For this Sunday’s bullentin, click here: 16th sunday after pentecost 2011
For this month’s church calendar, click here: Oct 2011 – Calendar.docx
As I mention in the sermon, Jesus’ words in this Gospel are eminently practical. At one time or another someone will sin against you in the church, or you will sin against someone else; then the question becomes, what now? This entire Gospel revolves around the answer to that question.
This is the portion of Matthew chapter 18 that people are thinking of when they mention “Matthew 18”. Naming the chapter is a kind of shorthand for the instructions Jesus gives here. The steps involved receive a lot of attention, but Jesus’ promises along with His commands don’t usually receive nearly as much attention. We can tend to focus on Jesus’ words very heavily as a divine command and precept which we are bound to obey (which they are, although not as rigidly or in such a law-oriented way as people sometimes view them), but homing in on the command and forgetting the promises that go with it makes the command into more rules that must be kept, rather than the process our risen Lord has given us to recover a wandering brother or sister. It can be a subtle form of turning Jesus into another Moses — Lawgiver instead of Savior who empowers and makes our fumbling, halting works effective and pleasing to God.
And what promises they are! I invite you to take a few moments and look at those promises and dwell on them for yourself. God with you — God hearing your prayers — God doing whatever you ask (especially in regard to this brother or sister who is wandering away from the faith, and for whom your heart bleeds) — those are great and precious promises!
This sermon highlights again the importance of understanding every part of Scripture in its proper context. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had cautioned against sinning against His “little ones” — those young in the faith, unimportant-seeming in the church, as well as little children, the young and defenseless. Right before these verses Jesus spoke of seeking the lost sheep, and the joy that the Shepherd has when He recovers one of His lost sheep. Directly after these verses, Peter asked the Lord how many times he should forgive his brother — seven? No, seventy times seven. Then, to make sure that we can’t miss the point, Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant, reminding us forcefully that when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we’re supposed to mean it and do it. All of them fit in some way with this Gospel and help us understand it better.
Failure to read a certain passage or verse in its context is very often the seedbed and hothouse of error. A great many interpretive difficulties can be settled by intensive study of the context that a particular passage or verse is found in. Some Christians are led astray when they are fed out-of-context, fanciful, or just wrong interpretations by ill-educated or devious preachers, and those innocent Christians are led astray because they don’t know the Scriptures for themselves, or they don’t know them well enough to stand on them in the face of opposition. Don’t let that be you. Build yourself up in your most holy faith, because life in this rotten, dangerous world demands it. Pardon my perhaps overly direct language, but we are sheep in a world full of wolves, and one roaring Lion prowls among us — if we don’t know the voice of our Good Shepherd, how will we ever be safe?
The process of recovering the straying can be uphill and unpleasant, but the payoff is worth it. Many times the only thing that’s stopping us is our own reluctance to deal with the situation. If you’re in such a situation and feel a little guilty that you should be doing more to help things heal, pray and ask the Lord to give you the strength to take that person the admonition they need to hear. It could be the start of major healing.
Jesus be with you — as He has promised to be. Amen.
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (matt 18.15-20 niv84)
Sometimes Christians wish in their heads, even if they don’t say it out loud, that they heard more things of a practical nature at church. They leave church thinking, “All this about God is well and good, but I need something I can use during the rest of the week – not just at church.” If you’ve ever thought that – and I know you have, because I have in the past too – then today’s gospel is for you. Nothing could be more practical than Jesus’ advice on how to deal with someone sinning against you. Sinners sin, and yes, even the church is full of sinners. That’s why Jesus’ words in our gospel for today are so important and why we need to pay attention to them. In this gospel Jesus outlines a series of steps He wants us to follow when someone sins against us. We might not follow all the steps every time or always start at the same point, but this is what Jesus wants us to do. It’s rarely easy, it’s not what you’d call fun, but working for forgiveness and unity in the church is very necessary – for us and for the person who’s sinned. Today Jesus teaches us how to practice Tough Love for the Sinner. We’ll see the process involved in tough love. We’ll see the promises involved in tough love.
