10 September 2017
Revd Jonathan Cain
Romans 13 8-14, Matthew 18: 15-20
“I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.” This, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, is not a personal statement, as some of you know Rebecca and I celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary this week. No, “I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem,” is the opening line of a book called the Rosie Project, which Rebecca, the boys and I listened to in the car this summer while on holiday. The book narrates a search for a romantic companion for Don Tillman, a 39 year old professor of genetics. Romantic relationships, in fact relationships of any kind are a struggle for Don because he has Aspergers Syndrome, a high-functioning form of Autism. At the outset of the plot Don has only two friends, a married couple Gene and Claudia. Gene is a fellow professor, his wife Claudia a psychotherapist. The pair have an open relationship, which allows Gene to pursue his ambition of sleeping with a woman from every country in the world – this is not high-brow literature! There is a great moment in the book when Don, who sees things in black and white terms, confronts his friend directly and privately about his bad behaviour. Don’s intervention puts an end to Gene’s bad philandering, and is the catalyst for a reconciliation between Gene and Claudia.
The book has been accused by some critics of over-sentimentalising Aspergers. I’m no expert in the condition, but representations of this and other forms of Autism in fiction do tend to focus on so-called high-functioning forms. I would however concur with the comments of another critic who says that “Through his battles to understand and empathise with other humans, Don teaches us to see the funny side of our own often incomprehensible behaviour – and to embrace the differently abled.”
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is addressing his disciples. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. In some ancient manuscripts this line of Matthew’s account reads simply “If your brother sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” When I was reflecting on this passage it struck me that this is exactly what Don Tillman did for his friend Gene in the Rosie Project. He pointed out Gene’s wrongdoing and he reproved him, in private. It struck me also that given our human propensity to gossip, such reproof would more likely happen in the university staff room, or more publicly still in the newspaper or on social media. But the fictional Don Tillman applies Jesus’ instruction to the letter, an action that is entirely congruent with his literal character, although just to be clear the Rosie Project makes no reference to Jesus or his teaching. Finally, it struck me that even in the closest of relationships, there are reasons why we might be uncomfortable taking such a direct approach to point out a fault, or indeed why we might be resistant to having a fault pointed out to us …
To really understand the significance of Jesus’ instruction to point out wrongdoing, it is helpful to understand the context and purpose of Matthew’s writing of the Gospel. It is widely held that Matthew’s account was written for a young Christian community who were struggling to define themselves; struggling to understand and assert their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Struggling on the one hand against the Judaism of the Pharisees, legalistic, judgemental, pious, hypocritical, and lacking compassion, and on the other against the fatalistic paganism of the Roman Empire.
What Jesus’ teaching advocates is a system of self-regulation, underpinned by the promise of his own presence when two or three are gathered in his name. A system that invites and encourages individual believers both to be prepared to admonish, and to be open to admonishment. A system that checks sinful behaviour, and leaves space for repentance and forgiveness. A system ultimately that is founded on Jesus’ commandment to love. Love above all was and is to be the defining characteristic of the Christian community, the church.
In each generation it seems, the Christian community is engaged in some sort of struggle to assert its identity. In this generation we are perhaps caught between the fanaticism of some who claim to be religious, and an aggressive secularism that seeks to cast religion as irrational and obsolete. On the one hand fanatics love is partial or conditional; often times their religion is the very opposite of love. On the other hand the aggressive secularists seek to deny religion or faith a place in the public square. Caught between fanatics and secularists we share with all generations of Christians the tension between our calling to be distinctive as followers of Jesus Christ; to be salt and light, and our desire to be normal, whatever that is. What we inherit from the tradition is the wisdom that understands that we cannot manage this tension in our own strength; we rely on the grace of God, and we rely on the support of the community we call the church. Support that includes the system of self-regulation that Jesus instructs – reproof, repentance, forgiveness.
Compared with many in this community Rebecca and I are relative novices in marriage. I do however recognise this pattern, reproof, repentance, and forgiveness as one ingredient of a healthy and lasting relationship. It is hard sometimes, because it requires both courage and humility, but it is one of the most profound ways in which we express love. Practising and modelling self-regulation in our Christian community is one expression of distinctiveness, and one important way in which we can love our wider communities. In a world where self-regulation is often sadly lacking it remains a core part of our calling. The good news is Jesus’ promise to be in it with us.