Spirituality and Discipleship: Definitions

walking-349991_640What is spirituality? To me, spirituality is a pattern of habits that helps us experience the love of God through conscious contact with God’s presence, and helps us share that love with our neighbours.

What is discipleship? I learned a new definition of this from Bishop Jane Alexander last night: Discipleship is living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life.

I think those two pretty well cover the most important parts of being a Christian.

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Suffering and Joy (a sermon on Philippians 1:12-26)

In John Ortberg’s book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, I found a story written by a pastor named Tom Schmidt. Tom was visiting regularly in a convalescent hospital where he got to know a remarkable woman. Here’s how he tells the story:

‘As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and the white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was nearly deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discoloured and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly… I learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

‘I don’t know why I spoke to her – she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day”. She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know; I’m blind”.

‘I said, “Of course”, and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus”.

‘That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches and stomach aches, and then the cancer came too. Her three room-mates…screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed… the stench was often overpowering.

‘Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns…

‘During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about – hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?” And she said, “I think about my Jesus”.

‘I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately… “I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know… I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied… Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me”…

‘How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it? The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power’.

This story is an extreme case, but the experience behind it is not uncommon. Many pastors could tell stories of visiting dying people and coming away with their own faith strengthened; the dying ministered to their pastors, rather than the other way around! Apparently Christ can take hold of a person in the midst of suffering and somehow transform them, giving them joy where we would have expected only pain and despair – not by taking the suffering away, but by somehow lifting them above the suffering into his presence.

This was the case with the Apostle Paul toward the end of his life. His letter to the Philippians was probably written from Rome, where he was in prison for preaching the Gospel. His Christian friends in Philippi heard about this; they were concerned, and so they sent a messenger, Epaphroditus, with a gift of money to help Paul provide for his own needs. But Epaphroditus had gotten sick and stayed in Rome a lot longer than expected. Now he was recovered and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with a letter to thank and encourage his friends there – and also, being Paul, to teach them a bit!

Paul can hear the questions in their minds: “If God is in charge, why has he let Paul by arrested? What happens if Paul is executed? Is his message about Jesus really true?” He wants to reassure them that God is in control, and all will be well – not in a sense of ‘whistling in the dark’, but rather of looking into the darkness without fear and finding Christ there.

He starts our reading today in a strange way. He’s basically saying to them, ‘All the bad things you heard about my situation are true – but don’t worry, because they can’t take away my joy!’ There are three kinds of suffering he’s experiencing.

First, in verses 12-14 he says, ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m in prison’. Remember, this is a travelling missionary speaking here – someone who loves nothing better than moving around from place to place telling the story of Jesus to new people. But now he’s in prison so he can’t travel any more. Can you imagine the frustration? How can the Gospel spread when he can’t travel to spread it?

But Paul isn’t frustrated, because God has the last laugh here. First, Paul says, all the guards here know that I’m in prison for Christ, so the Gospel has gotten a much higher profile in the army because of my imprisonment. And if you ask, “How do all the guards know that?” the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? They know because Paul told them! Every time the shift changed a new captive audience arrived to hear the Gospel! Paul must have loved it! He wasn’t going to the world; the world was coming to him!

And that’s not all, he says; the other Christians here have seen that the Lord has strengthened me in my suffering, and they’ve gotten more confident in what he can do for them, too. So they’ve been speaking out more boldly, spreading the Gospel to their friends and neighbours. The Romans may have jailed the missionary, but the Gospel isn’t in jail!

So he’s in prison, but he’s enjoying himself. Another thing that’s happening is that other missionaries are getting a higher profile than he is; he talks about this in verses 15-18. He knows that there’s no such thing in this sinful world as completely pure motivation; even his own motivation isn’t completely pure. It seems that there were other Christian preachers who were jealous of Paul’s success and were competing with him. Now he’s in prison they’re delighted, and they even send word to him about their successes, just to rub it in. “Messenger from Aristarchus, Paul – ‘I preached at the forum today and five hundred were converted’”. Aristarchus expects Paul to be jealous, but instead Paul thanks God. The Gospel is being passed on, even if the motivation leaves a lot to be desired.

But then there’s a third thing, the most sinister of all: there’s a real possibility that he might be executed. He talks about this in verses 18-26. There’s a good chance the Romans will decide that he might be better off dead. And Paul agrees with them: he would be better off dead! To depart, he says, would be ‘to be with Christ’ – not that he isn’t ‘with Christ’ now, but dying would usher him into a more immediate experience of Christ’s presence – and no more whippings, no more imprisonments, no more long and lonely journeys. “Wow!” he thinks; “Bring it on! Living is Christ and dying is gain!”

