A reflection for Sunday 10th September 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

We regularly cheer ourselves up by watching classic sitcoms and reflecting, as one is increasingly inclined to do with advancing years, that “they don’t make them like that any more.” Recently we have enjoyed revisiting The Good Life and the title reminds us that, as Dean pointed out last Sunday, much of the teaching in Paul’s letter to the Romans is about how to live the good life which is the life in Christ. In last week’s passage, Paul provides a list of  “do’s”. This week’s passage begins and ends with a list of “don’t’s” but Paul’s advice is rooted in the Gospel imperative of love.

“Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

If you haven’t seen it, The Good Life centres on a couple, the Goods, who attempt to achieve self-sufficiency in a suburban house and garden. They do this to the bemusement of their next-door neighbours and friends, the Ledbetters, an ambitious executive and his deeply snobbish wife. That friendship is frequently strained but never broken and it is often the generosity of the Ledbetters which saves the day when things go wrong for the Goods.

The very last episode breaks out of the cosy conventions of situation comedy. Returning home accompanied by the Ledbetters, the Goods find that their house has been broken into and vandalised. A hostile and lawless world has hurt them profoundly and challenged their values. We watch as they struggle to come to terms with this and, supported by their friends, find the courage to carry on and affirm their commitment to the good life.

Today’s Epistle and today’s Gospel were both written to advise and support Christian communities facing the challenges and pressures of a hostile society which did not share their beliefs and a political system under which they were actively persecuted. The Gospel reading is particularly interesting because it is one of only two passages (both in Matthew) in which Jesus refers to “the church”. We heard the other one a fortnight ago.

Some scholars have questioned whether Jesus would have used the word “church”, suggesting that the Gospel writer is guilty of an anachronism – reading back into the past a development which happened after Jesus’ Resurrection. That’s not a view I share. The Greek word that Matthew uses is an interesting one – ekklesia literally means “those who are called out” – in other words people with a vocation. Jesus in his earthly ministry “called out” a wonderfully diverse collection of men and women, some of them, like Matthew himself with very questionable past lives, and called them out to be a community of love and forgiveness and to share that possibility with the world.

It may be the case that the procedures for dealing with errant church members which we just heard were a working out by Matthew’s church community of how to handle difficult situations, but their understanding of what it is to be a “called out” Christian community is clearly rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

It's a difficult passage for us because we live in a society which is very individualistic and that sometimes shapes the way in which Christians think about sin; think about it as an issue between the individual sinner and God. I think that’s unhelpful because all wrong-doing affects other people and undermines community. Jesus’ teaching emphasises that.

To be called out by Jesus is also to be called in – to be called in to a community. Community is a warm word, applied more widely than perhaps it should be, applied which ways which suggest a stronger sense of shared purpose than actually exists. There’s another, stronger and more helpful word for Christian community, Covenant. It comes from the Latin con venire, to be called together. Called together into mutual love and support; called together into loving acceptance of mutual obligations. When I look at the state of our politics and the fractious and fragmented nature of our society, I see a crying need for Covenant values and for the kind of firm, gentle, persistent discipline of which today’s Gospel speaks.

That’s the way of achieving the Good Life.