17 Pentecost proper B21
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
James 5:13-20 Sermon
September 27, 2009
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
204 "Father We Praise Thee, Now The Night Is Over"
375 "My Faith Looks Up To Thee"
172 "Immortal Invisible God Only Wise"
----- "God Of Grace, And God Of Glory"
DEALING WITH GOD'S CHILDREN, ONE-ON-ONE
TEXT (vs. 19-20): "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."
This morning, I have something to show you that is probably familiar to most of you (holds up a GPS unit.) This is a Global Positioning System device, or as we have come to know it, a GPS unit. This is actually one of a three-part system. This is the receiver part of it that I carry with me. The other two parts consist of approximately 32 satellites orbiting the earth, and four control and monitoring stations located on earth. That's what makes the whole thing work.
I received this as a Christmas gift a few years back, and it's something that I appreciate having, although I don't use it that frequently. For example, two years ago when I went to our convention in Oklahoma City, I found it invaluable in quickly and easily locating my hotel, the church, the convention site, and other places. Otherwise, I would have had to stop and use a map to figure out where I was and where I was going. Of course I've done that very thing many times, but having a GPS unit makes the whole process much easier.
We even have one of these things in our Lincoln Police Chaplain's vehicle to help us locate those impossible to find streets in those unheard of subdivisions that seem to be springing up like weeds. It saves us a lot of radio time with the dispatcher, and we can get to an emergency situation in a lot less time.
The GPS system is neat. You program in the address, and the system does the calculations. Then as you're driving, it will speak to you. "At the next intersection, turn right...take the next exit off the freeway...prepare to turn in one mile...continue on this road for the next ten miles" and so forth.
However if you miss a turn or make a mistake, the unit will attempt to direct you in such a way so that you can get back to where you are supposed to be going. Sometimes it will direct you around various streets to get you back on track. But at other times, it will simply tell you, "at the first opportunity, make a legal u-turn." You have to turn around. You are going the wrong way. And if you don't turn around or if you somehow decide to ignore what your GPS unit is telling you, you will wind up in the wrong place. You won't find your destination if you're going the wrong way.
Think about what it would be like to have one of these things to use as we live our lives. "You're going the wrong way...you're doing the wrong thing...you're wandering off the straight and narrow path."
But we don't have such a device when it comes to our moral conduct. What we do have however is God's Word that guides us, and we have other Christians to assist us along the way. And as we get into our text for today, James is giving us some practical words of advice in this regard. He records in chapter 5 verses 19-20: "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."
These past four Sundays in September, all of our Epistle readings have been from the book of James. Now I didn't select these or have anything to do with how they are laid out. They are the readings appointed for this day, and I simply take them as they come.
And even though I didn't intentionally plan it at the beginning, these readings from James have made for a nice short sermon series on the Christian life. To recap a bit, three weeks ago we studied how we are to regard other people in general, and how important good works are to the Christian. It's as the old saying goes, "Faith alone saves; but the saving faith is never alone." The fruits of our faith are shown in our good works.
Then two weeks ago, we studied that how we speak to other people is important, focusing not only on what we say, but also how we say it. It's really ironic to think how both blessing and cursing can come from the same mouth. Just a few little words can make a huge difference on how we relate to other people.
Last week, our focus was upon the feelings we have toward others. Our words and actions are motivated by what's going on inside of us. Certainly it's difficult at times to put our faith into practice, especially when our sinful selves battle for control. So often we think that our way is so much better than God's way.
Today, as we end our short journey in the general Epistle of James, we are dealing specifically with how Christians are supposed to relate to other Christians. And as we do this, we're going to be paying special attention to how we get along with God's children, one-on-one.
As Christians together in God's service, there's much we can do to support and help each other in a variety of ways. For example, our text talks about lifting each other up in prayer. One way that we show love and concern for others is when we pray for them. Somebody might be having trouble in their lives because of sickness, or problems at work, or family difficulties, or other concerns. We should always be ready to pray for them. As Paul writes in Galatians chapter 6 verse 2: "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
And in a similar sense, we should also share each other's joys and happiness. As we celebrate things in our lives, it's great to have others rejoice with us as well.
Today however I am going to focus upon the last couple verses of our Epistle lesson. This specifically deals with bringing a sinner to repentance. The words and directives are simple: "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."
This goes right along with other sections in the Bible. Paul writes in Galatians chapter 6 verse 1: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted."
And probably the most famous application of this concept comes from the lips of Jesus himself in Matthew chapter 18 verses 15-17: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
What's going on here is something like that GPS navigator in my car. God's Word is very clear about what is and isn't sin, however people are always steering off course and heading the wrong way. And if they're not put back on course, then they will keep going the wrong way; and the end of the wrong way is eternal perdition.
So as Christians, what are we supposed to do when another Christian is heading down the wrong path? The over-riding theme of the Bible is to handle the matter, one-on-one. And this concept can be applied in so many different areas.
As a pastor, I can't even begin to tell you how many times people in the church have approached me in person or called me on the telephone to complain about somebody else. Maybe that other person said something or did something they didn't like, or maybe they were guilty of some unrepentant sin. Mostly though, the people doing the complaining had taken exception to something the other person said or did.
