Sermon on "Church Discipline" (14th Sunday after Pentecost) - Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus doesn’t like headings. He doesn’t like the subtitles in our Bibles. These places we demarcate out that we say – This section is this, and this section is this. We break ‘em up, as Bernie Sanders would say. Breaking up the story. Breaking up the teachings. Never thinking that things in the scriptures go together for a reason, and when the authors and writers actually wrote things down, they organized them for our benefit, that we might actually know what is going on, rather than having a few fragments and hoping we have at least some of the story.
But we love headings and subheadings. You can find things easier. Things are marked for your eyes to follow on the page. But it makes it easier to proof text as well. To find that section, or that one passage, or even that one word that bolsters your point without actually reading the rest of the text.
What we have here this morning is that problem. The history of this Gospel reading is one that is interpreted without any Gospel. We look at it and what we use it for is to decide on judicial matters in the church. It is the passage a large percentage of churches use for what is called the doctrine of church discipline. The purging of sinners from the church. This could go so far as censure, meaning private and/or public rebuke, admonition or warning, to full-fledged excommunication. Discarding someone from church life. Banning them. Saying they don’t belong because of unrepentant sin. Which on the surfaces seems appropriate. We don’t want all of us unrepentant sinners running around in our midst. They might actually hear the Gospel and turn to Christ.
I want to tell you right now, looking at the history around this passage, the overwhelming force of interpretations, all those commentators and church fathers and mothers, are and were wrong. There I said it. I’m sure I may be in the minority, but I’m okay with that. I’m an introvert. I like being alone. So if you would bear with me, I am going to give you the world’s fastest Bible study in less than ten minutes.
The entire theme of Matthew 18 is forgiveness. It follows this whole pattern of talking about the least in the kingdom, those who stumble, and how to deal with sin. He begins with dealing with the question – who is the most awesome in the kingdom? Who is the best Jesus? I want to be the best.
Well, verse 3 - “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
That word, change, is the word for turn around, an image we use for repentance. Turning from this to that. Turning from wanting to be the greatest to being the least. Christ isn’t looking for superheroes, but children.
Then in verses 5-9, we have the proclamation to fight against sin. To fight against the ways we might stumble or cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. The little ones whom Christ calls believers. Cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes. It is better to go into life lame than into the eternal fire whole. This metaphor of seeing ourselves as these little ones, and that no sin or behavior is too insignificant to beware. Sounds a lot like our reading from Ezekiel. Being watchmen or sentinels on the wall. Keeping an eye on sin to save and protect.
Then we are told to be careful because our brothers and sisters, these least ones, these little ones have angels watching out for them and interceding before the father for them. And if one strays off, the Father is a seeking shepherd and will go find them to bring them back. He won’t cut his losses and say, oh well, dumb sheep. Hope the wolves and lions got you.
Usually we stop there, and take this next part as something completely separate, but Jesus doesn’t. Matthew doesn’t. They include a little word here in the Greek – de. Which means but or and. Usually but. And so it continues, “but if your brother might sin against you…” What follows is something we often hold as a procedure.
As human beings, we like law and order. We like things to follow a certain protocol. So we look at verses 15-20 and say – this is our courtroom practice. If your brother sins against you, be the adult and talk to him. Sounds good. We call that adulting. If he doesn’t listen, bring along some witnesses to your confrontation. If he still doesn’t listen, bring it to the pastor and the church. If he still doesn’t listen, he’s gone. Get rid of him. No more brother. Not worth your time. That is the interpretation held in the history of Christendom. We connect it to the Jewish synagogue model and see it as proper. And it may sound good, but it completely misses the mark where it sits in Matthew 18, especially when we miss a word.
The word we have is gain. If he/she listens, you have regained, or gained your brother/sister. The word also means, avoid losing. I like that, especially after following the previous section on God being a Shepherd who leaves the 99 and goes and finds the one that has strayed. The goal for this portion of text is to not give us a procedure, but to change our mindset. Avoid losing your brother or sister. Be the watchman. Call them back, go find them if they stray. Use the church not as a court, but a family to love and gather them home.
What gets in the way is that pesky phrase at the end – if they won’t listen to the church, treat them as a tax collector or Gentile. Some translations say – PAGAN! For centuries we have said, that means to disown them. Cut them off.
Well…What does Jesus have to say about Gentiles and tax collectors? Specifically, what does Matthew have to say about them?
