Introduction to Back to Church Sunday. Matthew 18: 15-21
The Church: Uncomfortable?
It’s a natural human tendency to idealise the past when we think the present seems pretty bad. ‘Young people these days…’ people say, meaning that in the past they were a lot better behaved. ‘Back when I was a girl we used to’… ‘always leave the door on the latch’, ‘treat the elderly with respect’, or whatever it is.
We’ve all heard it, maybe we’ve all said it. And we always know that there’s a bit of selective memory going on when we hear it. We are sometimes tempted to do the same thing with the church. ‘Before we had all these splits and disagreements wasn’t it so much better?’. [When I was curate …] Buried in all of this looking back at a past we think must have been better is often some sense that the further back you go, the nearer to Jesus you get, the better, more vibrant, truer, more faithful the church must have been.
And then we come across readings like the one we had today – Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, telling the disciples how they should handle things when people offend each other and get hurt and won’t listen to each other. These words blow that rose-tinted picture of the past out of the water. This isn’t just Jesus saying ‘you might have some fallings out from time to time, but talk about it and you’ll sort it out’. This is Jesus saying ‘you’ll try and sort it out, and it’ll fail, and then you’ll try again and it’ll fail, and then you’ll try again, and it’ll still fail, and you’ll have to go your separate ways because there will be no way of reconciling you.’ Even in the early church there were disputes, splits, people getting hurt, and Jesus knew there would be. He knew that there wouldn’t be a ‘happy ever after’ in which there were no disagreements, love triumphed over everything, and the church remained unified.
The problem is that churches are made up of fallible, difficult, and sometimes downright awkward and hurtful people. Like you and me. And that means that despite our fondest imaginings churches can be very uncomfortable places to be. Not least because we all know that they should be so much better.
Maybe you have experienced that for yourself at times – found apparently very Christian people acting in hurtful ways. Maybe others have shared such experiences with you. I’m sure that in some way or another all of us have had that experience of feeling that the church has let us down, whether on a personal, local or national level. It leaves us feeling uncomfortable, disillusioned, maybe a little ashamed.
2. Church – Presence of God
But this is where Jesus’ words seem most incredible. In the midst of his discussion of horrendous splits in the church – where people are offended, others seem determined to ignore what anyone else thinks, and it seems like the only solution is to split – in the midst of all this, Jesus says ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name I am there’.
This is one of the more well-known of Jesus’ sayings, but we often forget the context in which it was said. Jesus talks uninhibitedly about the painful realities of living in a community of less than perfect Christians. Things will not always work out the way that they should. Nevertheless, when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. People will not behave in the way they ought to. Nevertheless, when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. Brothers and sisters will be forced to treat each other like strangers. Nevertheless, when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. Your church will make you feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.
Jesus goes further. In the midst of the whole sorry process of bringing hurt out into the open, confronting people with the wrongs that have been done, and even in telling people that they cannot continue as members of the church in the same way they had before. In all of this, Jesus says, God is present and honours the decisions made in good faith.
All of us will be aware of the potential for abuse and hurt in the sorts of disciplinary procedures Jesus describes. Any attempt to bring hurts out into the open within a community is incredibly painful, making many people vulnerable and defensive. A glance at any of the recent coverage of events in the Anglican communion makes this very clear. Offence will hardly ever just be on one side. And making truly objective judgements is very difficult when the people involved are your friends. Yet Jesus makes the apparently outrageous claim that God is present in such judgements – that decisions made on earth are honoured in heaven.
I don’t think he is suggesting, by saying this, that such decisions are perfect, that they represent a perfect solution to a painful situation, or indeed that they are always made for the right reasons. He is very aware that the church remains a fallible human community. But what he is reminding us of is that it is more than just a fallible human community. It is also a place where God is found – where Jesus himself meets with us when we gather in his name. So when we make these terrible, imperfect decisions, God is here with us. With all of us who gather in his name, whatever side of any disagreement we might fall on.
It is the community that Jesus stresses God’s identification with here, not the individual – it is when two or three are gathered, when two agree – and the fact that he stresses this so strongly, in relation to such a difficult situation, should perhaps give us pause for thought. Church makes us feel uncomfortable, makes us feel ashamed. But God is within the church. We cannot easily separate God out from it, because he chooses to identify himself with a flawed and broken community, despite its flaws and brokenness. So in feeling uncomfortable, in feeling ashamed, is it really God who sometimes we are uncomfortable with? The God who won’t keep himself at arms length from our failures, but stands with us whenever two or three are gathered together. Even when they gather together in failure.
The church is not perfect. But God loves it and identifies himself with it. And he calls us to do the same. If it is sometimes hard for us to identify ourselves with the church, it should be more so for God, yet he does it. So let’s try and do the same – to love the fallible community we are part of, and in so doing, meet together with the God who promises to stand with us.
3. Church: Inviting?
Maybe that’s something you’ve experienced too – the sense that God meets with us when we come together. Maybe that’s something you feel most Sunday mornings. Maybe it’s just something you see every now and then. It might be in the experience of worshipping together. It might be in seeing people caring for each other, it might even be in listening to the pantomime band!
However and wherever you feel it, the chances are it’s one of the things you value most about St George’s. Something you want other people to be able to share.
We have an opportunity at the end of this month to share these things we value with others: Back to Church Sunday. The idea is simple: there are many people who used to go to church but have stopped coming, for all sorts of reasons, but if they were invited back, they might come again. On Sunday 28th September we’re going to celebrate Back to Church Sunday. In many ways it won’t be different from any other Sunday – we’re not trying to pretend St Georges is anything other than St Georges. But what we are doing is saying that we think it’s a great place, that it’s a place where God meets with us, that we think there’s something of immense value here, and we’d like to share that with others.
So we want to make this a special service dedicated to people who haven’t been to church for a while, but who we think would value it. But we need to let them know about it. That is where you come in. One of the purposes of this Sunday is about enabling us to share the things we value with others, to share our community and ultimately God. That’s quite a daunting task! Back to church Sunday is an opportunity for us to share our community and God in a an easy way- you don’t have to have an in depth conversation with someone, you don’t even have to see them face to face if you don’t want. All you have to do is give or send them an invitation. It might be someone who has been before, it might be a neighbour or friend who has mentioned faith or St George’s but never managed to come along- I am sure there would be a variety of people you think would value the things you value about this church and community. The invites are at the back of church for you to collect. All you need to do is fill out the details of the service on the first side. Leave the second side blank (this is a place for people who come back to church to offer us some feedback!) and then write the name of the person you intend to invite on the 3rd side and tear that side off- and keep it, it is a prayer card for you to pray for that person that you have invited.
It is as simple as that. You might want to be more personal and go see someone for a coffee or you might want to just send a small card or note through the letter box- it really doesn’t matter how you do it- it’s sharing that matters.
Maybe this is something that makes us feel uncomfortable. Because as we’ve seen, we all know that church can make us feel uncomfortable at times. But if we also believe that church can be a place where God meets with us, a place that we feel is really valuable, then we should take this chance to share it with others.