 'Never mind', they say, looking at the empty pews, 'where two or three are gathered together, Jesus will be with us'.
That's not what Matthew meant at all. Note that here Matthew is not writing about worship nor even about prayer, but about reconciliation within the community. In the verse which goes before it Jesus says,
'Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.'
This is what Christians are called to do when we come together - to work out agreements where there are disagreements, to work towards harmony where there has only been disharmony. Wherever there is such harmony, says the Gospel writer, Jesus Himself is present.
Another church notice board I heard about used to say,
Christians may not always see eye-to-eye, but they can walk arm-in-arm.
That's not always the reality, of course, but it is what we can help each other to do, as we let Jesus walk beside us.
 Quotes from a thread on the Ship of Fools discussion board.
 Scapegoat description from girardianlectionary.net
The body of this sermon is adapted from Pauline Webb, Confronting Wrongdoing and Restoring Harmony in The College of Preachers Journal 119, July 2005, p.63