Collect for Trinity XI
STIR up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that richly bearing the fruit of good works,
we may by you be richly rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Exodus 12, Vv 1-14
Romans 13, Vv 8-14
St Matthew 18, Vv 15-20
Our Gospel proclamation, a short passage of just six verses from Saint Matthew, raises some important doctrinal and theological issues, and I’d like to spend a few minutes exploring these with you.
The first thing we should note is that the translation we heard, from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, contained some elementary errors, made, it would seem, in the pursuit of gender equality. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, does not appear in verse fifteen, the first in our reading. A more correct rendering would be, ‘if your brother shall sin against you’. In an attempt to be gender neutral this version has replaced ‘brother’ with ‘member of the church’. In the next verse, ‘if he will not hear,’ becomes, ‘if you are not listened to,’ and in verse seventeen, ‘if he shall neglect to hear,’ becomes, ‘if the member refuses to listen’. Political correctness aside, the church’s members were admonished to patch up their quarrels, initially on a one-to-one basis, as man to man, brother to brother. If the disagreement could not be resolved, then one or two others should be brought in as witnesses to what was being argued. Only if agreement was still not reached would the whole company of the church become involved. In this latter verse the word church does appear. As we can see, Jesus recommended a clear, logical hierarchy of meetings to deal with difficulties. Now we come to the nub of the matter. If the recalcitrant member still will not listen, then he must become an outcast, he must be excommunicated. Matthew suggests that he should be treated as an ethnikos, a Gentile, literally ‘one of the nations’; or a telones, one of the hated tax gatherers. It is interesting to reflect that Matthew, the author this gospel, was probably the same Matthew who was himself a tax collector and who was called by Jesus to join his band of disciples (Mat 9:9). Some translations tell us that Jesus later dined in Matthew’s house, much to the indignation and outrage of the scribes and Pharisees, although the name Matthew does not appear in this context in the original manuscript (Mat 9:10). Saint Paul used similar words of castigation in his correspondence with Christians in Corinth. He taught the church there to judge the moral standards of their fellow Christians and, ‘drive out the wicked person from among you!’ (1 Cor 5:13). You will be aware that these words of reprimand are contradicted elsewhere by Jesus when he said, ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned’ (Lk 6:37). Thus we have a few examples of what might be called Biblical inexactitude.
We now come to the central part of the text. Jesus said, ‘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’. Just two Sundays ago we heard Jesus use the same words to Peter when he metaphorically gave him the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat 16:18). Jesus had been talking about sin, ‘if your brother shall sin against you’. I think we have in our passage about binding and loosing a cross-reference to some words of Jesus recorded by Saint John. These were said in the room where his disciples were gathered on the evening of the day of resurrection. After entering the room through locked doors Jesus gave his customary greeting, ‘Peace be with you,’ and offered the unique sacrament of sufflation; he breathed on them. He then gave his closest friends his sanction to forgive sins. He said, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20:23). At Pentecost, after they had received the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire and as a rushing, mighty wind, these founder members of the church were given Christ’s authority to forgive or retain sins. Just as Jesus had forgiven sins while he was on earth (eg Mat 9:2), so now he was passing that mandate on to those who would be the church’s first apostles.
Before we go any further we should look at sin a bit more closely. Just what is sin? One definition says that it is deliberate disobedience to the known will of God; disobedience to God’s commandments. But, why did God have to issue commandments in the first place? God formed mankind as one of his tasks in the creation of the universe. Whether you believe that Creation began on Sunday the 23rd October, in the year 4004BC, as precisely calculated by Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh in the year 1658, or instead accept the more modern theory of the Big Bang, a creative event that occurred thirteen point seven billion years ago, you will no doubt accept that God did create human kind, men and women. Whether they began their existence on the sixth day of Creation, as suggested in the first chapter of the book called Genesis, or evolved over the last two million or so years, is unimportant. God created them and his Spirit breathed life into them. Why did he create them? He created them solely for his pleasure and enjoyment. He loved all of his creation and, insofar that it could, he wanted his creation to love him in return. We proclaimed earlier in this service, ‘We love because he loved us first’. How could God prove that his human creatures loved him? He could not force love on them; love has to be freely given or it is not love at all. He had to give a freedom to love, or not to love. To prove his love he gave Adam a commandment that he must not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:16). If you accept the more modern, scientific account of creation, then you can replace the person of Adam with ancient archetypes, the results are the same. As we know, our earliest ancestors, whoever they were, disobeyed God, and sin, disobedience to God’s commandment, entered the world. We should remember that Jesus also linked love with obedience. According to Saint John’s Gospel he said, ‘those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me’ (John 14:21) and, as we heard in our Epistle, Saint Paul said, ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Rom 13:10). The church has, from very early times, adopted a doctrine of the innateness of sin, which later was called ‘original sin’, initially through the writings of Saint Paul to the churches at both Rome (Rom 5:12-21) and Corinth (1 Cor 15:22). But, even from Old Testament times we have scriptural evidence for this reality – verse five of Psalm fifty-one says, ‘Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me’. William Temple, one of the finest Archbishops of Canterbury in the twentieth century, wrote, ‘we are all born with original sin; we cannot too harshly drive this truth into our souls’.
