The 2006 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:
Reflections on the Scriptural Theme


By James Loughran, SA

“Where two or three are gathered in my name...,” the purposely open-ended, half-verse theme of the 2006 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the United States, was chosen after much discussion by a group of Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reform and Roman Catholic ecumenists meeting at the Interchurch Center in New York City in early December 2004, as they studied the international theme text of Matthew 18:15-22. Fill in the blank of that half-verse and one is quick to add the words of Jesus, “I am there among them.” In fact the international theme text does just that. The American group felt the text would give a richer challenge to those contemplating the depth of the meaning of being “gathered” in “my name” by leaving it to the reader to fill in the blank.

Gathering, community, fellowship in the name of Jesus has a power not only to see Jesus in its midst but also by the grace of that presence a power and command to reconcile, to unite and to build up the kingdom of God on earth. Fill in the blank as well with “they will be reconciled,” “they will be my body” or “they will bear witness by their love for one another,” and one soon sees the grace of being gathered in the name of Jesus as bearing great fruit. This is done in Christ and by Christ through the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father, but the great gift of Christ “being there among them” is not static, nor only for contemplation or the worship of his name. It is active and alive, an incarnation of the Divine One bringing about what that incarnation implies.

As one reflects on the significance of the text for the 2006 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it should be done, as always, in the context of the whole scriptural selection given to the theme, chosen for 2006 by the churches of Ireland: Matthew 18:15-22. Here in what is commonly called the fourth “great discourse” of Jesus, a simple system of justice is given by Jesus to his disciples for the well-ordering of the community. An even broader reading of Matthew 18 places this in the context of discipleship and living life under the freedom of the Gospel. One may recall, before approaching 18:15, Jesus teaching his disciples about the importance of humility by setting a child in front of them and saying, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (18:3-5).”

Jesus goes on in 18:6-11 to speak about the relationship between those in the community who have authority and those in need of teaching and direction, mentioning the wrath to be visited upon those who would lead the “little ones astray” with the thought it would be better to drown with a millstone around one’s neck first (18:6) and speaking of cutting off those things in one’s life that create stumbling blocks, as in cutting off one’s hand or foot, or gouging out one’s eye, rather than to lose the kingdom of heaven by acceding to the sin that separates one from God.

Jesus then shifts his discourse to the pastoral concern the community and its leaders should have for a member who strays on his or her own, in the parable of the lost sheep 18:10-14, ending with the verse, “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost (18:14).”

It is here, seen in the overall virtue of keeping the flock together, that is the flock of Jesus, by humble fellowship combined with responsible, loving pastoral leadership, that the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins at verse 15. Here, in its plain meaning, Jesus provides his followers with what could be called a procedure or “due process” for trying a member of the community who has violated gospel discipleship in three stages, followed by the power given to the community to bind and to loosen and finally by the promise to be in the midst of “two or three gathered in my name.”

        In its paper “Introduction to the Theme”, the ecumenical Irish drafting group states:

                    The chapter provided the early Christian community with clear instructions from Jesus that building up community is not something about which they could be indifferent.       The community which gathers around the words and person of Jesus must do all it can to ensure that it lives in harmony. It is in this context that the Lord invites his hearers to trust in the power of common prayer, and ultimately, in his abiding presence within the community.

Four words emerge from the text that serve as a link to the theme: judgment, binding, agreement and the name. Judgement of those who have fallen into disagreement or a lifestyle at odds with the community of believers must not be taken lightly, but must employ truthful attempts at reconciliation and due process. Judgement can not be arbitrary or biased. Binding (and loosening) power is given to the community as a sign of divine authority. This, however, is authenticated especially by agreement. The “name” of Jesus is more than “Jesus”and it holds within its mystery the very presence of the incarnate God as well as the fullness of redeemed humanity. Judgement, binding and agreement can not stand separated from the name and the name is revealed in authentic judgement, binding and agreement.

