The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. Matthew 18:15-20
Proper 18, 04 September 2011
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In an interview, best-selling novelist John Grisham recalls:
One of my best friends in college died when he was 25, just a few years after we had finished Mississippi State University. I was in law school, and he called me one day and wanted to get together. So we had lunch, and he told me he had terminal cancer.
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him, “What do you do when you realize you are about to die?”
He said, “It’s real simple. You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else.” Then he said, “You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live.”
Mr. Grisham concluded, “That left an impression on me.”
Few things impart more wisdom than to face up to the fact that we will all die sooner or later. For many Americans, the reality fragility of life and the uncertainty when it will end, was driven home ten years ago on September 11th. For others of us, personal sadness and tragedy teach us the same thing.
Next Sunday, we will pause to continue to pray for our leaders, our nation, and our world.
When death looks us in the eyes, things get very simple. Grisham’s friend said, “You get things right with God,” and he’s off to a good start. The way we get right with God is through Jesus. God has made things right between Himself and us. Our relationship is restored to how God intended in Eden, a preview of what awaits us in the New Heaven and Earth.
Jesus takes reconciliation a step further. Since we have been reconciled with God, He prepares us to reconcile with one another.
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.
How many people are involved? Two. You and the person who sinned against you. You are not to gossip about the matter. You aren’t to decry them around their backs. This also rules out nasty phone calls where your derision and disdain for them pours forth. You aren’t to hold a grudge for 20 years. You are to go to them, one on one and discuss the matter. Be patient. Be tactful. Be considerate. Share the truth in love, and confront them with the law and the reality of their sin. But don’t be surprised if they don’t take your word for it.
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.
Now and only now, after you’ve tried clearing it up just between the two of you, do you involve other people. Ask some Christian friends to go with you. Ask them to pray for the situation—that you will have the right words, that they will come to repentance, and that the issue will be resolved quickly. But that doesn’t always happen.
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.
Matthew 18 outlines what is known as church discipline, culminating in excommunication.
A pastor (Tony Evans) once wrote about the time his younger brother rebelled against their father.
He didn’t like my father’s rules…Now little brother was the Maryland state wrestling champion in the unlimited weight class. At 250 pounds, he was big and strong…
My father told him to do something. I don’t remember what it was, but my brother didn’t think he should have to do it. So he frowned, shook his head, and said, “No!”
Dad said, “Oh yes!”
Little brother said, “No!”
My father…took him upstairs, and helped him pack his suitcase. My brother jumped [up] and said, “Yeah, I’m leaving. I don’t have to take this!”
And he walked out of the house. But he forgot a few things. He forgot that he didn’t have a job. He forgot that it was snowing outside. He forgot he didn’t have a car…
So twenty minutes later…knock, knock! Brother was at the door wanting him to come home. My father delivered him to the elements that he might be taught respect…
So it is with those who come under church discipline. Like the little brother, a person coming under church discipline may be big and powerful in their own eyes, or even in the eyes of the congregation—actively involved, regularly serving, perhaps even in a position of leadership or responsibility. The most important thing they have in common with the younger brother is the word, “No.” Our Heavenly Father has laid down his rules for His household. When a person says, “No,” it is up to a congregation and pastor to be faithful, even if it means excommunication.
Church discipline is not a pleasant business. Nor is it fun for the person being disciplined or the congregation and pastor forced to impose the discipline. It is simply being faithful to the Word of God and the specific Gospel appointed for today.
Sometimes we’re afraid of following Matthew 18, of using the law, church discipline, even excommunication. “Isn’t it unloving? Isn’t it insensitive? It certainly isn’t Christian!” some say. Such statements have a point if the motivation is wrong. If the motivation is just to get what is considered “dead wood” off the rolls, then it would be unloving and insensitive. If the motivation is ultimate restoration, as our Lord intends, and as the father in the story intended, then comments about church discipline being supposedly unchristian are naive, misplaced, and ignorant of this Scripture and Jesus’ use of the law.
What is the purpose of the law? It is to show our sin. Consider the Ten Commandments. They are excellent to help you prepare for confession. Sex, power, money, popularity, and false idols can be “gods” in place of the true God. Using God’s name as a curse word or to lie under oath break the second commandment. Claiming that you are too tired to get up on Sunday or that your kid didn’t want to come to Sunday School or that you were too busy all show, bottom line, that you despise the Word of God and the Lord’s Day. God is not mocked. Think about the other seven commandments. They hit us where it hurts. Do they not clearly show you your sin? Do they not condemn youth disrespecting parents?
Think about all that the law reveals as sin: lying, stealing, premarital, homosexual, or extramarital sex, holding grudges, speaking poorly of your neighbor, living together outside of marriage, hating someone else, coveting, telling white lies or half-truths, coveting, disrespecting the government, verbal, physical, or psychological abuse, etc.
Sin is ugly. It needs to be exposed to the light. God’s law accomplishes that. The law exposes sin so that it can be dealt with. Sins need to be confessed. There is only one solution—the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and then with one another. The whole purpose of Matthew 18, of the law, of church discipline is to bring the person to the realization of the seriousness of the situation so that they will confess and be forgiven.
As Jesus told the woman caught in the very act of adultery, whom He had forgiven, “Go and sin no more.” Sinful habits must end. Sinful situations must be abandoned. Go and sin no more. Reconciliation is the goal. Reconciliation is the goal, the ultimate purpose of excommunication. One is driven away to that their faith may be reawakened, that they come to their senses and be restored to the fellowship, to the body of Christ.
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."
This section refers again to the office of the keys, which we heard about two weeks ago. Christ gives the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. This is not something to be doubted, but according to Christ’s promise, that by the pastor’s words, sins are forgiven (or bound) before God in heaven.
Consider the rest of this section of Matthew 18. “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.”
Of course, a standard Biblical understanding of prayer is assumed here. We can ask for nothing contrary to the Word, contrary to God’s will. And we pray according to God’s will, not our own.
Consider the implications for what came before here in Matthew 18. Let us pray for those estranged from the Church, especially those hurt by the action or inaction of the congregation or any pastor. Do we not have God’s promise to hear us and answer our prayer? Let us, as more than two or three, pray for our prodigals, for our inactive members, for those in our fellowship who are hurt, for those in our fellowship who have hurt others, for those in our community, our country, our world who need to hear the message of reconciliation in Christ Jesus and His good news.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” We have our Lord’s promise. He is with us. He is with you when you’ve been sinned against. He is with you, reading wand willing to forgive when you have sinned against Him and your neighbor. He is with us to bless us.
The Lord, who has blessed you with reconciliation with God by His sacrificial death and Resurrection, enable you to live by His Word, according to your public pledge, to actively and regularly reconcile with one another. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.