Chapter 19: Life in the Church
What crosses your mind when you hear the word ‘Church’? Is it only a shrine for Christians to pray in? Does it represent the clergy in charge of faith? Is the Church composed of sinners or perfect people? We saw how, after Peter declared his faith (Mt 16: 18-19), Jesus established a hierarchy among the disciples, headed by Peter, followed by selected disciples who witnessed special occasions (James and John). However, in this passage (Mt 18), we get to know the Church as a circle instead of a triangle. The Church is a group of people living together as humble, loving and tolerant brothers and sisters, working hard to avoid losing any of them, aware and repentant of their sins and forever living in forgiveness towards each other.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Sermon of the Church (Mt 18:1-22)
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
1At this time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2So he called a little child to him and set the child in front of them. 3Then he said, “I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck. 7Alas for the world that there should be such obstacles! Obstacles indeed there must be, but alas for the man who provides them!
8 “If your hand or your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into the hell of fire.
10 “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.
12 “Tell me. Suppose a man has a hundred sheep and one of them strays; will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go in search of the stray? 13I tell you solemnly, if he finds it, it gives him more joy than do the ninety-nine that did not stray at all. 14Similarly, it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
15 “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. 16If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. 17But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.
19 “I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.”
21Then Peter went up to him and said, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” 22Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.”
2. 1- Explanation
The previous four Chapters (Mt 14-17) describe the foundation of the Church by Jesus: The disciples were the nucleus of the Church; the teachings of the Kingdom and the Eucharistic body her food. Peter is her foundation stone, and the Cross her path to glory and resurrection. In Chapter 18 Jesus addresses the disciples – the nucleus of the Church – and defines the journey of the Children of the Kingdom. Jesus does not establish a clear organised structure of the Church, nor does he give instructions on her formation, her liturgical and moral canons, to be practised within the Church. Instead, he gives an inspired teaching on the principle commandment of love, demonstrating to the Christian how he should act in his personal relationships with his brothers; this discourse could be entitled “The Church is a community of forgiveness and reconciliation”.
The discourse is divided into two parts: on little children (Mt 18:1-14) and on brethren (Mt 18:15-35). The first part starts with a question from the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (v.1). In Jesus’ answer, the word “child” is repeated four times, insisting on a life of innocence, purity and simplicity, while moving away from all pride and vain presumption. Jesus warns about despising the young and leading them into error, lest such behaviour should lead them away from the Kingdom of Heaven. If it happens that someone has sinned and strayed from the fold, it is imperative that we seek them out and return them home with joy and forgiveness.
In part 2 (Mt 18:15-35), Jesus speaks of the Church as a group of brothers (and sisters). It is incumbent upon all to lead sinners back into the path of reform and that no one should be prohibited from entering the Church, except if it is to act as a deterrent from evil. Jesus exhorts us to exercise mutual forgiveness, for the Church is, indeed, a group of sinners forgiving and loving each other. Regarding prayer (v.20), Jesus stresses the value of attending the liturgy in groups, as God responds even more readily to prayers said in common (John 14:13-17). Torah scholars used to believe that God was present among them when teaching the Torah or praying in groups. Peter interrupts the discourse (v.21) and asks about forgiveness for “the brother who sins against me”. Jesus answers with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, stressing the duty to forgive one’s neighbour, and reminding us of the prayer he has taught us: “Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Jesus’ discourse requires the believer to live like a child in his humility; this is what St Thérèse of the Child Jesus was inspired by to speak of “spiritual childhood”. We need to be a good example for one another, and not to scandalize others by our behaviour. Within the community, someone may go astray. Brotherly correction according to these principles is at the heart of the community, and isolation is the last resort for those who will not respond otherwise. As for communal prayer, it is loved by God and is answered. Let forgiveness of neighbour be unlimited.
The teachings of Jesus are eternal and apply equally to all communities. Through baptism, we become part of this community of the Church that lives out this brotherhood. No matter how great the number of those who no longer believe in Christian values, this passage of the Gospel remains the pure reflection of those who live as saints on earth.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Church
We believe in one Holy, Apostolic Church
The Church is an article of faith in the Creed, because it is a supreme gift from God, instituted by Jesus during his life, by his death and by his Resurrection, confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Church is ‘one’ and universal as God wishes it to be: one, and united in faith, in love and in commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is why the Church suffers from its divisions, whether differences between members of the same community, or between churches of different denominations, about issues of faith, sin, or long-standing historical reasons still unresolved. With the worldwide spread of Christianity, churches have been founded according to local cultures, with Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Greek, Roman churches firmly established alongside others. Such diversity is not division, but is a solid foundation for the Church, based on local culture and civilizations. Indeed, such diversity is a blessing in its richness, but a threat to Church unity as well. God wants a united single Church and has given her His Holy Spirit who works for the renewal of people and structures, creating dialogue between the various Eastern and Western churches. That is why we believe in a unity that will come, and from which the signs are already present today and visible every time we taste the presence of the One Lord in her.
The Church is ‘holy’, for it is the Body of Jesus Christ and each of us, believers, is a member of this Body. The Church is established around the Eucharist, when believers join each other in taking communion together. She is holy because her sanctity is derived from the Lord Jesus himself, who made her his. Her sanctity is not attributable to the sanctity of her children – though such sanctity is desired – but is attributable to the fact that she is the Church of Christ. The Church is aware of the sins of her children and her communities, but hopes in the forgiving grace of the Lord to cleanse souls and hearts. This sanctity of the Church is a gift from God, and not founded on the merit of its believers. Thus, the Church rejoices in the saints, bright beacons among us, proof of the effectiveness of God’s grace in the life of believers, and an honest reflection of the sanctity of the Church.
The Church is ‘apostolic’, for she was established on the faith of the Apostles. Jesus said to Peter: “I now say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Christians hymns sing well of the Apostles, that they are the foundations and pillars of the Church She is, indeed, the deposit of the Apostles’ faith, and she ensures that that she remains faithful to their teachings; she is aware of her duty to seek, day after day, to know the profound dimensions of this faith, and to put into practice its wealth and strength. She uses new languages and tries, in different cultures, to respond, through dialogue, to the varied questions of humanity today.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from Fr Yves Congar (1904-1995)
Why do I love the Church?
I love the church because she is my Mother, family, country and my spiritual existence. I have asked frequently about the destiny of my prayers and beliefs and whether they were derived just from me.
My human mother has aged in her years. My Church too, carries some wrinkles and out-dated traditions, but always strives to be, not only the Church of the previous generations in the modern world, but also Church of all the generations in the present world.
The Church knows fully well that she carries a Mission and that her future depends upon her presence in the future of the world.
If we are searching for a Church free from human errors so we can commit to it, we will never commit.
Above all, we need to envisage the future of the Church as history linked to a Mission. We can no longer speak of the Church as stale or rigid institution! But the truth of the Church is that she is renewed daily, in faithfulness to her Lord and divine bridegroom.21