In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
So easy to say, and so hard to do. very often we say, “Why should I go and talk to him. He will not listen to me.” “Why should I have to be the one to take the initiative? She was the one who wronged me. I am the one who has been unfairly treated. She should come to me.” Yes.
I tell people in my new members’ class and in confirmation class that you can depend on two things in the church. First, you can depend on the church to fail. We will wrong each other. We will act in inconsiderate and even hurtful ways, because we are human. You can depend on that. Second thing you can depend on in the church. You can depend on Jesus to be in the church. Because Jesus became human.
So, when another member of the church sins against you. . .
Now, many people have many different ways of talking about the church. For example, you may have heard some people say, “The church should be like a business.” Indeed, in some ways, we should. We keep careful track of our finances, the money God gives to us through you, to make sure that we use it wisely. We expect the highest quality from our staff and volunteers. In these ways we are like a business. But do we sell tickets to our worship service? Do we require a fee for membership? No. Not quite a business.
Sometimes we think about the church as if it was a kind of hospital for the spirit. We feel bad, we are in trouble, we feel guilty, we come to church and the church helps us to feel better. But does the church take spiritual insurance like a hospital might take health insurance? Is there such a thing as spiritual Medicaid?
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “if another member of the church sins against you.” That phrase “another member of the church,” is translated from the Greek word, Adelphos. It means “brother,” and in the New Testament, it refers to both men and women. So we translate it as “brother and sister.” “If a brother or sister sins against you.” Jesus does not talk about the church here as a business or as a medical facility. He talks about the church as family. In a business, if you break a contract, the relationship is broken. In a medical center, if you don’t listen to the doctor, that’s your problem. In a church, we are a family. And in a family, we work things out. We work things out.
Now, Jesus sets forth a pretty good procedure for working things out. He tells us to go and point out the problem with the person who did it. They might listen. If they don’t listen, then take one or two witnesses with you. Mind you, those witnesses are not there to back you up. They are not there to prove that you are right and the other person is wrong. They are there so that a third party can be in the room to hear the conversation. Because when we have been wronged, when we have been offended, we hear things differently and more negatively than we would otherwise.
So if we walk out of the conversation saying, “She yelled at me!” Our witness can say, “No. She did get intense, but she did not yell.” If we walk out of the conversation saying, “He swore at me,” witness can say, “Not really. He said ‘dang’ but that doesn’t really count.”
So if the other person still doesn’t listen to you, you can bring the whole church along. Again, mind you, the whole church might turn around and say to you, “You know, you contributed to this problem too. This is not just their fault.” Church might say to you, “Listen, I think you’re making a bigger deal of this than it needs to be. Maybe could you let some of it go?” Church does that sometimes.
But sometimes the church comes along and the person still doesn’t listen. There are some behaviors that are really destructive to a church and we cannot have them. I do not now nor have I ever had such a situation in any of my churches but I have had friends who did have such situations, and they have thrown people out. It’s not pretty.
I will confess that there have been times when I have said to myself, “Oh, so and so is so annoying. I just wish they would kind of go.” Right? No one else has ever felt that way, have we? “Oh, that person makes me so mad, I wish they would go away.” Could it be possible that sometimes some people might have thought that way about me?
Those are the people we can learn from.
Before we rush to the idea of throwing troublesome people out of the church, I think we need to remember the verses that come before the Gospel lesson for today. This passage comes from the fourth major set of teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. It begins when the disciples come to Jesus and ask him, “Who is the greatest?” Who is the most important, who is the most influential, most respected, most powerful?
Jesus calls a child and puts the child among them. Children in Jesus’ day were not important, they were not powerful. Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We are to be unimportant. We are to be not powerful.
Then Jesus says, “Watch out, if any of you puts a stumbling block in front of one of these children, it will be better for you if a millstone was wrapped around your neck and you were thrown into the ocean.”
A little later he tells a parable about a crazy shepherd. Of course he’s crazy. It’s one of Jesus’ parables. There’s this shepherd with a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, so the shepherd leaves all the rest of us ninety-nine sheep by ourselves up in the mountains and goes to find that one lost sheep, and when he finds it, rejoices over it more than anybody else. Hey, how is that fair?
So before we think about getting rid of people, let’s remember that God is concerned with folks who are not important, and folks who are lost.
Also, let’s remember the verses that come after the Gospel lesson for today. In those verses, Peter askes Jesus, “How often should I forgive someone, as many as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
This is the Gospel lesson for next week, and next week we are going to talk about forgiveness because forgiveness is not just being a doormat and letting people walk all over you. Forgiveness is a lot deeper and more hopeful than that. Right now, suffice it to say that forgiveness is our business. To the degree that the church is a business, forgiveness is our product that we offer from God. To the degree that the church is a medical center, forgiveness is the medicine we use. It’s what we do.
Now, here is a piece of good news. I am sure that Matthew’s community thought that at some point, problematic people would be like a tax collector or a gentile, they would be out. But I think the Holy Spirit was smirking when Matthew wrote that down. Maybe even giggling. Because what is the title of the Gospel of Matthew? The Gospel of Matthew. And what did Matthew do for a living before he became a disciple? He was a tax collector. And what does Jesus say to the disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, after he has risen from the dead? He says “Go, make disciples of all nations.” Same Greek word as is used here, Ethne, gentiles.
So, here’s good news. God loves the people who are not important. Even if you are not important, God loves you. God loves the people who wander. If you are wandering, God loves you. God loves the tax collectors and the gentiles, the people out of the church. If you are out of the church, God still loves you. God loves the people who have destructive attitudes and behaviors in the church. If you have destructive attitudes and behaviors, as we all do at one time or another, God loves you. God loves you.