Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20
“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.” – Matthew 18:15
In our day and age, discipline is an unpopular word. And I don’t mean the kind of discipline that it takes to be a professional athlete, I mean the kind of discipline that we received at the hands of our parents when we made a mistake, the discipline we received at school for making bad decisions. There just seems to be a severe lack of discipline in the world – children often get away with much more than they ever have (not entirely a bad thing!), people subject to discipline will raise a cry foul on social media, and voices of hate and intolerance go unpunished by elected officials. Discipline is and never was comfortable: it is being subjected to an authority outside of ourselves but it seems that more and more in our day and age people bristle at the mention of discipline or obedience.
The church isn’t much better. I am sure that each of you can think of bad behaviour that has gone unpunished in the life of the church, even though we don’t want to admit it probably in this church too. Whether it is inappropriate comments, financial mismanagement, gossiping, hateful beliefs or speech, physical/verbal/sexual abuse or any other number of sins that go unpunished for fear of discipline – the church is unfortunately often just as broken as the world from the leaders to the average member. The church should be better though right? We believe in a loving, merciful and just God, we follow Jesus who called us to love our neighbour and our enemies alike. There was probably a time where each of us believed that the church should be better – perhaps when we first came to believe, or when we took ownership of our faith in adulthood. Unfortunately, we likely have all had our rose coloured glasses shattered at this point. Sin happens in the church, it divides and damages.
In this mess of brokenness and sin it would seem that Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading today provide us a way forward. Just prior to our passage this morning Jesus has been talking to the disciples about the dangers of being tempted to sin, and it seems that his words are designed as pre-emptive instructions for the community that will develop around the disciples. Jesus lays out a progressive approach to dealing with the sins of the church.
Step 1: Go to the person who sinned against you, point out their fault – if they listen you have regained a brother or sister
Step 2: If they don’t listen, bring one or two others to act as witnesses and seek to convince the sinner.
Step 3: If they still don’t listen, bring them before the church to see if they will listen to reason and wisdom of the community
Step 4: If they still don’t listen, treat them like a Gentile and a tax collector.
There you are. The foolproof, straightforward answer to how to deal with sin in the church. For some churches this process is practically like reading Miranda rights at an arrest – if you follow the process to the letter, then you seemingly have every right to sever ties with the offender and effectively kick them out of the church. After all, in ancient Israel, Gentiles and tax collectors were unwelcome, you would be ritually defiled if you associated with them. Calling someone a Gentile or a tax collector would be like calling someone a bum, a vagrant or some other far more unsavoury term. On a superficial reading of the text we can be given the impression that these verses provide us a simple set of steps that if followed, you will know when you may be finished with the need to forgive or pray for a certain person.
But as much as we might want to have foolproof way of dealing with sin in the church that allows us to wash our hands of the offenders, everything that Jesus says surrounding these verses points to an entirely different reality. Immediately before these verses Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep – revealing that God knows no bounds in seeking out the lost and those who stray; immediately following our passage Peter asks rather smugly whether he should forgive up to 7 times and Jesus answers not 7 times but seventy times 7 (implying infinite forgiveness), and then Jesus launches into a strong parable about the need to forgive and not be unmerciful.
And so when we read this passage, and we read these words of Jesus we must remember the context of his words, and we must remember who was saying them. Calling someone a Gentile or tax collector might have been an insult coming out of someone else’s mouth, but this is Jesus. Throughout his entire ministry Jesus sought out the company of Gentiles and tax collectors. He warmly welcomed them into his fellowship and loved them.
If you take this into account, and you include the surrounding teaching of Jesus it is clear that Jesus is not laying out a plan for how to excommunicate sinners but is laying out the shape of the church around forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus does not ignore that sin breaks community – he clearly recognizes that. That is why the offender is to become like a Gentile and tax collector. Through their obstinacy they have lost their place as part of the community because they have broken the bonds of love which bind the church together. But just because they have removed themselves from community, that does not give the church the license to stop loving them, to stop seeking reconciliation. Jesus after all began his ministry by reaching out to Gentiles and tax collectors, at every turn he was seeking to reconcile sinners to God. His very life and death upon the cross point to this reality – Jesus sought reconciliation between sinful humanity and God no matter the cost. And his church is called to do the same.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus’ declaration to Peter that the church is to be the place where God’s forgiveness of the world is experienced. Today we hear the same truth. Whatever sins the church binds on earth are bound in heaven, whatever sins the church looses on earth are loosed in heaven. It is a weighty task, and it is a task we as the Church must undertake with reconciliation always as the ultimate goal.
And so what does that mean for our life as Grace Church? Primarily it means two things: Firstly we must be ready and willing to confront the sins we encounter in our community – the acts, the words, the attitudes which tear down community – and we must be ready and willing to recognize and seek forgiveness when we are at fault. Secondly, and more importantly, we must be ready and willing to forgive, we must be ready willing to love even the most unrepentant sinner seeking reconciliation at every turn. Is there someone who has hurt you? Someone who you just won’t speak to at the church? Someone who’s sin has broken down the bonds of love and affection that bind this community together? Seek them out, love them, seek to understand them and ultimately seek reconciliation with them. That is what Jesus’ asks of us his church, may we be up to the task.
Let us pray.