Restoration and the role of the Church

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

9/7/08

 

Matthew 18:15-20

15“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 past Monday, I took the opportunity in the late afternoon to go for a bike ride outside of the city limits on the north side of town.  I took Spring Hill Rd. way out into the country where I didn’t need to worry about traffic.  Now this was no easy ride.  Staunton and the surrounding area are not overly bicycle friendly because, if you aren’t familiar with Staunton, it is a little hilly around here.

            So I would pump my legs as hard as I could to climb a hill only to reach the top and a sharp decline, leading up to the next hill.  I started to figure out that if I put the bike in high gear and really tried to gain as much speed as possible while I went down the hill, I could save a little energy going up the next hill because of all of the momentum I had gained from going down the previous hill.

            So I was going down a steep hill out in the country.  And I was loving it.  I had farms on my left, green pastures on my right, and I was gaining enough speed to break the speed limit on most of our city streets (25 mph is pretty fast on a bike).  And as I was nearing the bottom of the hill I noticed a trail of mud crossing from one side of the road to another.  I was a little surprised by this because it hadn’t rained in a number of days.  But I decided at the speed that I was going that it would simply be better to drive through the mud.  However, as I drove through the mud, I realized it was not mud at all.  It was a special, stinky kind of mud.

            Sure enough, this stinky, farm fresh mud stuck to my tires long enough to be flung into the air, some landing directly on the face of an unhappy bike rider, not to mention his arms, legs, and clothing.

            What could I do?  I was ten miles from home, no money, no cell phone, and only about a half of a water bottle of H2O.  So I chose to do the only thing that I could do; I ignored my speckled arms and I kept on going.  But by the time I got home, you can believe that I stunk and nobody wanted to be anywhere near me.

            Well sin can be a lot like the “mud” I drove through that summer day.  Sometimes it can look different depending on your point of view.  Sometimes it doesn’t look that threatening, other times you know just how bad it really is, and there are even other times when you need someone else to tell you just how bad you have gotten yourself into it.  But the one thing we can probably all agree on this morning is that sin should be avoided if at all possible, because like the stinky mud I biked through, it not only affects you, but it can affect everyone you come in contact with.

            Today I want to look at Matthew 18 to see how we are to bring someone that has fallen into the pattern of sin back out of their destructive habits.

            We don’t like to talk about sin in our society today.  Maybe I shouldn’t say “we”, but I don’t like to talk about sin.  It is an ugly word, and hey, the Bible tells us not to judge others, lest we be judged ourselves, or something like that.  And who are we to tell someone about the speck of sawdust in their eye when we have a plank in our own eye?  But there is sin in the world.  A lot of it.  Perhaps it would be best to begin by defining sin so that we can all be on the same page and so that you can understand how I am using the word.

            To sin means literally to miss the mark.  We often use the metaphor of an archer shooting arrows at a target, missing the mark, and that is a sin.  So to put this in a Christian context, anything that we do or do not do that misses the target, anything that we do or do not do that detracts from God’s restorative plans for creation and most notably for humanity is a sin.

            Sins can either be sins of commission or sins of omission.  We usually think of sins as those things we do with our own bodies that come between us and God, the pleasures of the flesh that Paul lists for us; fornication, drunkenness, idolatry and the like.  But sins also take place outside of our bodies and can be sins against or fellow human beings.  Failing to give to those in need when it is so clearly commanded by Jesus is a sin, a sin of omission.  Contributing to a system of oppression which keeps the poor poor and the sick sick is a sin of both commission and omission.

            So when I use the word sin, I hope we don’t just limit that to what we did and did not do with our bodies today.  Sin abounds in this world, and there isn’t a one of us who is without sin.  As Jesus rightly pointed out in the case of the woman caught in adultery, there were none in his presence that had not sinned, and I assure you that there are none in my presence now, myself included, that is without sin.

            Biblical scholar NT Wright defines sin as falling into two different categories; idolatry or dehumanization.  Sin, according to Wright, is either failing to reflect the image of God, or failing to recognize the image of God reflected in others (Surprised by Hope, 179-180).

            So we look at our scripture for today, and this is directed to the church as a way to deal with church members that have sinned, that have missed the mark, which we are all guilty of doing from time to time.  And if one of the other members of the church sins against you or you witness them sinning, what is our first step to be?  We are to go and point it out to them in private.

