Collect for Trinity XVI
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 our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of 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
I take as my text the closing words of our Gospel proclamation, words from the twentieth verse of the eighteenth chapter of Saint Matthew: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Jesus spent a very short period of his earthly life in his public ministry. The synoptic gospels tend towards a period as short as one year while Saint John suggests that it may have been as long as three years. This latter period is deduced from the several references to Jesus going up to Jerusalem for various Jewish festivals. We may think that even three years was a frighteningly short time to give himself to the task of bringing the Kingdom of God to the Jewish people. We must remember that this was his one objective; Jesus had no interest in Gentile converts to his ideas. He was quite clear in his instructions to the twelve disciples that he sent out to preach and cure the sick – ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Yet is a year such a short time? Those of us who can remember back to our school, college or university days will surely recall the enormous quantity of information and number of facts imparted to us within any one academic year; a year that comprised perhaps thirty weeks of thirty hours per week. Jesus lived, ate and breathed with his close band of followers; they were his constant companions, in every sense of that word. We get a very poor impression of the extent and intensity of Christ’s teaching processes from the pages of the Gospels, both to the disciples and the crowds of itinerant followers. I read some while ago that if all the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels were read aloud with clarity and dignity the process would take about six hours: there are the best part of three thousand day-time hours in a year.
A cursory reading of Holy Scripture leads us to believe that the disciples often had some difficulty in understanding what Jesus was trying to teach them. This is understandable when we consider the importance of his doctrine and the significant differences between what he taught and what the disciples had learned in the formative parts of their lives. How often do we read words like, ‘But I say unto you…’ This Son of God was superseding and reinterpreting the Torah, the Mosaic Law, that controlled the lives of all Jews from cradle to grave. Jesus gave new understanding to passages of scripture that they had lived by; he brought new insights into what Moses had said. In so doing he spoke from his own authority, so much so that he startled many of his listeners. Saint Matthew, whose Gospel we are currently reading Sunday by Sunday, tells us, ‘He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’. This authority that Jesus demonstrated caused consternation among the chief priests and elders. Later in the Gospel we read, ‘When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”’. These worthies only passed on what they had learned at the feet of their teachers; there was no new scholarship. The Rabbis taught from the Torah much as Muslim Imams teach from the Qu’ran. The words were deemed to be the words of God and not open to alteration, misunderstanding, manipulation, or even translation. Yet, here was the Son of the God, whose Laws these were, saying, in effect,’ this is what they really mean’. Several scriptural commentators are of the opinion that the disciples did not fully understand the significance and importance of Jesus’ teachings until after the resurrection and, indeed, until after they were empowered by the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of God, at Pentecost, to go into all the world and preach this Good News to all peoples. We get a real feeling for this from occasions such as Jesus’ parable about the blind leading the blind, and both falling into the ditch. In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew we find Saint Peter saying, ‘Explain this parable to us’, and Jesus replying, ‘Are you still without understanding?’
Let us now look for a moment or two at the significance of the ‘two or three’ who must be gathered together in his name for Jesus to be among them, to see if we can understand them. In our reading Saint Matthew was reminding his readers what they must do if they met with a sinner in their community, a community of Christianised Jews. We must remember that the Matthean Gospel was the only one written in Aramaic, or possibly Hebrew, for Jews. All of the rest of the New Testament was written in Greek (and some of it in very poor Greek) for essentially Gentile churches. Our reading began, ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’. Richard France in his commentary advises us that the words ‘against you’ are missing from several important manuscripts, so we are not sure whether we are dealing here with a breakdown of personal relationships or merely some fault determined in another disciple. Be that as it may, the Jewish tradition for this circumstance was for the one to reprove the other for his or her error. If the problem was not resolved, then the next recourse was to involve one or two others, making two or three witnesses, thus putting more pressure on the recalcitrant person to listen. Finally, after all else had failed, as it were, then the whole church must be told – the church in this case being the local community of worshippers. If this final step of arbitration failed then the sinner was to be treated like a Gentile and a tax-collector, an individual with whom no good Jew would have dealings.
It is interesting here to recollect that Jesus himself was no stranger to Gentiles and tax-collectors. He talked with the Samaritan woman at the well; he touched and cured a Gentile leper and he invited Matthias, a tax collector, to join his band of disciples. Perhaps Saint Matthew had temporarily forgotten these facts when he wrote this chapter. Then, in verse eighteen, we are given an insight into the authority and power with which Jesus imbued his disciples. ‘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.’ Earlier, in chapter sixteen, Jesus had given this legislative sanction uniquely to Peter. You will remember that Jesus said, ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. Now, all the members of the inner-circle are to be given this mandate.
We are to understand from this that the church’s appeal to repentance in a sinner was to be a united conviction in that church of what was right or wrong behaviour for a member of that church. The original text of this gospel suggests that the two verbs ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ refer to the sin and not to the condemnation or forgiveness of the sinner, although there is little doubt that this would naturally follow. It is interesting to reflect that there is no indication in these verses as to how the authority of a congregation is to be exercised; there is no mention of any church leadership. What is crystal clear is that such divine authority, against which there appears to be no appeal, must be used by the church with much care and compassion.
Finally, we return to the point where we started, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. This promise is not confined to the church as a whole, but appertains to a request to ‘two or three of you’ when, and only when, they are gathered ‘in my name’. This passage has been described by one commentator as, ‘a Christified bit of Rabbinism’. It contains an echo of a rabbinic belief that if two sit together with the words of the Law between them, then the Shekinah, the presence of God on earth, the presence that appeared in a cloud above the tabernacle, would rest above them and direct their thoughts. In Matthew’s account this Godly presence is now Jesus himself. Thus he gives a whole new dimension to an apparently insignificant gathering of two or three concerned disciples. We must not forget that one of the names that was given to Jesus at his incarnation was Emmanuel, ‘which is interpreted, God with us’.
This physical presence of Jesus with small groups of his disciples was fine while he still had an earthly existence, but as we know his human body died upon the cross, he was bodily resurrected on the third day and later, forty days later if we accept the account given in the Acts of the Apostles, he corporeally ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father. Does this mean that we, as current members of the Christian church, cannot have his presence in our small gatherings? Most certainly it does not. The closing words of Matthew’s Gospel were almost certainly written by another hand and at a much later date than the autograph. Despite that, they have a scriptural authority of their own. ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ The Shekinah, the earthly manifestation of the Old Testament God, is replaced by the presence of the Son, in our midst at all times. The ancient Jews sat before the Temple with a copy of the Law between them; we meet in Christ’s name at the altar rail of our church’s sanctuary. They encountered a spiritual presence of the God of their fathers; we experience a sacramental presence of that same God who comes to us in the forms of bread and wine. Be we large or small in number, be our corporate worship full of music, vesture and ceremonial or simple and quietly said; be it on a great and saintly festival or a wet and windy Wednesday – we can still be assured of the promise that Jesus made to his disciples two thousand years ago, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Let us thank the Son of God for this promise and be prepared to meet with him as those who are gathered together in his name.
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