September 7, 2014 - Matthew 18.15-20

“Genuine Community”

Matthew 18.15–20

September 7, 2014


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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Today’s text.  Imagine if our text read the way that we actually handle these type of problems:

If your brother (or sister) sins against you, phone her and tell her that she sinned.  If she listens to you, you have gained your sister (or brother) and also some useful evidence just in case you need it.  If he or she does not listen, if it is a small matter, then take your problem to your golf buddies and gripe or to your coffee klatch and gossip about them.  If it is a substantial sin involving money or material goods, then take two or three lawyers with you and sue them, making sure they get all the evidence they need.  If the sin is especially scandalous, then use the lawyers to try to arrange a substantial monetary settlement.  If the person is not won over at that, then sell the story to the highest bidder, write a book, appear on Jerry Springer, and get rich as a result of your personal pain. Truly I tell you, whatever is broadcasted on earth shall be broadcast in reruns and the residuals shall pay nice dividends for years to come.

Sometimes, in encountering a biblical text, our difficulty is in understanding the meaning of a text. We must delve into the original context. We must try to figure out its originating setting. With our texts, our difficulty is related more to our present context than to the shape of the particular text. Our present situation makes it hard for us to hear what the text so clearly demands. I expect that is the case with this Sunday's gospel.

I suspect that the major impediment to interpreting today's gospel is our cultural propensity to see all sin as a purely personal, exclusively individual matter something that you did to me. Thus, Matthew 18's countertendency to make sin a radically public matter strikes against our inclination. Here is a gospel that takes sin seriously as an attack upon the body. Sin must not be allowed to fester, to go unchallenged. It must be confronted, in public if necessary, before the church, but then it must be forgiven.

No, perhaps an even greater impediment to our understanding of Matthew 18 is our cultural inclination to treat sin as unimportant. "Forgive and forget," we say, with the emphasis on the forgetting. In fact, even to mention the possibility of sin is in bad taste.

Above all, let us note that the goal of all this discussion of church discipline is restoration of the offending person. Because our sin is serious, because our call to Christian community is a divine imperative, we dare not overlook the need for the church to have those means whereby we deal with sin in a Christ like way honestly, courageous, compassionately, forgivingly in the same manner as Christ has dealt with each of us, sinners. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Mt 18:20).

Aristotle developed a system of ethics around the virtue of friendship. For this great Greek, a good person was inconceivable apart from good friends. Only a friend knows when to press and when to hold back. Only a friend has the right to hurt you. And truth-telling is inherently painful.

There was an ethics course taught at a university in North Carolina a few years ago. At the beginning of the course, the professor laid a bit of Aristotle on them, told them as I have been telling you, of the link that Aristotle makes between friendship and ethics.

During the course, students presented case studies of some ethical dilemma in which they were involved. They had to tell what happened, how they responded, and then the group analyzed their response.

At the end of the semester, the professor shared with the students what they had taught him during the course. He noted that, in their case studies, when they were explaining why they avoided responding to some situation in which a friend was engaging in self-destructive or hurtful behavior say, a friend was dealing in drugs, or driving drunk, or cheating on an exam their primary justification for their lack of intervention was, "He was my best friend. Who am I to judge? I feared if I said anything, she would get mad and never speak to me again, and so on."

Here is what the professor said to them,

"You people give friendship a bad name. Maybe Aristotle was wrong. I find it interesting that whereas Aristotle made friendship the basis for ethics, you make friendship the excuse for immoral behavior. Let me just say this. Please, don't any of you be my best friend. I am too dependent on somebody who cares enough about me to say, "Now that was not one of your better moments, was it?" or "What the heck were you thinking when you . . . ?" or "There, you've messed up again." I don't need any of you to aid my self-deceit. Please, don't be my friend."[1]

Who am I to judge? Your friend, that's who. Too often, in many of our relationships, we say things like, "Who am I to judge?" when what we really mean is "I'll promise to stay out of your life, stand by quietly as you plummet into oblivion if you in turn promise to stay out of my life. We'll call that 'friendship.' "

Jesus gives the church a means of maintaining a truthful, and therefore faithful community. By his grace, we are given the authority and the grace to tell the truth to one another, to receive the truth from one another, in order that the unity of the community might be maintained. Sin severs the body of Christ. Therefore, in the body, sin must be named, confronted, truth must be risked and told, in order that we might be reconciled to our sisters and brothers.

But what about Matthew 7.1-5?  Doesn’t it say not to judge?  Yes Jesus does say that.

If you walk into my study with an apple on your head, is it judgmental for me to say to you, “Um…you have an apple on your head?”  No.  Being judgmental is when I draw a conclusion about that, such as “you clearly have an improper relationship with fruit,” or make that fact part of my sinful gossip.  That is being judgmental.

I think this helps explain why what we often call "community" -  the "motorcycle community," the "gay community," the "business community" - is fairly thin stuff. There can be no community worthy of the name, no connection that's deep, no friendship without truthfulness. And there can be no truthfulness without judgment, without that risky, sometimes painful willingness to confront. Judgment, the assignment of right and wrong, the acknowledgment of genuine injustice, the naming of real hurt, the telling of truth, can be an act of deepest love. I love the truth enough to tell it. I love you enough to risk it.

