This week’s blog posting takes its starting point from the lectionary Gospel reading, Matthew 18.21-35.
Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship
‘Chancing one’s arm’, tapestry by Pamela Pavitt, in
Textures of Tomorrow, Words and Images on the Theme of Reconciliation
As I mentioned in the blog last week there are five significant ‘teaching speeches’ of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The number five is unlikely to be accidental – it probably deliberately echoes the five-fold structure of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The five teaching moments are the Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the mission discourse (10); the chapter of parables (13); this chapter reflecting on the internal life of the church (18); and finally Jesus’ teaching about the future (23-25).
What is also interesting is the way that four of these speeches seem designed to relate to another as a contrasting pair. So for example the first and fifth speech reflect respectively on an ideal vision for the present and a vision of the future in which judgement will be based on our response to this present. The second and the fourth speeches, look apparently ‘outward’ (the mission speech) and ‘inwards’ (the church speech). The third speech (chapter 13, parables) acts as a middle focal point holding the others together in a kind of tension.
But the point I want to explore further at the moment is the relationship between the second and fourth speech – because they raise in an interesting way the relationship between mission and the life of the church. On the surface it would suggest that ‘mission’ is one pole, and ‘church life’ offers a contrast to that. But I don’t think that is all that can be said about either!
There’s a book on mission that I have found very useful over the years by two Roman Catholic scholars, The Biblical Foundations for Mission, by Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller. Among their interesting observations is that it is wrong to think of mission as one-directional, only ‘centri-fugal’ – with missionaries moving out from the centre to bring ‘good news’ to those far away. Rather there are points in Scripture, where mission is clearly also centri-petal – with people potentially being attracted to a centre, which could be identified as the visible church. It seems that this may well have been the perception of the author of the Gospel of Matthew. The church is intended to be like ‘a city set on a hill, whose light cannot be hid’ (Matthew 5.14). Just as a warming and illuminating light draws people towards it, so also the vocation of the church is to draw them to itself. So the church is called to be profoundly missionary . Mission and church belong together.
But, and it is sometimes a big ‘but’, the church can only exercise this missionary vocation if it is a warm and attractive light which it sheds around it. There is nothing more offputting than the ‘glare’ of a community riven by internal strife and controversy. I think it can be a particular challenge for us in the Diocese in Europe, with the chaplaincies under a different kind of pressure to that of many English parishes, partly because of the financial responsibility that comes from directly paying one’s own clergy, and partly because they often act as the focal point for a disparate expatriate group. These tensions can sometimes exacerbate internal dissension.
So it is significant that the discussion about the life of the church in Matthew 18 focuses specifically on the areas of reconciliation and forgiveness. They are a point when the demands of ‘church life’ and ‘mission’ meet each other. Forgiveness was clearly important for the Gospel of Matthew. It is interesting, for example, to note that the Lord’s Prayer with its central injunction to forgiveness lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 6.9-13) and that immediately after the prayer the demand to forgive others is then repeated (Matthew 6.14). Matthew 18.21-35 needs I think to be read in the light of these earlier injunctions.
It is of course interesting to note that the ‘famous’ Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion have fairly recently been extended to incorporate a note about reconciliation into the Fourth Mark which states that the mission of the church involves ‘To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.’ Other recent thinking about Christian mission, such as by the well known Roman Catholic missiologist Steve Bevans also suggests that ‘reconciliation’ is central to an understanding of Christian mission in the 21st century.
Our own diocesan strategy statement ‘Walking Together in Faith’ notes ‘To work for reconciliation’ as being one element of the diocesan strategy:
‘ “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2.14) Challenging violence of every kind in our world, pursuing peace and working to facilitate reconciliation are all important aspects of the Church’s mission. The Diocese maintains a wide range of ecumenical partnerships and links to governmental, NGO and charitable organisations. Our aim as a Diocese and as individual chaplaincies is to work for reconciliation in a variety of situations, at a local level and more widely across Europe.’
In turn though, I feel that I need to acknowledge that some Christians, especially from Africa and Asia, can get quite uneasy when words like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ are bantered around too glibly. They feel, perhaps rightly, that it can become a cloak and a ‘let out’ for not really grappling with hard questions of injustice. That would have been the view, I think, of some of my former colleagues in the World Council of Churches. I myself once wrote, when I was reflecting on the situation in Israel and Palestine, that ‘reconciliation does not come when wounds are superficially sutured or ignored.’
My instinct is that in reflecting in this area we are beginning to touch on issues close to the challenge that is currently being presented by Black Lives Matter. Real change can only come about when issues of pain and injustice are really acknowledged. Some days ago I came across this video of the song by the US satirical songwriter Roy Zimmerman ‘Driving while black’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhk0nKCGe34
Some of Zimmerman’s songs can be immensely funny – as well as sharply barbed. This one is certainly barbed and satirical, but it isn’t remotely funny. It is however exquisitely painful and powerful. Its power is accentuated by the beauty of the sound of the cello duetting with Zimmerman’s dialogue. Do take a look. It could well provide the starting-point for a discussion in church to explore this concern.
I wrote the following prayer a number of years ago, and have used it on a number of occasions. But I think its final plea, that God will help us to make the church ‘a pattern for a new world, rather than a pale reflection of this one’ expresses the heart of which I believe is the missionary vocation of the Church.
Lord of the Church,
Teacher of disciples,
You loved your friends to the end,
And gave them the example of leadership through service.
May we who follow you today
accept the radical challenge you still offer
to your companions on the way throughout all time.
Stop us short if our values go astray,
and enable us to discover in obedience a perfect freedom.
Above all, help us to make your church a pattern for a new world
Rather than a pale reflection of this one. Amen.
 https://www.academia.edu/446654/Unraveling_a_Complex_Reality_Six_Elements_of_Mission For Bevans, reconciliation is the 6th and final element of mission.