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Sermon for 10 September


Romans 13:8-end, Matthew 18:15-20

I had the privilege of spending this last week with one of those wise, older Christians that you know, just from being with them, have spent a lot of time in Jesus’ presence. His name is David Ford and, until recently, he was the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. That means he is a very clever man. He’s the kind of person who knows the bible inside out and back to front - he talked without any notes about the Scriptures, slipping naturally between the Old Testament and the New, in and out of English, Greek and Hebrew as he went.

But, listening to him talk over three days, it became very clear that he’s not remotely interested in being clever - he’s interested in love. First of all the love God has for us, and as a result, the love we are called to share with one another. 

And he talked to us about John’s gospel, and the way it opens up the heart of love that lies at the centre of everything - the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father, a relationship that we are invited to be part of.

And he was talking at one point about the first chapter of John’s gospel which includes these wonderful words. John, talking about Jesus, writes ‘We have received of his abundance, grace upon grace’. He read those words, took of his glasses, clearly deeply moved, and with a deep sigh said, ‘Why would you miss a day of that? Why would you waste the possibility, even for a second, of receiving that kind of abundant love?’ 

We spend so much time with our heads down, missing the hand of abundant love held out to us every second - God’s invitation to receive his abundant love here, in the midst of every day life Why would be miss a second of that?

Well, in a way, that’s what our readings are addressing today, not with the poetry and glory of John’s gospel, but in the complex, messy life of a community like ours, that’s trying to live by the invitation to abundant life - even when things go wrong. And it’s powerful, demanding, important stuff.

And I want to go through the passage from Matthew, with a brief excursion to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to see what they tell us about how we can live well, within God’s abundant love, even when things are going wrong between us. 

The first thing the gospel tells us is that things will go wrong. The fact that Jesus said these words makes it clear that he knows this is going to be an issue. We say and do things to one another that make life difficult. That’s just how it is - and no human community, including the church, can live without that happening. 

The second thing the gospel makes clear is that how we deal with these situations matters. Conflict and broken relationships need to be taken desperately seriously. Not in a theoretical way ‘somewhere else’ but here, in this community, with those sitting around us today.

Third, with a quick detour to the first reading, the fundamental ethic of the church community, as Paul reminds the Romans, is love. Every other rule and law that exists - including all those really good ones, like don’t steal and don’t murder - can be summarised in the words ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ - and, says Paul, that is the only ‘debt’ we are to have. 

In the Roman culture that Paul is writing into, everything was governed by debts to one another - what we might better call ‘obligations’. Everyone’s place in society was governed by their obligations - the allegiance owed to the Emperor by every citizen; the service owed by a servant to their master; the obedience owed by a wife to a husband. These obligations defined social relations and interactions and to break a debt of this sort was a serious matter. So when Paul says ‘Owe no one anything except to love one another’ he is introducing something radically new. The only obligation you have is to love. The only thing that should mark out social relations and interactions in the church, is love. The only obligation you are under; the only thing you owe, is to love.

And that’s as true for us as it was for the Romans. Love is the rule. Love is our obligation.

The trouble perhaps is that we’ve come to believe that love is a feeling. And it isn’t. When the bible tells us that God loves us, it doesn’t mean that he has all sorts of warm feelings for us - it means he is in the business of loving us. Love is active, it’s something we do, not something we feel. It’s an act of will, not an emotion. To love someone is to do good for them, irrespective of our feelings. After all, the heart of God’s love for us is what he did - John’s gospel doesn’t say God so loved the world that he feels nice things about us. It says, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son

We are in the business of loving one another in practical and active ways.

So, what about when it goes wrong? Well, the obligation of love means there are things we need to do - or at least, there are things we need to try to do - because I don’t want to pretend that any of this is easy. When things go wrong between people, life gets really hard. Disagreements and conflicts get us deep down in the gut, and they can really mess things up - which is why Jesus talks about it, and gives us these very clear instructions.

And the first thing Jesus says is that we’re to talk about it - but in the right way. Some people are conflict avoiders and will do anything to keep the peace - people who apologise when someone bumps into them, or who say things like ‘no really, don’t worry, it was my fault really’ when someone has clearly and deliberately set out to cause trouble. Others are at the opposite end of the spectrum and love a bit of a rumble - as soon as there’s a sniff of trouble, they’re stuck in pointing out everything that’s been done wrong. 

Neither, says Jesus, is right. To the conflict avoider he says, pretending there’s no problem is no solution at all. It’s much better to get this stuff out in the open. To the conflict lover he says, be thoughtful and careful in how you speak to one another. Keep it private at first, and then, only if it can’t be resolved gently and easily, get other wise and trusted people involved. And that’s the second step that Jesus offers.

Now we can assume that when Jesus suggests getting one or two others involved, he didn’t mean - go and find your mates who will definitely agree with you whatever you say! Instead he means, find people who can speak honestly and with love, and ask them to help you find a way through the situation.

And then there’s Jesus’ final advice - if nothing at all works, ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a Tax Collector’. It’s tough and discomforting stuff - which of us wants to act like that?

Two thoughts. First, the whole point of Jesus’ words is to avoid that situation - the reason for all the talking and the listening that he lays out is to make sure that you never get to the point of final breakdown.

And secondly, let’s just remember what else Jesus says about Tax Collectors and Gentiles.

It’s a Gentile woman who is told ‘woman, great is your faith’.  And when Jesus meets a tax collector called Matthew, he’s invited to be part of Jesus’ inner circle, agrees and gives up everything to become a disciple. And when the Pharisees want to criticise Jesus, guess what they say of him - that he’s a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

So to treat someone as a tax collector and Gentile is to treat someone as a friend of Jesus, as a potential disciple and perhaps, maybe, someone who will turn out to have the greatest of faith.

In a world which is so quickly ready to pick a fight, and to justify conflict, we are called to be different. To recognise that a break down in relationship is a call to reconciliation. Conflict and struggles of this kind are a chance to take the the hand of abundant love that’s held out to us every second of every day and to start again.

Maybe there’s something you need to heal - and maybe today is the day to take the next step. Perhaps the person you need to reconcile with is here, and you can find a way to connect and to share peace this morning. Maybe there’s someone elsewhere that you need to work with - and if so, now could be the opportunity for you to pray for the gift of reconciliation and to ask God to work with you. 

If it would help, there will be people available in the Bedgebury Chapel during communion who can listen and pray with you - and they’ll be available again at the end of the service. Take the opportunity, reach out, open yourself to the Holy Spirit; who is the spirit of peace and of healing. 

Leave this place knowing that you owe no one anything, except to love one another as God loves you.


Posted: 10-09-2017 at 15:42
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