Christchurch Brentor Matthew 18:12-22 6th September 2020
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. v.20. That is a very well-known promise that we Christians like to claim as a great encouragement. Commentator William Barclay puts it like this: Jesus is just as much present in the little congregation as in the great mass meeting. He is just as much present at the Prayer Meeting or the Bible Study Group with their handful of people as in the crowded arena. He is not the slave of numbers. He is there wherever faithful hearts meet, however few they may be, for he gives all of himself to each individual person.
Undoubtedly it is a promise to be claimed, but we must not neglect to read it in its context – what is said by Jesus before and after it – how Matthew has set it within his Gospel. That is why I lengthened the Gospel Reading this morning and changed the OT Reading and Psalm to ones that relate to it. For it is helpful to know what other scriptures Jesus perhaps had in mind.
Also helpful is the context of Jesus day. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. This saying of Jesus is similar to a saying of one of the Rabbis: When two sit, and there are between them the words of Torah (the Law, Scriptures), the Shekinah (the glorious presence of God) rests between them.
Similarly, Jesus’ promise is for those who meet in his name – who create a community who are seeking God’s will and seeking to fulfil it. Of course, God is present everywhere and with you wherever you go on your own. But we are made to be family and to be accompanied by our fellow pilgrims – seeking to walk God’s way together.
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Out of this context of community seeking to know and fulfil the will of God comes the power of prayer. If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. v.19. I quote William Barclay again: In prayer we receive, not the answer which we desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and his love knows to be best. Simply because we are human beings, with human hearts and fears and hopes and desires, most of our prayers are prayers for escape. We pray to be saved from some trial, some sorrow, some disappointment, some hurting and difficult situation. And always God’s answer is the offer not of escape, but of victory. God does not give us escape from a human situation; he enables us to accept what we cannot understand; he enables us to endure what without him would be unendurable; he enables us to face what without him would be beyond all facing.
If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. But we also learn from the verses before these that this presence of God and the power of prayer amongst us comes out of a context of harmony and good relationships within the community of believers, within the family of the church.
The word church (Greek: ekklesia) is used here, but it originally meant a gathering or assembly – even a political meeting. It did not yet have the meaning we associate with it today of a building or of a hierarchy of bishops and ecclesiastical laws and discipline. Let us read it together again: If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother or sister listens to you, you have regained the brother or sister. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he or she refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 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. vv.15-18
Now all that sounds very heavy stuff. Indeed, it has been used by some church organisations to exercise power over people – as we see in the medieval Catholic Church at its worse or in modern day Protestant or heretical sects which demand entry into every detail of their members’ lives. But these words are not about the control of people’s lives, but about maintaining healthy, open, harmonious and good relationships which foster the presence and power of God amongst them.
First of all I would make three very important points:  this passage is about the resolution of some very serious matters and not a minor disagreement;  it is about relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ and not between an individual and an overbearing church hierarchy; and  it is a recommended process between equals and does not apply to someone suffering abuse at the hands of another, nor to someone dealing with a bully or church leader who assumes way too much authority. In the case of abuse our church has rightly if rather belatedly set up a means and process to safeguard the vulnerable. One should never advise an abused or bullied individual to try to settle the problem with the abuser or bully. As Jesus is recorded saying, a few verses previously: If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. v.6.
But even though this passage is about the resolution of weighty matters of contention, it does encourage us to seek the harmony between ourselves out of which proceeds the tangible presence of God and the power of prayer. It urges us to overcome all those minor discords which can drive us apart in our families and churches.
If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. v.15. Letters and emails are not an appropriate way to air our grievances, let alone talking about them to all in sundry apart from the person they concern. I also think it is helpful to know that the verse can be translated in this way: If your brother or sister sins against you, go and reason with them when the two of you are alone. However, for someone facing a person of the opposite sex or whom they find intimidating it is right to be accompanied by another from the outset. The aim is to diffuse the problem and not make it worse.
And here Jesus probably has in mind some verses from the Torah: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with (same word in the Greek OT) your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself … Leviticus 19:17f. Our motivation should always be one of love and not merely justifying ourselves or finding fault. Whatever the meaning of the verse about binding or loosing on earth and in heaven means, the Christian family should be primarily about setting people free of all that distorts our lives and relationships and not tying us up!
Jesus envisages that sometimes agreement cannot be reached and a lasting breach of relationships may occur and here he says a seemingly incomprehensible thing: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. v.17b. Considering that Matthew records in his Gospel how well and with respect Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors – who were despised by his fellow countrymen – what does Jesus mean here?
William Barclay puts it very well:It may be that what Jesus said was something like this: “When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when they remain stubborn and obdurate, you may think that they are no better than a renegade tax-collector, or even a godless Gentile … But I have not found (them) hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, you may still win them, as I have done.” This, in fact, is not an injunction to abandon a person; it is a challenge to win them with the love which can touch even the hardest heart. It is not a statement that some people are hopeless; it is a statement that Jesus Christ has found no one hopeless – and neither must we.
It is no coincidence that either side of this teaching of Jesus are the Parable of the Lost Sheep – where the shepherd abandons the ninety-nine to go in search of the one that went astray v.13 – and when Peter is told that he must forgive the brother or sister that wrongs him not seven times, but … seventy-seven times v.27.
One Jewish-Christian text of the time said this: Love ye therefore one another from your hearts; and if a man sin against thee, tell him of it gently, and drive out the poison of hatred, and foster not guile in thy soul. And if he confess and repent, forgive him … But if he be shameless, and abideth in his wrongdoing, even then forgive him from the heart, and give the vengeance to God. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Gad 6:2-7.
As we seek to fulfil God’s will, forgiving one another and walking together in harmony with one another, let us remember the promise Jesus gives to such people: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Brother, sister, let me serve you; We are pilgrims on a journey,
let me be as Christ to you; and companions on the road;
pray that I may have the grace to we are here to help each other
let you be my servant too. walk the mile and bear the load.