St Patrick's Cathedral, Trim

Reflection for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Matthew 18: 15-20

‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Reflection

A few days ago, I listened to a caller on Liveline on RTÉ who had challenged other customers in a shop for being too close to him while not wearing face masks, even though signs were displayed insisting on them. They did not respond kindly to his words and he suffered some verbal abuse from them. Another caller questioned the wisdom of his intervention, and suggested that it was safer to avoid such conflict because it might be risky.

Today’s scripture readings contain good practical advice and solid principles on the subject of conflict and reconciliation. We could mistakenly think that among Christians, there should never be conflict because we are taught to love one another. However, the fact that our Lord gave us practical steps for resolving conflict within the community demonstrates that it has been a reality in the church from the earliest times. We know that there were disputes among the apostles over status. In his letters to the early churches, St Paul frequently addressed the subject of disunity and division between Christians.

We all have different ways of dealing with conflict. I am one of those people who would rather avoid conflict at all costs. That is just my nature, but avoidance and ignoring something does not make it go away, and it can in fact make things worse. Papering over the cracks is never a good idea, nor is pretending something hasn’t happened.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus never shied away from saying the difficult things. He frequently found himself in conflict with the authorities and people of influence, and he was swift to challenge attitudes and behaviour that were wrong. This honest way of confronting his critics would eventually lead him to the cross.

It is not surprising, then, that in his teaching on reconciliation for the future church, the first step must be to confront the issue and not avoid it. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” That can take a good degree of courage, but it is far better to talk directly to the person who has wronged you than to talk to other people about it behind their back. It is certainly better than posting about it on Twitter or other social media!

Notice that Our Lord stressed the necessity of listening in such a situation. If we are truly to engage with someone with whom we differ, genuine listening is all important. It is only when we have listened to the other person’s viewpoint that we can genuinely understand them. Dialogue is the precursor of reconciliation.

It is only if that first one-to-one encounter does not have a satisfactory outcome that the counsel of others is recommended. “Take one or two others along with you so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” By bringing in others, our own judgement is open to scrutiny as well as the other person’s. An independent opinion may well throw greater light on the issue.

Patience is also important in bringing about reconciliation. Our Lord suggested a third step if the first two fail to yield results. In that case, the wider church is involved. Bear in mind that early Christian communities were small, so this would still be a relatively small group. Only after that, if the person causing offence refuses to listen, then a parting of the ways is inevitable.

Too often in situations of conflict, people rush for the nuclear option but that was clearly only a very last resort in our Lord’s mind. St Paul stressed the importance of loving our neighbour as ourselves. “Love does no wrong to a neighbour.” This commandment must be the governing principle in all of our dealings with one another. For the Christian, in any situation of conflict, the aim is not to win but to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

The promise at the end of the gospel reading concerns prayer: “If two of you agree about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my father in Heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Prayer should underlie any activity within the Christian community and we must not underestimate God’s power to influence and bring about change, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

The practical steps outlined in the gospel provide helpful guidance for dealing with conflict, but the underlying principle is the commandment to love our neighbour and to seek the best for them. Amen.

Collect for thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Prayers

God our Father, hear the prayers we offer to you in faith and love.

We pray for the church throughout the world, in this country, for this diocese and for Pat our bishop. Guide your people in your ways of love and truth. Unite us in harmony that in all our dealings, we may be guided by your commandment to love one another. We pray for all who are called to ministry in your church, especially Carol Hennessy who is to be ordained priest today. Pour out your Holy Spirit and strengthen her for the ministry to which you have called her.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

Bring agreement between nations which are in dispute and distrust. We pray for the people of Yemen who have endured years of war that they may find peace. We pray for the people of Mali where there is unrest following a recent coup. We pray for the people of Belarus in their search for justice and freedom. Strengthen the hand of peace-makers and peace-builders.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for our homes, families and loved ones. We remember all who are in relationships where there is tension and strife. Help them to build trust and reconciliation. We pray for our schools and for all children who have recently returned to school. Bless all principals and teachers as they work within new guidelines to help make our schools safe places of learning. Be with all who are worried or anxious for the health of their children and family members.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for our Government and health service and for all who make and implement public health policy. Guide all who are engaged in medical research to find ways of treating the COVID-19 virus. We pray for all healthcare workers, especially those in the frontline. Guard and protect them as they care for others. We pray for all victims of COVID-19 in countries that lack resources to deal with the pandemic, that they may receive the help and care that they need.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for all who are ill, in body or mind and all who care for them. We remember all who are undergoing medical treatment in hospital or at home, those awaiting surgery, and all who struggle with their health. Grant them your strength, peace and healing.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We remember with thanksgiving all who have died in faith and rest in your nearer presence. Bring us with them to share in the peace and joy of your eternal kingdom.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all evermore, Amen.

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