Like gentiles and tax-collectors

I can remember learning at some point in my life about how important that verse about ‘where two or three are gathered’ is to the Congregational tradition, to the bit of the church many of us here know best. It says, in a way, that what’s important about being the church is that some faithful people have gathered. You don’t need a bishop or a cathedral or pews, but just two or three people. There the church is. And I believe that. And I know that many of you believe it too. And the test of the quality of that gathering is that when we are suffering, we love one another and support one another. The fellowship is deep and it’s lifegiving. But I have also learned that ‘when two or three are gathered’ you can also have two or three or even four opinions. When two or three are gathered you can have an argument. Where two or three are gathered you can have offence taken and hurt feelings. Where two or three are gathered you can have trouble – and that’s part of being the church too.

One of our Elders has found some great things amongst our modest archives. It’s always interesting reading the minutes of church meetings from long ago, trying to work out what lies behind the words, what really happened, which side of the argument got to write the story.. You may know that during the 19th century this congregation split and quite a chunk of the congregation went off to form what is now North Street Congregational Church. There were more than two or three, but there were at least two opinions, it seems, about how a minister should be appointed. And so the church split – and you can imagine the acrimony there must have been.

It’s tempting to wonder what church historians might one day make of the minutes of our meetings, what they will see in the records we leave behind. I hope that they will see a community where love is truly known, where people are ready to discuss difficult things openly and freely, people listening carefully to one another and people refusing to let differences of opinion divide them. In a few weeks we will have an important discussion at our church meeting, but I hope and believe that, whatever we decide together we shall decide with good grace and with understanding, and that whatever we decide we shall know that we always belong together, all of us. There is a sense in which not even death can separate us within the love of God, so how could a disagreement..? One of the greatest things the church can do today is to witness to a way of being that means that we make good and trusting and lasting community out of our difference. Church is one of the few places where we don’t ‘choose’ our companions, but where God unites us in love with those from whom we may be quite different. And we make something good of that. And we stick together, come what may. Where there are two or three there will be difference, but there is the church if Christ is among us. Where there are 60 members there will be difference, but if we are the church then Christ is with us.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve been reading Matthew’s Gospel, and the portion we’ve heard today. But you will realise of course that Matthew’s Gospel was not just written for churches in general, but for some churches in particular, actual churches where two or three or more were gathered; churches full of real people like us, with real challenges to face.

And so I want to you to imagine for a moment that I’ve found the minutes of the meetings of that early church –  it was probably in Antioch, in the later part of the first century. And there’s already trouble ..

Here are the minutes of the Elders meeting, just after Passover:

One of the Elders, Thomas, explained to the meeting that he was very concerned about one of the brothers. He is committing sin. Thomas has read in Matthew’s Gospel, that he should take the matter up with him, strictly between themselves. This he has done, but to no effect. So now Thomas has asked that one or two others among the Elders should go with him to tackle the brother. Again this was the approach recommended in the Gospel. After some discussion, and noting that some of the Elders are were on holiday and that three were under the weather, two volunteers were nevertheless found. They were asked to report back to the next meeting.  The meeting went on to consider the question of the collection for the church in Jerusalem and the wider issues of stewardship and fundraising…

Then here are the Minutes of the Elders meeting, just after Pentecost:

From matters arising: The three Elders who had met with the sinful brother were asked to report on their visit with him. The visit had not gone well. He was even more reluctant to listen to three Elders than one and had become almost rude, which gives great cause for concern. The rest of the Elders were dismayed to hear this news and, looking to Matthew’s Gospel for guidance, Thomas recommended that the matter must now be reported to the whole congregation at the next church meeting. It was further suggested that the whole business should be reported in the next quarterly church codex so that as many in the congregation as possible,  including the housebound and bonded slaves, should know what was going on. This was agreed. The meeting went on to consider the suggestion that the church might obtain a musical instrument to accompany the singing in worship, but no conclusions were reached and any decision was held over until the next meeting…..

