Covenant Relationships

September 4, 2011

(Ezekiel 33, 7-11; Matthew 18, 15-20)

I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to the other .

Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, is about the covenant with Israel and the New Testament reading is about relationships within the Christian community, the New Covenant.

In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, things which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice arrived at after prayer and thought, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,  is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.

We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart says:  “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.

What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.

I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England; but it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.

The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven’. Jesus replies by taking a child, and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable- if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.

Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders which is also emphasised in our reading from Ezekiel). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.

The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.

After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.

So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved, a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ – and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.

Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try”,  (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.

Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard them as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven, so this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context the crucial verse is not  this one, about cutting people out, but the verse  about the joy of regaining a member for the community.

Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and follows his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, but particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, acting according to the  characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.

Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power, and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.

Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant at the institutional level of church. When was the last time a church you were part of formally disciplined anyone?

But it has recently become more relevant to the Church of England, because of the current debate about the Anglican Communion Covenant. The Dioceses of the C of E are at the moment considering whether to approve this, and in this deanery the subject will be considered at the next Deanery Synod, which will be open to everyone.

The Anglican Covenant was drawn up after some provinces came to the conclusion that some actions of other provinces were not acceptable within the Church, in particular the acceptance remarriage in church after divorce, the opening of  priestly and episcopal orders to women, and most recently, the acceptance of faithful gay relationships as valid covenants like marriage, and so not a bar to ordination. Sections 1 and 2 of the Covenant attempt to define what it is to be ‘Anglican’ (something that has always been left rather vague in the past). Section 3 proposes that certain bodies (like the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) which had previously been forums for discussion, should  have the task of maintaining order in the Communion. It also commits those who sign up not to do anything which another province objects to. Section 4 describes ‘relational consequences’ for those provinces who don’t sign up, or whose actions offend another province.

Although the Covenant is being promoted as a means of maintaining the unity of the Communion, much of the history of the process indicates that it is seen by those who argued most forcibly for it as a means of excluding those provinces (especially the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada) from the Anglican Communion. Some of the provinces that were most vociferous about the need for the Covenant have since decided it doesn’t go far enough to exclude the offending provinces and have already refused to attend any meetings where their representatives are present. There is now something like an ‘alternative’ Anglican Communion, known by the acronym GAFCON, where these dissenting provinces meet. This raises a large question mark over the Anglican Covenant and whether it is now going to achieve anything, other than preserving an illusion of unity while destroying the tolerance of diversity which has up to now been the hallmark of the Anglican Communion.

Whatever is eventually decided about the Anglican Covenant, our passage from Matthew (written we must believe under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure fro resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of a true disciple in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right.

(Acts 2, 42-47; John 10, 1-10)

If someone called you a sheep how would you feel?


I suspect you would feel insulted. The usual adjective that goes with ‘sheep’ these days is ‘silly’ or ‘woolly’ and the usual simile is ‘followed like sheep’.

Today most people value independence and intelligence in themselves and others – so being compared to  something which is regarded as thoughtless and stupid is not going to be taken as a compliment!

On the other hand, however clever and independent we think ourselves, most of us like to feel we have somewhere secure to return to; so the idea of being kept safely in a sheep pen might appeal to all except the most adventurous among us.

In this first part of John’s meditation on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he pictures the sheep in a pen in the village, surrounded by high walls, and guarded by a gatekeeper. The gate is only opened for the shepherd who owns the sheep, and they respond to his voice and follow him out. The gatekeeper will not allow anyone else near the sheep – if they want to get a sheep, strangers and thieves have to climb in over the walls, and the sheep will run away from them because they don’t recognise their voice.

This is a very different way of regarding sheep from our modern one. These sheep are not seen as silly – they know who they belong to. They hear and respond only to the voice of the person they know and trust, the person who will lead them to places where they will be safe, and be fed and  grow.

They are also valuable. Sheep represented a major part of the the wealth of an individual or a community, so they were worth protecting and nurturing. They also represented for most people a celebration meal – meat was eaten rarely, and only on special occasions.  Think of them, then, as the Palestinian equivalent of your bank account, and caviare, smoked salmon, fillet steak and champagne rolled into one!

