As I opened my copy of the Christian journal The Tablet, (Vol 274 No. 9367) I was struck by two sub headlines. The first by Melanie McDonah, “I’m not sure how St Paul would have coped with a Bishop who wears lipstick.”
Well, the question and the answer are certainly different now than 10 years ago – but that is a subject for another time!!
The second, by Richard Leonard states: “Christians aren’t salespeople for the Gospel – we are called to be free samples of it.”
His point is that we are more called to live out the Gospel, to exemplify it, than we are called to teach it like some academic subject. As St Francis really didn’t say, but which is nevertheless true, “Preach the Gospel, and if you must, use words.”
In our Collect today we are reminded that we are to live out, to be exemplars of God’s reconciling love. In the Gospel we can easily be misled by that well-known verse “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20)
It sounds so comforting doesn’t it. So comforting for the clergy when only a few come to mass, so comforting when we want to justify praying at home rather than come to church. Of course, Jesus is with us when one, two or three or three hundred are gathered. The context though tells us that what Jesus is saying has altogether a different emphasis. In the Gospel passage Jesus is supporting the Jewish system around dealing with those from the Christian community who have gone wrong, who have offended us as individuals or as the community. Jesus is reinforcing a very good system, one which still, in our own time we do well to emulate and show to the world.
What Jesus is saying is when you are offended, when you feel wronged don’t go home and gossip about it or even just fume about it. Rather, go and talk to the person, face to face, just the two of you. If, and only if, that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. Not just to back you up, but rather so that they can tell you that you might just be in the wrong yourself! Then and only then if that fails, the problem is to be taken to the whole community. And the decision of the community is to be adhered to, even if that means the wrong doer, (whether that is the other person or you!), having to leave.
But Jesus adds a new dimension. He makes it clear that when there is a dispute Jesus is there in the midst of it, alongside the two or three involved. Well that’s a blow isn’t it! How differently would we behave if we truly remembered that Jesus is present when we have our arguments, when we sound off about another person, when we shout through gritted teeth.
Jesu, the Jesus who refuses to condemn the woman taken in adultery, the Jesus who heals on the Sabbath, the Jesus who calls out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he is there with us as we sort out our troubled relationships with others.
If we can emulate that way of behaving what a witness to the world that is. Teaching, preaching about forgiveness and reconciliation is one thing, to become free samples of an altogether different way of living alongside one-another, well, there’s a thing more important than whether the Bishop wears lipstick or not!