Joining the Party
“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” Matthew 18:18-20
If you have paid any attention to the news, you will probably have seen the annual autumn conferences of the political parties being reported. Historically, political parties were groups of like-minded individuals joining together with a common cause. The Whigs, who later became the Liberals, were formed to oppose the absolute monarchy of the Stuart kings in Britain, and played a leading role in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when the monarch who claimed ‘divine right’ was replaced, leading to our modern constitutional monarchy. They opposed the Tories in this. I have no idea what became of them…
The idea of groups getting together to fight for a cause is not new, or restricted to political parties, of course. Campaign groups spring up around most major socio-political changes, notably in recent years have been the international ‘Occupy’ movements, which opposed what they saw as the rampant greed of the financial institutions, the anti-fracking campaigns in the UK, and more locally, the opposition to building on green belt land around St Helens. Plus many others besides. Often groups will disband once their objectives have been achieved, especially if there is a single purpose in mind. Sometimes these groups attempt to continue and become a more generally appealing organisation, but this is rarely a roaring success – think of the constant leadership changes in UKIP since the EU referendum. Of course, even the established, major parties have not-infrequent spats and fallings-out. People are people, after all.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the Church is no different. Oh, we would all like to think that it is a much nobler, somehow more lofty venture, but at the end of the day the Church is another grouping which began as a small bunch of like-minded people – in this case, followers of the executed radical teacher Jesus of Nazareth. And, like all such groupings, its very human nature showed itself very early on. A large chunk of the letters of St Paul deal with disagreements within the Church, and Paul famously fell out with Peter about the role of the Jewish Law in the emerging Christian Church. In keeping with the modern trend for ‘briefing’ for or against a particular view or person, it is interesting to contrast the accounts of this disagreement offered in Acts 15 (written by Luke) and that in Galatians 2 (written by Paul). While they broadly agree, there is definite spin at play regarding who came out on top!
And I think that is quite reassuring, when we look round at the disagreements in the Church, both in this country and across the world, in the Anglican Communion and within and between other denominations. We see that we are no different from anyone else. Just because we may go to church, or identify ourselves as Christians (or not!), there is no sense in which we are superior to others. We all fail in our relationships when we ignore God and impose our own, very human priorities instead.
Recent controversies over equal marriage and the place of gay women and men in the Church threaten to split the worldwide Anglican Church, and have led to the Archbishop of Canterbury to seek ‘good disagreement’ – a tacit acknowledgement that there can be no real agreement, and so we must find a way to get along in our disagreement as well as we can. You can make your own mind up about how that is going…
Jesus came first, before the Church. Jesus modelled relationship rather than organisation. So it may seem strange that Matthew records Jesus’ words about disagreements in the church in chapter 18. We often disassociate the phrase ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ from the context of the passage, which is discipline in the Church. The NRSV subtitles the paragraph as ‘Reproving another who sins’ – the idea being that, as long as what we ask for as a church is in line with God’s plan, then it will be granted. As long as we are in loving fellowship with our fellow believers. As long as we are demonstrating the ideal relationships modelled by Jesus. What we are on earth, in this life, is a pale shadow of what will be in God’s Kingdom, when all those relationships will be perfected. The broken nature of the world means that they can’t be anything less than imperfect before then.
So take heart! We can never be totally united – although we could probably do better. We can never avoid rows and disagreements – although we could definitely be much kinder about it. We will never avoid getting things wrong, although we should try harder and encourage each other more.
So as conference season ends, and we hear further examples of infighting and conflict, world leaders bickering and church leaders arguing, take encouragement from the fact that it has ever been so. Jesus offers us a better way, though, the way of love, forgiveness and mutual encouragement which his life and teachings spelled out.
Which sounds to me like a much better party to join.