SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SEPTEMBER 7th, 2008
Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three are gathered in my name – there am I in the midst of them.”
It is good to be back. J There is no city like San Diego – and no church like All Saints’.
I have just had a wonderful sabbatical, and to spend August in Taormina was an experience I will not forget. The only hiccup in the whole time was my lack of knowledge of Italian. I didn’t have to speak it on Sundays – it was an English service of course – but daily living was more difficult because my Italian doesn’t go much further than “Do you speak English?”
But there was one occasion when there was no problem with a conversation. I had gone to Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and stayed overnight because it was some distance. I stayed in a hotel and next morning there was a wonderful buffet breakfast. Italian breakfasts consist of lots of sweet things, particularly croissants filled with vanilla, lemon, cream, and of course, chocolate. As I was looking at what I was going to have from an array of croissants and sweet things, an Italian boy around the age of nine looked at the croissants, then looked at me. Pointing to one of the croissants he spoke a whole lot of words in Italian – and I understood exactly what he was saying: “Excuse me sir, do you think that croissant has chocolate in it?” Of course he asked the right person!
The church where I was at – Saint George’s Church of England – is quite a surprise. There in the hills in this ancient Sicilian town is a beautiful little church belonging to the Church of England It is maintained by a group of just thirteen parishioners, half of whom live in Catania which is 60 miles away. So you can imagine it is difficult for them to sustain what we would call normal church life and fellowship.
On the five Sundays I was there, there were never more than seven of the parishioners, but fortunately there were always more than enough visitors. One Sunday we actually had nine visitors who were all Baptists from England – so the hymn singing that Sunday was rousing. I had to choose hymns that were well-known to Anglicans and had to lead them. It’s very hard to be leading “All things bright and beautiful” and also trying to count the congregation at the same time!
Many of the members of this church were English women who had married Sicilian men. Three of them have lived in the town for over 20 years, and they were happily settled. Saint George’s was for them the one link to England, to their home, to their families, to their past, to their culture, to their language and, of course, to their faith.
During the time I was there I began to reflect on this and it seemed to me that the Anglican Church in Taormina was catering to people much like the Orthodox Churches in America cater to Russians, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc. Just as the Orthodox Churches keep the culture of a nation alive, so in this little outpost of the Anglican Church, the English culture is being kept alive. My job was simply to provide a Sunday Mass in English so they could have their link to their faith and to their culture.
But a question kept popping up in my mind – what was the identity of this church and its people? Were they part of Taormina or not? Was this just an outpost of the British Empire? Or was it a bastion of the Anglican Church in a sea of Italian Catholicism? Or was it just an eclectic congregation of Anglophiles?
This question of identity was rather confusing for visitors, because I had to explain that as the priest at Saint George’s, I was actually an Australian, who had a church in America, and was currently living in Sicily!!
Of course, it was not just a brief vacation where I ran around trying to see as much as possible. In the August heat that was very difficult. I really had come to live there for a month – to live among the people, to take in something of the culture, and to experience the identity.
One of the ways I did this was to attend Mass during the week at the local Roman Catholic Church, if possible. It had a daily Mass at 9am, attended by a dozen people. And I was able to attend that Mass and then go back to Saint George’s and open the church for the rest of the morning to welcome visitors. After a few Daily Masses I began to recognize the same people. Firstly there was the older man in the back row who always dressed immaculately for 9am. There were the usual array of widows dressed all in black down the front, who had a common bond. There was a young woman who I thought was probably considering a vocation as a nun. And there was the old woman who really struggled to walk down the aisle, it was so difficult – but she was always there.
None of them spoke English and we never chatted, not even in the compulsory greeting of peace. On the last day that I attended I felt constrained to reach out and explain to the old man in the back row – in sign language – that I was leaving and flying to America. I only know eight Italian words, but I felt part of that community.
No matter what language it is in, the Eucharist is always the same – the actions are usually the same and what is happening is always the same. As I became a part of their community, I could see that they had an identity as well as a community.
Community and identity are the meaning of today’s Gospel. At first it looks very negative – all about ostracizing a sinner. But in fact it’s about the Church being a community. Saint Matthew uses the words “the Church” in today’s Gospel for the first time. It is obviously about the community of Christ. And Jesus says that if this disagreement in the local community of faith is not dealt with, on a one to one level, then it is to be dealt with at the community level.
If the person in the wrong refuses, they are to be kicked out. Jesus says: “To be treated as a Gentile and a Tax Collector”. How awful would that be!!!!
There are some churches that behave like this in the 21st century. People are removed from the congregation for being less than desirable or not up to scratch, and are regarded as out of communion – a worrying sign even in our own Episcopal Church.
It’s a very dangerous path. For it leads to condemnation of another Christian, no matter how weak that Christian is – and it leads to a congregation becoming exclusive. We can see that in the liberal congregations in our church, where if you’re not liberal you are excluded.
Now let’s be quite honest – there is no such thing as a pure or perfect church this side of heaven. That is why in this parish we put our trust in the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. We profess our faith in this every Sunday in the Creed.
For this side of heaven the Catholic Church is the nearest we can get to the other side of heaven. When we meet to celebrate the Eucharist it is a window into that wider Church beyond the grave where there is perfect worship and a pure Church.
We should be able to leave Mass saying that we have caught a glimpse of heaven.
You will notice in the Creed we say: “I believe One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. We don’t say I believe in the Church, like we would say I believe in the Chargers or the Padres (though our faith in that is tested at the moment!). But we say we believe the Church. We trust its unbroken teaching and we try to follow its ways.
That is why in Saint Matthew 18, after Jesus refers to a member of the Church who has sinned, he goes straight to the declaration that the Apostles are guven authority for the binding and loosing of sins. You will remember he said this just two chapters before, in chapter 16, when he says to Peter he would have the power to bind and loose sins. It was a promise given to the Church through the Apostles.
In the context of Saint Peter and the Apostles being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven there was a gift to the Church of pronouncing Jesus’ forgiveness. It is a promise and a responsibility given to the Church from the very beginning. The Church should be imparting Jesus’ forgiveness. We know that this is true, because ever since then Jesus’ forgiveness is offered in the Sacrament of Confession. And also in a general way, when we meet to celebrate the Eucharist, for there is always the confession.
So you see in chapter 18, as Jesus relates to the situation of even a notorious sinner, he is reminding us that the job of the Church is not to condemn but to pronounce forgiveness for sins. Churches cannot be judgemental. On the contrary – churches are to be agents of God’s forgiveness and love. Therefore a church worthy of Our Lord will always be opening its arms to all sorts of people – because it offers to everyone the love and forgiveness of Jesus, which we all need.
The identity of every church community is surely based on this love and forgiveness – no matter where we live, or what language we speak.
As Romans 12 makes clear in today’s epistle, we Christians speak a universal language. It is the language of real love.
And when we Christians speak the language of real love, there is Jesus in the midst of us.