My wife and I love watching The Repair Shop on the BBC. People bring in treasured heirlooms in urgent need of repair, to a group of experts skilled in their own particular craft. Old teddy bears are re-stuffed, their fur fluffed and their ears sewn back on. Broken china is put back together in a way that you can’t see the join. Stopped clocks are made to go again.
It’s a programme about restoration. Not just of the items themselves but for the people bringing them in. People for whom the item is wrapped up in all sorts of memories and associations, often with family members who have long gone. There’s usually both delight and tears when the repaired item is returned to the owner.
And you get the feeling that those doing the repairs are just as invested and caught up in it too. That this is more than just the demonstration of their skill – that they are moved by the significance of what all this means to those who have come to them.
It’s with that same sense that I approach the Gospel reading today. Because I see this passage as being about restoration.
Firstly, though, I think we need to step back a bit so that we don’t just look at these verses in isolation. Chapter 18 of Matthew starts with the disciples, rather crassly it seems, asking Jesus who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus replies that the greatest is someone who becomes humble like a child. That is, probably someone who wouldn’t have asked that question in the first place…
He then warns about not being a stumbling block for anyone. He tells the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to search for one that went astray. Then he explains that our Father in heaven is not willing for any of the little ones to be lost and that we should take care of the most vulnerable.
And after our passage today, Peter asks how many times he should forgive – and Jesus says not seven times but seventy-seven. A countless number of times. And he follows that with the parable of the unforgiving servant.
So, we have messages here about being humble, about not being an obstacle, about caring for the vulnerable and about limitless forgiveness. With that framework in mind, let’s take a look at today’s reading.
Two or three gathered
There’s more than two or three of us here. And we’re gathered in his name. So, he’s here. Right now. Emmanuel. What a wonderful promise that is, isn’t it? We often quote it without remembering the verses which come before it.
But because of that promise we have to resolve any difficulties between us, to be in harmony. If we’ve been humble and avoided being an obstacle for each other and cared for the vulnerable and forgiven each other countless times – and there’s still a problem – then you have to think this is a place of last resort.
And it strikes me that this is a gentle and loving way to do it, in keeping with the rest of the chapter. It’s about restoration rather than punishment. Trying to resolve things in private first. Not to brood on it or pre-judge. Bringing back a lost sheep – if they are indeed lost. If that doesn’t work, then bring along just one or two others.
Because, you know, maybe it’s not the other person who has the problem. Maybe it’s me? Perhaps the other person thinks I’m the one that’s sinning! Maybe we both think we’re right? And it could be that the voicing of those perspectives in front of others may just help resolve matters.
So, we should ask ourselves, how would I, how would you, like to be treated if it was actually us causing the problem?
Measure for measure
In Matthew 18, Jesus builds on Deuteronomy 19:15 – ‘A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.’
And that makes me wonder how often we, metaphorically, single-handedly judge and convict people of some perceived wrong or slight? How often now do we get trial by social-media without all the facts? We would do well, both in the church and outside it, to get different view-points. And we do well to remember that in the Lord’s prayer we ask to be forgiven in the same measure that we forgive others.
If there’s still an issue, then it gets a wider audience – and if that doesn’t work then Jesus says treat them like a Gentile or a Tax Collector. Now, that may mean exclusion – but we know what Jesus was like with Gentiles and Tax Collectors! He sought them out, he healed them, he went for meals with them.
So, if you still have a problem with someone after going through all the other steps – follow the example of Jesus and go for lunch with them!
“…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
What a huge responsibility isn’t it? If two of us agree on something it has heavenly consequences. I think it’s meant to put us on notice about the actions that we take, in a community which should be marked by restoration and love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
But what does it mean to bind and loose? Fundamentally it’s about forgiveness and justice. That what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to has heavenly implications. How we behave as a church and as individuals is witnessed in heaven.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
But remember that the reverse was true too: Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. See Matthew 25:31-46.
I sometimes wonder if the church should be called The Repair Shop for shouldn’t we be known as the Restoration People?
For all this to happen, for Emmanuel to be truly with us, for people to see the Christ in us, we must be humble and avoid being an obstacle for each other; we must care for the most vulnerable. We must love as we ourselves were first loved. And we must forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven. Children together in the family of God. The forgiving and the forgiven. Amen
As I gather myself to pray
I remember those around me
those in need
who are praying also for me
you and I
we make up the church of God
gathered in Your name
Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Children together in the family of God
no longer strangers
or lone rangers
but the forgiving and the forgiven
gathered at the table of the Lord
once again to renew our strength
‘Restoration People’ was delivered by Ian Banks to ‘St Zoom’s’ on September 6th 2020. It’s based on Matthew 18:15-20. St Zoom’s is a mix of congregations from Bury, Heywood and Rochdale, sharing together on-line.
- Davies and Allison, Matthew Volume II, 1998, T&T Clark
- France, Matthew, 1989, IVP
- The prayer is from http://coslcgrace.blogspot.com/2014/09/poem-based-on-matthew-1815-20.html with many thanks to Pastor Dan.