Posted on Sun, Sep 7, 2014
September 7, 2014
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 18:15-20
Reproving Another Who Sins
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This text seems to smell like a courtroom. There seems to be interrogation and prosecution. But if you look closely, the text is not about separating people from the church, and leaving people unforgiven for eternity, but the point and purpose are exactly the opposite. It is about ‘regaining’ the lost, and trusting in the authority of Jesus to maintain the community of God, called ‘The Church.’
The language and pattern of dealing with those who have ‘become lost in their spiritual journey’ has been around long before the book of Matthew was written. Even in the time of the Qumran community, there was this same language regarding what to do ‘if a brother or sister sins.’ There is the same language in great detail written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19 and others. The Essenes at Qumran community strove very hard to live in complete harmony according to the laws pertaining to priesthood. People with moral or physical “blemishes” were to be excluded. It was thought that impurities and disabilities would offend the holy guardian angels of the community. Jesus took this practice and turned it on its head by healing those who were thought to be “impure” and rather than look for ways to separate the “holy” from the apparently “unholy,” Jesus went to the extreme measure of giving his life for those thought, “unforgiveable.”
But regarding the process of dealing with differences between people in the church, or leading people back into a life “in the discipline” of walking with Jesus, you can see how the gift of confession and forgiveness are central. There were stages the offended person had to go through, but the process was not done so that the person’s guilt was laid out for all to see and so that the community, or some leaders, could expel them. The process was made so that the person would have a chance to “purge him or herself,” or purify themselves of evil thoughts and stay clean… this process is what we call “confession.” For the people like the Essenes in Qumran, or similar religious communities before the time of Jesus, the effort was made so that the person would have some way to purify him or herself and stay in the community. They didn’t have a Savior, to confess to, they only had “procedures” for purification.
Matthew recognizes the need for need to safeguard the integrity of the community as well.
18:8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
What Jesus, through Matthew, is simply saying is that we are to acknowledge and remove and through the gift of God’s reconciling grace, identify and remove anything that causes us to stumble in our daily walk with Jesus. But from between verses18:8-9 and today’s text there is a fresh message of God’s faithfulness and graciousness as the Good Shepherd. Before this passage Jesus speaks of the one lost sheep in 18:12-14 and after it he talks about the unmerciful servant 18:23-35. Both stories make it clear how far God will go to save a “lost little one,” and how far God will go to forgive; thus giving clear understanding to the expectations of the church and its leaders on how far we are to go to bring back the lost and welcome them back into the community. We are called to look for the lost sheep and proclaim forgiveness. This is the task of our church and church leadership!
The text is directed at leaders, but the word ‘leader’ is not used. But it describes how the “Spirit of the Shepherd” is to be implemented when one of the brother or sisters stumbles and begins to ‘fall out of the community.’ If somebody begins to ‘fall’ out of the community, the leaders need to be ready to reach out, catch and hold, rather than to throw or push a person away from the community of believers. Isn’t this the way it should be, when somebody falls? People fall because they have either lost sight of the path they know they should be walking on, or they were totally blind-sided, and now they are misdirected. Rather than just blaming, persecuting them and then just pushing or throwing them out of the community, we are called to go the person, listen to them, hold them and gently, mercifully lead them back home.
According to the text, it is a three-fold process. 1) Privately you go to the person and talk to the person. If there is a problem, for example a mistake that was made, there was a misunderstanding (“I heard from so and so that so and so said or did such and such!”), or there was a tragedy in the persons’ life that kept them away from the church for what ever reason, there needs to be a time of open and honest communication. I.e., go and talk the person… one on one, in private, with words of love. If the person listens, (healing oftentimes comes through listening), you have repaired a bond and restored wholeness to the individuals or even the entire community. 2) If the person is stubborn, then we do the process again with two other witnesses. (This is a common practice in many cultures) If this doesn’t work, 3) then we take the matter to “the church.” We take the issue before the entire membership. This could include the need for the church to do some self-examination and re-evaluation… for example, has the church not been welcoming in some way? And individuals no longer feel welcome? Sometimes an entire church, or even denomination needs to confess their sins and rely on the grace of God to be “Re-Created.” Do you see the nuance here? The word “Church” in Greek is “ekklesia,” and is not used in any other Gospel. The church, and Matthew is talking about the Post Pentecost Church, is the Body of Christ created after Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. The entire Body of Christ is called together to help this one lost sheep, this little one. Matthew has great concern for the life of the Post-Easter Christian Community.
But even if this doesn’t work Matthew says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus, or Matthew isn’t telling the church to call people names and avoid and revile them as “sinners.” We need to think about what Jesus did to the “Gentiles and tax collectors,” Even though they were considered as “sinners and impure” by the Jewish authorities, Jesus went to them, healed them, accepted them, and like a good shepherd Jesus lead them back to God. Being called a “Gentile or tax-collector” meant that they were not walking ‘in relationship’ with God. They were not walking ‘in Shalom’ with God. It is a statement of fact, when a person is lost in sin, or addiction, or they just don’t understand, doesn’t mean they are to be rejected, thrown out, or pushed out, it means the Body of Christ is to be just that, a “Body of Christ,” living in faith and full of mercy and forgiveness.
And through all of this, even though Matthew sneaks the word “church” into his Gospel, there is not one word about leaders, officers, pastors, or bishops? It is obvious that Matthew is addressing them, but in this text the message is for the entire Body of Christ.
Jesus is talking about a very powerful thing! Even the Elders spoke about the importance of Forgiveness if we are to have peace and stability in this world. Freedom, healing, hope and peace are all given to us through the gift of forgiveness. To know you have the power to forgive someone, and to hold back on offering forgiveness is the problem. To know you have the ability to serve, and do nothing is the problem. If the message is for the leaders, it is for them to be diligent is preaching with boldness and authority, the grace and mercy of God made known through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus turned the world on its head, when Jesus offered unconditional grace and mercy, therefore we know through Christ. Therefore, Jesus is giving us an approach to healing relationships and making people new again. All people are called to Come and See the Glory of God, come and be filled and restored. All people need to know they are welcome to come through these doors to be nurtured, listened to, and redirected if necessary, by the People of God.
Unlike the Essenes of Qumran, this isn’t something that is driven by human efforts. Forgiveness and the restoration of relationships is a God-Thing. That is why we gather, confess, receive absolution and worship around an empty cross. And we need to remember that the example of humble confession and receiving reconciliaiton affects the people of our homes, neighborhoods, community and even the world, but more than that, even heaven is affected. When one people comes to faith, even the angels of heaven jump for joy.
Reconciliation has a peculiar and powerful force that can restore life and joy. Hatred has terrible power to divide, disrupt, and destroy. Reconciliation, and loving community, are much more powerful, because it is the place where hope resides, even in the most desperate of situations. And today’s text makes it very clear that the work of the church, in providing a means of forgiveness and reconciliation begins with two people and can also heal a nation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu made that very clear.
The lost hearts that we can bind and heal on earth will sadly be bound for a lifetime until Jesus alone sets them free. The relationships that we heal on earth offer a lifetime of freedom and joy, and the heavens will even rejoice. The love that God has bound to us through the Cross and the Holy Spirit holds us to the joy and mercy of Jesus every moment of our lives. Every moment we have been given is a gift, every person we have met is a blessing. We have been forgiven by Christ, go ahead and forgive. Let loose of those things that cause pain and be free. Amen.
“And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)
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