10 September 2017

When should we have
the final say in the
church and in society?

‘View of the Acropolis from the Pnyx’ Rudolph Müller (1802-1885) … the ekklesia in Athens met here three or four times a month and had the final say in all important debates

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 10 September 2017,

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

11.30 a.m., Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There are only two places, two, in all the four Gospels where Christ uses the word for the Church that we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, the word εκκλησία (ekklesia).

His first use of this word is in Matthew 16: 18, when Christ relates the Church to the confession of faith by the Apostle Peter, the rock-solid foundational faith of Saint Peter, which we read about two weeks ago [27 August 2017].

His second use of this word is not once but twice in one verse in this morning’s Gospel reading, in Matthew 18: 17.

It is a peculiar word for Christ to use, and yet he only speaks of the Church in these terms on these two occasions.

In total, the word εκκλησία appears 114 times in the New Testament (four verses in the Acts of the Apostles, 58 times by Saint Pauline in his epistles, twice in the Letter to the Hebrews, once in the Epistle of James, three times in III John, and in 19 verses in the Book of Revelation).

But Christ only uses the word twice, in these incidents in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

How does God define the Church?

What makes up and defines the Church?

How does Christ define the Church?

And why, throughout the Gospels, does he use this word to describe the Church twice, only twice?

We have all probably heard at different times phrases like ‘the church is not a building’ and ‘people make the church.’

The Irish language expresses this in a different way. The Irish word eaglais, which comes from this same word εκκλησία, is usually used for a church building, although the word teampaill is used too, and eaglais is also used for the Church as institution, so that the Church of Ireland is called Eaglais na hÉireann in Irish.

But when referring to the Church as the people, the Irish language uses the phrase Pobal Dé, the People of God.

The English word ‘church’ we use every day can be traced through Old English (cirice) and Old High German (kirihha) to a Greek word κυριακόν (kuriakón), that simply means ‘of the Lord.’

But the word εκκλησία (ekklesia) does not mean ‘belonging to the Lord.’ Even if that is implied, the word is different.

The word Christ uses this morning, εκκλησία, means ‘called out,’ an assembly of people that is involved in social life, religion and government.

This word εκκλησία goes all the way back to classical Athens, sometime between 550 and 350 BC, when the city assembly or εκκλησία consisted of all the citizens who had kept their civil rights.

The powers of the εκκλησία were almost unlimited. It met three or four times a month, and it elected and dismissed judges, directed the policy of the city, declared war and made peace, negotiated and ratified treaties and alliances, chose generals and raised taxes.

It was a city assembly in which all members had equal rights and duties, and all citizens of Athens could take part, regardless of class. It had the final say.

The Theatre of Dionysus, where two annual meetings of the ‘ekklesia’ took place in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When Christ is talking about the church as εκκλησία then, he is talking about all the members of the church community, who have equal rights, equal power, equal duties and an equal and respected say in what is going on.

Baptism makes us all equal, without discrimination, in the Church.

And the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is the lived continuation of our Baptism.

There is only one Body of Christ, and so there is only one Baptism and only one Eucharist.

For the Apostle Paul, the Church is one body, the Body of Christ, where there is no discrimination among those who are baptised and who share in the sacramental mysteries (see I Corinthians 12: 12-13 and Ephesians 1: 22-23).

And what Christ does this morning is not to give power to the Church but to warn us as the Church about the power we already have as εκκλησία and the consequences of how we use that power.

A few verses earlier, in verses we did not read this morning (see verses 10-13), he reminds us not to despise the little ones, to go after the one sheep from among the 99 that might go astray, to make sure that not even one of the little ones is left to be lost.

Now he tells us that in the Church there is no room for us to refuse to talk to one another, to bear grudges, to refuse to listen to one another.

And he warns us against the real dangers of trying to use the powers that the Church has in the wrong way.

In the culture and context of the Greek-speaking world of the East Mediterranean, people would know that the εκκλησία, this very particular type of assembly had the last and final say.

For Christ to say that what the Church approves of or disapproves of has implications of the highest order is not Christ endowing the Church with supernatural powers. Rather, it is warning us of making decisions, going in directions, exercising discrimination, in the Church that will have not merely temporal and worldly but eternal and spiritual consequences.

Saint Paul says something similar to the Church in Corinth. For example, he tells the Church there that in the Church there is only one Baptism (see I Corinthians 3: 4-7), that there is no room for factions when we come together to share the Eucharist (see I Corinthians 11: 17-22), and that all arguments and division should be kept at home.

Earlier in this Gospel, Christ tells his disciples: ‘So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift’ (Matthew 5: 23-24).

