17 Pentecost Proper A18
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 18:15-20 Sermon
September 7, 2008
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
188 "Lord Jesus Christ Be Present Now"
370 "Just As I Am Without One Plea"
551 "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus"
191 "Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing"
CHRISTIANS DEALING WITH CHRISTIANS
TEXT (vs. 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."
This morning, I am going to share with you the following quotation: "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."
If that sounds familiar to you, it should. What I just read is section IX paragraph 1 of the bylaws of this congregation. Section IX has the heading "Church Discipline."
Matthew 18 verses 15-18 are the verses I read just a few moments ago, which is a portion of our Gospel reading for this morning. And since our bylaws also reference Galatians chapter 6 verse 1, I'll share that with you as well: "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." This certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Matthew text.
The section entitled "Church Discipline" and the reference to the Matthew 18 section of Scripture is not unique to us and our congregation at all. In fact, the various constitutions and bylaws of every congregation with which I have had connection, whether it has been as a pastor or member, has contained a similar reference to what I just read to you. I would also go so far as to say that this reference to Matthew 18 is probably the most universally quoted text when the topic of sin and unrepentant sin is addressed amongst Christians in general.
This is all good and proper. These few verses of the Bible are about as clear-cut and matter-of-fact as you can get. Jesus states what he does in such basic terms that there is really no way that these words can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Be that as it may, it seems that many Christians will whole-heartedly include these words in their various constitutions and bylaws. With all honesty, they adopt these documents with this reference with all good intentions of carrying out Jesus' instructions should the need arise to put them into practice. But when the time actually comes, they are just as quick to throw these words right out the window and replace them with their own flawed human logic.
Before actually getting into the words of our text for today, I'd like to set the scene by looking at the several verses just preceding our text for today. In verses 10-14 of Matthew 18, we find recorded Jesus' parable of the lost sheep. Here Jesus uses the example of a man who owns a hundred sheep. When one wanders off, the man leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one that was lost. This is an example of how precious each and every soul is to God. There is much rejoicing when God finds a lost soul, and he is brought back into his fold.
With this thought in mind, Jesus begins his section on what to do with someone who is caught up in a sin. So let's have a more detailed look at what Jesus is saying in our text for today.
In the first part of verse 15, Jesus says: "If your brother sins against you..." The word "brother" that is used here has nothing to do with someone being male or female. Rather, it is a general term used to describe someone who is a Christian. This section is very specific in this way. This is the way Christians are to deal with other Christians. This isn't to say that the souls of unbelievers aren't important, or that some of the methods described in Matthew 18 can't be used when Christians deal with non-Christians, especially the "one-on-one" philosophy.
We need to remember what the Bible says in I Corinthians chapter 2 verse 14: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
The method of applying God's law and gospel as it is outlined in our Gospel for today wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to someone who isn't a Christian. The task of presenting the gospel message to unbelievers is certainly important, but not the way our text for today describes.
When a Christian deals with another Christian, they appeal to the same point of reference, which is the Bible. Christians can at least theoretically agree that the Bible is God's inspired and inerrant word, and that he means what he says. It's that simple.
So now we have a Christian dealing with another Christian over a matter of sin. Even though our text says, "If a brother sins against you..." this applies to any sin, whether it is directly against a particular individual, or a general transgression of God's law. Sin is sin, any way you slice it.
The method of bringing this matter before an erring brother is found in Galatians chapter 6 verse 1 as well as our text. "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently...." In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says that we are to: "...go and show him his fault, just between the two of you."
This makes it a one-on-one thing. A Christian isn't out to berate or publicly humiliate another Christian. A Christian cannot have the intent to bring another Christian into open shame, and otherwise destroy their reputation with others.
A Christian's objective is to bring the erring Christian's ways to their individual attention, so that they may amend their sinful life and be restored once again. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus describes it this way: "If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." Jesus makes it very plain indeed.
The second step outlined in our text for today is the natural logical progression of things. Verse 16 says, "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." Certainly this step is a bit more serious, but it is an important one, and it certainly cannot be passed over. This is actually keeping in line with an Old Testament practice, where two witnesses were required to establish a matter as fact.
In this step, the matter is still kept relatively private between just a few individuals. The erring brother is still not subjected to public ridicule, but he knows that the matter is a serious one. If he listens to the witnesses and repents, then all is good. If he doesn't, then step three is put into play.