That should make us feel better about being compared to sheep. This tells us that we are people whom God values, who are precious to him. All we, like sheep, represent God’s wealth on earth.

There’s a very small amount of sheep farming going on now in the UK. But in, say, Australia, many people still have a lot of their wealth invested in sheep. Because of that, the sheep are marked  with a brand. So, how are we, as Jesus’s sheep, branded?

We were marked at our baptism with a cross in oil or water, but that is now invisible. The only way we now show that we are branded with Jesus’s mark is by the way we live. Our Acts reading tells us that the first believers were visibly marked by their experience of the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so much so that even non-believers noticed the change. Are we distinguishable from our neighbours by our Christian way of life? Are we visibly owned by God?

John distinguishes in the reading between the true shepherd who owns the sheep, and leads them to abundance of life, and ‘thieves and robbers’, false shepherds  who want to exploit them. At the time when John’s Gospel was written, Jesus and his followers were accused of being sheep stealers, taking loyal Jews away from their true allegiance to the Law of Moses; in this passage, Jesus is accusing the leaders of the Jews of the same thing.

Jesus also says he is the gate for the sheep. A door or gate has two functions: it can let the sheep (the followers of a religion) out into the place where they are nurtured and grow, or it can confine them in a place where they can be at the mercy of false shepherds or thieves who will destroy them. This is what Jesus accuses the contemporary leaders of the Jews of doing.

It is worth pondering, what is it that steals people away from the true message of Jesus in our own time? What calls us in a voice which is not the authentic voice of our true shepherd? It is hard sometimes to hear the voice of Jesus through twenty centuries  of tradition and interpretation; though we are lucky that there are scholars (like the Jesus Seminar) who try to take us back to what Jesus actually said. Unless we can get back to the original words of Jesus, we may be following ‘thieves and robbers’ rather than the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is one who leads the sheep in the way that leads to ‘green pastures’, which stands for fullness of life. It is important to notice that in this metaphor the shepherd we follow is a living one. This passage is not talking about gaining fullness of life as a result of the death of the shepherd, but as a result of following his way of life.

So we are called to follow Jesus’ way of openness to the outcast and the stranger, of sacrificial service, of peaceful opposition to the forces that oppress and dehumanise us and others. It may put our lives in danger (as Jesus says the Good Shepherd does in the verses that follow this reading); it will certainly involve living sacrificially.

That makes this a very good reading for the start of Christian Aid week. It reminds us that we cannot help others without being prepared to sacrifice our own self, as Jesus did.

The Acts reading illustrates some ways of following the Good Shepherd in the way we live. Some of them may be appropriate to our lives now; others may not, but the passage should give us food for thought about the way we show that we are part of Jesus’s flock.

Acts tells us that at this time the followers of Jesus held all their goods in common. That ‘communal’ way of living is not something that works well in today’s society; but it does remind us that we should not regard our possessions as being just for our own enjoyment and benefit; they are meant to be used for the good of the whole flock. The goods of the believers were used for the benefit of those in need, as should ours be.

Acts also tells us that worship was important in the life of the first disciples. They went together to the temple on a daily basis; they prayed; and the Eucharist – the breaking of bread – was central to their lives.  They were attentive to the teaching of the apostles, and they spent time in fellowship with each other. In all these way they went ‘deeper into God’ on a regular basis and strengthened their commitment to following the Good Shepherd.

Their attitude was one of thanksgiving and joy. This made them attractive to outsiders. It was apparent that they were enjoying a new fullness of life. Their faith enabled them to do signs and wonders – through their faith they were ‘transforming the communities’ in which they lived.

Their joyful attitude and the obvious mutual love and fellowship had the effect of drawing in ‘new disciples’, expanding the flock and increasing the wealth of their owner. This was not overt evangelism, but it was, and remains, the most effective sort of evangelism. People will be drawn into the fellowship of Jesus’s flock not by our words, but by the attractiveness of our worship, the strength of our fellowship and the witness of our service to the community. That is the sort of sheep fold that the flock of the Good Shepherd as meant to be in.

But the sheep in God’s flock are not meant to stay in the sheepfold for ever. We may remain for a time within the safety of the sheepfold; but the voice of the Good Shepherd invites us to follow him out into the wider world, to live life abundantly in the green pastures we will find there, transforming the community we live in and adding more and more new sheep to his flock.

