Sunday 10 September - Pentecost 14 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Pentecost 14 2017 – Exodus 12.1-14; Matthew 18.15-20

+ ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

While giving us timely warnings against drunkenness and debauchery, St Paul has told us that ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour’. In the first reading, the community of Israel are given instructions for keeping the feast of Passover. In the gospel the Church is told by Jesus how to deal with difficult members – very useful. They all tell us how to live together and the key principle is ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

If you haven’t had a look at our display on water in the north aisle, do visit it. People have added their thoughts and art on this theme. It is clear that we are not loving our neighbour if we do not allow them access to safe and adequate water. One in ten people in the world, about 660 million, do not have access to safe drinking water, and diseases related to contaminated drinking water are the third most common cause of child death. Since 1990, however, 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved water sources so there is some evidence we have been loving our neighbour, but there is still more loving to do. But loving is not enough, it is a motive for action. The improvement in access to safe water seems to have come about from cooperation between development agencies, local governments and money from the developed economies. It is capitalism, business developing the economy, working together with charity that is making the world better.

When Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, a lawyer asked (it had to be a lawyer), ‘who is my neighbour?’ And Jesus answered with the parable of the good Samaritan. If we ask this same question as we look at our water display, we may come up with the answer that water is our neighbour. Together with our weather, it is a dangerous and unpredictable neighbour as the recent flooding, hurricane downpours and giant waves show. Here capitalism makes us bad neighbours. Someone’s addition to our water display mentions microbeads, tiny bits of plastic found in soaps and cleansers which help us get clean but get into the oceans and harm creatures that live there. Likewise industry and some forms of farming pollute the oceans with toxins and our throwaway consumer society fills it with plastic waste – 100 million tons of it by one calculation.        

Two things here. We need to see the planet as one organic whole, with us as part of it, rather than as a resource for us to exploit. As the alleluia verse said, we are the ‘first fruits of creation’ not its Lords. This involves a spiritual change of attitude. Secondly, we are recalled to our readings as most of the problems, including changes to the climate, come from the way human communities live together. If we pay attention to our communities, we can change the planet.

Our gospel reading is one of only two passages in the gospels that use the word ‘church’, ‘ekklesia’. But the church is not absent from the gospels. Jesus teaches, performs miracles and casts our demons, but his other major work is forming a community and showing it how to live together and relate to others. This community, led by the Apostles, was to continue his work and it is called the Church. We are part of that community.

I want to argue that, if the problems of the world overwhelm us, we can make a difference starting here, with our community, our church. It is interesting that our reading from Matthew 18, Jesus starts with a breakdown in relations, ‘if another member of the church sins against you’. The church he is forming is a very human society where people fall out, moan and do unpleasant things to each other. The response to this breakdown in the Church is the same as another rule from the same time and place as Jesus, that of the Qumran community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. First have a private chat, then get some other members of the group to see if they can mediate, then get the whole community involved. The aim of this whole process is reconciliation, the restoration of harmony in the community. If this fails, it is time to go your separate ways.

This process can be abused, however. What lets in the abuse is the phrase about the person cast out of the community, ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector’; an outsider, ‘Them and us’. The church doesn’t have a good record on excluding people, you may know the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and I know people treated like this by Roman Catholics and The Brethren, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the news recently for ‘disfellowshipping’. The irony is that the author of the gospel, Matthew, is a tax collector and the person speaking, Jesus, socialised with sinners and preached a message for the Gentiles – if you treat people as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors you invite them in for a meal and they join your community.

So the whole process is really about reconciliation, restoring community and loving your neighbour. It is about building community and welcoming the stranger. Do we, as a community, do this? If there is someone here for the first time, are any of the regulars going to say hello when they arrive, help them take part in the service and invite them to stay for coffee at the end? Our new Cornerstone Centre is nearing completion. Any new building has snags, problems with sinks, lifts and doors. Are we going to spend our time moaning about the problems or rejoicing in what the time and generosity of so many has made possible? If there is something wrong, will we offer practical suggestions and help? By dwelling on the problems we undermine community, do the devil’s work not God’s.

In the first reading the people of Israel are formed as a community by celebrating the Passover. Likewise the Church is really formed by people turning to God and celebrating together a ritual meal, in our case the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes the Church. God gives us all the same food and drink, the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine mixed with water; and, in the bread, wine and water, we celebrate our communion with the whole of creation as well as with the God who made us all. We will only grow as a Christian community if we really live this sacrament of God’s love – the meal makes the community. And if we can be a loving and attractive Christian community at the heart of this city, aware that the whole planet if our neighbour, we can make a difference: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.