The third step is one where a matter does become public, but it is done as the very last resort. When this happens, a person has had to willfully despise what God has said in the Bible, and persisted in a state of unrepentant sin. In this step, a person is no longer an erring brother, but they have shown themselves as an unbeliever, and are thereby regarded as such by the church.
The whole idea behind Jesus' directives in Matthew 18 is to bring an erring brother back into the fold again. In every respect, this is an example of "tough love," with the result of keeping their soul from eternal perdition. Church discipline is done out of love, and not out of spite for another person.
Church discipline according to Matthew 18 is done when, and only when a specific sin is involved. Church discipline cannot in any way be exercised when there is just a difference of opinion which has nothing to do with the Bible or God's law. There has to be actual Biblical grounds for church discipline to be enacted on any level, and not just because we don't like somebody or somebody's ideas.
People will have differing opinions. That's the way human beings are. We all have different likes and dislikes, and we will all have our own ideas on how things should be done. And as long as we aren't going against a direct command of God, we are entitled to them. That's why church councils and voters' assemblies decide many of these things by common consensus or a majority vote.
But we need to come back to the matter as to why Jesus had to address this issue in the first place. He knew, as we all know that sin is an ever present problem even in the assembly of believing Christians. We all daily sin much. That's one of the reasons we gather together here on a Sunday morning.
Our worship service opens with a confession of sins. This follows right along with what the Bible says in I John chapter 1 verses 8-10: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."
We are sinners, each and every one of us, and we are seeking forgiveness for our sins. Even though our sins might not have come to the point of needing a direct confrontation from another Christian, our sins are there just the same.
When we confess our sins, we look forward to the words of absolution, those words that assure us that our sins have been forgiven through faith in Christ Jesus our Saviour. In verse 18 of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
So whenever those words of forgiveness are spoken by a pastor or any other Christian for that matter, we know that our sins have been loosed from us and that those sinful shackles of Satan that bound us have fallen away. When we believe in Jesus our Saviour, and know that he has taken those sins from us and bore them himself, we can be assured that we will stand before God in all the righteousness and holiness of Christ, and know that our sinful past has been forgiven and forgotten.
Our Gospel lesson for today serves to direct sinful people into the arms of Jesus. In the case of an erring Christian brother, Paul says in Galatians chapter 6 verse 1, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently...." Sin in a Christian's life is like a trap that catches them almost unaware. Satan uses everything he can to ensnare a believer and lead him down the wrong path.
That's why it is so important to try to restore an erring brother as Jesus describes. We don't want to lose anyone to Satan, and we certainly don't want that to happen by ignoring the process outlined in our Gospel reading for today.
I'd like to close this morning by relaying a personal story to you. I know I've shared this with some of you, but I think it bears repeating.
I was in a situation some years ago where I sinned against someone in a congregation I was serving. I admit it was my fault, and I am not trying to justify my sinful actions. But what happened was that instead of the individual coming directly to me and handling it one-on-one, I counted nine other individuals that got involved before I was even contacted. And of these nine people, four of them were pastors or clergymen of some description.
If we compare this situation to our Gospel lesson for today, these people completely bypassed steps one and two of the process, and went directly to step three before I was ever brought into the picture.
I complained about this process to the synodical president, or bishop. I asked him why Matthew 18 hadn't been followed. His response to me was, and I quote: "They're just dumb laymen. How do you expect them to know what the Bible says?"
I expected them to know what Jesus' very simple instructions in Matthew 18 were. They knew enough to make it part of their constitution and bylaws. And since they contacted four members of the clergy in this situation, any one of them would have been able to remind them of what Jesus said. But instead, they opted to throw the whole process out the window and do it their own way. Even though I myself erred, it didn't give them an excuse to do things the way they did. Two wrongs certainly do not make a right.
Even though it was a messy situation, everything is well now. It was a difficult road for me, but I've recovered. And since I have occupied this pulpit for the past four years, we would have to agree that God's will is certainly done in spite of the efforts of others to the contrary.
Yes, I expect you to be familiar with the words of our gospel lesson for today from Matthew 18. Those words are referenced in our congregation's bylaws. You are a group of educated, rational people, and not a bunch of dumb laymen. And I honestly don't think you have any trouble at all understanding what our Gospel lesson for today means.
We're Christians; and as such, we are expected to deal with other Christians in the manner God prescribes in the Bible. It's our goal to practice forgiveness among us, and bring sinners to repentance and to the knowledge of God's grace in Jesus Christ. This is God's will for us a congregation and as individuals. May we always be ambassadors of God's love and seek to do his will in whatever situation we encounter.