Paul knows this isn’t an exhaustive list of the kinds of suffering people can face; he doesn’t mention bereavement, for instance, or physical illness. He knew about physical illness, of course; in his letter to the Galatians he mentions how an illness had first brought him to Galatia to preach the Gospel, and God had brought good out of that, too! He isn’t claiming to have suffered everything there is to suffer. Rather, what he’s saying is “This is what I’ve suffered, and the good news is that I’ve found it can’t quench the joy of the Lord”.

So – ‘All the bad things are true, my friends, but I’m still rejoicing in Christ. And more than that, here’s what I want you to know: the only thing that really matters is knowing, serving, and exalting the Lord Jesus Christ’.

The verse that sums it all up is verse 21: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’. This is the kind of language lovers use about each other, isn’t it? ‘As long as we have each other nothing else matters; we can be happy even if we’re dirt poor’. And it’s true; they can!

That’s how Paul felt about Christ. He says in chapter three, ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings’. He doesn’t say “I want to know about Christ” but “I want to know Christ”.

Another of his characteristic phrases is the idea that we’re ‘in’ Christ and Christ is ‘in’ us. This is mystical language, describing the closest possible connection between the risen Lord and his people. How is it possible? It’s possible because God has given us the Holy Spirit to connect us to the Risen Jesus.

This is the way for us to discover joy in the midst of our sufferings: to cultivate this union with Christ. It’s not just about a feeling somewhere in our gut. When Paul decided that living is Christ, that also meant taking on Christ’s priorities. Those priorities didn’t involve him becoming rich, or living a life of ease. They meant living a penniless life as a missionary, travelling around the world, and going through suffering for Christ’s sake.

For me to experience the truth that ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’ is incredible comfort but also incredible challenge. In his first letter, the old apostle John says, ‘By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 John 2:6). Seeking first the Kingdom of God, living a simple and generous life, forgiving and loving our enemies, keeping our hearts pure – this is the road we’re learning to walk on. As we walk it together, that’s when we discover that living is Christ and dying is gain. We won’t discover that if we live in greed, materialism, and pride.

That was the source of Mabel’s strength. All she had was Jesus, and Jesus was enough. She was like a cancer-stricken woman Archbishop George Carey visited when he was a young priest. The woman greeted him with a smile and said, “Don’t look so worried; I’m only dying!”

Let me finish by noting how Paul’s view was different from two views that were popular in his day, and are still around today.

In Paul’s day the Stoics said, ‘Life is tough, but it’s short. Suffering comes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the will of the gods, and all you can do is resign yourself to it, square your shoulders and look forward to extinction. All we are is dust in the wind’.

On the other hand, the Epicureans said, ‘There’s no time to think about suffering – there are too many parties to go to! Have a good time, eat, drink, sleep with the girls, and rock on as if life will never end. Who knows – maybe it won’t!’

One approach pretends there’s no suffering, and when it comes these folks are outraged and see it as an insult and a denial of their right to happiness. The other approach is absorbed in suffering, faces it squarely, but sees no hope, only resignation.

Paul’s view is dramatically different. Suffering is real: people get unjustly imprisoned, their life’s work is taken from them, they lose their loved ones, and they could even lose their own lives. But Paul looks right into the heart of all that darkness, and what does he find there? The light of Christ who went through the suffering of the Cross and came to the glory of the resurrection.

So the conclusion of the matter is not, ‘Know Christ and you’ll be preserved from all suffering’. It’s ‘Know Christ, focus on Christ, serve Christ, see Christ as your greatest treasure – and you’ll be able to have joy in him in the midst of suffering’. This is what Paul experienced. This is what Mabel experienced. And when my time comes, I want to experience it too.

‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (v.21). The challenge of this verse for me is this: how absorbed am I in Jesus, and the God who he revealed to us? Is knowing and loving Jesus the great story of my life? Is following him the thing I love most? If it is, then, like Mabel, I may be surprised one day to discover that when it’s my turn to go through the valley of the shadow of death, I will ‘fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4).

Unlimited Forgiveness (a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of telling the world about it we should go to them quietly, raise the issue and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). Probably what’s in view here is a situation where we’ve gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt and asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, who’s in view here? Our NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘my brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

The second item of definition is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the emotions, but that wasn’t the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the ‘bowels’; in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is often a metaphor for the choices, the will – the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness is not first of all about healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving way toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus.

