Forgiveness, Not Factions
Matthew 18: 15-20
We continue to move through the Gospel of Matthew – Jesus has been identified by the disciples as the Messiah and Jesus has warned the disciples of what is yet to come – that he will go to Jerusalem, suffer, die and be raised again. This will take some getting used to for the disciples, but in the meantime, Jesus is spending time with them, helping them understand what it means to live in community with one another. Last week, we were in the 16th chapter and we discussed the reality of discipleship, which often includes the practice of stepping away from one thing to step towards another. And this week, we have a text that reflects church politics. Church dynamics. Church relationships. Jesus discusses with the disciples the new way of being community together – so before we understand what this means for us today, let’s go back and take a look at the broader picture.
The Gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written sometime between 80 and 90 CE, and much of the language used in the Gospel indicates that the author represented a group of Jewish Christians, or Christian Jews, who were no longer in communion with the post-70 CE Pharisee-led Judaism. You’ll notice in this gospel, there is a lot of anti-Pharisee speak and, though there is much criticism of the Pharisees and their scribes, there is evidence that there were internal strains among the community as well. Throughout the book, there are references to the good and the bad fruit. ‘False prophets’ are spoken of and warnings of those with ‘little faith’ are present also. As you can imagine, they were worried about their nascent community falling apart – they worried about the pressures from outside the community as well as erosion from the inside. This was a community of faith much like any other – dynamic and complex, fragile yet durable, and the body formed uniquely as each personality contributes to the whole – and this account of Jesus’ teachings speaks to this unique setting of church.
Matthew’s original audience was a small community of individuals, beginning to organize themselves, and they were searching for ways to practice a new way of being. God was no longer exclusively identified with a specific temple or tabernacle or ark – through Christ, it became evident that God dwells among God’s people and for this community of faith, their behavior towards one another mattered to them as a reflection of God dwelling in their midst. In this text, Jesus offers them and us a new way of being in community, of being in relationship with one another, which takes into consideration our whole lives – the good and the bad. This text reminds us that our lives together, as a church community, may reflect the kingdom of God through happy and easy times as well as difficult and painful times. Denying conflict, wishing it away, believing that since Christ has come, we can simply be ‘one big, happy family’ wasn’t and isn’t going to be helpful. Christ had called this community, this original audience of Matthew, as Christ calls us, to be in relationship with one another, and as you know, relationships aren’t just picnics and piety.
Prayer: God of grace, God of love – open our ears so that we may hear and open our minds that we may be open to your wisdom. Amen.
Matthew 18: 15-20
“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. 16But 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. 17If 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.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
This is a difficult passage – one that I have been wrestling with quite a bit this week. In one moment, I could see how the gift of Christ’s instruction for processing anguish is beautiful and needed in communities, and in the next moment, I struggle to understand what it means to treat someone like a tax collector or a Gentile – and I worry if I will ever be treated as such. It’s a complex passage and like I said, it has been interpreted in many different ways – some helpful and some hurtful. It has been wielded as a weapon. It has been a foundation of reconciliation. It has been a cause for pain. And it has been a source of comfort. It has been used to manipulate a community into uniformity and it has been used as a model in which diversity flourishes through practices of reconciliation – even in the Christian church today.