Our early Judaic ancestors believed that God could forgive sin and, following Moses’ lead, they developed elaborate, sacrificial practices in which the sins of a penitent were transferred, through direct tactile contact, to a young bull. This animal was then ritually slaughtered and some of its blood, its life, was sprinkled on the altar of sacrifice; the rest was poured at its base (Lev 4:13-21). In another procedure a goat, symbolically carrying the sins of the people, was released into the wilderness to die there; the so-called scapegoat (Lev 16:21-22). It became apparent over time that these processes were flawed and inadequate. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is quite clear about that (Heb 10:1-4). It was a perfect man (for simplicity, let’s call him Adam) who broke the loving bond between God and man; it would take the sacrifice to God, not of an animal, but another perfect man to restore the covenant. But, where was such a perfect human life to be found? All human beings were tainted with sin. What could God do? He sent his only-begotten Son into our world to live a perfect, sinless, human life. In his prime that sinless person, referred to in our Introit hymn as the Second Adam, was sacrificed on the cross at Calvary for the sins of all of human kind, across all of space and time. This the basis of the Western Church’s ‘Satisfaction Theory of Atonement’, proposed by Archbishop Anslem of Canterbury in the eleventh century. Anselm, of course, based his theory on Saint Paul who, in his letter to Christians in Rome, wrote, ‘God sent his Son … as a sacrifice for sin’ (Rom 8:3). The author of Hebrews said that Jesus was, ‘holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens’ (Heb 7:26). In his first epistle Saint John confirmed, ‘in him there is no sin’ (1 John 3:5). Saint Peter wrote, that Jesus, ‘committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ (1 Pet 2:22).
Now, on the very day of his resurrection, Jesus passed his power to forgive sins on to his intimate circle of disciples. As I have already mentioned, authority came with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church teaches that this authority to forgive sin has been handed on within its sacred ministry, through what is called the Apostolic Succession, for nigh on two thousand years. Every bishop of the church, at his consecration, receives the same authority that was given to Peter, James, John and the others, all those centuries ago. The church has always taught this doctrine. Now some will argue that this forgiving of sins by bishops and clergy is only true in some of the more misguided or misled parts of the church. They will tell you that such a theory is of human origin and not part of God’s plan. They will tell you that the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries showed the errors in this practice. Few were more ardent Reformers than Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He was swingeing in his condemnation of what he saw were abuses in the Catholic Church of his time. Yet within both of his Prayer Books he included provision for those who were penitent to make confession of their sins to their priest. The priest then used his God given authority to absolve that sin. Let me quote you some words from that Prayer of Absolution, which is still retained in our current Prayer Book: ‘And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins’. These are words that are difficult to misinterpret. They still apply in our church.
How do our clergy get their authority to forgive sin? In the Ordination Service the prayer that accompanies the laying-on-of-hands includes words of Jesus, quoted by Saint John. The bishop says, ‘Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained’. Jesus gave a commission to his disciples, a commission that was confirmed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Those disciples, who became the first apostles, passed their mandate to their successors, the bishops or presbyters upon whom they laid their hands, in a never ending sequence down to the present times. Our bishops still pass this warrant to the clergy that they ordain. Now, that’s all very straightforward, logical and easy to understand, but we ought to be at least aware of the other side of the equation. As I have explained, our episcopally ordained priests have power on earth to forgive sins, but they also have power to retain sins. From this it could be argued that God has bequeathed to his church all authority over sin. Has God kept for himself a veto? If a priest, for whatever reason, refuses to absolve a penitent, can God intervene? I regret that we don’t have time this morning to examine this hypothesis, but you might like to think about it in your own time.