What does it look like? Well, Paul spells it out for us in Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse – whether we feel like it or not.

So Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which of course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit – he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry, and I’m determined never to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough; any reasonable person would agree.

Jesus’ response to Peter is to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together. Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in many different ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help someone else. I live in luxury while the majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on a regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis. I’m not always conscientious about keeping my word. I don’t reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It’s overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that’s exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master didn’t give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? It’s a ridiculous idea, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us today? So often, we’re so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we’re debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we’re really asking is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I’m doing? We humans have an incredible capacity to mess things up! The reality is that change is very hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Yes, change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

But this is the wonder of the Christian gospel: God doesn’t answer my prayer! He doesn’t give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer like this: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Have you? No – every day, up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer seems to have been answered. That’s what ‘grace’ means: love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an enormous sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longer”.

Why would the slave refuse to forgive in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we’re going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of what we deserve, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Remember, we’re not talking about the healing of hurts here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action, to be a blessing to them. Jesus doesn’t specify what form the love should take in a given situation. He doesn’t say, for instance, that a woman being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

I want to say that if you struggle with this, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. God knows that the person who says “I know I should forgive, and I’m doing my best, but there are days when I find it very hard” is in a very different spiritual position from the person who says “That SOB has it coming to him; he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I will never, ever forgive him, no matter what the Gospel says. I want revenge, and it’s my right”. The first person is trying hard to do what Jesus commands, and often failing. The second person is refusing even to try. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of God’s forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I’m in debt to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love others as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastoral patience

‘We thank you for raising up among us faithful servants for the ministry of your word and sacraments. We pray that N may be to us a godly example in word and action, in love and patience, and in holiness of life’. (Book of Alternative Services, ‘Ordination of a Priest’, prayer after communion, p.650).

I like that word ‘patience’.

When our family lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories in the mid-1980s, one summer we planted potatoes (not a common thing in the Arctic!). The local kids were very curious about it. Sometimes during the night (a relative term when there are 24 hours of daylight) they would dig up our potatoes to see if they were growing.

Pastors can be tempted to do that kind of thing too.

Pastoral work is slow work. You can’t rush it. It’s not unlike raising children. There are a few children who turn out to be prodigies; they’re the ones who enter university when they’re eleven. But they’re few and far between. Most kids grow and mature at a more measured pace.

Disciples are like that too. You can’t mass-produce them or place them in an accelerated growth track. The seeds of the Word of God are planted. They put down roots and begin to grow beneath the surface. After a while the tiny shoots break through the soil. As the weeks go by, the young plants grow, and eventually begin to bear fruit.

People put their faith in Christ and begin to grow. They develop habits of prayer and Bible reading. They begin to learn to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their lives. Hard times come their way and they learn to follow Christ in the school of suffering. They learn the difficult way that they can’t rely on their own resources – they have to depend on the unseen presence of Christ. And so the process goes on.

Pastors can’t be in a rush. They have to be willing to walk beside people for a long time, and let God do his slow and patient work.

We’re not growth managers or assembly-line producers. We’re sowers of seeds, tending and watering the vulnerable young plants, protecting them from pests and weeds and inclement weather, patiently nurturing them and helping them bear fruit

May God save us from giving up too soon, from moving on too soon, from trying to rush what can’t be rushed. May God give us the gift of pastoral patience.

The secret of happiness has finally arrived

apple-iphone-xWhat do I mean when I say we live in an idolatrous culture?

I mean we live in a culture in which Apple can successfully convince hundreds of thousands of people that the thing that will finally make them happy is owning an iPhone X (for a cool $999 US).

Want to know how powerful this spell is? It still works, even though they believed exactly the same thing about owning an iPhone 4, 5, 6, and 7, and the promise wasn’t fulfilled. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

(Me, I’m holding off on replacing my iPhone 5 for as long as I possibly can. Why? I like having a headphone jack. Boo to you, Apple!)

‘If Your Brother or Sister Sins Against You…’ (a sermon on Matthew 18:15-20)

I want to begin my sermon this morning by saying that I don’t like conflict and I don’t handle it well.

If someone does something or says something that hurts me, the last thing I want to do is go and talk to them about it. I’d much rather go and complain to someone else about it! I’d much rather blacken the other person’s name to my friends and family members. I’d much rather start a little gossip campaign against them. It’s so much easier to talk about the person who has hurt me with people I like, rather than going to talk to the person face to face.

