“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” ~ Matthew 18:15-20
Grace mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is a joy and privilege to be with you during this Easter Season. Our text is Jesus’ instruction regarding broken relationships. How many here are dealing with broken relationships? We live in a world filled with broken relationships: broken marriages, broken families, broken friendships. It happens in our homes, our neighborhoods, our places of employment, and even in our congregations.
What happens in many of those situations when someone offends us? We quickly end the relationship, neglect the person, ignore them, say negative things about them to others. Some suggest if the relationship requires any effort, “if it is this difficult, it can’t be healthy, ” extra effort is wasted. We treat things in this world as treasures and people as though they are disposable. We use people and relationships for our own gratification, and when they no longer please us we walk away. It is the norm for the world and, since so many people function this way, we feel justified in treating others the same way we feel we are treated.
Our problem with relationships begins at an early age. It arises out of a conflict of desire. The child wants something that another child has. So the child does what it can to take the object of its desire away from the other child. But the other child resists, anger follows and the result is some form of assault. It is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is jealous of Abel, so he kills him. In his attempt to excuse himself he asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Feelings of resentment, contempt and jealously can run deep within our souls and result in actions that are assaults on others, actions such as theft, lying, murder, adultery and covetousness. It becomes our desire and will to injure another person and make them suffer loss or, even worse, to treat them as if they didn’t matter at all. The last seven commandments all deal with ways to avoid the brokenness that plagues us. Let’s not forget how deadly a weapon the tongue can be in assaulting or attacking others to their face or behind their backs. We can inflict wounds that last a lifetime.
We can only properly understand this text when we understand the value that God has placed on relationships. We were created to be in a relationship with God and with one another. Sin always corrupts and destroys those relationships. The witness of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is that God has never given up on restoring those relationships, through his covenants, his life-giving love and ultimately in giving his only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who gave his life on the cross to pay the price for our complete forgiveness. Through faith in Jesus and all that he accomplished for us, we are in a right relationship with both the Father and the Son. You matter infinitely to God! You are of infinite worth and value. This infinite God entered our world in Jesus Christ, and this same infinite Lord gave his life for you and me. He died the death we deserve to die so that we might live through faith in him. Jesus gave it all for this relationship with us.
From the very beginning God created us to live in community with others. He created Adam and Eve to live in community. He created marriage and family, a community as the fundamental building blocks of life. Jesus created community among his followers. The community Jesus modeled for His disciples is the same community the disciples modeled for the Church after Pentecost. This is the same community about which Jesus preaches and teaches, the same community that Paul and others insist that the churches of the New Testament have. The Bible tells us that, not only does our relationship with the Lord matter infinitely, but our relationships with others are to be just as important.
The preciousness of these relationships came at a very dear price for me. It was not until the death of our son Joshua that I realized relationships are all we have in this life: A relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ and relationships with the people He has given us to love and care for. That’s all there is in this life that is eternal. Everything else is dust and rust. Only our relationships with Jesus and the people with whom we share this faith and love will last eternally. Everything else is going to vanish. This is the nature of heaven, living and rejoicing eternally in those relationships.
Jesus was transforming the hearts and the worldview of his disciples. Jesus gave his disciples a Kingdom of Heaven worldview. He taught them about what truly matters in that Kingdom and he called them to begin to live in the reality of that Kingdom now! We cannot grow in our relationship with Christ unless we are also willing to permit him to transform our relationships as well. Every disciple of Jesus must live in the context of transformed relationships that reflect the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.
Listen to Paul’s instruction to the Church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:16-21): “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
If we are disciples of Jesus, then his mission of reconciliation must become our ministry. His reconciliation of our relationship with him must be manifest in our reconciliation with one anther, proclaiming our mutual reconciliation through Christ Jesus. Paul’s words are clear: Don’t treat people like the rest of the world. They are not just flesh and blood but spirit. They are spiritual beings. We are new creations in Christ and will treat people differently. We will treasure these relationships just as Jesus does, and we will work to restore them, investing our time and energy, our lives for the sake of this restoration.
These are the values that undergird this Gospel reading from Matthew 18. Let me point out several important things regarding Jesus’ instruction.
- First, the person who believes they were offended has the primary responsibility of initiating the reconciliation process. Why? Because the other person may not even be aware they have hurt you or harmed the relationship. Often we wait for the other person to come and apologize to us and are even more offended if they don’t make contact, when all along they had no idea. Be the first to go and meet with them because you value the relationship.
