A sermon preached by Revd Maggie Guillebaud.
Romans 13: 8-end; Matthew 18: 15-20
Discipline within organisations is today a tricky subject. Gone, we hope, are the bad old days when you could shout at subordinates or belittle those lower down the pecking order than you in order to get what you want. The MeToo movement, the standing up to bullies – both in the Church and elsewhere – and the calling out of unwanted physical contact, such as in the case of the Spanish footballer Jenni Hormosa, are but the current out-workings of how we as societies seek to re-align how we think and behave towards each other in the workplace. Women in particular are finding their voice, and practices with which I as a young woman would have had to chalk up to experience are today challenged and brought out into the light of day. And to my mind a good thing too. Everyone is entitled to be treated with respect and courtesy.
Discipline within the early church was often on Paul’s mind. In his 1st letter to the Corinthians he had to give this first generation of Christians advice on things which we find, frankly, odd: for example, what to do with food sacrificed to idols, or how to behave at the communal meal which would eventually become the Eucharist – the rich are not to hog all the best food so that there is none left for the poor. This is light years away from the discipline problems in the Church we worry about today. But though forthright in his letter, Paul’s tone is not harsh. He writes: ‘I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children’. Gentle but firm reproof is the way forward.
All our readings from scripture this morning, in which I include the psalm, wrestle with the idea of discipline. ‘Teach me O Lord the way of your statues, and I will observe them to the end’, writes the psalmist. This way of looking at discipline was an articulation of the Old Covenant between God and his people which relied heavily on rules. How else do you bind so many different tribes into one people, the Jews? And of course, challenging this way of thinking was what got Jesus into trouble with the religious authorities as his very presence and his revolutionary teachings threw down the gauntlet to centuries of belief and practice.
Echoes of this old way of thinking linger with Paul as he writes to the Romans, as we heard today, in his extended instructions to them as to how they should behave.
They are of course to follow the Ten Commandments. But, he writes, these early Jewish Christians will only fulfil the Law if they base their actions on love, summed up in the precept: Love your neighbour as yourself.
In our reading from Matthew Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to resolve potentially de-stabilising conflicts within their communities, those communities which would eventually form the new and fledgling Church. The teaching is clear, unambiguous, and to my mind should be read and re-read by congregations throughout the church regularly to remind themselves how best to settle conflicts.
Love and justice are here kept in a fine balance. Every step of the process of trying to reconcile differences of opinion are to be framed by love. Whether in private the matter cannot be settled one-to-one, or in a group meeting with 2 or 3 witnesses, and as a last resort a meeting of the entire congregation, listening to and attempting to diffuse the kind of self-defensiveness which comes into play when people feel themselves attacked – this is a Christian model of how to sort out problems.
And here we must remind ourselves that these early communities were much smaller than our church gatherings today. I think I can say with absolute certainty that the Dean would not bring a member of the congregation who was in disagreement with the Cathedral out in public for us all to try and find the resolution to a problem together. But the basic principle stands. Only as a last and final resort should those who are unable or unwilling to listen to the Church be asked to leave. Every avenue of reconciliation must be tried first. But love has a firm backbone and will draw a line when all else fails. After that the matter is in entirely in God’s hands.
I have undertaken several chaplaincies in the Diocese of Europe, and though I never, sadly, met him there was a priest of immense wisdom called Bevan Wardrobe -his name alone made me long to meet him – who was the Bishop of Europe’s trouble-shooter. Whenever there was a serious problem in a congregation, off he flew to sort it out.
As often as not these conflicts arose when various factions from within these usually small congregations had fallen out with one another, and the resident priest was at the end their tether, or there was an interregnum and nobody was there to lead.
Avuncular but firm, Bevan was adept at finding solutions. And the most spectacular of these was when he was sent to a church where things had got so bad that not only insults were hurled but simmering tensions looked as if they might give rise to fisticuffs at PCC meetings. Bevan’s solution was genius: he called a PCC meeting in the church, in the correct belief that people would not dare to behave so rudely in the church building itself.
Disagreements have always been part of church life. We shall in 2025 be celebrating the famous Council of Nicaea called by the Emperor Constantine in 325. You may recall he was the emperor who in 312 permitted Christian worship within the Empire for the first time. He had to preside over a mightily fractious and disparate collection of bishops from all over the Empire. The rows were formidable, and passions ran high. But through this, and subsequent councils, gradually the outlines of a universal Church began to evolve, and finally in 381, long after Constantine’s death, the Nicene Creed was agreed upon. It had taken a generation of heated argument to sort out what the Church believed at this point in time.
And in the 20th and 21st centuries Christianity has managed the tension between the different strands of theological belief, and the historical break-up of the church into various denominations over the centuries, relatively well. We no longer burn Roman Catholics, or vice versa. But we have learnt to listen to one another, and to undertake ecumenical dialogue in the spirit of him who taught us how to love.
Because deep listening, by which I mean the kind of listening which genuinely wants to know what the other person thinks rather than waiting for a chance to jump into a conversation with one’s own point of view, is an art. We all know people who listen, really listen to us, and they are to be treasured. We also know those who don’t. I suspect Jesus was a good listener; in this short passage from Matthew he uses the word 4 times. He also knew our human frailties, and our need for forgiveness, and indeed the passage which follows our reading from Matthew is all about forgiveness. No one, even those who have become an anathema to the Church, are beyond God’s love.
I suspect for many of us today Jesus’ direction to cast out from the congregation those who cannot be persuaded to listen to the Church seems harsh. ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.’ But here’s the thing: we know that a tax collector, Matthew himself, became an Apostle. And Paul would spend much of his life trying to bring Gentiles into the Church. People are capable of change. And love should frame and hold in tension our disagreements. Because, in the end, that is how lasting change and even peace may be brought about. Bevan Wardrobe was spot on.