“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
If he or she listens to you, you have regained them. 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 brother or sister refuses to listen, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or 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.”
Why do we dare to confront each other in the church, to attend to the ties that bind? We take the risk of loving truthfulness because we know that sin is more than my business, it is the community’s business. But we can take this risk in the first place because we are a people who know our sins forgiven, and who have pledged to forgive each other. We often hear Matthew 18: 15-20 as a kind of spiritual “three strikes and you’re out” law. But Matthew 18 is less like “three strikes and you’re out,” and more like, “You’ve left the playing field, and we’d like to invite you back into the game.” It isn’t about punishment, but restoration. It is ultimately about peace, and the kind of forgiveness that makes peace possible.
Jesus words on confronting a sister or a brother who has sinned come right after Jesus has told the parable of the lost sheep, about how the return of the one who has drifted away is more precious in the eyes of heaven than dependable fidelity of the 99 who stayed: it’s clear that the process Jesus describes isn’t about kicking someone off the island, but how to win back one who by their words or actions has left the fold, whether they’ve realized it or not. These words also come just before Jesus’ command to Peter to practice forgiveness without calculation, to forgive seventy times seven times, and to be nothing like the unforgiving servant who has received enough mercy to cover the mountain of his mistakes and yet refuses to forgive the molehill in another. So Jesus’ command to point out a sister or brother’s fault comes literally within what Dale Allison calls a “buffer of grace” both before and after – it is the peanut butter and jelly in a mercy sandwich. To try to practice Matthew 18: 15-20 apart from the context of mutual forgiveness that surrounds it on both sides is like trying to order a hamburger without the bun. Loving truthfulness stands upon a foundation of mercy. Only forgiven sinners who have promised to forgive each other (like married people) could ever be so honest with each other. The promise of forgiveness assures the future: it creates a safe space for guilty truth to be named and moved past without crippling insecurity and fear. Only forgiven people who do not fear their past can live without fear of their neighbor: and thus truly love their neighbor.
Jesus calls us to tell the truth in love because sin is not just my business. Jesus calls us to practice loving truthfulness because forgiveness has prepared a place for our sisters and brothers to help us to be freed not only from the guilt of sin, but from its power. And finally, Jesus calls us practice Matthew 18 because we can: because he has given the community the discernment and the authority to do so, and because he is with us when we do.
Jesus tells us, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This has always sounded ominous to me, as if we somehow take upon ourselves the authority of deciding who is forgiven and untied and let into the kingdom, and who is to be left handcuffed to the consequences of their brokenness. But scholars like John Howard Yoder and Mark Alan Powell have argued that the language of binding and loosing was used by rabbis to describe whether or not a particular Scriptural commandment applies to a specific situation. Binding and Loosing is language of ethical discernment, of determining right and wrong for a given case. According to Powell, “Jewish rabbis “bound” a law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a given situation, and they “loosed” a law when they determined that the word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.” It is not that individual people are bound or loosened: the law is bound or loosened. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “binds” the law against murder to apply even when we are just angry with or want to insult a brother or sister: it applies to the disposition of our heart and not just to whether or not we actually commit the deed. And in other places, Jesus “looses” the law of the Sabbath so that it doesn’t apply to the hungry picking grain or to helping someone who is ill. Binding and Loosing is shorthand for Scriptural interpretation and application to a particular case.
And Jesus says, essentially, “I trust you as a community to decide, together, when to bind and when to loose. I trust you to determine how to apply Scripture, to discern what is sin and what is not, to be able to wisely tell when to call people to account and when to look past their faults. Whatever you bind, heaven will ratify; and whatever you allow, heaven will ratify that too. I will have your back. You can do this. You will be able to make these decisions, prayerfully, not alone, but together, of how to seek peace and address sin in wise and gracious ways. You can do this. I trust you.”
We often think, “Who am I to determine these things? Who are we to decide what is wrong or right?” But Jesus says, “You are the church, and I give you the authority to do this. You can do it.”
So, knowing that sin is not just my business, knowing that mutual forgiveness is the very air we breathe, knowing that Christ gives the community the wisdom it needs to interpret Scripture, when someone wrongs us, we first look in the mirror at the two-by-four of brokenness in our own eye before we examine the toothpick in theirs. Then, instead of going behind the sister or brother’s back and complaining to others of what they have done or said, we meet with the other person directly, privately, face to face. If our heart is made right through prayer, if what we are seeking is healing of relationship and not the punishment of a guilt trip, we might start with a simple, “Can we talk?” I have read that the early Methodists made it a point to practice this: one of Wesley’s admonitions was that members of the societies would not complain about their leaders behind their back, but would share their concerns or complaints directly, face to face – something I wished members of staff-parish personnel committees still practiced.
