Sunday, September 7, 2014 | After Pentecost
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or 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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
She had been an elder for several years and had even chaired one of the committees. She never missed a Sunday morning service and was always there to teach the 4th and 5th grade Sunday school class promptly at 9:45 am. She knew and liked everybody and everybody knew and liked her. Except that new guy. She really didn’t like him. He’d been rude to her once or twice and didn’t seem to respect her authority as a teacher and elder.
She told the ladies in her bridge group about how rude he was and the trouble she’d had with him, but they all seemed to think that she should just keep quiet and try harder to get along with him. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps he didn’t realize he was offending her. She talked to her hairdresser about it and the hairdresser was very understanding. She’d met people like him too. They just don’t get it.
It was when he was nominated to serve on the session that she knew she couldn’t take it anymore. Over the next few months, her term in session ended, she didn’t return in the fall as a Sunday school teacher, and wasn’t seen on Sunday mornings very often any more. Pretty soon, a request came from another church to transfer her membership. Nobody really knew why she left. She just faded out and was gone.
Many of us have heard or even lived this story before. It’s not a new one. I purposely made this generic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of you could put names or faces to the characters. It’s a classic tale of a relationship going south and someone setting off to find greener pastures. In some cases, those greener pastures are another church, in some cases, those greener passages are TV or internet church, sometimes they are the philosophy of, “I can be a Christian without being part of a church.” Whatever the case, Jesus tells us in this passage of Matthew that avoidance – running away – is not the way to handle personal conflict. Perhaps if the protagonist in our story had only talked openly to the new guy, she would have found that he didn’t mean to hurt her or didn’t even realize he was doing it. Instead of searching for a creative and caring solution, she simply went somewhere he wasn’t.
The church isn’t just a voluntary club we come and go from as we please. It’s a fellowship of believers who are united in Christ. This is one of the many reasons we can’t grow as Christians if we are isolated from other Christians. “I am a Christian but I don’t go to a church” just doesn’t work. Who’s going to call us out on the areas in which we are stale or just flat out wrong and hurtful?
It hurts the whole body of Christ when one person sins against another – doesn’t matter if it’s a purposeful hurt or accidental.
I broke my toe a month or two ago. I wish I had a cool story about a sports injury or something , but in reality, it’s actually a pretty stupid story involving a misplaced brick. When I broke that little toe, though, my whole body felt it. My hands didn’t say, “Eh. It’s just a toe. We’re not toes, so it doesn’t matter.” My whole body said, “OW THAT HURT!” And my brain told my hands to go get some ice for the toe. My other toes all ached in sympathy. Other parts of my feet and legs had to work harder because the toe was injured and they had to make up for the way I was favoring the toe and limping. When we hurt a brother or sister in Christ, it’s not just a personal offence. It hurts the whole church.
In Matthew, we see Jesus laying out the foundations for what will become the church. He’s just been talking to the disciples about treating all people with respect and dignity – even little children. They were from a culture in which there was a very strict social structure. Women had a specific place in society, children had their place, gentiles had their place, Jews had theirs. We have these sorts of systems in our culture too, but it’s harder to see them in your own world than in someone else’s. But Jesus tells them to welcome the children. Take them seriously. They are important too. And then he goes on to tell them that they should never cause another person to stumble in their walk of faith. Don’t cause another person to sin.
In this passage, he addresses the issue one step further. . . “And if you happen to see another person sin. . . here’s how to handle it. Not causing another person to sin is important, but we’re not even supposed to sit by and watch while another person treats the people around them sinfully. Just like the “new guy” in the story I told, they might not even realize that what they are doing is hurtful or wrong. How are they to grow if nobody pulls them gently aside and tells them so? Oh, there will be people who don’t think what they are doing is wrong even after being pulled aside, or there might even be people who weren’t doing anything wrong who were pulled aside because another person misinterpreted something. But you’ll never know that without talking to the person.
My younger kids are 6 and 8, so one of their favorite pastimes is tattling on one another.
“MAAAAAAAAH-AAAAAAAHM!!!!!!!! She called me a stupidface!” “He started it! He was kicking me.” “Well, she wouldn’t share!” Generally, my response – and most of my mom friends would agree – is to tell them they need to try to work it out on their own. Tattling on each other isn’t going to help. And I can tell when they are purposefully trying to bait each other into getting into trouble.
Jesus is not telling the church here that they should tattle on each other. He’s saying to work it out together first if you can. The very first thing to do is to approach the person who offended you with honesty, humility, and grace. Be upfront about how you felt when they said or did whatever hurt you. Be willing to admit it was all just a misunderstanding. Extend the hand of forgiveness and love.
This isn’t an easy task and Jesus knows it. If this were an easy task, we would all start there all of the time and he never would have had to have this conversation with the disciples in the first place. But hard as it is, Jesus tells us it’s starting in this awkward place that will set the tone for healing and reconciliation in the relationship.
If that is truly fruitless, then get one or two other people involved as unbiased witnesses. Not a whole gang of people. Not the one or two people who you know are on your side. One or two people who have nothing invested emotionally in the situation. Sometimes, all it takes is another person who’s not caught up in the emotional heat of the situation to see things in a clearer light.
Usually, a situation mediated by a third party finds a peaceful resolution. The miscommunication has been cleared up or the sin has been addressed. But sometimes, there is a particularly stubborn sin or person and Jesus says in those cases, it’s time to get church leadership involved. And the purpose is not to get the person in trouble. It’s to help them grow. All through this process is the opportunity for growth. The goal is healing. The goal is wholeness in all relationships. If we are to grow as Christians – both individually and as a community – we have to be willing to help each other grow.
It’s interesting where Jesus takes this train of thought after bringing in witnesses and then church leaders. “If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Some people have interpreted this as meaning excommunication, but how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? He treated them the same way he demanded the disciples to treat little children, just a few verses back. “Let them come to me.” He says. Treat them with respect and kindness and love. Give grace. Pray for them. Don’t do anything that might cause them to sin. Jesus continued to teach and love the pagans and tax collectors, even when they clearly weren’t catching on very quickly.
This passage isn’t about how to follow the rules. It’s not a self-help essay on how to improve relationship dynamics. It’s not even an argument for excommunication. It’s about open communication with one another. It’s about maintaining a healthy church family. It’s about respect and grace and love.
The concern of this passage is not that the church rules will be followed to a T, but that there will be growth in the lives of the people in the church. This is delivered in the context of not causing another to sin, of treating all people, even children, with respect and dignity. Listen to your offender. Get witnesses. Have a process that is fair to all and looks out for the dignity of all the people involved.
Relationships are hard. Anyone here who is married can probably say honestly that they have worked to stay married. No friendship survives without making an effort to walk with each other honestly and work at it. The relationships we find in the context of church family are no different. If we are to be the Body of Christ, we’re going to have to consider the importance of relationships in the fellowship of the church and acknowledge that they are hard work.
We’re all in it together, friends! As we celebrate Communion today, let us remember that we partake in it together as a family: a family that has the privilege of being united through Christ and called to nurture one another in out faith. Even when it’s hard, we can the story around from one of loss and pain, of absence and searching to one of reconciliation and grace.