Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
[Jesus said:] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
—Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)
Once upon a time—years ago now, back when I was in my early 20s—I worked with a fellow who hailed from the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. He had been raised in the Lutheran Church there. Or I guess I should say, in a Lutheran Church there.
As you may know, there is a very large—and very conservative—Lutheran denomination that takes its name from the state of Missouri. But it has other flavours of Lutheranism, too.
Anyway, my friend told me this story about his hometown. He said that, within the radius of a few city blocks in downtown St. Louis, there were no fewer than four different Lutheran churches. And the people in each one were absolutely convinced that the people in all the others were going straight to hell.
“That,” he told me—“that is what really happens when two or three Christians gather together.”
Here’s another story. Probably, you’ve heard it before (I know it’s an old enough joke).
There was this man who had been shipwrecked, and now he was stranded all alone on a desert island. He had been surviving there for years, always hoping some ship would sail close enough to notice him.
Eventually a passing ship did notice him. And the captain sent a few of his crewmen in a small boat to check on the man.
As the rescue party approached the shore, he ran down to the beach to meet them. At last, he was going to be rescued!
Now, as the members of the rescue party greeted the castaway, they noticed that several small buildings had been put up on the island. How odd. So they asked the man: “You’ve been here all alone. And yet you’ve built all these little huts along the shore. How come? Why so many buildings?”
“Well,” the man said, “I wanted to keep busy.”
Pointing to the first hut, he said, “That building there is where I slept.”
Pointing out the others, he told them: “That building over there is where I would spend the day. That building is where I prepared my food. That building is where I went to church.”
Then, pointing to another building, he said, “And that is where I used to go to church.”
That story is funny only because it references a quite unfunny truth. For as long as people have been in the habit of gathering together and calling themselves a “church” they’ve also been habitually frustrated with one another. So much so that they inevitably separate and move on. They break into more and more disparate groups, based on what they think are irreconcilable differences. Kind of like Hollywood marriages. According to one source, there are now—worldwide—about 45,000 distinct Christian denominations. 1
But of course, dissention and disagreement occur not only between denominations, but also within them. We in the so-called “mainline” churches continue to experience this sort of anxiety and divisiveness as we have internal debates about … well, all kinds of things—from climate change and pipeline development to Middle East politics to questions about marriage and inclusiveness and countless other social issues. And even, in some quarters, about the nature of Christ and the reality of God.
Some of us—who hold to a more traditional theology and world-view—wonder at times why we remain in the mainline churches at all (even as some of our less traditional colleagues kind of wish we’d leave).
It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Jesus has no illusions about the church, or about Christians’ ability to get along. Our Lord understands the challenges we face as we try to remain connected to one another. He knows the church on earth consists of real people. Real people, of course, come with real differences! And—too often—with concrete opinions that are wedded to harsh and uncompromising attitudes. All of which, of course, leads to alienation. Yet we are supposed to be “one body.”
We sing, “Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love,” but Christian love does not come automatically, and—sometimes—it does not come easily. We also like to sing, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” but we too seldom behave as though we really believe it.
The truth is, the smallest disagreements can boil over and then erupt like a supervolcano. Church fights can be brutal and dirty.
Some of you will know what I’m talking about. In recent years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of people leaving the church. Sometimes, they’re upset about some particular issue, but sometimes … Well, sometimes, they’re just worn down and worn out by the church’s inability to make the gospel real. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “I love your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.”
Probably, all of us understand what he meant. Christians appear to be exquisitely skilled at creating discord and division, and woefully unskilled when it comes to reconciliation and community.
This is why Jesus’ words from today’s gospel are so important. He calls us not to sweep divisive issues aside, but rather, to face them head-on (difficult though that may be). He calls us to build up the community of faith—and he provides us with a methodology for doing that.
First of all, Jesus says, go and see the one with whom you have a conflict. Yeah. That’s right. Go and visit that person. Don’t just send a text message. Make a lunch date. Something face-to-face. And this is not merely a suggestion; really, it is a command—go and see that person.
And while you’re having that sit-down, be cognizant of who it is you’re speaking to. Because this is not just any person! No. This is a brother. This is a sister. This is someone with whom you are meant to be in community, and that close relationship has been disrupted.
Go and see the person. This takes courage. This takes prayer and humility and grace. Go and see the person—but not with your finger pointing! Go and see the person—but leave your righteous indignation at home.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Go in humility and talk things through in private, Jesus says.
This is the hard work of discipleship: going … seeing … speaking … listening … working to repair the damage. This is the calling of faithfulness. And when it works, the results can seem miraculous.
“If the person listens to you,” says Jesus, “you have won them back”—back into the community. Most often, what matters is not correctness, but community. It’s not about who is right—it’s about right relationships. In the Lord’s scheme of things, the whole reason for confrontation is to bring about reconciliation. It’s not about revenge or vindication or winning an argument or proving a point. Remember—Jesus is all about humility and grace and peace.
Of course, Jesus is also a realist. He says: “If you are not listened to, take one or two others and try again, in private. And if that does not work, tell it to the whole church.”
But then … sometimes … if nothing works … if there is no reconciliation … then, Jesus says: “Well, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Now, at first, that sounds like—after sincere efforts to reconcile—you should just walk away. Let them go. Get over it.
But wait. Who did Jesus hang out with? He ate with tax collectors and sinners. And to Gentiles, he showed mercy and grace. To such people, he extended his hand of blessing.
Never is anyone beyond the reach of God’s love. Whatever the problem is—however insurmountable it may appear—once we place it in the Lord’s hands, we have ample reason for hope.
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Jesus says. And then he makes another seemingly cryptic remark about “binding and loosing.” Remember that from our gospel lesson the week before last? After Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told him: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Today, we hear him tell all the others the same thing.
“Binding and loosing.” Whatever else that may mean, I think its most important meaning is this: the way we treat each other has profound implications. Whatever we set loose here will be set loose in heaven. Whatever we bind up—or put back together—here on earth will be likewise dealt with in heaven.
Friends, this is simply the logical consequence of being forgiven. Because we have received so great a gift from God, our forgiving one another is a profound extension of that same loving act. It’s just as Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power. 2
Here is the core of our Lord’s call to love one another as kin: we are meant to build one another up. Here is why we are to see our actions in this community as harbingers of the heavenly kingdom. We love because God loves—and God’s love reconciles all things.
In his book Thunder From the Mountain, John Stroman tells a story about a Dutch theologian named Henry Kramer. A group of lay Christian leaders came to him in late 1940 and said “Our Jewish neighbors are disappearing from their homes. What must we do?”
Kramer answered, “I cannot tell you what to do. I can tell you who you are. If you know who you are, you will know what to do.” 3
And that was the beginning of the Dutch Resistance movement, which worked to protect Jews and others targeted by the Nazis—and to assist Allied efforts in World War Two.
Jesus calls us to remember who we are. We are a forgiven people, bound to one another as brothers and sisters through the waters of baptism. More than that, we are a transformed people—called to work together in God’s vineyard. That is our challenge.
It is also our blessing.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 38.
3 John Stroman, Thunder From the Mountain: The Ten Commandments Today (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1990), p. 113.