Sunday, September 10, 2017

Serious about reconciliation

A Sermon preached on 10th September 2017, Pentecost XIV at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

In his sermon last week, Rev. Douglas Robinson gave you some homework to do. He asked you to go through the list of practical "good deeds" in Romans 12:9-21 and to choose just one thing you should during the week. They were: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you …… Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil ….  Never avenge yourselves…”
So, how did it go? Hands up who associated with the lowly or who did not claim to be wiser than you are!

Even if you had done your homework, as I’m sure you did, and even if you were to follow Paul’s advice in today’s extract from Romans, to owe no one anything, except to love one another, you would not always be successful. Last week we heard Paul say: “if it is possible live peaceably with all, as far as it depends on you.” We do not always achieve what we aim for. And it does not always depend on us. 

Today’s Gospel reads a bit like Jesus’ advice on what to do when this is not possible, when the other does not want to live at peace with us, when it goes wrong, when there is the quarrelling and jealousy Paul warned against, and when we feel very wronged. Jesus describes a process of mediation and reconciliation, a best practice for dealing with conflict.

What does it entail? First, we deal with conflict, we do not ignore it and let it fester, gradually poisoning a relationship and a community. Also, Jesus clearly knew all about the dangers of triangulation. Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where instead of communicating directly with the other person I have a problem with, I use a third person to relay my message to the second, thus forming a triangle. It only leads to further conflict, and never solves the underlying problem. Jesus will have none of this. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he says. (Matthew 18:15)

The process that follows is open transparent and open, not secret and hidden. If the first stage doesn’t work, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (18:16) I think that the role of the two or three companions is not just to witness, but perhaps to moderate and mediate … we may think the other has sinned against us, but we might also have got the wrong end of the stick!
Finally, we involve the whole community. Not as a tribunal, but as an attempt to reach a resolution and to make sure that the decision is made by the whole community, and not just small group or cabal. Our decisions are best taken prayerfully and collectively. When Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20) he is not just referring to worship, or study, but also to our process of decision taking. 

Only if and when this final stage is not successful are we told to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (18:17) This rather strange phrase, also a little ironic when we remember that Matthew after whom the Gospel is named was originally a tax collector, just means that the person is to be treated as an outsider, as no longer belonging to the community. Even this is not the final step. Reconciliation is always possible. The power of binding and loosing that Jesus now gives to all the disciples, previously just to Peter, is the power to forgive by releasing someone from what is still chaining them to their past and condemning them to repeat their past. 

The purpose and the aim of the process is reconciliation, not punishment or exclusion. We are poorer for every person we lose. Jesus places a very high value on unity. He knows we are better together, he knows that we are more effective and authentic witnesses to him if we are united, he constantly reminds us that we are all one family. That is why in his final prayer in John’s Gospel (17:21) he begs “that they may all be one.” Whenever Christians fight and condemn each other – whether in a local church, within a denomination, or between denominations – we detract from Christ’s message of reconciliation for us all and we distract from him. That is why I am so glad that we are remembering the Reformation anniversary this year ecumenically, together … not ignoring our differences, but still emphasizing what we have in common and what we do together as followers of Jesus Christ.   

As Christians, we are called to model reconciliation, which we can only do when we set a good example within the Church. According to our Catechism, which you will find at the back of your Prayer Book (p. 855), the “ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world.”

One of the books we read from during the Night of the Churches was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “No Future without Forgiveness.” It is all about his experience as chairperson of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nelson Mandela chose Tutu because he was an authentic witness to the power of reconciliation and Tutu describes how his Christian and Anglican theology informed his and the work of the commission. “Theology said they, (the Apartheid regime’s torturers and killers), still remained children of God with the capacity to repent and to be able to change.” “In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners.” Archbishop Tutu also writes about the victims: “And, mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of the victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive.”[1]
Jesus knew that the community he left behind, that became the church, was a human association in which personal conflicts were inevitable. Even when he was with the disciples, they quarreled. That is one reason why we have these detailed instructions. The other reason is to enable us to carry on his work of reconciliation in the world – as good examples. Our world needs active bearers of the message of reconciliation now more than ever. There are plenty of old wounds that need healing, there are far too many new conflicts that require a voice of reason and moderation, there are many people in power, and their supporters, who need to be reminded that we are one world, one family, and that we need one another. 

Any power we have comes not from us, but from God. Jesus gives the disciples, and us their successors, the power and authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven. It is the power we gain when we put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Or in Paul’s words in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:18-20):
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 

That is what we are sent out to do in the world, every week: to be ambassadors for love, for forgiveness, for reconciliation or, very simply, for God.

[1] Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999), pp. 83, 84, 86

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