Lost and Found

September 12, 2010

Proper 19 Year C (1 Timothy 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)

When the M25 was first completed, there were several stories of people getting lost on it. One man, 84 year old grandfather William Allen drove himself to exhaustion, having circled the motorway for two days, looking for the right exit for his daughter’s home; and George Tilbury, aged 49, also spent two days driving round on his motorbike until he was rescued by traffic police. The AA said such incidents were far from unusual, and they ware regularly called out by people who keep driving till they run out of petrol! And they believe there are others who get lost but are too embarrassed to call for help.

The problem is that we grown ups are not supposed to get lost! We are supposed to be able to read maps, plan our routes, follow directions or set the sat nav, and end up where we set out to go. If we do get lost, we feel as frightened as a lost child, but twice as silly!

Can you, I wonder, think of a time when you were lost and remember what it felt like. I can. Once, when my children were small, I took one of them away with me on a parish youth group weekend to a big house in Sussex. We arrived by coach in the dark. On Saturday, when we had some free time, I borrowed a car from one of the other leaders and went off to visit some relatives who lived nearby in Bexhill. I found my way easily via a couple of lanes and a main road, as I had been to the house before and the town was well sign-posted. It was on the way back that I ran into problems. I took the wrong turn off the main road, and went down a lane that turned out to be a dead end, so I had to back out. I retraced my route, but when I drove through Battle for the third time, I knew I was hopelessly lost. It was before the days of mobile phones, I had no local map in the car, it was getting dark, and all the shops where I could have asked for directions were now closed. My small son in the back of the car was beginning to panic, and so was I!

Then I looked in my handbag, and among the clutter was the letter we had sent out to the parents, with the phone number of the house on it. I found some money in my purse and a phone box which worked, rang the warden of the house, got directions, and within 20 minutes I was driving through the grounds towards light, shelter, food and friends.

I was lucky. When I was lost, there was someone I could contact who could put me on the right path, and with that help, I could find my way again. But we can all think of others who get lost in circumstances where they can’t contact anyone: people who lose their way on mountains or in rain forests, or at sea, out of the reach of mobile phone networks. They just have to sit tight, hoping someone will realise they are missing and send out the search parties. There is very little then can do to help the searchers find them.

Our readings today are both talking about being lost – not in the physical sense but spiritually. They are talking about people who cannot find satisfaction in their lives, people who can’t find internal peace; people who don’t know how to behave or what to believe; people who don’t know God. Anyone who has been in that condition will tell you it can leave you feeling just as empty, just as angry, just as panic-stricken as you would feel if you were alone in the middle of a desert or an ocean.

The reading from the first letter to Timothy recalls how Paul was once lost in his own conviction that Jesus was dangerous and blasphemous, lost in his own self-righteousness. It sums up his position as ‘ignorant in unbelief’. In that conviction he held that his pious purpose (the eradication of unbelief) justified any violent means.

Nowadays, we are only too well aware what damage that sort of belief can cause.

Yet, God responded to Paul’s persecution of his Messiah with mercy, grace, faith, love and patience. God sought him out on the Damascus road, showed him through personal experience that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness and salvation for sinners, and changed his life. From an extreme persecutor he changed into the most ardent missionary. The response to this insight is a shout of praise: “To the eternal King, immortal and invisible, the only God – to him be glory and praise for ever and ever”. (v 17)

Rejoicing over the finding of what is lost is also at the heart of the two parables in today’s gospel reading – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Unlike Paul, and the prodigal son in the parable which follows, neither the sheep nor the coin could be held responsible for being lost. Neither of them contributes anything to their recovery. The parable is telling us that salvation is absolutely unconditional – we don’t even have to turn towards God and ask for help.

Yet the parables record just how much effort is expended in recovering what is lost: the shepherd searches tirelessly, then carries the heavy, smelly sheep on his shoulders to get it home. The woman lights a lamp, using up expensive oil during daylight hours, and sweeps the entire house until the one small coin is found. And when they succeed, both shepherd and housewife share their joy with their neighbours and friends.

