Sermon preached by
The New Testament readings today seem to centre around the importance of living in a harmonious community and the centrality of love in achieving this.
Very appropriate readings on a Sunday when we're asked to remember Racial Justice, remember the millions who suffer because of their race, creed or colour in a week when we remember the events of one year ago in New York and Washington and the grief one year on, and at a time when the threat of war between the US and Iraq seems to be ever increasing.
The commandments, summed up by Paul in Romans as 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. Paul, who could probably recite all of the commands of the Jewish law from memory sums them up in this one phrase.
'Love your neighbour as yourself' and in so doing love God, the readings seem to say
Or as the Church historian Bede put it 'He alone loves the creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbour'
Matthew tells us of a 3 stage process for trying to resolve differences within the church, differences which not dealt with cause bitter and deep wounds. A process which sees reconciliation trying to be achieved first between individuals on a one to one basis.
If this fails then move to the second stage and involve a few others.
And if this fails then finally seek the wisdom of the whole community.
Matthew doesn't say "let's not talk about our differences", He doesn't say "let's not upset anyone" but he does say that we need to address conflict in the church with a love and understanding which goes beyond anything we may have come across in other situations.
Neither does Matthew say that if the other person does not see our point of view or agree with us that we should start gossiping to others and subversively trying to get them on our side; to nobble the jury should a wider audience be required to solve the difference.
And he goes on to say that if the differences can't be immediately resolved through the intervention of the whole church then treat the person as you would a pagan, gentile or tax collector.
The standard way of dealing with a tax collector or gentile was to put them outside the community, to 'de-synagogue' them, a concept which occurs several times in the gospels, often with the omen of dire consequences to follow should it happen. That was the reality of the world.
Put them outside the community where it is difficult to exist, where they are treated like outcasts, the lowest of the low, the unclean, the smelly, the unpleasant, the unsociable, the apparently unlikeable.
And so often that's just how we treat someone who's crossed us, who's disagreed with us, who's had a difference of opinion with us.
We cut them off…
Treat the person as you would a pagan, gentile or tax collector.
An interesting statement in a gospel where Matthew seems to go out of his way to show how Jesus demonstrates his love for gentiles and tax collectors alike.
To show His love for them and introduce them to His love and power.
Love them in the conflict, and love them more when they seem to be at odds with everyone around them.
Or as Paul simply says 'Love your neighbour as yourself'.
Love them - even if the reality of the world stereotypes them and wants us to react in a different way, often to ostracise them
Be in a relationship with them through God, reconciled to them where necessary through the dynamic power of God's love - to go the extra mile for them and go out of our way to show them love.
Even when they continue to have a different point of view to you, even when what they are saying and doing seems toostracise them more and more.
As if the gospel exhorts us to try not to have differences - but if we do to carry on loving the person even more as we resolve our differences and conflicts.
Not surprising then, when Matthew goes on to say that when two people are in agreement then whatever they ask for, it will be done, a comment which Rowan William's wife Jane, writing in the Church Times this week, sees almost as a challenge to get Christians to agree on anything.
Whether we see it as a challenge or not both Paul and Matthew are giving an example of how the law is being fulfilled in Jesus.
No longer is it necessary to have quorum of 10 Jewish men to agree on anything, or to form a congregation for worship.
Jesus says the new quorum is only 2, and in that quorum where two agree He will join - and as a result the world will be changed.
How often are conflicts caused by minor disagreement escalating out of hand as more and more people take sides? How often do they grow because we just let them fester?
How often are conflicts caused because people are more interested in expressing their point of view rather than listening to the point of view of others?
But love does no harm to its neighbour - it goes out of its way to minister to them.
Love listens to its neighbour and responds, whether our neighbour is the tax collector, the gentile, or the priest
Love is concerned with resolving conflict, not avoiding it. Avoiding conflict often makes things worse as wounds and hurts fester, remain untreated.
And Christians can be among the worst at not addressing conflicts, as we try to be 'nice' to one another. There are times for letting sleeping dogs lie, for forgiving and forgetting.
Perhaps if we listened more to each other and resolved our conflicts there would be less need to have a Racial Justice day.
Perhaps if we listened more to each other and resolved our conflicts we'd have fewer events like those which happened a year ago in America and similar kinds of events which happen every day, some much more closer to home.
Perhaps if we listened more to each other and resolved our conflicts we'd live more harmoniously in our communities together, whether they be our local communities in Bedford and the surrounding areas, or the wider communities of nations and super-powers.
Reconciled to one another and to God. The law was a framework for love, necessary but not sufficient.
As we come to communion we remember the sacrificial love of Jesus who fulfilled that law, loved His neighbour as He loved Himself and the Father and challenges us to love each other.
As we take the bread and wine we take of that love of Christ, and as we go out we take that love out with us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and as Christ has loved us.
Loving our neighbour, extending our community to them challenges every element of our Christian faith, our witness, our evangelism, our giving, our very spirituality. It penetrates right to the very heart of our being - renewing and transforming our lives and our communities.