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Reflecting on - and in - Matthew 18

I am always hesitant about sharing my sermons beyond the congregation for which they were prepared – they feel sort of ‘personal’ and it feels like self-aggrandisement to suggest that outside that context they have merit.  However, given that my effort at our united service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was apparently good enough to convince a retired minister (who is both a top rate preacher and an impressive theologian) that it had been worth turning out on a cold January afternoon, I will risk the suggestions of vanity and share my thoughts.
I took the whole of Matthew 18, which we had in a dramatised form.  The two parts of the chapter can provide a way of viewing the status and purpose of the church in Britain (approx vv1 – 14) and about how it conducts its internal affairs (vv 15 to end).
The UK church in 2006 is small (~3-7% attend worship regularly), struggling, marginalized, largely voiceless, seemingly powerless and irrelevant.  This is precisely like the first century Judaeo-Roman view of children.  Here is good news – in this seeming weakness we find ourselves esteemed in God’s Kingdom – we have worth, just like the 1% of the flock mentioned further on.
However, there’s a note of caution – we must beware the risk of putting stumbling blocks in the way of other powerless, marginalized, voiceless or struggling people/groups in their own search for Jesus – the consequences are horrendous [maybe the slow death of decay by irrelevance?].  How are traditions, buildings, and denominations, etc. obstacles?  What rubbish do we need to clear away to allow people to get to Jesus?
The sheep parable also gives a question of focus – inward on maintenance or outward to the wanderers?  Not denying the worth of internal pastoral care, but recognising that those inside should be OK to look after themselves so we can seek those outside.
So with a vulnerable, powerless, outward looking church, aware of its potential to trip up seekers, what does the writer have to say to those inside?
The ‘conflict resolution’ passage is well reflected upon by better scholars than I.  Suffice to say that it speaks a lot of common sense – try to sort out your differences internally involving as few people as possible.  And if at the end of the day you cannot be reconciled then treat people as tax-collectors (cf Levi, Zaccheus) or foreigners (cf The Syro-Phoenecian woman, the Samaritan woman, the centurion, etc.).  Jesus subverts both the notion of exclusion and the revelation of the Shekina glory as the privilege of a learned elite, saying it may be discovered as believers earnestly wrestle with their differences.
The question of forgiveness – and its answer – requires no exposition.  Yet how often do Christians persecute each other or bear grudges?  None of us is exempt, Protestants wrong Catholics, Baptists wrong Anglicans who wrong Pentecostals who wrong Roman Catholics… persecuted turns persecutor.  We all do well to heed the cautionary tale of the servants with which the chapter ends.
It’s an amazing chapter with depths to plumb far beyond the 20 minutes I gave it today.  But in a little church struggling to move from past to future, asking questions about mission, ecumenism, community and context, I find it really helpful to see that our situation can be seen reflected in a mirror called Matthew 18 (apologies Sean, I cannot remember which analogy this is!) and insights found.  Not only that, but as I think about the wider UK situation it is helpful to see what we can learn that may help us to flesh out the oft quoted text ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness.’  Our vulnerability is a place of growth – not in numbers so much as in maturity as we recognise and deal with the sins that wound the ‘Body of Christ’ that is the “kata holos” church so that we are enabled to embrace the excluded – as Jesus would do.

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