Offering Grace in the Presence of Christ

Written by Joel on September 5th, 2011

Sep 4, 2011
Proper 18
Matthew 18:15-20

There was a fiery pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination, somewhat similar to ours, who had been growing inpatient with inactive members on the church rolls. He said to himself “I haven’t seen these people in all the years I’ve pastored here and the treasurer says they haven’t given as much so a dime to support the mission of the church in those many years.” So, one Sunday after church, armed with the denomination’s book of discipline in one hand and the congregation’s membership book in the other he went out to meet these inactive members. He knocked on the door and said “We haven’t seen you in so many years, and you haven’t given to the church. According to Matthew 18, I’m here to ask if you still want to be part of the church.” The inactive member looked back at him wide eyed and surprised, speechless. Then the pastor opened the membership book and had the member cross off their own name from the roll. As the pastor left he said “Now I’ll regard you as a pagan and a tax collector. Jesus loves you! Good day.” And down the street he went to find the next one.

A quick read of today’s Gospel might support the actions of the fiery pastor; some folks understand it as a step by step guide for how to excommunicate a member. But I hope to show us the grace in this text, and how Christ is present even in conflict.

To begin with, this is about a brother or a sister sinning against you. Brother or sister. Some translations simply put “member of the church,” but I can’t help but think this sacrifices the intimacy that is conveyed by brother or sister. Members of the Body of Christ, the church are not merely members of a social club, its a lot more like family. A church like St. Luke’s, County Line might better understand church as family, especially when for many of you church literally is family. Brother or sister… there is nothing quite like the close bond of love that exists between siblings; and there is nothing quite like the fierce fighting siblings are capable of. She took my toy, he stole my doll, she got a bigger brownie, he hit me, she hit me first…But as siblings grow older, conflict can become more serious. I don’t like that girlfriend of yours, you kept that secret from me, you don’t help out enough with mom and dad, we fight every time we see each other.

There are conflicts and fights, and if they aren’t reconciled they may turn to grudges and cutoff.

Conflict in the church may follow a similar path, and Jesus offers this way in the Gospel to avoid grudges and cutoff.

V15 Go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. This is that first step. It derails the process of grudge making. Holding grudges or being resentful only happens in your own heart, when a wrong is kept to yourself. There is real power simply in naming an offense “You have wronged me.”

If they listen to you. Did you hear that? If they listen to you, not if they admit their mistake, not if they say “I’m sorry.” If they so much as listen to you, you have won them over. Of course, that is hard to do – on both sides of the listening: The one speaking to express clearly what they are feeling in a non-judgmental, yet honest way. And it is hard to hear, someone accusing you of a wrong, to not offer rebuttal or defense but to first hear.

V16 To hear and to be heard. It’s hard to do, and why we are encouraged to bring witness to help the process if hearing can not take place between the two of you.

In the chaplain corp, one of my jobs was to help facilitate marriage enrichment retreat weekends. The biggest focus of the weekend was teaching listening skills to spouses. Couples were given practice sessions to try out the technique – I think one of the scenarios was where to go on a vacation. And some of them had trouble hearing and being heard. This is such a vitally important step. Solutions come later, but first one must listen to the other: “What you’re saying is,” “This is important to you because…” It is amazing how a third person can help this process when tempers are flaring.

Although, witness may carry the meaning of a trial. As if you have mounted a case against an individual, and you are presenting evidence about how this church member is a sinner and should be thrown out of the church! The Gospel does say, if they will not listen even to the church (or in other words the whole community…isn’t it interesting how sin affects more than just one person – it affects the whole community); if they will not listen to even the church treat them as a tax collector and a pagan.

Sin. This sermon is a whole lot easier to preach if we simply consider it as a lesson on interpersonal relationships and how it is important that we all get along as Christians. But, looking back at verse 15 – this is about finding a Christian brother or sister in sin (absolutely, it could be a sin against another Christian which would result in conflict; but what about sin generally?). Our pew Bibles, the NIV includes “against you.” But you may see the footnote that not all Greek manuscripts include this. The parallel of this text found in Luke reads more clearly: If a brother sins. It sounds more general; if you find a Christian who is sinning, this is how you address it. Now, that is a more difficult text. Interpersonal conflict is one thing, because at least there you can both work it out. But addressing someone else’s sin? We just don’t do that in our modern society. Mind your own business.

It’s kinda like that ABC show “What Would You Do?” with John Quinones. They set up a hidden camera in the public and set up situations in which some sort of injustice takes place and waits to see if people would speak up. For example they had one where a homeless drunk fell over on the sidewalk and the cameras rolled to see who would help.

This is a challenging text in our day when read this way: If you notice that one of your brothers or sisters is sinning, point it out to them. It’s kinda like a spiritual “What Would You Do?” What Would You Do if you saw a brother or sister church member pinching money from the cash drawer at work? What would you do if a brother or sister member of the church suggested that you needed to sit down and talk because they needed to point out some way you are erring in the Christian faith. Could we do that well?

It demands a closer kind of relationship – it sure is different to hear correction from someone you trust than from a stranger. And you point these kinds of things out only to people you truly care about, like brothers and sisters.

Verse 17 – casting someone out of the church is not the goal, and I would say it is not even meant as punishment. This is really about grace. This section on dealing with conflict or sin within the church comes immediately after the parable of the Lost Sheep. If a shepherd of 100 sheep realizes that one is missing, he leaves the 99 to save the one. That is the goal of our Gospel today – offering grace. As a community we have a responsibility, that if a sheep is missing – go find that sheep! Keeping silent on sin, is saying without words – I don’t care if you find your way back. We do not address conflict to breed more conflict, nor to find someone to blame or to punish. We address sin and conflict within the church because it is harmful and has real consequences. If Christians start on the Matthew 18 process with the goal of casting folks out of the community, they have already missed the point of this passage. At all steps, through the whole process it is about regaining that lost sheep; re-offering grace. Immediately after this instruction Peter asks “how many times ought I forgive?” 77! Forgive 77 times! Church discipline is about grace.

Even still, if this process runs its whole course – a brother won’t listen to you, won’t listen to you with witness, a brother won’t listen to the church then treat him as a pagan or a tax collector. I can’t help but think Jesus says this rather tongue in cheek. How does Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? With grace and forgiveness. He teaches them, heals them, and even called a tax collector to be a disciple! Yes there are times when church members sin, when we need to show them the way; there are times when members are negligent in their duties and we need to show them the way; and there are times when they won’t hear it. So we treat them as pagans and tax collectors: with grace, humility, and always the standing offer to be part of the community.

Following this instruction, Jesus speaks about his presence, in what may be a rather familiar verse to you: Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them. Does it surprise you to discover that this verse is not found in a section about prayer or worship, but instead it is found at the end of a section on dealing with sin in the church? Could Jesus be present in church conflict? Two or three. I am there with those two Christians who are fighting; I am there with those two Christians who may have trouble hearing each other; I am there with the three Christians who come together to disciple the erring member. Where-ever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am.

If a brother or sister sins, offer them grace in the presence of Christ.


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