Sentence: How good and pleasant a thing it is when God's people live together in unity (Psalm 133:1)
you have made us
not in one mould, but in many:
so deepen our unity in Christ through the Holy Spirit
that we may rejoice in our diversity. Amen.
What is the role of a prophet? Here the role is that of a 'sentinel' (7), someone who watches out for coming danger. In this case the prophet is to warn of the dangers of wicked living and to urge the wicked to turn from their ways (8-9). This role flows from the character of God: God cannot stand wickedness yet God does not wish to see the wicked die in their wickedness but repent and turn back to God.
The psalmist praises the law. His desire to keep the law is heartfelt. I think the psalmist would have approved of what Paul wrote in the epistle today!
In continuity with earlier chapters in Romans, Paul loosens focus on the Law of God given through Moses from its details to its principles. In a subtle piece of writing he manages to move from the payment of taxes and giving of honour to those who deserve it (13:7) to guidance about debt ('Owe no one anything') to love for one another (13:8). In highlighting love for one another he is able to announce, 'the one who loves another has fulfilled the law' (8b). He then takes the commandments among the ten commandments associated with social relationships and sums them up, following Leviticus 19:18, and Jesus himself, as 'Love your neighbour as yourself' (9b).
To be clear, this does not mean that we might develop some convoluted reasoning which justifies (say) stealing from our neighbours as a loving action: 'Love does no wrong to a neighbour' (10).
The succeeding verses then make the point that while we are free in Christ we are to live not only as those who love one another but as those who live in the light. The day of reckoning is coming so we should live as we will live the day after that, in the full glare of God's presence.
Only Matthew's gospel uses the Greek word for 'church,' ekklesia, and all the occurrences are in 16:18, today's passage and the next verse, 18:21! An obvious inference to draw is that Matthew wrote this report of Jesus' teaching (remember, originally his teaching was in Aramaic, not in Greek) with needs of the church his day in mind.
And what a useful passage it is! Matthew outlines a three stage process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing in the church. In my view this process, albeit adapted, lies at the heart of our church's official, canonical process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing (see Title D On the Maintenance of Ministry Standards).* The movement through the stages is from keeping the matter as low-key and personal as possible, through a stage in which several people are involved through to the full glare of congregational consideration.
However it might not be the best sermon to preach this Sunday if we were to outline this process because talk about how it might be implemented in the life of your congregation might raise more questions than you would like to answer at morning tea afterwards. Who do you have in mind, O preacher, who needs dealing with?
Perhaps, however, it would be a timely sermon to work from the passage to how each of us deals with interpersonal conflict as some of us have a propensity to want to get to the last stage before moving through the first two stages! In today's world we could perhaps talk about dealing with conflict via face to face conversation rather than trying to do so via text or email. We might also nod in the direction of the dangers of conflict in Facebook conversations ...
There is also a question within the passage of what verse 18 means (see also 16:19). Does this verse refer to some kind of absolute power of the church (e.g. to settle doctrinal matters in an infallible manner)? Or is this absolute language merely referring to the binding nature of church decisions when arrived at after due consideration of the matter at hand, in a fair and reasonable process? That is, is the language hyperbolic (as some language of Jesus is), so that what is being referred to here are the ordinary decisions of the church (to be respected and implemented) rather than the extraordinary decisions of the church (which, sometimes, contribute to an exercise of ecclesiastical power with unfortunate repercussions, including the practical impossibility of people implementing the decision).
We might note, incidentally, that the 'you' in verse 18 is the congregation and not the apostles (which, arguably, is the scope of authority granted in 16:19). But does the congregation here mean literally 'the congregation' as in the worshippers gathered together or some kind of meeting of the church as a council or synod? (Acts 15 is an example of the early church meeting together as a council and making a binding decision).
Verse 19 extends the power of the church when in agreement to prayer itself. Whether we feel we can explain this or not, it is an extraordinary claim to consider. The words can be read as, 'the Father waits for the church to agree what it will tell him to do'! On the one hand, God as Father is our loving father and wishes to assist and help us (and in that sense is willing for us to 'tell him what to do'). On the other hand, God is God and needs no one, let alone the church to tell him what to do!
In context, verse 19 must at least mean that God supports the church as it puts into effect its decisions when it makes proper decisions after due process.
Verse 20 also offers this twist to considering verse 19: when we gather as the church, Jesus is in our midst (even when we are the smallest of churches). This implies that Jesus assists the church in making its decisions and in arriving at agreement with what it asks of the Father. Thus the church being promised that the Father will do for us what we ask implies that this will be so for requests made which Jesus himself agrees to.
*In 2020 Title D has undergone a revision which arguably shifts its processes away from a Matthew 18 model. This revision is the result of reflection on and consideration of how we the church have handled egregious cases, especially those in which the allegation against a person in power is that they have abused their power to abuse a person with less power or even no power at all within the life of the church. In order to not have a fair and just dealing of complaints, in a process which is both transparent and objective as reasonably possible, Title D (when enacted in a few months time) will place considerable weight on an appointed officer and an appointed commission of the whole church to deal with complaints which arise.
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