Listening to each other
We need unity.
We need unity so that we know what to pray for, things will happen and Jesus will be present.
Matthew 18 is about how as Christians, as people who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we live together. It is remarkably helpful and practical
It tells us (vv1-5) that we need to come into the kingdom as little children - not standing on our status, but receiving it as a gift
It tells us (vv6-14) that because God has welcomed us we need to welcome each other - whoever we are, even the person who we consider the most insignificant. We are not to put obstacles in their way; we are not to despise each other
And it tells us (vv 21-35) that because we are forgiven, we are to forgive each other - not once, not twice, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
And then we have our verses, verses 15-20.
They seem a bit out of place because they speak of church discipline.
But I guess that for a body of people to live together in unity there does need to be some church discipline.
But we need to get it right.
Most of the time we run away from it. We don't like conflict, so we are not prepared to challenge. But that is not great because we end up with churches which stand for nothing, in which anything goes, and which have no prophetic voice.
Or we are big on church discipline. But that has its own dangers. People can be crushed. And so often when churches try to discipline individuals, unless the issue is absolutely clear, you end up with serious division: If I throw the book at you, there is a strong likelihood that you will pick up the book and throw it back at me!
Rather ironically in the CoE, I am told that the clergy discipline measure, which was introduced to give bishops some control over wayward clergy, is used more often by clergy against their bishops: and at one point there were more active cases of clergy using the measure against bishops than of bishops using the measure against clergy.
The only time in my 25 years of ministry that I have had to tell two people that they were not welcome to the Lords table, was when a married woman in the congregation told her husband that she was leaving him, because she was moving in with a single man who was a member of the congregation. They said it was OK because they had prayed about it, and they had peace. I said, and the church said, it was not OK.
But if we look more closely at these verses, the thing that strikes me is that the key word here is the word 'listen'
V15: if the member listens to you
V16: but if you are not listened to
V17: if the member refuses to listen to them
V17: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church
If someone sins against you, then Jesus tells us that we are to go and see them privately, and we are to pray that they will listen to us.
In other words, we are not to talk about them, but to them.
And if we want them to listen to us then can I suggest we do not shout at them, and we do not go to condemn. After all, it is possible that we have got it all wrong. That is particularly the case when we come from different cultures and backgrounds: what you think is normal, might be perceived to be very rude in a different culture.
The purpose of this is not to condemn the other; it is to listen to the other.
The goal of this is restoration. It is to win them; it is to restore our relationship.
And the additional steps only come into play when the other person refuses to listen: refuses to listen to you, to the two or three others, to the church.
And at that point they have really broken fellowship with you - because you cannot be in communion if you refuse to listen to those you claim you are in communion with.
And I have to add that if you are not prepared to listen to your Christian brother or sister, there will come a time when you are not prepared to listen to God.
So I hope and pray that we will be a people who listen to each other - especially when we hurt each other.
It means when we are hurt we don't crawl into a corner and sulk (that's me!) or we don't throw the toys out of the pram.
But we learn to be honest with each other and to listen to each other.
And unity is so important because
1. When we are united, we know what to pray for
V19: If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask ...
We think that we want something, but it is not really what we either want or need. We may even claim that the Holy Spirit has led us to pray for something. But we are experts, we have level 5s, in deceiving ourselves.
And there is a danger that we are so full of ourselves, of our own ideas, of what we think needs to happen that when we pray it is just an exercise in self obsession.
Jesus told the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. They both went into the temple to pray. The tax collector cries out to God for mercy, but the Pharisee prattles on telling God how great a person he is, how spiritual, how righteous. And Jesus says that God hears the tax collector, but God cannot hear the Pharisee because, in Jesus words, 'he prays to himself'.
And the answer to our self-obsession? It is to listen.
It is when we listen to others, when we listen to what hurts them, when we listen to how we have hurt them, that our prayers can come alive. We can pray for them, and we can pray for ourselves. We can ask God to fill us with us love.
So we need others, and we need each other.
Notice here how many times in our reading that one needs to become two (or more). You go to your brother or sister, so that the two of you are alone (v15), you take one or two others along with you (v16), if two of you agree on anything (v19), where two or three are gathered (v20)
And as we meet together, as we listen to each other and to God, so we will gradually learn what it is that we are to pray for.
2. When we are united, things will happen
I guess that is sort of what Jesus means when he speaks about what they loose on earth being loosed in heaven, and what they bind on earth being bound in heaven (v18)
A Jew at the time would know what Jesus meant.
The ones with the power to loose and bind, were the ones who had the power to interpret the law, to say what was acceptable and what was not, and they had the power to admit or exclude from the community.
And now Jesus is saying to his followers that they have that power - not to be used by yourself, for yourself - but to be used with others on behalf of the one who we serve.
And there is a power when we are united, when we listen to each other and when we pray: 'It will be done for you by my father in heaven'.
Things happen: God opens doors, real deep heart work takes place, there are new opportunities for service, amazing 'coincidences' happen, people are healed, relationships restored, the Kingdom of God grows.
When we are united, when we listen to each other, things happen. It was when we prayed and talked together with other churches in our town, that the really remarkable work was able to be done: town pastors, debt relief work, food bank - and we were able to put on some of the most effective evangelistic work.
You've seen that. It is as we work with, for instance, MPC, that we can do so much more.
Things happen when God's people are united and we take God seriously.
3. And finally, and most importantly, when we are united, Jesus is present.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them"
That is what all of this – church, services, robes, communion - is really all about: It is about meeting with Jesus, the Son of God. It is about knowing Jesus.
Now we know him by faith. We trust that he is with us. We believe his words.
There are moments when we feel his presence with us, and there long periods when we do not feel his presence. But Jesus reassures us that he is with.
And he promises that he is particularly with us when we meet together, when we listen to each other, especially when we have hurt each other - united in his name. He will walk with us, he will guide us and teach us, he will help us in our prayer, he will feed us - not just with physical bread, but with the real true bread, and he will make us more like himself.
So we can call to him, we can trust him even when we do not understand, and as his people who love him, we can know that - whatever it seems, whatever life throws at us - all things work for good.
And one day we will know him not by faith, but by sight. We will see him. He will fill us just as we will be fully part of him.
So I do thank God for you, and for the privilege of coming to work with you, and I pray that God will give us the grace to listen to him and to listen to each other. Because when we listen there can be unity. And when there is unity, we will know what to pray for, stuff will happen, and Jesus will be present.