I know I’m not alone in this. Very few of us do a good job of handling conflict. Some of us blow up, lose our temper at the other person, and vent our spleen on them. Some of us clam up: we hold it all inside, probably making ourselves sick in the process, especially if this is our habitual response to conflict. Some of us spread the poison around, talking to everyone else except the person in question. But very, very few of us actually follow Jesus’ instructions set out for us in today’s gospel reading.

Why is that? Well, I can think of a few reasons in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned.

There are some cultural barriers between this text and our modern twenty-first century world. One of them is the existence of something called ‘personal privacy’. This didn’t exist in the ancient world. Most families lived in small houses in close proximity to each other; private life was impossible. No one ever said anything like “That’s none of your business”, because everyone’s behaviour effected everyone else. Extended families were intimately involved in every detail of each other’s lives.

And churches were too. The early Christians took it for granted that when you decided to follow Jesus, you were joining a fellowship in which people looked out for each other and helped each other follow Jesus. No one in the early church thought it was unusual or offensive for someone to take a fellow-Christian aside and talk to them about something they were doing that didn’t fit with the teaching of Jesus. That was called ‘admonishing one another’, and it was an accepted part of being a Christian in those days; it’s mentioned in several places in the New Testament.

Also, ‘the church’ in those days wasn’t an institution with large buildings and congregations. Most Christian congregations met in houses, which meant they were small. Most of them weren’t led by full-time professional priests; they were led by teams of elders who earned their living in the normal way and worked together to care for the church in their spare time. A group of maybe twenty people would know each other intimately and would have been through a lot together. So if a group of Christians from the same congregation got together to admonish a couple of people to quit quarrelling and be reconciled with one another, this would carry a lot of weight, but it would also be a much less institutional thing than it might be today.

It’s important for us to recognize these cultural differences. Nowadays we live in a different world. ‘Mind your own business’ has become a non-negotiable; I have a right to decide what I want to do with my life, and no one else has the right to talk to me about it. And people have so much more choice anyway; if they’re excommunicated by their congregation they can easily leave it and join another one.

We can’t just pretend none of this matters. For instance, our church isn’t set up to deal with the sort of procedure Jesus describes here. If a couple of people brought their interpersonal conflict to our wardens and vestry, we wouldn’t have any sort of process in place to deal with it; we just don’t expect that sort of thing to happen.

So how do we put into practice the teaching of Jesus in our very different culture today? Well, let’s take another look at what he has to say.

The first half of verse 15, in our church bibles, quotes Jesus as saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault, when the two of you are alone”. I note in passing that this not a very helpful translation of what Matthew actually wrote in Greek. Our NRSV pew Bibles try to avoid using words like ‘brother’ and ‘he’ in order to be inclusive, but what Matthew actually wrote here was “If your brother sins against you”. ‘Member of the church’ sounds far too institutional; we Christians are sisters and brothers to each other, and that’s why conflict is such a huge issue – it splits up the family. So I’m going to use the words ‘brother or sister’, which is how the NIV 2011 translates this passage, rather than ‘church member’.

So what instructions does Jesus give us here? Well, first, Jesus assumes that there will be problems in the church. He says, “If your brother or sister sins against you”, and he gives no indication that he thinks this will be unusual. After all, I’m a sinner and I often fall short of God’s standards; I hurt God and I hurt my fellow human beings by the things that I do. And churches are full of people just like me. So why should we be surprised when there is conflict in the church? We’re not surprised when we find sick people in hospital, so why should we be surprised to find sinners in church? Sins and conflicts will always be present in Christian churches. The question is – how will we handle them?

Second, Jesus says “Go to your brother”, “Go to your sister”. In other words, don’t try to avoid the issue; face straight into it. Don’t speak about your brother or sister to someone else; speak to your brother or sister about what has happened. Why? Because when we complain about someone to a third party, we’re treating them like an enemy and we’re trying to build an alliance against them. An enemy is someone we talk about; a brother or sister in Christ is someone we talk to.

And do it ‘when the two of you are alone’. Why? Because it reduces the temperature. If we’re at a meeting and you ambush me with a complaint I didn’t see coming, I’m going to be on the defensive and I’m going to try to win, because you’re embarrassing me in front of other people. But if we’re alone together and you raise the issue, gently but honestly, it might still be threatening to me but the embarrassment factor is much lower.

This conversation we’re initiating with the other person may go in a direction that surprises us. We start with the objective of being heard, but once a conversation has begun, there may be learning on both sides. The other person may have had no idea what was going on. They may have been completely unintentional in what they did and not be aware that it hurt us at all.