Then from the Minutes of the Church meeting:

A matter concerning one of the members was brought to the meeting by the Elders. They explained to the assembly that the brother concerned had been approached by one, and then by three of them, but to no effect. They now brought the matter before the whole church. The brother in question, being present at the meeting, was asked to change his ways. He refused to listen, became very angry, and left the meeting abruptly.  The Elders who were asked to make a study of Matthew’s Gospel to see what the next step should be.

There was a brief pause for prayer and reflection. Then the meeting returned to the suggestion, previously made, that the church might consider changing the time of the meeting for worship on Sunday. A heated discussion followed, but no conclusion was reached.

Minutes of the Elders meeting; the following week:

The main item for discussion was the issue of this brother. Thomas shared a papyrus he had prepared on the subject of church discipline and Matthew’s Gospel. From a close examination of the text he argued that the church had acted in accordance with the Gospel in bringing the matter before the whole church meeting. It was quite clear from the text that, since the brother concerned had not listened even to the congregation, that he should be treated as a Gentile or a tax-collector. So it was agreed that the sinful member of the church should be from henceforth treated as a pagan or a tax-collector.


The Elders were about to move to the next item, a discussion about the best purveyor of wine for communion, when Eunice, an Elder at her first meeting, asked to speak. She said that she was embarrassed to be asking what might be a very silly question, but she wanted to know how Christians were supposed to treat Gentiles and tax-collectors. One Elder said that the answer was obvious, that sinners, Gentiles, pagans and tax-collectors should be expelled from the church, that a decision really did have to be made about the communion wine, and could the meeting please press on. But others among the Elders agreed that Eunice had raised an interesting question. Eunice was asked to study the Gospel and to bring a proposal next time. Then, after a long debate, the Elders voted to order sweet wine from Samos for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Minutes of the next Elders’ meeting;

Eunice reported that she had made a full study of Matthew’s Gospel. She had searched the whole Gospel to see exactly what Jesus’ approach to tax collectors and Gentiles had been. She had made an astonishing discovery.And she had discovered that he did not cast them out of the community at all, and that if anything he had worked harder than with other folk to keep them in! She had found many stories of him eating at table with tax-collectors (and being criticised for it too!). She had found stories of him talking to Gentiles, even at his birth receiving gifts from them, and later even taking theological advice from them. And after the resurrection Jesus had told his disciples to take the Gospel to all nations. So she concluded that if Jesus said we should treat sinners like tax-collectors and foreigners, then that didn’t mean they should be excluded, but that we should work all the harder at including them and welcoming them and offering them friendship. And she wondered whether this final bit in the story might be a kind of warning to the church to worry less about keeping the community pure and think more about sharing the love of God with all who need it. There was a full and frank exchange of views. The discussion ended when one of the Elders read out the very next verse from the Gospel,

‘Peter asked, ‘Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?’ Jesus replied, ‘I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven.’

The meeting closed with a prayer.


So, there it is. In our own two or three – in our church – if we only remember how Jesus treated people – and if we  take his way of living alongside Gentiles and tax-collectors  as our model, then we know that we belong together and that our doors are open. The Jesus movement is absolutely founded on a new way of treating those who are different from us, those with whom we disgree or even those we think of as ‘sinners’ and ‘outsiders’ – and it can never be right, it seems to me, to turn the church into the kind of organisation that falls back on the old ways. Because of Jesus, all of us – and remember that all of us here are undoubtedly both Gentiles and sinners to a man and woman – are included within the covenant of God’s love, and invited in to share it and celebrate it. Treating one another as Gentiles and tax-collectors means, in the world of Jesus, that we love and accept one another. Not even death can separate us from this love of God that welcomes, endures and is faithful.

Remember Paul’s advice to the Romans, who says that whatever commandment you can think of, they are all summed up in one rule, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. I think, we’re much more likely to live well as a church by remembering this than by ticking anyone off at a church meeting, or even by sending round some of the toughest looking Elders. And how do we all know this? Only because, if we have been on a path to a more holy life, it’s likely to have been because someone somewhere gave us some love and let us know in whatever way that God loves us and wants us at the party, whoever we are. That’s the Gospel, as I believe it. If it’s true, then I hope you believe it, know it and share it too. Amen.