Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
If another member of the church sins against you…
It may come as a surprise to know that in some of the most ancient texts or codices of the Gospel of Matthew -- from which our Gospel account this morning is taken -- the two little words from this passage against you are missing. In other words, in these alternate texts, the passage simply says, “If another member of the Church sins, go and point out the fault…” Scholars, who make their living writing arcane articles about such things, are not quite sure what to make of it.
Some consider that the words against you were in fact intended in the original but were somehow inadvertently left out in these other manuscripts by one or the other scribe centuries ago -- a kind of ancient typographical error, if you will. Such things were known to happen. Often, in fact. Other experts however believe the words themselves, against you, were in fact a later addition, perhaps made to provide further clarity to the text. I suppose we shall never know for sure. But the Church, in its wisdom, has for whatever reason decided to side with those who believe the words against you actually belong there. And so, there they are in our Reading this morning.
These two little words are of course important. They are not immaterial. They change the meaning of the text in a significant way, if you leave them in or take them out, as you can readily see. There is after all a big difference between someone sinning, period; and someone sinning against me. Or against you. One is general: Sin. Something we all know we all do all the time. It is part of the human condition. The other reading, against you, is up-front and personal. One-on-one. Confrontational even.
If the text is read, against you, there could of course as well be an unintended implication of which the Evangelist -- or those pesky scribes -- might not have even been entirely aware. For instance, say someone -- God forbid -- should sin against our kindly Churchwarden, Alice; we might then be tempted to say: Sorry, Alice, not my problem. That person sinned against you. You sort it. And, I suppose there is an element of logic to this. At some level, we must all fight our own battles. You and I cannot possibly be held responsible for the actions of the entire Church.
Or can we…?
If we leave the words against you out of the text, as of course some codices do, that is exactly the implication. That is, we all bear an element of responsibility for each other in the Church -- not just in specific, discrete instances but more or less all the time. The sin against you becomes also a sin against me and against the entire community of the Church. That is something quite different from a spat between two individuals. And, we all share the duty or responsibility of seeking an end to such conflict and sin. For, the Church is one body.
I am no scholar, but I somehow think that is probably what our Lord would have intended.
This passage, by the way, comes from one of our Lord’s last great discourses in the Gospel of Matthew; one sometimes aptly called the Discourse on the Church. It speaks of the role of the apostles and disciples in the early Church and emphasises the importance of humility and harmony among all believers. Yet in spite of this, as this narrative seems to imply, that early budding Church was clearly as filled with frail and fragile human beings -- sinners -- as is the Church still today so many centuries later.
And, our Lord’s prescription for conflict and reconciliation in the Church is in many ways as modern as any contemporary organisation’s Human Resources Manual or any self-help book written in the past few years. Nothing esoteric or mystical about it. Just plain common sense. First, try to resolve matters privately among yourselves. If that is not successful, bring in a couple of willing -- or even unwilling -- witnesses. Work the problem. Seek reconciliation with the one who has sinned against you. Resolve the issue.
We live in a time of polarization at least as troubling as was the first century in Palestine and beyond. But then, perhaps all times and eras are times of conflict. Ask anyone who lived through World War Two. It is after all in the nature of humankind to have differing opinions and so to disagree. But the conflict which leads to sin is of a different order.
It is the conflict which pits person against person; the one which demeans and humiliates the other to make points. The one which denigrates the other in order to glorify the self. The sin against you that become the sin against all of us; against the Church.
But if Christ and his Church are about anything, it remains reconciliation. And, reconciliation means respect for the other -- in Church and out -- even sometimes when we are not feeling so respectful of the other. It means, as this Gospel narrative suggests, dialogue. Encounter. Humility and love. It cannot for us be otherwise of course. As Paul admonishes us in our second reading from the Letter to the Romans. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Well… Should we leave those two little words against you in the narrative or not…? Difficult to say. I leave it to you to decide. For me, I say leave them out. The Church, no matter how big or small, is after all one body, the very Body of Christ. It is not just you or me. It is all of us. And, there is no room in it for against, whether against you, me, or her or him. We are after all gathered in Christ’s name.
And as our Lord himself tells us, when we are gathered in his name, he is there among us.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs