Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew18:15-20
Some years ago theologian Peter Candler published an article with the arresting title 'Outside the Church there is no Death'. What could he possibly mean? He meant that it is only within a Christian understanding of human experience that the full reality of death can be appreciated. Only the person with the theological virtue of hope, and the understanding of the human person that is required by such a virtue, can look death straight in the face and see its full horror.
Most of the time we believers join our contemporaries in denying, in various ways, the reality of death. We speak of it as if it were no big deal, just passing from one room to another, imagining life continuing more or less as before except without headaches or indigestion, without blood or sweat or tears. The person of hope on the other hand does not have such a picture with which to console herself. The direct object of our hope is God, not some future form of human life. The object of hope is God who is love and who is life, in whose Word we trust when he speaks to us of a share in his eternal life. But we know practically nothing about what that will be or how that will be except that it will be a life, that it will be a life of love, and that it will mean the company of Christ and the saints.
Just as you can only be really courageous when faced with something fearful, so you can only be really hopeful when faced with something that presents extreme difficulty. Just as fear and courage are not incompatible but require each other, so too sadness and anxiety on the one hand, and hope on the other, are not incompatible but require each other. In fact hope makes true sadness possible just as courage gives us a true appreciation of what we fear. This, I think, is what Candler meant in saying that outside the Church there is no death: only within a Christian understanding of human experience can we taste fully the reality of negative things such as fear, anxiety, sadness and loss.
The gospel reading today is about excommunication, the sad and difficult situation where the Christian community comes to the conclusion that one of its members, for reasons of belief or lifestyle, is no longer in full communion with the Church. We prefer not to think about such things, as we prefer not to think about the reality of death. In fact excommunication is a kind of death, a terrible wound in the body of Christ, a real sadness and a profound loss. It means we have failed to maintain the communion to which Christ calls us and for which he prayed in his last great prayer to the Father.
The gospel reading says we are to try everything to maintain that communion: talking privately with a person first of all, talking with them in the presence of one or two other people, and only if it is absolutely necessary bringing a matter to the attention of the whole Church. The conclusion is chilling and we might even wonder 'is it Christian'? Surely we can find a way to stay together, to remain in communion? But truth presses in also, not in order to serve some structure of power or to maintain some artificial conformity. Truth presses in because it is the truth of that communion itself: what if the basis on which we are joined is undone by what a person believes or by how a person lives? Our communion dies.
This passage of Matthew's gospel is about the difficulty of staying together and it reflects how, even in the early Church, it was realized very quickly that there would be problems in staying together. Sometimes people will do things, or will come to believe things, that even the Church cannot see as compatible with the life of the gospel. Of course we hesitate to use the word ‘excommunication’ but in human relations it is sometimes, sadly, the reality. Even having done our best, we do not see how some can be contained within the life of the community. Some ways of living and some convictions are not compatible, as far as we can see, with life in the Church. More often than not it is people themselves who make the decision to separate from the Church because they no longer share its beliefs or are no longer convinced about the goodness of its teaching. Much more rarely the Church itself makes this decision about a person or a group of people.
We can never be happy about the exclusion of a brother or a sister. It is a death and death is terrible, the last enemy of human flourishing, a final failure. But within the context of Christian hope, exclusion can never be the last word about a person or about our relationship with them. They remain always children of the heavenly Father called to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. I like to think that the two or three gathered in Christ’s name at the end of this gospel reading are the same two or three who have earlier confronted the erring brother or sister. They are praying, and prayer is the characteristic act of the virtue of hope. What is on their minds as they pray must be that same brother or sister whom the Church has decided it must relate to as if he were a pagan or a tax-collector. And there is Christ in the midst of them.
Outside the Church there is no death because the Christian life makes us more sensitive to the truth of what death really is. But outside the Church, we can say, there is no outside, because the prayers of the Church, like the anxiety of loving parents, follow her children everywhere. Even when we cannot see how unity and reconciliation might come about, we must continue to hope for those things, to pray for those things, and to work for those things. All the commandments are summed up, Saint Paul says, in this saying: 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself'. We know that our neighbour is everyone, those who are living and those who are dead, those who are sick and those who are well, those who are in joyful communion with us and those who are in sad separation from us. We reach the limits of our capacities but we know that the Lord, who was crucified for our reconciliation, stretches his arms across the widest horizons of this creation in order to gather in all the scattered children of God.