My first question is always, "Have you spoken to them about it?" And in almost all cases, the response has been something to the effect of: "Oh, I could never do that!" And then what follows is about every lame excuse in the book about why they can't deal with somebody one-on-one. They figure since I am the pastor, that it should be my job to fix whatever problem they are having. And when I direct them to what the Bible says to do about it, they come to the conclusion that I am "passing the buck" and otherwise not doing my job. They figure that Jesus speaks those words about handling things one-on-one to everybody else, except them. They figure that "God will understand" why they will not do things as he has asked.
One pastor (and this is a true story), at the beginning of his ministry, got a book full of blank pages, and titled the book "Church member's complaints about other members." When anybody came to him complaining about another member, he would always take out the book and ask them to write it down, so every detail would be accurately recorded.
50 years later when he was ready to retire, out of all the times people had come to him with complaints about somebody else, there wasn't so much as one word written on those pages. It was completely blank.
In our life as a Christian congregation, we have a section in our by-laws about the rather touchy subject of church discipline. This isn't something unique to us either; every congregation in which I've ever been associated has much the same thing. Ours reads as follows: "The congregation zealously watches over the purity of doctrine and life of its members, and when anyone is overtaken in any trespass it strives in the spirit of meekness and love to restore such a one in accordance with Matthew 18:15-18 and Galatians 6:1."
The first, and most important step is dealing with someone one-on-one. This doesn't mean that you go around and tell everybody else what you think, and it doesn't mean that you go and organize a lynch mob. Most of the time, things can be handled one-on-one, and that's where it stops. And if it can't be fixed that way, then it is still kept somewhat confidential by bringing two or three witnesses into the mix. If that doesn't do it, then it goes to the church in general; and finally if that doesn't work, then the person is excluded from the fellowship, all the while hoping that the person will repent and amend their sinful life.
As a pastor, I have been involved with two cases of church discipline--one where someone was disciplined, and the other where someone was brought back into the fellowship of the congregation. Here's what happened in the two instances:
An 18 year-old girl in the congregation moved in with, and was actively cohabitating with a married man. This is a sin, any way you slice it. Keeping it out of the congregation, her father attempted numerous times to deal with it, between the two of them. When that didn't work, the father came to myself and the elder. Together we went and talked with her on several occasions, and that didn't work either. So then it went to the next step, which was to present it to the voting members of the congregation. And when that didn't work, then she was excommunicated. God is serious about sin, and we have to be too. We didn't do this out of meanness or a vengeful spirit. Rather, we did so with the hope that she would see the error of her ways and repent.
As sad as that situation was, I can share with you the joy of someone where all of this worked to his benefit. Before I arrived at this particular congregation, a young man had been excommunicated because he was married, and was having an affair with a married woman. After all the proper steps were taken, he also was excommunicated.
Some years later after I became the pastor, we recieved a long letter from him. He admitted his sin, and indicated that he had amended his sinful life. The congregation then voted to reinstate his membership. Following that, he was in church every Sunday. I performed the marriage ceremony for him and his wife. I took his wife through adult instruction and confirmation. And sometime after that, I baptized their new baby.
These stories can indeed have happy endings. And when we proceed according to the way God wants us to, then we can be assured that he will bless our actions, even though the task might be difficult.
The words James records in our text today are filled with love and compassion. "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."
Unrepentant sin results in eternal death and perdition. God is serious about sin. We can't ignore it and hope that he won't notice. We can't allow sin to run rampant and turn a blind eye to it. And we cannot somehow change God's will to make something sinful into something acceptable, regardless of the rationale or excuses.
As Christians, we have to be loving and accepting people. We accept people where they are for who they are. We can't judge a person's heart, but we can certainly judge outward actions. For example, we can offer love and forgiveness to a thief; but by doing so, we can't make stealing an acceptable practice.
We're in the business of bringing the Gospel, the good news to a world that is lost in sin. Jesus Christ took that entire load of sin upon himself, and carried it to the cross so that the penalty for it would be paid for in full. We want the whole world to know that Jesus died for them, and that they are forgiven through faith in him.
Sin is a problem for everybody in this world, especially for each of us. We don't walk into the church every Sunday looking for an excuse to keep on sinning, but looking to God for the forgiveness that comes to us through Jesus Christ. We come to the altar to receive Christ's true body and blood in the Lord's Supper to physically receive the sign and seal of the forgiving Gospel, and to receive strength for our faith.
Faith in Jesus our Saviour means forgiveness and life for us, and this is something that we desire for everybody else as well. Regardless of the sin that has ensnared a person, it's not too big for God to forgive it.
And so we become living witnesses of God's peace. It's in that spirit that we deal with our brothers and sisters in Christ, one-on-one. And if it seems like it is too difficult to deal with another Christian that sins against us and causes strife in our life, just remember that as Christians we will be spending an eternity together, so it would be wise to start getting along with each other right now.
So as Christians together, we pray to God: "For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen." (LBW p. 77)