Another name for what Jesus describes here is excommunication. Sometimes people get the wrong idea about excommunication. We don’t do this because we don’t like the person – quite the opposite. We practice what Jesus says here because we do care about the person, and their sin is beginning to carry them out of the church of God if they don’t repent. That’s the message and the motivation behind each step of this process. The entire process Jesus gives us here has nothing to do with your personal opinions of someone. Mere hurt feelings, injured pride, purely personal dislike of someone, are ruled out. If we do practice excommunication for any other reason that what Jesus says in His Word, then it’s not what He’s talking about here. Christians never excommunicate someone for themselves, based on their own personal reasons or because they don’t like the person. Notice what Jesus says: “If your brother sins against you.” This whole process starts because of a real sin, a genuine cause for offense – something that God specifies as sin in His Word.
Notice what else Jesus says: “Go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” Jesus doesn’t say bellyache about it to your five closest friends. He doesn’t say go call your mama or your sister or your cousin and tell them the whole story, so they can cluck their tongues and shake their heads and agree that you were unjustly treated. He doesn’t say pick up the phone or hop on the Internet and start throwing mud back at the other person, bringing accusations about them behind their back that they are unable to refute or defend themselves against. He doesn’t say start fighting fire with fire and do what they did to you, and more besides. Also notice that Jesus does not say go run and tell the pastor, and then sit back and let him fix it. The pastor is not the first step in dealing with sin here. All you who are here today have heard me say it, so if you come to me with something about somebody else and I ask you, “Did you talk to the person?” and you say, “No…”, you really have no excuse. You are defaulting on your Christian duty if you go bearing tales to the pastor. The whole process Jesus outlines begins with you, at least at first. There’s a time to bring the pastor in later, if things go that far (and hopefully they don’t.)
Instead, Jesus says go talk to the person. Screw up your courage to the sticking point, say a prayer for the right words to say and a humble, patient attitude, double check your facts and your motivations, take a deep breath, and then go find them. Make the call or meet with them in person. Even if it’s awkward or hard to do – just do it.
Each of us not only has the ability and the duty to do what Jesus describes here, we also have His promises backing us up. We are all baptized Christians and we all share one Lord. We all confess one faith and we obey one Word. Nothing in all heaven or earth is stronger than Jesus’ promises to you here. You never walk alone into an awkward situation with another sinner. He will be with you when you go to talk to someone who’s sinned against you. The Father will do whatever you ask for as you’re trying to get through to your brother or sister. Whatever you feel you need, ask Him and He’ll give it. Put all your doubts and your fears and your urgent requests into His hands, and then go talk to that person confident that He will hear and He will help you.
You can know that what Jesus says is true because He lived for you, He died for you, and He rose from the dead and now reigns in heaven for you. He died to bring you back to God, and He lives to work out His good and gracious will among His wayward children here on earth – through us, as we apply His Word. Jesus knows how this whole process is supposed to work because He intercedes with us to the Father, and He still pleads for help and forgiveness for you every day. So don’t be alarmed if you find yourself in one of these situations. The Lord promises that we will judge the world; we will even judge angels! If He’s going to let us do that, then He can help us handle it when someone sins against us.
We’re usually willing to call someone out or to point out where someone’s wrong – but rarely to the face of that person who’s sinned against us. We’d sometimes rather not and we can usually think of a dozen good reasons not to – but that person hurt me so badly! But they won’t listen! I’m a sinner too! How can I tell someone they’re wrong? Doesn’t matter. Jesus still says to do it. He promises to give you the words to say, and He promises you that He is with you, and the Holy Spirit is with you to strengthen you and defend you. Just do it.
Jesus uses a neat word picture to describe what we hope for when we go talk to our brother. He says that you win your brother over – you could also say you profit them or you gain them by bringing them back to repentance. Everybody profits when the straying brother or sister repents and everyone is reunited in mutual love and forgiveness. This means that the person who sins against you in the church is valuable; they’re not a pair in your rear, or a problem, or headache (although they may be some of those things as well.) Even more than that, they’re valuable. That person is a treasured, precious soul for whom Christ died.
