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Matthew 18 sermon

September 8, 2008

I found Elaine Ramshaw’s commentary on this text to be very helpful (“Matthew 18:  Power and Forgiveness”)  Several observations/preaching points:

Three ways of responding to offense/conflict/sin in the church or in any relationship:
Attack:  (blame and shame, passive aggressive behavior)
Retreat:  (“things aren’t going the way I would like, so I’m going to take my toys and go home-go to another church”)
Third Way:  Constructive engagement as framed in the discourse of Jesus in Matthew 18

1.  vv. 15-20 have often been lifted out of the context and applied as a formula for bringing errant individuals into line.  These instructions have been implemented in the practice of church discipline as procedural guidelines for dealing with misbehaving persons.  Some communities (Anabaptist included) have understood the last step–to treat the unrepentant recalcitrant brother or sister as a “pagan and tax collector”–as grounds for exclusion from the community (i.e. excommunication, or shunning).

2.  Matthew’s emphasis is clearly on the goal of reconciliation.  It is restorative, not punitive.  The piecemeal application of vv. 15-20 without framing these verses within the context of the whole discourse that takes place in Chapter 18 is problematic.  Ramshaw argues that Matthew 18 intentionally raises the issue of power, precisely in association with the hard questions of how to deal with harm done within community.

3.  When we look at the whole of Matthew 18, we see that the directions for how to deal with the offender (vv. 15-20) are framed by parables and other material that emphasize mercy, forgiveness, the imperative to seek the lost, and the Christian’s need for the brother/sister.

4.  Some commentators suggest that the “70 x 7” passage is placed right after vv. 15-20 to infuse an attitude of forgiveness and grace in the midst of necessary confrontation and invitation to make things right.

5.  How do we practice Matthew 18 in the church (and in the world)?  Recognize that reconciliation is a process.  Jesus puts the onus on the person who has been hurt/offended to take the initiative in going to the person who has hurt us/offended us/sinned.

6.  We approach the person not from a position of “power over.”  Power that comes from anger, desire for retribution/payback.  We do not shame the person and exclude them in our bitterness.  We are to go directly to them.  Email is never a good way to deal with conflict.  Jesus is calling us to a deeper level of relationship that reflects what it means to belong one to another in the body of Christ–to be mutually submitted.  So we do not react when we are hurt by projecting our voice into the community–indirectly talking about our experience of pain without going directly to the person we feel has hurt/offended us.

7.  Going to the person who has offended us or with whom we differ is a risk.  There is no guarantee that they will be willing to operate in submission to Jesus.  There is a very real chance that we could get kicked in the teeth.  Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to authentic relationships in the body.  This requires vulnerability if we are going to uncover what it means to be the body of Christ together.

8.  If we are unable to find resolution/reconciliation when we go directly to the person who has hurt us, Jesus enjoins us to keep working at reconciliation in the relationship.  The next step is still in direct communication with the person who has offended us, but this time we take one or two others from the community to help facilitate communication/reconciliation.  This step also reflects a willingness to submit to a communal Jesus (versus the private individualistic Jesus which often is used to legitimate our independent mindset–WE ARE RIGHT SO WHY SHOULD WE SUBMIT).

9.  If this attempt to work toward restoration of the relationship is not fruitful–“if that person refuses to listen”–we are to take the case to the church.  Again, the one offended is walking in humility and submission to a communal process.  Just because we have been hurt or offended does not give us the right to recklessly fire away like a loose cannon–in public or in private.  We bring our case to the community for discernment.  This communal approach is the same one that is applied to “binding and loosing”–discerning matters of moral and ethical import as the church interacts with culture.

10.  “If the church decides you are right, but the other person won’t accept it, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”  So here is where we kick them out of the church.  Right?!?  Before we do that.  Before we shun them, excommunicate and exclude them in some form or another we must ask ourselves a very important question for a community seeking to be Jesus-centered.  How did Jesus treat pagans and corrupt tax collectors?  Answer:  he ate with them, he kept their company (Zaccheus, Matthew’s party, etc.).  Once we have done all we can do to work toward reconciliation and restored relationship, we still do not wash our hands of that person.  In Christ, we are called to extend forgiveness (an unlimited amount of times) and mercy toward the offender.  It doesn’t mean that the relationship will not be changed by the lack of reciprocation.  However, we always are ready in our hearts to forgive and receive the person back into fellowship.

11.  This is where it seems that the church has sometimes abused it’s communal power out of a desire to keep the church pure.  We have marginalized those who are caught in the universal struggle against sin.  Our judgments have perhaps not been tempered by the story that Jesus tells immediately following this passage–the story of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven much.  Perhaps we have been harsh in our judicatory actions because we have failed to appreciate how much we are all debtors to the grace of God.  Perhaps we would do well to appropriate a stance of power under–the posture of humility that does not judge the sin of another.  Rather, prays for mercy upon them.  Jesus also models this in a poignant way from the cross when he offers a prayer to the Father from the depths of agony.  He prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  What if in the church we would take this same attitude toward those who offend us?

12.  What keeps us centered on Jesus when we are divided by so many things–theological differences… diverse views of what it means to follow Jesus and to be the church?  What will keep the church unified when we are deeply divided on such things as how to interpret scripture, or how to vote?  What will keep us from just moving on when relationships are strained and there are differences of perspective?  The lectionary assigned Exodus 12 as the OT reading to go with the Matthew 18 text.  It is the narrative of liberation from slavery in Egypt for God’s people.  The passage provides the details regarding the institution of the covenant meal (Passover) which will shape the community’s understanding of God’s saving action into the future.

13.  The Passover feast becomes the setting in which Jesus then also institutes a covenant meal.  Perhaps this is where we need to come back to again and again if we are to see ourselves in proper relation to each other in the body.  It is at the Lord’s supper, that we are called to receive bread and wine.  We are reminded that we are a part of the body–that we belong to each other–not because we can agree on things, but because of the body and blood of Jesus.  We are a covenant community, not just a social club or organization that just chucks relationships aside when they cease to serve our purposes.  We remain a part of each other even when there is deep pain among us.  The table calls us back together as brothers and sisters who are recipients of immeasurable grace and who are called to be ministers of reconciliation in the church and in the world.

14.  And so we sing–“Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.  May I have the grace to let you be my servant to.”

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