“Can we talk?” And if that private talk doesn’t create reconciliation or persuade the straying one to listen, then Jesus advises that two witnesses be brought along for a second meeting. Those witnesses aren’t meant to be extra muscle to lean on the stubborn one: they are not supposed to be on anyone’s side, but are meant to protect both parties. They are meant to be an extra set of eyes and ears to help understand what is going on – maybe even to serve as mediators to help “bind” and “loose”, to help determine the various degrees of right and wrong. The ultimate goal is peace, right relationship – not punishment. And if those two or three discern that the straying one is actually in the wrong, but refuses to make it right, the whole church is brought in to discern and compassionately appeal for restoration. It is only then, after all this has been tried, that the sister or brother is to be treated like a Gentile or Tax Collector. Presumably this means they are treated as one who needs conversion - but also that the church will treat them the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors: by giving them food, by eating with them, by helping their family members, by inviting them right their wrongs and to be a disciple.
Today we are praying for our student pastors. And one of the many reasons I love student pastors is that they tend to be this kind of Matthew 18 community within the school. They know how many challenges their sisters and brothers who are student pastors face, and so they are always thinking of how to help those who are coming along behind them – the accumulated student pastor class note-helps that have been passed down for generations now are actually longer than the lecture notes the professors use. But I have found that these student pastors are also more willing to sometimes say to each other, “Can we talk? I’m a little concerned about you. I notice how late you’ve been staying here, and I wonder if you’re spending enough time with your family . . .”
It’s not easy for student pastors or anybody else to either start or hear conversations like that: but towards the end of Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus offers one last promise that makes it possible for us to put his words into practice. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often take these words as an assurance that even if there are just a few of us present in the church, Jesus is always there. But here, Jesus says these words in the context of two or three people who have met to struggle together through issues of sin and conflict and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus assures us that whenever we wrestle with these things together, whenever we struggle to determine how to apply discipline with graciousness, whenever we attempt to discern where to bind and when to loose, Jesus will be there.
Often when I talk with pastors about the skills they would like to develop or improve in, I hear them say, “I’d like to learn more about conflict resolution, about managing conflict in the church.” And that is a good thing – but I wonder at times if that is just another way of saying that they want some smoother technique of getting rid of conflict altogether – that their desire is a longing for a church without any disagreements, without sin. We harbor the secret hope of foolproof money-back-guarantee method that will remove the splinter without pain, without sticky hard conversations or Matthew 18.
And yet, Jesus words imply that a church without the pain of conflict may be a church without Jesus: because it is precisely when people are trying their best to wrestle with these issues that Jesus promises specifically to be there. What a divided world needs is not a church free of all conflict and sin, but a church that models for all how sin and conflict can be transformed into peace.
We were standing in line to receive Communion at the closing worship of the Clergy Conference I had just directed. After having organized all the worship services and had them come off without major disaster, to be honest I was just relieved that the service was nearly over. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. Behind me was an older pastor with a crew-cut haircut and large glasses. He had a stern look in his eye. Over the sound of the music swelling in the background, he said, “Young man, Can I talk to you for a moment?” (It wasn’t a question but a statement.) “Over the past few days I have noticed that we haven’t had any of our Native American pastors who are here participate in the leadership of worship. We have had other ethnic groups represented, but many of us who are Lumbee have gone through a lot just to be ordained, and we would like to be recognized and included, too.”
He was right. In planning the services my too-monochrome white imagination had left out a group of our brothers and sisters in leadership. I didn’t know what to say, so I said what Jesus’ people had taught me to say. I told the truth. “Brother, you are right. I am sorry, and I ask your forgiveness.”
“You have it,” he said, patting me on the shoulder, “but please remember this in the future.”
We each filed back into line, on our way to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, sinners with our hands out for mercy, a hymn of grace sung in the background. And even though I was still upset at myself for my mistake, and still smarting from having yet another splinter removed, I had a strange feeling of thankfulness that I was part of a group of people where the exchange I had just shared in was even possible. That I was part of a community of people that was unwilling to settle for counterfeit, pseudocommunity, but that was after true community in Jesus, because there is nothing else like it.
Jesus was there that day as we went to receive Holy Communion–
and not just in the bread and the wine.
Thanks be to God. Amen.