Reading Matthew 18: 15-20
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Here’s a brief extract from a classic of English literature. See if you can guess what it is. I think there are some pretty strong clues, so there are no prizes on offer. It goes like this:
‘I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in a liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; that he could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by his presence, and the communications of his grace to my soul, supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon his providence here, and hope for his eternal presence hereafter. It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy the life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days’.
The literary classic in question is, as I think many of you will have guessed, Robinson Crusoe. Besides its tales of Crusoe’s ingenuity as he tries to fashion a life for himself on his deserted island, the book has a substantial Christian content. It’s almost a kind of Christian allegory.
I mention it because it is sometimes said that it’s not possible to be a solitary Christian, that a Christian is always part of a community of some sort. Well, Robinson Crusoe seems to have managed it, although I should point out two things. Firstly, Crusoe didn’t have any say in the matter – he was forced into a solitary life. Secondly, as is obvious, he’s a fictional character. Authors can make their characters do anything that they the authors want, so we shouldn’t draw too many lessons from a made-up story.
Fiction can be true in some kind of deep sense – but it isn’t necessarily true.
Well then, a few words about a real life solitary Christian. Last Monday the Church celebrated the life of a slightly obscure saint – Saint Giles of Provence. He lived in the 7th and 8th centuries and was a real, live hermit. He lived entirely alone for several decades and he’s credited with sainthood. So I can only assume that you can be a solitary and a Christian at the same time.
I’m sure you can be a hermit and care deeply for other people and for the world. You can bring them constantly before God in prayer in ways that may not be possible for other people. And prayer is always a positive force for good.
I don’t think it’s wise to be too dogmatic about how Christians ought to live. God is a God of surprises and you can’t pin him down. He calls different people to different ways of life.
Having said all that, Jesus’ saying in our gospel that ‘where two or three are gathered there I am in the midst of them’ would seem to indicate that the Christian faith is best lived out in the company of other Christians.
Now, Jesus told his disciples to love one another and that teaching is reflected in St Paul’s letters. Loving you fellow Christians isn’t an optional extra.
It would be wonderful, would it not, if we were all perfect? But you may just possibly have noticed that we’re not. I’m sure God would love us to be perfect but he knows we’re not and not likely to be any time soon. And he knows something that we often seem almost studiously to be unaware off – that our deepest need is to learn how to love, and living among people is where we learn it. You can’t love people in the abstract – or rather, anyone can love people in the abstract.
‘I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand’, the cartoonist Charles M Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, once said.
Loving people as they really are and in close proximity – with all their imperfections and occasional strangeness – that’s what we’re called to.
Now, living amongst other people isn’t easy, as our gospel passage testifies. There are always going to be tensions and potential tensions. That’s the nature of human life. This may not be an entirely appropriate analogy but it reminds me of what they say about playing cricket at Old Trafford in Manchester. If you can’t see the Pennines, it’s raining. If you can see the Pennines, it’ll be raining soon. In any human group there’s always the potential for tension – almost its inevitability.
We will sometimes find the behaviour of others challenging and, let’s face it, it may be that just occasionally other people will find our behaviour challenging.
When things get too much for us, as they sometimes do, we may feel that we’d like to go off and be a hermit. I’m sure some people are genuinely called to that way of life – but most of us aren’t. We may need some time to ourselves occasionally but most of us are called to live in community. Most of us here today are called to live in a church community.
We may feel that we have little in common with our fellow worshippers. Indeed we may but, in a way, that’s the whole point. People differ. Humanity is incredibly diverse. A church at its best reflects those differences. It’s a place where we can learn to rub shoulders with people who aren’t like us, where we can learn to see them all as human beings made in the image of God.
No-one ever said that it’s easy. But you don’t learn to love people by hiding away from them.
One last thought: relationships between people are always easier when they share a common purpose – a purpose, as it were, outside themselves. Our common purpose is to worship God. That doesn’t guarantee success in our dealings with each other but maybe, just maybe, it gives us a head start.