First off, Matthew 9:9-13 – He finds Levi, or Matthew, whose recollection of the Gospel we have here before us and it says he found him at work, at the tax collectors table. Tax collectors were collaborators with the enemy. They were hired, some had to pay for the chance to do the work, to collect taxes to fund the army and the bureaucracy that was the Roman Empire. Taking money from their own people to pay for the conquering forces, and suppress revolts. Not exactly patriots for the cause.
But we read that all Jesus says is “Follow me,” and he does. Then this happens:
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Matthew 11:19 – Again He is called a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
Matthew 21:28-32 – “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (You being the religious folk) For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Matthew 22:15-22 Do business with the tax man. Give unto Caesar the thing that is Caesar’s and what is God’s, to God. Jesus loves the IRS apparently.
How about the Gentiles or pagans?
Matthew 4:12-16 – Christ called the light for the Gentiles
Matthew 12:18-21 – Christ called the voice of justice for the Gentiles and a name of hope for them.
Or look at the people, besides you and I, whom we can classify as Gentiles – The Magi or three wisemen. Probably not Jews.
Matthew 8:10-11 – The Centurion. A soldier of the occupying army who is tasked with keeping the peace, not a Jew – My servant or child is sick. But only say the word Jesus. Speak the word and they will be healed. And it was so. He is said to have greater faith than all of the people of Israel.
Matthew 8:28-34 - Gadarene demoniacs – Gentiles more than likely. Demon-possessed Gentiles in fact. Sounds like a B horror film. Jesus releases them from their demonic bondage.
Matthew 15:21-28 - Canaanite woman – Remember her? Even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Called one of great faith.
Matthew 27:54 - Another centurion and guards watching over Christ as he is crucified. He dies. The first confession after the death – Surely this was the Son of God. Not from a religious person. Not a Jew. A Gentile soldier representing the Empire.
Finally, The Great Commission – Matthew 28:19-20. Going, make disciples of…all nations. Of all Gentiles. Of all tax collectors.
Needless to say, if we are to treat our brothers and sisters who sin against us, or if we are to be treated if we sin against them, as tax collectors or Gentiles, what does that look like in the church? For Matthew? For Jesus?
Well, here is a novel concept…preach the Gospel. Preach to them. Preach to me. Speak the words of Christ. Bind the wounds. Bind up the sin by the cross of Jesus, and free us through words of forgiveness.
Do we need to repent of sin? Yes. Definitely. Do we need a watchman to call us from our slumber if sin is crouching at the door ready to pounce? Yes. Definitely. Even more, we need our sin forgiven. Pointing it out does nothing. Repentance does nothing. Forgiveness does everything.
Dr. James Nestigen tells this story of Pastor J.A. Aasgaard. Eau Claire, WI. 1925. A young woman from his congregation comes to him. He had performed her wedding some weeks before. She says, “Pastor, I need to talk to you.”
He saw distress in her eyes. She had something to confess. He says to her, “We have a service for that. It’s called private confession.”
So she comes to his office and kneels by his desk and begins to tell the story of being a nurse at the hospital. A doctor had become interested in her and she becomes pregnant. The doctor arranges for an abortion in the operating room at night, not exactly what she wanted but what he did, so they did. The relationship ended as the pregnancy did and she was left alone.
A young man in the congregation takes an interest in her. When he calls on her, she feels this pull to tell her story to him, but she can’t.
The courtship goes along and she felt she must tell her story, but she didn’t.
He proposed, she felt that she should tell her story, but didn’t.
They got married. She thought she should tell her story, but didn’t.
Now, she says, every time he touches me all I can think about is how I have betrayed him. She says, I want to die.
Pr. Aasgaard stood up, placed his hands on her head and said – In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sin.
She stood up, tears in her eyes and said – Now I suppose I must tell my husband the story.
Pr. Aasgaard said – What story?
Forgiveness. Plain and simple. Preaching the Gospel.
To know that every time you come with your sin. It is here that forgiveness is given out. If anyone should, I am one of many called to be the one to take it from you and give it to Jesus. To bind it to him. That is this call in Matthew 18. That is this description of the process.
If your Brother sins against you. Talk to him. If he listens, you have avoided losing him. If not bring some friends to help. If he doesn’t listen, bring him to the church for help. If he doesn’t listen…preach the Gospel to him. He has forgotten it. He needs to hear that Christ died for him. Died for that sin. Christ forgiven him. You and I need to hear it too. Preach to me too. Your pastor. Christ died for my sin too. For the sin of untold stories. Even if it is just the sin of reading this and thinking it is for only the tax collectors and pagans in our lives. No. It is there, for you, to hear the Gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.