Judgement
In 18:15-18, there are three phases of judgement. These are based on a person to person problem at the start, but the application of the three phases or stages of judgement grow to involve two or three others and then the whole community. It is important to note that first step is one to attempt reconciliation and is to be initiated by the injured party. The indication is plain, if the injured party does not initiate the appeal for justice/reconciliation, the person who has committed the injury should not be prosecuted. It also means the injured party should hold no grudge if they are not willing to confront the person who has hurt them (fear of violence aside, of course!). This stage requires something truly noble of the wronged party: to seek justice for himself or herself with the intention of reconciling with the other and therefore to accept the repentance of the person who has hurt them. In this, both prove they are disciples.

It calls to mind the words of Leviticus, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lv. 19:17-18).” This is referred to in verse 15 as “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

If this does not work, Jesus prescribes a process echoing traditional Jewish teaching from Deuteronomy, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offence that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. (Dt. 19:15).” Counting the victim himself or herself, another witness or two could try to shake the perpetrator to reason, confession and repentance. Here what we today call “intervention” in the life of an addicted person comes to mind. The more people who assure one that what they have said or done leads to this or that end (usually a bad end) the more likely the person would be able to accept it. This keeps in mind the commandment about perjury, of course. The expectation is that the witnesses will speak the truth.

The third stage only becomes necessary if the person who has committed the injury still disagrees or does not come to a conversion of heart about the matter. 18:17 is the ultimate recourse to the church, the believing community, where now the case is decided, and unfortunately made very public, wherein the obstinate perpetrator faces excommunication, “let such a one be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector (18:17).”

The judgement, if made by followers of Jesus concerning one of their brothers or sisters in Christ, is to be fair and as confidential as possible. It requires care and concern. It requires a very great level of agreement or consensus. Necessary as well are the truth and a disposition towards forgiveness on the part of the accuser and openness and repentance on the part of the accused, if guilty. If any one of the three stages works, the guilty party must be welcomed in reconciliation. Even after being treated “like a Gentile or tax collector” the accused could still repent, as excommunication was and is traditionally seen as a corrective as well as a punishment. Anything else would be an abuse of the power of judgement, separating it from the name and removing it from binding authority.

How often in the history of the Church has this process been used in the way the plain text required and how often has it been abused by councils, synods, investigations and inquisitions to silence opinion or to stifle the Holy Spirit? Divided Christianity has suffered from a pride of the use of these forms of judgement and painful memories must be healed. Many Christian communities still simplify these words of Jesus into a banal process or a weapon to silence the minority. Yet judgement is still given by divine authority and so the balance must be struck between unjust accusation and protection of the “little ones”; between overuse of Catholic/Orthodox “excommunication” or the Anabaptist “ban” or the classical Protestant “shunning” and the need to safeguard the apostolic tradition.

        The same “Introduction to the Theme” from the international commission (drafted by the Irish churches) states:

                    MT 18 contains strong texts of judgement. These texts are signposts to the Christian community, indicating where its members are falling short in their responsibility as disciples. They are balanced by texts which stress God’s concern for every member of the community and invite an unlimited willingness to forgive, reflecting God’s own boundless capacity for reconciliation.

Binding and Agreement

18:18 is a confirmation of the faithful community’s judgement or discernment, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It confirms the judgement but is also dependent on agreement and the name. Verse 19 goes on to say, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

This binding, δέω, is a theological passive. God shall bound. This is the indication of the mystery of the relationship between Christ and those who gather “in his name” and in agreement, or what we today call consensus, the most authoritative type of which would be a unanimous consensus. This binding brings to mind the Hebrew aqad’a used in the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. It is a sign of covenantal sacrifice. The bonds of Isaac are only loosed at God’s command in response to the faith of Abraham. God blesses Abraham for binding his son Isaac as an offering. In this, at God’s command, Abraham has offered everything he loves. A substitute sacrifice is offered in the ram caught in the thicket. “And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice (Gn. 22:18).”