When you have as your goal to bring someone back, to bring them to a knowledge of their sin so they can repent and be restored, you go about things much differently than if you view the other person as a problem to fix or an enemy to beat or an infection to expel from the congregation. That’s not what Jesus is advocating here – although people do things similar to what Jesus describes here for the wrong reasons all the time. Church discipline is not the same as shunning, where some unfortunate soul runs afoul of the manmade rules of the group and they get cut off, ostracized totally. The other members of the group act like that person is dead. That’s not what Jesus means here.
The process Jesus outlines here is based on God’s Word; it’s done slowly and carefully, and with every hope of bringing the person back and restoring them to full unity in the church. It’s a good idea to repeat each step a number of times if it’s needed. We move on to the next step only when the one we’re on has been exhausted. I’ve had jobs as a cashier or in sales where the workers were supposed to clean up their work areas regularly. We were given checklists to make sure we did our job. Usually the workers would look at the dirt, swipe at it once or twice with the broom, and check the box – “that’s good enough.” That’s not how Jesus wants us to view His words here. This is not a checklist; it’s a starting point.
If this first step is effective, nothing further needs to be done. The matter is settled and everyone thanks God. However that doesn’t always take care of it, so Jesus gives us additional steps to follow if we need them.
Next, Jesus says to talk to the person again, this time taking one or two others along. These other people are not to help you gang up on the sinner; they’re there to help the sinner realize the severity of their sin. The presence of other people helps take the discussion out of the realm of “he said, she said.” It’s harder to deny what you say when other people are visibly backing you up. The others also serve as witnesses of what is said, and they can provide testimony if the third step is called for. Again, we’d hope that the offender realizes their sin and repents at this stage. That’s always the goal.
If the sinner still refuses to listen and they dig in their heels and resist admonition even more, then the next step might be called for. The matter is brought before the whole congregation and the sinner is solemnly warned yet again that if they persist in their course, they can kill off saving faith and drive out the Holy Spirit. They are on a course to put themselves outside the kingdom of God, and if they don’t change they won’t be Christians anymore. This is the last-ditch effort; the sinner is warned that they could be approaching a point of no return in their relationship with God. It makes your heart heavy just to think about what that must be like for a pastor and congregation to carry this out on one of their own number, yet sometimes strong medicine is needed to cure the disease. Discipline, whether parents with their children or a congregation with someone who refuses to repent, is never fun, but it’s the highest form of love for that straying person. This is what tough love looks like.
How can we possibly tell someone that they’re kicked out of the church? Where do we get the authority for that? Jesus tells us with the promises He makes in this gospel. These promises are solemn and very powerful and very broad, and they’re meant to be. The promises Jesus makes in these verses make our admonition of our brothers and sisters powerful and effective.
First, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” There are a number of things to note here. Jesus affirms that actions taken by the church on earth have eternal spiritual consequences. The sinner can’t just shrug off the warnings of the church by thinking, “That’s just you people – you’re a bunch of hypocrites, you don’t have any say over me.” Jesus says differently here. Whenever we pronounce someone bound in their sins because of impenitence, it’s as if it’s always been that way in heaven – as if it’s never been any different. That person stands bound in their sins before God at that very moment, according to Jesus’ word. Similarly, when the sinner realizes their sin, repents, and asks for forgiveness, we get to announce that their sins are all loosed and gone forever – it’s as if they never sinned. They’re reinstated in the church just as if they’d been faithful the whole time, as soon as forgiveness is pronounced. Imagine the joy that must go with that announcement of forgiveness! In either case, binding or loosing, what makes it effective is Jesus’ promise, not anything in the church herself. I said we announce that their sins are bound or forgiven, because that right and power belongs to the entire Christian church on earth. The pastor ordinarily exercises that right on behalf of the congregation, but the right to forgive or retain sins belongs to all Christians – not just pastors.
When we do the often difficult, thankless, frustrating work of confronting our straying brother or sister, we’re really doing what God did for us. The way Jesus teaches us to look at our brother or sister is the way He looks at us: valuable, precious, worth sacrificing for. Jesus thought we were worth working to bring back to God, even when we hated Him and resisted His will. Our brothers and sisters who may refuse to listen or who may be straying are no less valuable to Him. God keep us from ever having to carry this out here among us, but if we do, may He grant us the compassion and the fortitude we need to go after our straying brothers or sisters in the faith – may He help us show tough love for the sinner. Amen.