Trinity Thirteen – 6 September

Reflection by David Perril

Reflection Trinity 13  Matthew 18:15-20

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke &  John  – indeed the whole of the New Testament emphasises not only our identity IN Christ, but also the identity OF Christ, and the more we reflect on his identity the more we should be able to  appreciate Jesus, the more receptive we should be to love him & others with all our mind, soul, and strength, the more we should want to turn to him in the midst of our challenges & suffering, and the more we should be able to respond to our challenges & suffering as Jesus responded to his.

The gospels are a set of individual books each of which stand alone, but which are also connected because they all tell the story of the life and teaching of Jesus, each from a slightly different perspective, because the target audience was slightly different for each author. Like all good books each gospel begins by setting out the theme – the identity of Jesus. For example in Mark, Jesus is identified as “the Christ, the Son of God”. in Matthew, he is “son of David, the son of Abraham” and in John’s gospel he is “The word made flesh” This theme of identity crops up at various points in each gospel, but also in each of these works another theme begins to emerge, – that of conflict. Again the theme is presented in a variety of ways in each gospel – conflict with Satan, conflict with Scribes & Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus, and even conflict with disciples.

These two themes of identity and conflict interact and interplay throughout the gospel stories, often causing disharmony and misunderstanding all the way to the crucifixion. At the crucifixion the final conflict then becomes the final revelation, and here again we find variations in the presentation of the final revelation. Matthew and Mark point to the centurion’s confession with the words “Truly he was the Son of God” In John’s gospel the final revelation takes place on the cross itself, where God’s love was ultimately shown in the words – “the hour of Christ’s glory”. But, in all four gospels it is through conflict that the true nature of Jesus was revealed.

Conflict of course is a fact of life, it is all around us in the world at large, and it is present even within the Christian church, and the challenge for us today is to harness that conflict and use it constructively. Rather than allowing conflict to become divisive and destructive we must learn to use it to grow in faith and understanding, so that conflict can become for us a place of revelation just as the gospel writers intended.

So, what is the nature of these conflicts that we face, and how can they lead us to a deeper understanding of Christ’s glory? Firstly of course we must acknowledge that as Christians we do have our theological differences between our different denominations, and even within our own denomination we have differing interpretations of the eucharist, of resurrection, of atonement and so on,  and even a cursory look at church history reveals that such conflicts have always been part of church life, and indeed at various times in our history they have been conducted with much bloodshed. Even our creeds were not agreed without some bitter division in the early church,  and even today we continue to disagree over biblical interpretation, and forms of worship, and how we should conduct our mission and so on, and sadly, conflicts within our Church communities can, and do, cause real pain and division.

This type of conflict can be damaging not only to individuals but also to the church itself as we leave ourselves open to criticism by those folk who are outside the church, or on the fringe of the church & who quite rightly accuse us of not living up to the Christian ideal. But theological controversy and debate can also be the life blood of a church if it is carried out within a spirit of respect, love and discernment, and in those circumstances conflict can lead us to the living Christ.

We must not forget though, that we, as the Church also live between the “already” and the “not yet”, – we are who we are, we have not yet become what we believe we will become.

As St Paul put in in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:7) “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us”. We, the Church, are a mixed community of very ordinary human beings, and therefore in a way conflict seems inevitable. The real issue for us is not avoiding conflict but in managing it.

And in our gospel reading this morning Matthew is struggling with the question of pastoral care and Church discipline. At one level he is setting out a procedure for dealing with conflict.  But at another level the whole context of the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel reveals that for him, moments of conflict are opportunities to learn more about the way of Christ. Learning more about the love, the wisdom, the tolerance, the patience, and the courage of Christ. I think it is very significant that our reading today is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep which is pastoral in its nature and suggests that the Church  should be governed by costly care for all – its members, those who agree with us & those who don’t.

Faced with conflict the Church has a real opportunity to discover new ways of working together. When properly managed, it can lead us from where we are now to where we need to be in our journey towards a fuller knowledge of Christ. But there is one more particular area of conflict which we need to manage, and which I suggest is perhaps the most important of all. That of finding Christ in the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. Conflict with anything that prevents human beings from flourishing, and from taking their rightful place in God’s creation. Conflict with all social, political, economic, and religious actions that deny people their right to a decent life. This is a conflict that was at the heart of Christ’s ministry, yet these problems remain all around us today. 

Matthew recorded in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” For us as Christians this conflict is not an option, it is not something that we can choose to ignore.  Not only do we find Christ through this conflict, we have also to commit to following Christ into the conflict, And this gospel reading has the power to move and transform all who care to listen. 

We have before us today a conflict that remains unfinished, the climax of the crucifixion is only the end of the first part of the story, the second part, the part that we all have to play, still has to be written,  what Christ began in his time is left for us to continue in our time. What begins with a reading from Matthew’s gospel on a Sunday morning has to be translated into a Church which not only shares, but also continues, the ministry that Christ began.

What comes with our reading this morning is not just an invitation to listen to the word of God, It is also a command to act upon the word of God. Amen.