This is a line of thought following Sunday’s sermon (Mt 18.15-20), in which I said:
“When was the last time that one Christian in this church admonished another for sinning against them, for falling short of Christian standards? Note this isn’t a passage about one person saying to another ‘you’re not being good enough’ in any particular public way – it is about one person sinning against another. So all the fuss that the church ties itself up about, for example, homosexuality – that largely falls outside of this conversation. No, this is about one person hurting another, and the hurt person saying, not simply ‘you hurt me’ – which I am sure is a complaint that is often heard, but ‘you hurt me because you are sinning and failing in your faith’ – in other words, embedding the pain in a larger context and understanding. Because it is that larger context and understanding that enables transformation to take place, that stops the conversation being simply ‘you hurt me’, ‘you hurt me first’, ‘biff, bash, pow!’ If a community is to mature it needs to be have individuals within it who are strong enough to put aside their own feelings – their feelings of hurt, or betrayal, or broken trust – and see the bigger picture. It is only that larger context that allows God into the conversation.”
So often I see hurt feelings being used as a stick with which to beat other people into submission – we can’t do this because it will hurt so-and-so’s feelings. This is infantile. The spiritual path is about taking control of our feelings – or, better, letting God take charge and shape our feelings. We set aside our own inner responses in order to pursue a larger picture.
A while ago we had an evening reading (we use this great book) which was about our anger. It talked about a situation that provoked a disciple to anger, and then pointed out that in similar situations in the past, the disciple had not been provoked to anger. What had changed was not the external circumstances, but the internal spiritual state of the disciple. In such a situation the Christian response is to thank the person for making us aware of our own internal spiritual disorder, and resolve to improve matters.
This is why we are to use the language of sin, which presumes a shared faith. It means that we can put aside our feelings – that great oceanic and abyssal chaos – and instead set our minds on things above, things which are good, true and beautiful. This is the way in which we cultivate the gifts of the spirit – of love, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. It makes all the sense in the world to point out when someone has sinned against us – for really, with a right understanding of sin, you are pointing out where someone is stabbing themselves in the eye. The escalation to the wider community is not really about establishing matters of justice so much as about establishing the correct diagnosis of what has gone wrong. It is not about blame – for we are not to judge one another – but about healing and transformation. This is why those who reject the community’s judgement are to be ‘pagan and tax-collector’ – in other words, people who are no longer a part of the community. This is a matter of logic, not jurisprudence.
So if people reject the community, and they reject the theology and discernment of the community, then there is no longer a shared language with which to share a common life. To reject that judgement is to reject the faith. I think this is what is meant by ‘what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’