What, then, have we learned from our study of a few verses of scripture? I think we can say that we have learned a great deal. First, we must not use the words of the Bible in any absolutist, infallible or inerrant way. Biblical writers were undoubtedly divinely inspired, but errors of fact, interpretation and particularly of translation have crept in over the passage of time. We must always check our sources and go back if possible to original manuscripts, or, failing that, compare the texts of reliable commentators. The Holy Bible is not, ‘The Word of the Lord’, certainly not in the sense in which some evangelically minded Biblical fundamentalists hold it. It was not directly dictated to its writers by God, as, for example, the Qur’an is said to have been within Islam, as our preacher reminded us two Sundays ago. The ‘Good Book’ contains hundreds of contradictions, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, ambiguities, duplications and, as we have seen, mistranslations. Professor Stephen Neill, an acknowledged authority on all things Anglican in his day, said of the King James’ Bible that, in certain passages, the translators, ‘wrote what they must have known to be nonsense’. Our church doctrine simply avows that the words of Holy Scripture contain all that is necessary to salvation and, as the Prayer Book Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent admonishes us, we should, ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them,’ but with open and enquiring minds. As the German monk Thomas à Kempis wrote of the scriptures in his famous work, The Imitation of Christ, ‘Ask questions freely’.
Secondly, we have observed that Christianity is a revealed religion. In our Gospel Jesus spoke to his disciples about sin, but the church’s understanding of the hereditary principle of sin, the concept of original sin, was not fully comprehended until Saint Augustine published his book De Bono Coniugali – Of the Good of Marriage – at the beginning of the fifth century. All truth was not given to the newly founded church during the lives of the first apostles. Yes, Jesus did tell his disciples that the Paraclete, the Comforter, would lead them into all truth; he did not say that all of that truth would be delivered at any one time, or in any one age. The church teaches us that the processes of divine revelation continue. Let me quote you just a few words from the Report of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, ‘apprehension of truth is a growing thing; we only gradually succeed in knowing the truth’. I should add that the report also included the statement, ‘We believe that in leading us into all truth the Holy Spirit may have some surprises in store for us in the future, as he has had in the past’. It is only in the last few decades, for example, that a new understanding of Creation, the Big Bang, has been brought to us by cosmologists and astrophysicists. The former timetables attributed to Archbishop Ussher and others like him have finally been consigned to the history books. Thirdly, we are taught to ensure that the church has in place orderly and structured procedures to deal with disputes between members, regardless of the circumstances. Fourthly and finally, we have learned that God continues to put enormous power and authority into the hands of the ordained ministry of his church; authority over what is bound or loosed in heaven; power over the forgiveness or retention of sins. The priesthood is a divine institution and we must understand that there is a sacredness associated with the office of priest, independent of the holiness of the individual cleric.
Now, we may believe that all of these complex scriptural, revelational, sacramental and disciplinary matters are only for discussion and analysis by scholars and academics within seminaries and theological colleges. This is not so. All of the church is governed by the principles that I have outlined this morning, even here in remote and tiny Gruline. There is no escape. Professor Stephen Sykes, a former Bishop of Ely, wrote, ‘In the kingdom of God there are no quiet meadows where tired old churches can be put out to grass’. However small, we are all vital and essential parts of God’s world wide kingdom. Yet, despite its enormous size – you may be surprised to learn that about a third of the world’s population claim to be Christians – the church remains for each one of its members an intimate, personal and local place, yet a place still doctrinally dependent on scripture, revelation, discipline and authority. Our Lord expects each one of us to learn and understand these things and he makes himself available to help us, through his presence among us in word and sacrament. Let me conclude by reminding you of the closing verse of this morning’s Gospel from which we can take great comfort as we try to understand these difficult and complex issues, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them’.
Let us then give thanks to God for the Holy Scriptures and for patience to read, study and understand them aright. Let us glorify him for the continuing revelations of divine truth brought us by his Holy Spirit. Let us acknowledge the words of our Saviour encouraging in each one of us a discipline by which we should live our lives within the Christian Church. Finally, let us praise God for the awesome power and authority he continues to give to those called to serve him in the sacred priesthood of his holy church.
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