THE DISCIPLE’S RESPONSIBILITY

Sermon delivered on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, the 10th September 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands for the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Ezekiel 33: 7-11     Romans 13: 8-14      S. Matthew 18: 15-20

S. Matthew 18:15 "If he listens to you, you have gained your brother."

HEAVENLY SOLIDITY
C S Lewis' idea of the state of heaven as he expressed it in his book "The Great Divorce" visualised individuals there as possessing great solidity. Compared to the great solidity of life in heaven, we here in earth are like shadows or ghosts to them, Lewis supposes. There is in our own experience of living here in earth something of that also. If we are disoriented from the course of our life perhaps by some sin, like a sin against our marriage, or perhaps by the death of a child or other loved one, or perhaps by some misfortune like a burglary at our home or workplace or the strike of a hurricane, we may have the sense of lightness and disconnectedness. We feel like a gas balloon, floating away and unable to keep ourselves earthed to reality, something that is no doubt being felt at the moment by many people who live in parts of the Leeward Islands or the flood-affected areas of the United States or of south Asia, or even more by the drought-affected in Africa or by our brothers in the faith fearing persecution in various parts of the world. On the other hand the sense of God's fatherly guidance to a Christian who has embarked upon something in faith, grants to that man or woman a sense of connectedness, of having feet on the ground, a sense that no matter how difficult or unknown the path is, and no matter how poor our qualifications to walk in such a path may be, we are where we should be. Strength will continue to be given to us through the difficult times. The exercise of hope, faith and love in the sense of agape gives to a person that connectedness, that earthiness, that homeliness that imparts to him in the eyes of others sometimes the sense of being larger than he physically is, a sense of enhanced reality.

THE DEBT OF LOVE
Let us think, then, of the admonition to the prophet Ezekiel about warning his people with this imagery in mind. If Ezekiel or, by extension, we in the communion of the church are given by God some warning for our community, what we are being called to do is to pull them from that state of disconnectedness to which they are in danger of being lost, and to help them get connected again; connected in the way we have thought about, to the earthy and homely purposes of God for us. For instance, we are called at this time in the second decade of the twenty-first century to warn and admonish and encourage our younger brothers and sisters in the faith, and indeed our neighbours in general, to do whatever it takes to strengthen the bonds of marriage and the family. I find it sad that such a thought never in our own time seems to enter the various admonitions either of the public media editorials or the mouthpieces of the various social welfare agencies of our time, or indeed of whatever the police services publish; and this I think is a real change from former years. I am concerned that at a meeting of a Board that I've recently been persuaded to sit on, it was said that the social services unit called Family Support Unit was named in an old-fashioned way and will probably soon be provided with a name change. I think of this and ask myself, "Is then the very concept of Family being air-brushed out of western culture, that the idea of support for family is being seen as old-fashioned and not relevant?" Nevertheless we are told by God in His Word to warn people to discipline their sexuality, to say No to desire whenever desire is destructive, to say No now in order that our Yes in the future might be meaningful, and so on. If we fail to give such warnings and encouragements, then when we find ourselves contemplating someone struggling with AIDS or the Human Papilloma Virus or with abortion or a child with deprivation issues, it could become a symbol of what we who represent the Church and the Body of Christ failed to do for our time. We, the Church, have been told to warn and to encourage, but more often than not we have passed by on the other side, preferring to think, and indeed being led by much of our media to think, that it was none of our business, the way other people live. But helping people get connected to the path of reality and solidity, and helping them turn away from the courses of disconnectedness and fading away, is our business of love and care - a primary business in God's eyes, surely. Why else would He have put us here? "As I live, says the Lord God (in the language and thought of the Old Testament), I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from his way and live." And if he for lack of warning does die, "his blood I will require at your hand." So it is our business as members of the household of God, to give to the Lord the pleasure He seeks, and to share it ourselves. St. Paul says in our New Testament lesson, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another", and I am told that the the famous teacher Origen taught, "It is our duty always to pay and always to owe this debt of love." Love as a duty, always to pay it and always to owe it: it takes this real love to go on warning and encouraging, as well as engaging in solid right thinking, formed by faithful doctrine. What the Church is now faced with definitely requires nothing less than these strengths.

GAINING THE BROTHER
Our text was "If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." The context has often been taken to be "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault." - and indeed that is the way it appears in most Bible versions. It might be though that the words "against you" may possibly not be in the original, because it does not appear in some manuscripts. If that is the case we are being told that we ought to care about the spiritual health of one another in a wider sense. If our brother sins, even not against us personally, and we take note of it, we shouldn't just forget it, actually. If we care, we have a duty to get involved in a way we might not otherwise dream of or personally want to be. And if Origen is right, this real and often uncomfortable love is indeed our duty. It's not a matter of unnecessary interference or fulfilling a selfish desire of poking one's nose into other people's business. It is a matter of caring that our brother or sister grows in the solidity and reality of discipleship until he reaches that time and place where we will be truly solid. It is a matter of caring to help our brother avoid the paths of shadows and disconnection. All of us ourselves need that helping hand at times. The most important word in the text is "listens": "If he listens….” But then, how can he listen, if we do not speak - if we do not offer anything to listen to?

THE DUTY OF LOVE
The prophet Ezekiel was told that he was made a watchman for the house of Israel. The calling of godparents, for instance, is likewise to be watchmen for their charges. But in the Church the call to be watchmen is one for all of us. It is well to listen to our brother or sister in Christ, whoever that may be, as he will have much to teach us about growing in discipleship. But we need to hear God’s word and to hear and heed His warnings to us above all. Love, listen, warn, encourage one another: this is today's counsel. Let's receive it out of love, and let's exercise it out of love. It can - all too soon - be too late for some if we neglect it. Let us be true watchmen for all our charges, for all those in our personal universe for whom we are called to exercise love.