I’ll give you an example of the more painful practice of this text: I’ll never forget the first time I saw Kirk Cameron on television outside of his character on Growing Pains – some of you may remember the popular TV show from the 80’s. I was 24 years old and living in Nashville. I was serving my second year as a Young Adult Volunteer – serving just as Mallory is serving with us now. I was working as the triage person at a day services shelter for the homeless and on this particular Saturday morning, I was exhausted. It had been a particularly difficult week at the shelter, and all I had the energy to do was turn on the TV and flop down on the couch – mind you, our television didn’t have a remote control, and I was too exhausted to stand changing the channel, so whatever was on TV was what I was going to watch. The screen came into focus and I saw the actor Kirk Cameron and my initial reaction was, “oh hey! I haven’t seen him in forever! What is he up to these days?!” And, then he opened his mouth. It was a Paid Programming segment – I can’t remember who paid for it, but I do remember the content. Kirk Cameron was talking about how he, as a Christian, is called to love the sinner and hate the sin. Specifically, Matthew 18 compelled him, he said, to help gay people understand the need for repentance and to turn from their sexual identity. He said this passage compelled him to encourage gay people to “stop offending” and be reconciled in Christ as a straight person. He shared stories of speaking with gay people one-on-one. He shared stories of hosting small interventions for gay individuals. He even went to the extent of outing gay people to the whole community, because then, the pressure of the community on the gay person would make a meaningful impact towards what he believed “reconciliation” to be – perhaps a ‘scared straight’ method was what he was getting at there. And, for those who still didn’t turn straight, well, he and the church would be there waiting for them with open and loving arms when they finally decided to repent. I have never wished harder for a remote control to a television in all my life. Mind you, this was also the year I was learning to understand and embrace my sexual orientation as a lesbian and was coming out – I may have had less patience than usual to listen to this interpretation of the text….maybe…
Regardless of our patience levels, we must practice great care when approaching Matthew 18. Kirk Cameron’s interpretation of this text – though at first glance appearing consistent with the literal meaning of this standalone passage – manipulates members of community to be of a like mind, consistent with his human worldview. Communities, both conservative and progressive, have co-opted this text to serve as permission to hold members of the community accountable to a way of being, or a way of thinking – creating a community of homogeneity. But, what I find amazing about this text is that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘where two or three are in agreement, I am there.’ Rather, Jesus claims that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be. Where a diversity of experiences is present, God is present.
You see, when we take the passage in the greater context of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is in the midst of teaching the disciples a new way of being in community with one another. Earlier in chapter 18, Jesus explains that community members should seek not to stand in the way of one another’s exploration of faith in Christ, but encourage one another. Learn from one another the myriad ways God is revealed in the world. Rather than focus on the 99 sheep, be mindful of the 1 that is missing. Rather than give up and walk away from someone in your community because of a disagreement or offense, seek reconciliation. And, in this particular text for today, Jesus tells us, “I am here with you, you need not be afraid of difference or brokenness – don’t act like I don’t know about the brokenness in the world or that you need to cover it up – I am here with you, loving the offender and the offended, so let’s suss it out.” Jesus helps us to understand how, in these moments of brokenness, he is with us as we co-create with him a world of peace by taking action to heal when offenses occur. And, with this newly articulate path of reconciliation, I hope that we might spend a little bit of time this morning pondering what that means for us as a community. What does it say about where God has promised to be found?
Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, God is there. This is quite remarkable, I think. Where two or three are gathered – God is there. Where more than one, where diverse perspectives are present, where two or more individuals with different life experiences come together, God is there. For Jesus, this diversity is a given. There is an expectation that when two or more people are together, there will be two or more ideas engaging, two or more ideals to be taken into consideration, two or more egos, two or more products of different family systems engaging with one another and at times, conflict will take place. This is normal. This is the reality of engaging in relationships. And, Jesus is explaining here that there will be times when feelings will be hurt, when offences will be made, when breaches will be laid bare and turning away from this reality will cause even greater harm to the community than the original offense. Rather than run the risk of factions forming where other members of the community feel the need to choose loyalties and a sense of choosing sides is fostered, Jesus tells of a more life-giving path. Jesus helps the disciples understand, helps the fragile community who first read this gospel and helps us here at Western Presbyterian Church, to understand that when we approach one another in faith and in humility, forgiveness can and should be practiced. And, in these places of tension, these places of brokenness, when we take action to heal together, we become co-creators of peace in our world with God as God has promised to be with us through it all.
