Sunday, 10 September 2023
Janet Spence, Chaplain
The fruits of working to be reconciled with one another, working to build community based on truth and love and respect, will be lives where hope will flourish, where joy will be known, the joy of building the Kingdom of God in our relationships and community here and now.
CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, is a mixture of fantasy, fable and parable which paints a picture of hell as a vast, sprawling grey city. A city so vast it would take years to walk from one side to the other. A city constantly growing bigger - not because there are more and more inhabitants, but because no-one can bear to be close to anyone else.
Every creature in this city chooses separation and a turning away as the solution to discord. Rather than daring to confront one another; rather than meeting face to face to understand one another and seek to be reconciled; they turn away choosing solitude. So this vast, vast grey city is filled with deserted communities, the only inhabitants residing at its very edges, and always moving further and further away from one another. It’s a haunting image.
Today’s gospel speaks to the danger of living in ways that might move us towards a world like this.
Jesus speaks with his disciples about how to respond when a sister or brother sins against another, when relationships are at risk of breaking down. Jesus speaks with his disciples about how to avoid behaviour patterns that might push us towards a life that could be described as hell.
And his instruction is a challenge - if someone sins against you, hurts you, offends you, go to that person in hope of reconciliation, in hope of listening and being listened to, and thereby breaking the pattern of destructive relationship destroying behaviours.
Reflecting on those words, I am aware of this passage being personally challenging.
Many years ago one of our children, 6 or 7 years old at the time, was privately and unjustly accused by an adult member of our church community. It was a terrible experience for our child. As their mum, I felt confused but certain that there must have been a misunderstanding that could surely be cleared up. So, reassuring my child that all would be well, we went together to the person to try to resolve the issue.
However, we were met with a resolute refusal to engage with the situation - the person bluntly and angrily refused to acknowledge my child’s pain, instead accusing me of manipulating my child for my own ends. My husband Simon was away for a stretch with work, and I went home feeling bewildered and upset.
I was determined to protect our child, but was unsure what more I could do. In fact, I worried that I’d done them more harm by insisting that we speak with the person.
I lost my own bearings to some extent, questioning my actions and feeling very vulnerable. Perhaps my mistake at that point was that I didn’t follow Jesus’ advice and reach out to others in the church community. Instead, after further attempts to engage privately with the person concerned, I resolved to let it be, and tried to put it aside.
Clearly, given that I am talking about it today - and it happened many years ago - it was not fully laid to rest; in fact it was not ever resolved. We were never reconciled, and a polite facade became our only relationship. The pain of that remains with me.
What I forgot was that we were both members of a community, a church community; instead I had focused on us as individuals needing to sort something out. Jesus teaches us that a life of faith is something that makes sense, grows, is safe, ‘where two or three are gathered together’ in His name. God is there in the midst of our meeting, and there is a safety offered.
We need one another both practically and spiritually, and we need God with us. We need God, and one another to remind ourselves of our belonging.
It’s interesting that another story’s depiction of the underworld, also focuses on the separation of beings from one another. In a musical soon to come to London’s West End from Broadway, called Hadestown, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold.
Eurydice, on entering Hadestown, finds herself surrounded by other beings, yet entirely alone, for although Eurydice can be heard no-one here ever listens. Though they may look at her, she is never seen. In this place where no-one has a name, everyone is instantly forgotten.
In this place, Hades gives every creature everlasting life; an everlasting life surrounded by others but everyone entirely alone.
So what might a healthy community look like? It may be tempting to try to build a faith community:
where anything goes;
where we can choose what we like, and ignore or reject what we don’t, and so can everyone else;
where it’s all about my individual relationship with my God. Others have their own relationship with their God and that’s their business.
On the face of it, such a community might sound attractive, and perhaps likely to reduce the chance of conflict. And, let’s face it, most of us like to avoid conflict if we can.
But our faith, our Christian faith is - perhaps uncomfortably - a ‘both-and’ faith:
Both individual and held in common
Both specific and diverse,
Both personal and shared,
Both intimate and public
And Christ calls us to have courage, to remain engaged with one another even, perhaps especially, when this engagement is difficult and we are tempted to distance ourselves.
Christ calls us to not turn away, or hide from our disagreements. Christ calls us to not talk behind closed doors with another about a third party with whom we have a disagreement. To not choose a dishonest illusion of harmony over courageous, honest, reconciling conversation.
Building our Christian community involves the hard work of humbly confronting our disagreements in the acknowledged presence of God, and supported by one another. It is about meeting our fellow community members face to face, in mutual respect, for when we do this we are not working to prove that we are right, and that someone else is wrong. Rather we are working for the sake of healing and to build and strengthen community.
I wonder whether perhaps for all of us a real problem is our inclination to defend ourselves, to retreat behind a protective wall.
Perhaps a real problem is that we would rather let the relationship with the other suffer than admit our hurts and our own faults and seek humble reconciliation.
Perhaps a real problem is our inclination to respond to another’s sin against us, by ourselves responding in a sinful manner. By reacting defensively or aggressively rather than responding in love.
This passage is both practical and idealistic - a good combination.
Jesus doesn’t shy away from the challenge of reconciliation, but recognises that the work of this may be costly - it is a seeking of truth and honesty which can be hard to take and to give!
But we are assured that the fruits of working to be reconciled with one another, working to build community based on truth and love and respect will be lives where hope will flourish, where joy will be known, the joy of building the Kingdom of God in our relationships and community here and now.
In a few minutes, we shall share in the hope filled joy of welcoming Eliza into the baptised family of God. We will promise individually and collectively that we will care for Eliza, and will share our faith with her. This is truly a wonderful life affirming moment - we begin our relationship of care and love that can include confrontation, with Eliza and her family and Godparents, in order that she and every one of us may share more and more in being members of the worldwide church. We welcome Eliza into the family of God. Thanks be to God!