These stories are told by Jesus to the Pharisees, the righteous religious people of his time. Who are the righteous religious people of our time? Do we still hear the parables with the same force as they did?

We don’t share the cultural background against which the stories were told. We don’t think of shepherds as dirty and dishonest. We tend to think of sheep as cuddly and part of an attractive rural scene. We don’t think women are inferior and of no importance. So, a little background may help us feel the impact a bit more.

Jesus begins the first parable, “Which of you having a hundred sheep and loses one of them……”. Now, no Pharisee would have looked after sheep. It was designated an unclean occupation in the writings of the rabbis, because a shepherd came into contact with blood and excrement. Village shepherds were regarded as dishonest, because they grazed their sheep on other people’s land.  Although some of the greatest heroes of the Jewish faith, like Moses and David, had been shepherds, and in the psalms and Ezekiel and Zechariah, God is spoken of as a shepherd, by the first century a religious person would have regarded it as an insult to be asked to imagine himself as a shepherd; and equally, as a woman. Both shepherds and women would have automatically come into that category of ‘the unrighteous’ whom Jesus was criticised for welcoming into  his house and eating with.

In the ancient Middle East inviting a person to dine with you was a great honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, fellowship and forgiveness. This was why Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners so offended those who considered themselves righteousness. It was giving honour to those who didn’t deserve it – and bringing dishonour on the person who offered it. But  in Jesus’ view, his meals with sinners were an expression of the love of God, and of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, when even sinners, the ‘lost sheep’ of the house of Israel were restored to the fold.

The parables reflect this inclusiveness. There is a parable about a man, and the public world of work, followed immediately by a parable about a woman, and the private, domestic world she inhabited.

The parables also emphasise that the rejoicing over the recovery of what was lost is a community event. The shepherd would not have owned all the hundred sheep (if he was rich enough to do so, he would have hired another shepherd to look after them). Some of them would have belonged to his family and neighbours, and he would have had other shepherds to share the care of them. If he lost one of them, it was a community loss, for the sheep represented its wealth and its food supply. Its loss would brand him an unreliable shepherd.

Most evenings, the flock would be taken back into the village. So when he went off to search for the lost sheep, others would have taken the 99 back, and waited anxiously for news, both of the sheep and of the shepherd. The shepherd rejoiced when he found the sheep, and, in spite of all the effort needed, rejoiced again at the restoration of the one to complete the flock; and the rejoicing was shared by the whole community for both their friend and their property had come safely home.

The coin was probably worn by the woman on a necklace. To lose one was to mar the effect of the complete necklace. Again, one out of ten represented a large part of her household’s wealth. It was not a cash economy; most trade was carried out by barter, but you needed coins for some things and especially to pay taxes. The coin was known in Aramaic as a ‘zuz’; it was small and uneven in shape. It was so easy to lose that the plural ‘zuzim’ came to mean something or someone that had moved away or departed. In a windowless house, with a dirt floor or a stone floor covered by rushes, it would be difficult to find; but until it was, normal social interaction could not continue, since anyone who came into the house could be suspected of stealing it. Hence the use of valuable oil and physical effort to find it. Hence the rejoicing among the women when it was found.

With both sheep and coin, finding them restored something – the flock and the necklace – to wholeness. When this happened the whole community rejoiced.

I have read (Poet and Peasant by Kenneth E Bailey. Eerdmans. 1983) that in the original Aramaic of these parables there is a word play. The words for ‘one’ and ‘rejoice’ sound very similar, emphasising again that the loss of just one is a tragedy, and its finding an occasion for rejoicing. We may not be able to hear that in English, but we can appreciate the repetition of lost and found, and the climaxes of rejoicing in these two poetic parables.

The point of these parables is the wholeness of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is not complete if even one soul is missing, however undeserving. Every sheep back in the flock, every coin back on the necklace are signs of the kingdom. Through these stories, Jesus is providing us with a new map of the route to the kingdom, a map with which no-one can get lost.

He is not saying it is easy. He emphasises the cost and the effort that will be needed to achieve it. And he is challenging us, as he challenged the Pharisees to whom the parables were originally told: how much effort are we prepared to find the lost; and are we a community which rejoices together when the lost sheep and the lost coins of our community are found and restored to their place in the whole?

Lost Sheep Video