There is great promise that God is in our midst, that God is witness to all the dynamics of our community, our church, the good and the bad. It frees us from habits of sweeping hurts and pains under the rug, from habits of allowing wounds to go undressed. As church members, we have agency to choose to practice forgiveness and humility with one another. This allows for our diverse experiences of God in the world to shine. And when we do this, when we practice forgiveness, we are exposed to a deeper understanding of God’s love for the world. Rather than turn our backs on the ones who have hurt us, what if we went deeper – engaged with them, sought reconciliation? Rather than offend someone and out of guilt withdraw from the community, do you think we instead might begin to catch a glimpse of resurrection? Rather then dismiss wounds inflicted, what if we delve into the causes of our hurt with our offender so that compassion might be experienced by all? Jesus tells us that whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven and whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven – what if we loosed in the world the experience of forgiveness? What if we loosened our grip on self-protection and self-preservation and opened ourselves to the vulnerability that comes with listening to one another?
What do you think of when you hear someone say “the Christian thing,”? As in, ‘That’s not ‘the Christian thing’ to do.’ Or ‘That’s not very Christian of you.’ ‘It’s not ‘Christian’ to argue’ Or, ‘we want to be good Christians and play nice.’ These are statements that somehow have become colloquialisms referring to Christian practices of being in relationship. This is evidence that “peace” has come to mean the absence of conflict or that avoiding pain at all costs is what Christian communities all about. But, if we to listen to Jesus’ teaching in this text, we see that it’s not simply the absence of conflict that we should promote, but rather, it is a practice of reconciliation that is important. As Jin S. Kim puts it, “What makes us Christian is not whether we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.” Seeking reconciliation with one another begins to unfurl the kingdom of God within this world. Engaging with one another to heal the broken places, to relieve ourselves of the pent up resentment towards the offender, to relieve ourselves of the pent up guilt as the offender – this is how we begin to see the kingdom of God on earth, how we begin to see God’s peace reign. As a church, Christ does not call us to sweep under the rug our differences, nor are we encouraged to gossip or yell or let our pride become a stumbling block for relationship. Rather, we, as members of the church, are called to engage with one another in a new way – we can accept that conflict has a role to play; we can accept that wounds will be inflicted; we can accept that we will inflict wounds; and even in the midst of this, we are called to trust that healing is possible. Where two or three are gathered, there God will be.
There is a question that is confronting the church these days and Western is not immune to it. It’s the big buzzword – everyone’s talking about it. What is the relevance of church? The once perceived cultural need for church is no longer – churches used to be the hub of social interaction but today that is not the case. There are countless ways people can find connections with others whether it is through technology or community gathering spaces like coffee shops or bars or gyms. And, social service agencies and non-profits are becoming the locus for volunteering and more and more people are finding ways outside the church to be of service to others. Brunch specials are enticing and for those with kids, little league games and tournaments are scheduled for Sunday mornings allowing for church to be the thing that easily slips farther down the priority list, if it was even on the list to begin with. But, I would contend that the relevance of church has less to do with any of these things and more to do with how we live and breathe and have our being in the world, as children of God in community with God and with one another. Church is much more than a worshipping community on Sunday mornings, more than a place to volunteer, more than a place to meet other people. Church is a community where relationships are built, engaged in, wrestled and reconciled with, as this is a community whose foundation is built through forgiveness and humility and in the midst, God abides.
A church is a community not simply set apart to worship God. It is a community of different individuals. It is a place where experiences of God are shared. It is a place where disagreements are had, where conflict arises, where pain is experience and where difference is exposed. And, it is the place where God dwells, enmeshed in our relationships, not simply in this building or this sanctuary, but in our comings and goings as members of a community. The church is a community of people who seek to follow Jesus. This does not mean that we all think and act and look the same or that somehow when we are together, we are able to deny our own egos and rid ourselves of pride entirely. We learn today from this text that we, as individuals in a community of faith, as members of the church, we are not called to dwell in our victimization, nor dwell in our habits which hurt others. Rather, we are called to be co-creators of reconciliation, bearers of God’s love for the world, ushers of justice and peace in the world and we practice that together, here in the church, and out in the world. This is the place God chooses to dwell. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Thanks be to God. Amen