But there may be learning for us too. In this passage Jesus talks about us having something against our brother or sister, but in Matthew 5 it’s the other way around: “So, 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 at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). This is a two-way thing. In our conversation, we may discover we’ve been misinterpreting what the other person said or did. Or we may discover that they have complaints to make against us as well things we weren’t aware of that we need to recognize and deal with. So already the conversation is a healing thing.

Well – sometimes. But of course, the visit won’t always be a success. So the third thing we see is that Jesus lays out a process for dealing with unresolved conflict. If the person doesn’t listen to us the first time, we’re to try again, only this time we’re to ‘take one or two others along’ with us, ‘so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses’ (v.16). They aren’t witnesses to the original offence; they’re witnesses to the conversation going on between us and the person we’re confronting. They give an objective view; perhaps they help us see that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, or perhaps they help persuade the other person of the seriousness of the situation.

If that doesn’t work, Jesus commands us to ‘tell it to the church’; in New Testament times, remember, this would have been a little house church. The congregation gathers together, I can state my case, the other person can respond, and the congregation as a whole can weigh the matter. Jesus assures them that they won’t be doing this alone. In verse 18 he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, and in verse 20 he goes on, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. This isn’t just about us, you see: it’s about Jesus and his Body. The New Testament tells us the Church is his Body and each of us a member of it. Our conflicts aren’t just private matters; they damage the Body of Christ and tear it apart. So Jesus is intimately involved in this whole process.

Think of some of the church meetings you’ve been at: ones that deal with buildings and finances, for instance. Imagine the difference it would have made if everyone present would have remembered that where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is among them. We’re sitting there in our circle, dealing with our issue, and Jesus is sitting quietly among us, listening, knowing that each person present is a child of God and loved by God. Do you think that would make a difference to the way we do things?

I think it would make two differences. First, it would encourage us to ask for his guidance more. When we’re dealing with a difficult issue, surely we shouldn’t be afraid of stopping the discussion for a few minutes and saying, “Now let’s all wait in silence on the Lord and ask him to give us his perspective on this”. Even with business matters, like a budget or a building plan, we need to do this more often.

But it would also make another difference: I think we would be more gentle with each other. Would we use hurtful and insulting language, or be dismissive and ignore the views of others, if we could see Jesus sitting among us? But surely by faith we know he is sitting with us; that’s exactly what he promises us in this passage. He’s not just with us when we worship and share Holy Communion; he’s here when we meet together to talk things over as well.

Back to our process. The fourth and final step is hard for us to hear: Jesus recognizes that by refusing to listen, the offender has placed themselves outside the Christian community. In verse 17 he says, “if the offender refuses even to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.

That’s a difficult statement, and it’s also ambiguous. Tax collectors and Gentiles weren’t allowed inside the synagogues; Jesus is stating that the offending party has demonstrated their contempt for the Christian community and so should be ejected from it – what later came to be called ‘excommunication’. Excommunication was practiced in all the early Christian communities, and it was common practice through Christian history for a very long time.

So refusal to be reconciled was something Jesus took very seriously, and through the centuries most Christians have taken it seriously too. And yet, when we read his words about Gentiles and tax collectors, we must ask ourselves, ‘How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors?’ He actually spent so much time with them that the religious establishment criticized him for being soft on crime! So while Jesus recognizes that a break has to be made, he still doesn’t see the offender as the enemy. They’re more like a lost sheep, and he’s the good shepherd who will always be going out to find them and bring them home.

Obviously, as I said at the beginning, there are real challenges for us in the modern Anglican church about putting Jesus’ words here into practice. But whatever the specific details, there can be no doubt about the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here. So what are we going to do about it?

There are some things we can do right now. We can repent of our bad temper, our bitterness and resentment, our gossip and talking about people behind their backs. We can resolve that if we have something against someone our first action will be to go and talk to that person alone, instead of talking to everyone else about them. When someone comes to talk to us in this way, we can resolve to learn to listen carefully rather than getting defensive and denying everything. And we can remember that this passage is immediately followed by one that deals with forgiveness, which ought to tell us what Jesus has in mind when our sister or brother apologizes to us.

So as I draw to a close, let’s ask ourselves, “Are we living by this teaching Jesus has given us?” And if the answer is, “Well, not always”, then let’s pray that God would help us grow a culture of honesty, love, repentance and reconciliation in our church. After all, that’s part of what it means to be the Church – a community of Christians learning to follow Jesus together. May God grant us grace to be reconciled to one another as Jesus has commanded us. Amen.

Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.