It can also be an act of deepest faith. Is Jesus Christ, the one who not only tells the truth about our sin but also in the same breath forgives our sin, is Jesus Christ capable of producing a new people, a reformed humanity, a new people called church, or not? If in calling sin a sin, you are willing to forgive that sin with the very same breath, then we are acting as a community.

Do you know what the most loving thing is that any church member has ever said to me?  “Preacher, did you make it to the gym this week?”  The person understands my sin, and yet is not judging me in any negative way, but is encouraging me to keep the apple off my head.

There is one thing about Christianity that can be hard for us to embrace.  Have you ever noticed that the offended person or the community is to take the initiative?  It’s kind of unfair, but there it is.  In some cases, the offender may be unaware of the offense.  When we are sinned against, we are to go to the other person.  We are to be honest and vulnerable.

One of my favorite Baptists is Dr. Molly Marshall.  She’s now the President of Central Seminary in Shawnee, KS.  She taught me theology at Southern Seminary, and then again at Central.  When I was visiting Central Seminary, back when it was in Kansas City, KS, in order to begin my second trek through Seminary, I was walking across the quad to go to the Library.  Dr. Marshall came out of the Library and saw me from a long way off.  She called to me, “Allen!  Hey buddy!”  I was flattered that she recognized me!  Dr. Marshall is one of the smartest people in the world, easily the greatest theological mind that Baptists in America have ever produced.  I mentally prepared myself to talk to her as I made my way across the quad to talk to her.  “Don’t say anything stupid, Allen,” I told myself.  “Use big words – act smart – and don’t say anything stupid.”  Dr. Marshall’s vocabulary is legendary.

So I prepared myself.  “She’s going to say something profound; something theological, or eschatological or existentially ontological or something.  Be ready to respond like someone who knows something.”  I told myself this over and over.  She threw her arms open to give me a hug and I said “Hello Dr. Marshall.  How are you?”

“Allen, buddy,” she said quietly into my ear as she hugged me, “your zipper’s down.”

Now if I had reacted like this was a church conversation, like so many church people do, I would have stormed off.  Or, I could have bristled at her observation and taken it as an insult or become offended.  That’s often the kind of stuff that church people do.  So what did I do? (Ziiiip)  That’s what I did because she was right.  My zipper was down, and she did not want me to go around introducing myself to my prospective professors with my barn door wide open.  She did it because she cared for me.

This is what church discipline should be like.  We are telling the truth in the hopes of making us better disciples of Jesus.

Note that the goal of all this truth-telling and truth-receiving is to gain a "sister" or "brother" (v. 15). The easiest thing, in the face of offense, is to say and do nothing, to remain estranged strangers, to lick the wound, to curl all up in yourself, to cherish the hurt, to absorb the injustice, to say “you stay in your own life and stay out of mine.” But faithfully to do what Jesus commands, to risk the truth, to say, in effect, " 'In the name of Jesus the one who is the way, the truth, and the life,' I care about you enough to confront you, to tell you the truth that no one else cares enough to tell you."

How can we say to a world that is lost, “Jesus stands ready to forgive you of your sins,” when we will not even forgive each other in the church?  How can the world believe in Grace, if we refuse to offer it to each other?  How can they understand grace if all they see in the church is ungrace?  Our little squabbles that we have, over this and that, most of them are petty and but we allow them to continue and fester within us precisely because we don’t seem them for what they are.  They are serious.  They are a form of spiritual cancer.  If that doesn’t get us to think of them seriously, consider this:  these petty squabbles are the exact reason many people never step foot into a church, that many are convinced that the church is a fraud, and the reason many might never know Jesus.  We can’t believe in forgiveness if we can’t live forgiveness, and neither can anyone else.

We simply must forgive each other.  This is true for the whole church of Christ, but it is also true for us in THIS church.  We simply must forgive each other.  For what?  For everything.  For whatever.  Any grudge or conflict or problem that exists must be dealt with in a healthy manner or it will resolve itself in an unhealthy manner.  Forgiveness – Grace – is the only way to coexist. 

In 1994, Alvin Straight of Laurens, Iowa, found out that his brother Lyle had suffered a stroke and did not have long to live.  Lyle lived in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.  Alvin’s problem was that he was 73, legally blind and not allowed to drive.  He was too ornery to suffer through another person’s driving.  He could walk only with the aid of 2 canes.  But not only did several hundred miles separate him from his brother, a decade of anger and silence separated them as well.  Alvin knew that it was time to forgive his brother and to ask forgiveness from his brother.  So, Alvin hitched a small covered trailer to the back of his John Deere riding Lawn Mower and drove all the way to Wisconsin to see his brother.

It is a true story that was retold in the 1999 movie, The Straight Story with Richard Farnsworth.  In the movie’s final scene, Alvin pulls his lawn mower and trailer into his brother’s place.  He calls out for his brother Lyle.  Lyle comes out his front door, with a face covered by a mask of hate, ready to rip into his brother.  But when he sees the lawn mower, he knows.  He knows that his brother drove hundreds of miles across the entire state of Iowa, on a lawn mower, to come see him.  He knows that no person could have done that if he had come to argue.  He knows that no person could have done that if he wasn’t ready to be forgiven and to forgive.  The mask of hate melted away, and was replaced by a man that had just been forgiven.

That is the power of grace.



[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, September 4, 2005.

  December 2017  
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