After great discernment and consensus the voice of God must be heard and obeyed. The prophets knew this and know this today. The binding and unbinding decisions of the community of faith, of the church, are authoritative when they are the work of God. The faith of Abraham exhibited by Christian faith in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ graces the Church with this authentic power to bind and let loose, to teach and to admonish. This works for the unity of the Church and the proclamation of the one Gospel. If used correctly and carefully, this gift keeps together the flock of Christ. It seeks out the wandering sheep, it assists the “little ones”, it ends scandal and it confronts sin and sin’s children: lies, injustice, misery and hate.

Getting at least two to agree on anything might be a bit of a trick, however. This also takes discernment, prayer, study, dialogue and very much faith in the paschal mystery and in the name of Jesus. Ecumenically, Christians have been building consensus on matters that have traditionally been sources of division. The Greek used in verse 18 for “agree” or “accord” is symphōnein, a symphony or harmony of voices. This “concert” is the work of the Holy Spirit. Each step along the way in growing consensus has led Christians to deeper unity. Prayer for this consensus, in the name of Jesus, has actually brought about the consensus for which we pray and will continue to do so, even as the disagreements seem to grow more challenging. The faith of Abraham is needed here.

The Name

Pious Jews often refer to the Lord God as ha-Shem, the Name. There is a commendable reluctance to actually speak the Name, Yahweh, or even the Greek, Adonai, as too familiar. To know and use the Name is to be God’s equal or at least to have far too much familiarity with the almighty One, creator of the universe. The name of God is God, personally. When two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus says, “I am there among them.” Not just his name, but he himself is among the faithful ones gathered in his name.

“Jesus” means salvation, as we all know and “Christ” means the Messiah, anointed one, as we know. The person of the Son of God, who is God and human in the Divine One and man Jesus, is more than just the name “Jesus”. Entering into his name, we enter into the very mystery of who he is. If we take oaths or promises in his name (which perhaps we shouldn’t do anyway), we are taking a very binding oath or promise (there’s that binding again!). But we should not use his name as a weapon against one another. His name is given for the unity of his flock. The point of two or three agreeing in a symphony to expressing a need, especially if that need is to reconcile with another who is the cause of division, and praying for that need in the one name of Jesus, brings about an action begun by the Holy Spirit in stirring the hearts of the two or three, mediated by the real presence of Jesus, as he promised, and completed by the will of the Father through the Holy Spirit.

                The international “Introduction to the Theme” notes:

                            It is worth remembering that many things have been done throughout Christian history “in Jesus’ name”, things which resemble neither his teaching nor the way set forward in his living and dying. Our individual and communal histories provide us with many reasons for repentance. We do well to read Mt. 18:20 in light of the primacy given to the commandment to love in John’s gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12) and “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Jesus’ presence where two or three gather in his name is closely linked to the love the “two or three” have for one another.

                The “Introduction” goes on to state a necessary result of accepting that Christians gather in the effective presence of Jesus:

                            Being as receptive as possible to the presence of Jesus in our midst requires that Christians learn to live an “ecumenism of life” together, accompanying our theological search for unity. This means sharing and learning from each other’s spiritual traditions, customs and insights while working concretely together in the service of building up the kingdom of God on earth.

The name becomes the event itself. The name is the mystery of the Incarnate One himself, effecting the divine will among humanity. So there it is concluded: judgement, binding and agreement can not stand authoritatively if separated from the name and the name is revealed in authentic judgement, binding and agreement. The theme for the 2006 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity indicts our divisions as an arrow hits a bull’s-eye. We have no choice but to grow closer in consensus, especially when it is difficult, in the power of prayer in Jesus’ name before we can judge in his name, else our judgements will always be questioned and our divisions only increase.
 


(Reverend James Loughran, SA is editor of Ecumenical Trends and Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. Resource materials for the 2006 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: posters, prayer cards, ecumenical services of the Word of God, etc, may be ordered from the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, PO Box 300 Garrison, NY 10524-0300. An order form may be downloaded from www.geii.org ).