- Don’t expect that they will be eager to hear from you. In fact, you should expect that they will be resistant and defensive. Those are normal reactions when someone tells us that we have offended them. Equally important is to be ready when someone comes to you expressing their disappointment in you. As some of you know, I spent more than 34 years as a sports official in basketball, football and soccer. I learned some very important lessons for ministry. I have learned how to accept criticism. At first I was defensive, and at the beginning of my officiating career I was know as Mr. “T.” Lash out at me and you could be sure that I would lash out at you. Say anything negative about me and you could be sure a technical foul was coming. As I matured in my faith, I stopped and asked myself, what is the worst thing that could be said about me? I am a worthless sinner deserving death. That verdict has already been offered and accepted. Jesus agreed to handle my case and by his grace has paid the price. By accepting the worst possible judgment on my life I am free to let you add any other criticism or judgment; it can’t be worse than what I have already accepted. It is the absolute assurance of Jesus’ love that frees me for such honesty and transparency. As I dealt with irate coaches, instead of avoiding them I would get close, put my arm around them and say, ”Coach, what did you see?” (Value their perspective.) Then I would say, “If it happened the way you saw it, I must have missed it.” (Admit you could have made a mistake. Confess even if you are unsure.) I would follow up with a comment like this: “Coach, those young people need us both to do our jobs and I promise you I’ll give them my best.” (Point to the greater mission and focus for why we are here.) Once I adopted that methodology I never compromised a relationship with a coach, and we left the building as friends regardless of the final score.
- Jesus commands us to talk about the concern just between ourselves. We are not to gloat over their mistake or pretend to be self-righteous (as though we never make such mistakes). Talk about the problem privately, with a sense of love and respect, valuing the relationship. Most of the time the issue is resolved and the relationship is not only repaired, but even stronger. This is reconciliation at its best.
- However, there are some circumstances where the denial, anger, pain, sense of loss, guilt and fear run so deep that a person will reject the initial attempt to heal the relationship. The next step is to bring along one or two other people. These should be people who were direct witnesses, people who care about both of those involved. Bringing close friends who have only heard your side of the story and pre-judged the other person is not helpful and may only drive the other person further away. The witnesses should be aware that a first attempt was made to heal the relationship. We must understand that it is often difficult for people to accept a verdict that they have sinned. (Prison chaplains say the majority of people doing time contend that they are innocent.) Hearing a perspective from other people who also love and care about both individuals involved can help us to accept the truth and take the next step in moving forward. That is especially true when all involved value the relationship and long for it to be restored. This is also reconciliation at work.
- Occasionally, but rarely, there are those situations where the offense must become more public, when the elders of the church or church leaders must weigh in on the matter. This assumes that the offense is so egregious that it will have an effect on the community of faith. The motive must never be to control or engage in self-justification. The motive must still be Christian love and care. The purpose is still to restore the relationship through reconciliation. If the person listens to the advice of the elders, then the matter is settled. This is still reconciliation that points to the nature of relationships in Christ, in which there is mutual accountability and responsibility. (Paul’s description of the nature of the body of Christ in which all the parts or members are connected and mutually interdependent.)
- However, there are some occasions when all else fails and from that point onward the person is to be treated as someone who is no longer in the community. Jesus says they are to be treated as pagans and tax collectors. Now, I know this sounds harsh and cruel — it is certainly not the politically correct language of inclusivity and acceptance — but it is possible to put yourself in such a position that you are outside the support of a community of faith. You have refused the grace that the Body of Christ has to offer.
- There is one more perspective that we need to remember in interpreting this text. Jesus spent most of his time and energy reaching people who were on the outside looking in. He was criticized by many for reaching out to pagans, tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners. I believe Jesus is saying to us that, when a relationship in the church reaches this level, we need to start over again and help that person to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must be persistent in showing them the reconciling love of Jesus Christ, because it is clear that it did not sink in deeply the first time. Perhaps they came to Christ but remained immature in their faith. Perhaps no one discipled them so they never grew in their faith. We must never abandon or forsake anyone who is lost but instead pursue them with the same love that pursued and saved us!
The early Church used this formula for reconciliation. You see it in Paul’s handling of the man living with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5) and in Acts 15 in the Council meeting in Jerusalem, when a potential schism in the Church is prevented as Barnabas and Paul present a case for their ministry to the Church elders. In the other epistle there is plenty of evidence of the growing Church’s struggle to maintain the unity of the faith. To keep reconciled brothers and sisters at peace with one another requires patience, tenacity, courage, forgiveness, and unending love.
Friends, discipleship requires this kind of loving and caring Christian community in which there is love demonstrated in mutual accountability and responsibility. While the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible supply, it is love that is relational and demands the mutual nature of such a relationship, including the expectations of willing accountability and responsible behaviors. It is important to point out that Jesus’ teaching about the primacy of forgiveness surrounds the context of this passage.
Reconciliation can only be achieved if we are willing to forgive. If we are not willing to forgive, then we are not serious about Jesus’ teaching. Even in the Lord’s Prayer there is the conditional petition: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our failure to forgive not only interrupts the reconciliation process Jesus creates but it places us in jeopardy in our relationship with Jesus. Our failure to forgive others is evidence that we have not fully accepted our sin and Christ’s forgiveness in our own life. There are many people today suffering from diverse physical and emotional symptoms from which they cannot be cured, because their real disease is an unforgiving heart. Their bitterness has poisoned them. Their illness could very well be fatal. Only if they relent and forgive can they be cured. The good news is that through Christ this healing and reconciliation can be complete by his grace. Jesus has accomplished this for us in his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. It is ours to accept and embrace as we follow his teaching, living in his reconciling love in every relationship in our lives. So may it be for you and for this congregation.
In the name of our Risen Lord Jesus — Amen