Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 9 September 2023.
• First Reading: Exodus 12: 1-14 (Directions on the Passover. Unblemished sheep or goat. Eaten as a family, maybe with neighbours)
• Epistle: Romans 13: 8-14 (Have no debts except the debt of love. Whoever loves has fulfilled the law. Love is the fulfilment of the Law)
• Gospel: Matthew 18: 15-20 (What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven)
I think that my earliest memories of the family gathered together were for Christmas day. Apart from parents, two sisters and my brother there were my mother’s sister, my uncle and two cousins. That made ten.
Then as time went on, various siblings and cousins married and so the circle grew to include spouses and their children. Getting them all together was more challenging as in-laws also had to be given time at Christmas but the basic point was there.
It was an extended family which drew strength from its numbers and yet from its intimacy.
And this sense of the family is something we can all respond to and we have our own recollections. Some no doubt happier than others and yet the family could be central to how we experienced life.
So it is no surprise that the first Passover was to be based on the family. The household was the main social unit and yet two small households could also share the meal, its preparations and its significance.
The Children of Israel may have become a great gathering of more uncles, cousins and aunts than one could shake a stick at, and being held to forced labour they may have attracted other unfortunates, but essentially they were all kin.
One very extended family which also drew strength from their kinship with one another. They not only had their celebrations but their family traditions, their understandings and their ways of doing things. There was a simple social strength in being of one kind, and one identity.
Clearly the worship of God was already embedded in the life of the children of Israel, even if it was vague and little structured. Certainly different from the elaborate social and liturgical systems of the Egyptians and the pyramid-builders were recruited and trained, supplied and structured quite differently from the Israelites who we are told were nowhere near the pyramids and were set to building store cities. The dry climate means that bricks of their time are still around today.
So they had a distinct kinship, lived in a distinct area and had distinct occupations. Their worship of the Lord was quite different from that of the Egyptian deities with their liturgies and traditions for managing the after-life, even if much of their wisdom writing is similar to that of the Books of Proverbs.
But have a look at what Paul says about the church, not only in Rome but everywhere else as well.
They too are distinct. They may be scattered around the poor quarters of the cities and in the less attractive occupations but now they are defined by their faith as never before.
Now groups of nobodies are finding a mutual strength, they are gathering together to meet, to eat together and to reflect on their common life and what it means.
How to deal with the difficult issues that may arise? How to deal with opposition and abuse? How, come to that to manage their relationships with one another? They may live separately but they have a common life.
Its focus is unquestionably on Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean carpenter and builder who not only went about doing good but speaking with a wisdom and authority never before encountered. This is the One who was crucified by Rome at the behest of the leaders of Judaism and yet who confounded them all by having the bad manners to come back from death.
The Roman philosophers had nothing comparable to the Egyptian writers in contributing to their understanding of life. And it was under Roman law and occupation that Jesus had been charged, flogged and crucified.
So just as the children of Israel in Egypt, the very early church in Rome was a subculture, even a counter-culture. They did not accept the deity of Caesar and so they were a threat.
With all of this in mind there were going to be matters to be resolved within the community of faith.
And so Jesus gave them procedures for managing faults and disruptions in that community. Yet He had not come to found an institution but to launch a movement.
That movement was always going to be deeply personal yet it would inspire unbreakable loyalties and personal bonds which Jesus Himself would inhabit.
If two of them agreed on something that was consistent with His life and teaching, then He was already there among them. Just as we might have asked a boss to put their name to a letter we were sending out, so Jesus also would put His name to any request we may put to Him together – and provided that it was the sort of thing that He would ask for Himself.
This is a different way of working together. Life rather than management, faithfulness rather than performance targets.
But it is also an orientation towards the things of God and away from self, with its demands and appetites.
And more than that, even within our atomized society with families often riven by disagreement and separated by great and even intercontinental distances, there is that central unity of spirit and purpose, of belonging and loyalty.
This is the life of the community of faith – and it is a life worth striving to protect and maintain. Indeed, it is the Life of the Lord Himself.