Sunday, September 07, 2014

Living together as sinners

A Sermon for Trinity 12.

Let me start with a little quiz.  It’s very easy, simply try and tell whether these statements are true or false. 
1.     Christianity is about following the teaching of Jesus.
2.     Christianity is based on God’s love for us, seen in Jesus, overflowing into how we treat other people.
3.     For the whole history of Christianity, Christians have never disagreed with one another.
I’m glad you laughed!

Christians do, in fact, disagree.  They have done since the very beginning of the Church.  The first major disagreement comes at the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, although there are lies creeping already at the beginning of the fifth chapter.  And of course, there are many stories in the Gospels of the 12 disciples, the pillars of the church, disagreeing with one another (normally about who will get to sit in the best seats once the Kingdom of God comes!).

Our Gospel reading this morning takes it for granted that Christians will disagree, and even takes it for granted that Christians will hurt and sin against each other.  It has happened, it does happen and it will happen.  The Gospel is for sinners, it’s hardly a surprise when we sin.  But what happens next?  Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this morning that what happens next is what is really important.  We should not be surprised when we sin or are sinned against.  What is of Gospel importance is how we react to this.

And how do we react to this?  How are we to deal with our differences with our fellow Christians, and the hurts and sins that we inflict upon each other.  The first thing that Jesus tells us to do is to go and tell the person who hurt us that that is what they have done.  Talk face to face.  There is no rocket science in this.  We need to speak to one another.

That’s not as simple as it sounds, however.  It takes courage to face someone that has hurt you.  It takes honesty to admit that you have been hurt.  We have to admit to the way in which things aren’t perfect, to admit that we have differences, to admit that we hurt one another.  There’s no political spin on making the church look perfect.  Rather we deal with its imperfections.  And it is done in private, at least at first.  It is not something that we do by telling everyone what a brave and honest person we are; nor do we look for safety in numbers.  Rather quietly, and privately, we seek out the person who has hurt us and we tell them what they have done.

Can you imagine the difference it would make if Christians actually behaved like this?
There would be less of an attempt to make the church appear to be a place of uniformity and niceness.  Rather, the church would be a place where hard truths were confronted and dealt with; and where people could grow as people, and in respect for those with whom they differed.  The Gospel does not give us the recipe for an easy life.  Rather it gives us the path to take for a life that is real, truthful and life-giving.  It’s a hard path, but it is the way to life. 

The passage goes on and leads to listening, speaking in a larger group and finally, if the other refuses to stop sinning against you, to a form of excommunication.  It could sound like a legalistic path for entrenching Christian disagreement and hurt.  But this is not the path of legalistic enforcement of an arbitrary discipline.  But put yourself within this series of events.  You have been hurt, sinned against. You go to see the other and tell them what they have done.  That is not the end.  Because you have chosen to speak honestly and privately with them, they have the chance to apologise, to explain what they meant, and to tell you how you hurt them.  As the conversation goes on, there is the chance to involve others so that more of the Christian community can support and help you both.  The final sanction only comes with a refusal to listen to the whole church.  That kind of unanimity is rare, I suspect we all know.  But even if the whole community does agree to discipline the offender, Jesus tells is that we need to treat such a person as “a Gentile and a tax collector”.  And we don’t need to read too far into the Gospels to see Jesus healing Gentiles, eating with tax collectors and describing both as close to the kingdom of God!  Immediately prior to this passage comes the parable of the Lost Sheep. This is not about throwing people out, it is about how hard we work to keep them in!

This is not a new legal system for Christians.  It is a reminder that we are to be truthful, honest, brave and clear sighted in our dealings with one another.  It is when we gather together that Jesus is present amongst us.  That is so when we gather for worship.  It is also so as we meet in other ways, and perhaps especially when we have these difficult but honest and courageous conversations about how we hurt one another.  Our worship and the quality of life we have together are very closely linked.  In a few moments, we will share the peace together.  That whole part of our service comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples that “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5.23-24).  As we share the peace, the most important people to greet are not those who we like, our friends and the easy people.  If we are to be true to Jesus’ commands, we should most of all be greeting the people we find difficult, and the people who find us difficult.

The Christian life is not the path of least resistance.  But it is a difficult and hard path of honesty and truthfulness with one another.  And in there, we will find Jesus is with us. Those who devote their lives to living in Christian community as monks and nuns have much to teach us.  The earliest Christian teacher who lived as a monk was St Anthony the Great.  He said that, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we win our brother, we win God.  If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ”.  We win our brothers and sisters by keeping our neighbours before us, and by doing all we can to help them see God.  The Christian life is not one in which we seek to win, beating those around us, being proved right or in which we are shown to have been the victim.  The Christian life is one in which we travel with our brothers and sisters, with all the hurt and difficulties that brings.  We come to life only with our fellow travellers. We win them, by remaining with them in the presence of God.  We win them by not allowing them to carry with them what hurts us and is an occasion of sin.  They win us in precisely the same way – by showing us what we do that hurts others and is an occasion of our sin.

I want to end with a story from the desert monks of the 4th Century.  This is a story of Abba Moses (father Moses):  “There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault.  So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest send someone to say to him, ‘They’re all waiting for you.’  So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ‘What is this Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I cam coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of someone else.’  When they heard this, they called off the meeting.”

We are a community of sinners.  We gather together this morning to worship God and to share together in the life of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  He is present as we gather, as we are honest about our own nature as sinners, as we seek to win one another for Christ, and as together we seek to walk the difficult way of living truthfully as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

Originally given at St Thomas A Becket, Chapel-en-le-Frith. 7.9.14.

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