There can be no petty divisions in the Church, if we are to be true to the meaning of Baptism and the Eucharist which form and sustain us in one body, the Body of Christ. And the Church has to be a haven for those who are the victims of division, discrimination and disaster. Our haven can be their heaven.

When we discriminate against others, the consequences are not just for them, or even for us, but for the whole Church.

In the past two weeks, the Church in general, the wider Church too, has been ridiculed because of the way pastors in megachurches and tele-evangelists have claimed natural disasters have been God’s judgment on those who do not share their own narrow-minded views, or the way megachurch pastors and tele-evangelists have lined themselves up with President Trump, remaining loyal even after he refused to condemn neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

For example, Joel Scott Osteen has a megachurch in Houston, Texas. He claims his televised sermons have over seven million viewers weekly and that over 52,000 people attend his megachurch weekly. But over the last two weeks, he first failed to open and then delayed opening his Lakewood Church as an emergency shelter following Hurricane Harvey. At one stage, he said his church would open only when other refugee centres were full.

Then, in a most condescending way, in his first sermon after the storm, Joel Osteen told the victims of Hurricane Harvey that their suffering in the storm is a ‘compliment from God, who sees the survivors as tough enough to ‘handle it’.’

What does that say about the Church being a closed circle, an inner group to which others cannot aspire, that is closed to the world outside, that certainly does not put into practice that key verse in Saint John’s Gospel, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …’ (John 3: 16)?

Meanwhile, only one member of President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council has resigned following the way he has prevaricated and equivocated about racist violence in the wake of Charlottesville.

Scientific advisers, business leaders, former top military experts, have all let their views be known, but the voice of many evangelical churches in America has been strangely muted when it comes to fomenting racism, denying climate change, and posturing with bellicose war cries.

That part of the Church that claims the moral high ground has been found to be morally impoverished.

Instead, in recent weeks in Nashville, 150 prominent right-wing church figures decided what for them is the pressing issue in the world today. Not racism, not poverty, not refugees and asylum seekers, not homelessness, not global poverty and not climate change.

They have signed a declaration that those who disagree with them on questions of sexuality have made ‘an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.’ For them, these are not just questions that we can debate, or questions on which we might even ‘agree to disagree.’

As far as they are concerned, we all must either agree with them, or they consider us outside the faithful fold of Christians. They are not going to even debate the questions.

As you know with so many documents, difficulties also arise with the small print. Their views on gender differences between male and female support a view that women should take a back seat when it comes to decision-making and teaching in the Church.

Refusing to talk, listen and debate in the Church, passing judgments on people that invoke claims that they will be bound on earth and on heaven, is of such cosmic dimensions and proportions that we are cautioned very severely about it in the Church in this one of the only two cases in the Gospels in which Christ uses the word that we translate as Church.

In our Collect this morning, we pray: ‘Help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you.’

How we behave in the Church towards one another, the values we prioritise, and how we respond to the needs of the suffering world, these visible signs that show what we believe and how we put it into practice, influence and shape how other people see the Church, not just in this building or in one parish, one diocese or one country, but the Church in general, the whole Pobal Dé, the People of God, the Body of Christ.

But it is oh so easy for me to point the finger. Perhaps I should be worrying what voice people in this area will hear us speaking with when we are being heard as the voice of the Church.

Our Old Testament reading, difficult though it may be to read in our culture today, is a story that people used to recall that in the midst of death and destruction, God could still look down on a people who were oppressed and enslaved, hear their cry, and want them to be free.

Who are the people who are enslaved and oppressed among our neighbours today? The new arrival, the immigrant, the homeless family, the people living on their own, those who cannot find meaningful employment, or who struggle to keep a shop open or to keep a farm going, those who truly have no friends or no-one to listen to?

Later today, when you have gone home, ask yourself who these people might be. And think about how we as the Church might listen to them with loving hearts.

Would they see that we have taken to heart Saint Paul’s advice this morning, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 10 September 2017.

‘So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift’ (Matthew 5: 23-24). Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


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.

Matthew 18: 15-20

15 Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ] ὁ ἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου. ἐάν σου ἀκούσῃ, ἐκέρδησας τὸνἀδελφόν σου: 16 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀκούσῃ, παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦ ἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο, ἵνα ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν σταθῇ πᾶν ῥῆμα: 17 ἐὰν δὲ παρακούσῃ αὐτῶν, εἰπὲ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τῆς ἐκκλησίας παρακούσῃ, ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης. 18 Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ. 19 Πάλιν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν δύο συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς περὶ παντὸς πράγματος οὗ ἐὰν αἰτήσωνται, γενήσεται αὐτοῖς παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς. 20 οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν.

Translation (NRSV):

15 ‘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. 16 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. 17 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.18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

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