            This one on one conversation is so important because it can prevent so many problems and misunderstandings.  For example, we would probably all agree that there would be something wrong with me, a married man, to go out on a date with someone who was not my wife.  But almost two weeks ago, I could have been seen having lunch with a woman who is not my wife.  Someone could have seen us laughing over a steaming hamburger and gone and told other people that Kevin is going out with women that aren’t his wife.         

But if you had approached me, I could have explained that this meal was in no way inappropriate.  I was actually doing my job by providing pastoral care for someone from the church over the lunch hour.

            So we can see one reason why it is so important to go to the person first if you believe that person to have sinned against you or against the church.  Sometimes we just flat-out misinterpret a situation.  And by going to that person we can try to avoid what can be a huge problem in most churches today; that is gossip.

            Now men, we often accuse our female counterparts of gossiping, but I think it is safe to say that we all contribute to this problem.  I know I like a good juicy piece of information.  And I can justify it by saying, “Oh, as a pastor I need to stay informed on what is going on in the lives of people from the congregation.”  But gossip, like the things we mentioned earlier, is a sin and therefore something we all need to avoid.

            So if you come to me and say, “Kevin, did you hear what so-and-so did?”  I should stop you right there and say, “Have you gone to them about this yet?  Have you spoken to the offender?  Because if you haven’t, I don’t want to hear about it.  It is your biblical obligation to first go to the offender first, not to the pastor.”

            And when you go to the offender, maybe they would have a good explanation for why they did what they did.  Maybe you just saw something from a bad angle or you didn’t see the entire context in which something occurred.  Or maybe they were doing something that was sinful, idolatrous, and not recognizing the image of God in others.  Maybe they will admit to doing something sinful and repent for it right there.  And if they have, then you have won that person back to the flock of believers.

            This brings us to a good time to look at the purpose of ever coming to a sinning person in the first place.  One could be tempted to come to a sinning person to show their spiritual superiority over the sinning person, “Johnny, I have noticed that you have been doing so and so.  I don’t have that problem and I wish you would stop it.  For Jesus, of course.”  Maybe we come to the person because we believe that they need to repent for their sin and be punished for what they have done.  But if we look at the context of our scripture for this morning, we can see that the reason we come to a person who has sinned against us or against the church is so that they might be able to renew their communion with God and with the members of the church. 

            Leading up to our scripture for today we have Jesus telling us the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  In this parable Jesus tells of the shepherd that will leave his 99 other sheep to go and bring one lost sheep back into the fold.  And Jesus gives clear teaching on this matter that it is the same way with God and the people that God has created.  God’s desire is that none should wander away and stray from the flock.  It is dangerous out there.

            Then following our scripture for today we have Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive a member of the church that sins against him.  Peter even makes a suggestion that seven times might be about the maximum.  And to that Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  And this is in no ways meant to limit forgiveness to 77 times, or 70 times 7, depending on where you read this.  Jesus’ answer is that we must forgive.

            So our scripture for today is not simply about punishing someone that sins.  It is about restoring someone that has wandered away from the flock, someone that has strayed from the church, back into God’s good graces.  This isn’t punitive, it is restorative.  That’s not to say that restoration might not involve some penalty, but that the point of approaching a church member that has sinned is always about rebuilding relationships between that person, God, and the church.

            So we tried to point out to the erring church member how they went astray.  And they don’t repent, they don’t apologize, the don’t seem to think that there is anything wrong with the way that they acted.  So what is the next step?  The next step is to take one or two others along.

            Now while this might sound like you are ganging up on the person who has been in error, I don’t think that is what Jesus is suggesting here at all.  No, we are not in the business of strong-arming people into straightening out.  That isn’t very consistent with our believers’ church tradition, now is it?

            First we have to ask ourselves why the person didn’t apologize when one person approached them.  Let’s come back to the example I used earlier of me joining a church member for lunch.  You approach me and tell me that you think I should not be going to lunch with women that are not my wife.  If I don’t agree, I won’t repent or apologize.  But if after hearing my explanation, you still feel as if I need to change or repent, this is when you are to bring one or two others along.

            Now you are not to go to those others first and present the case as you see it to them before they have a chance to hear my side of the story.  Then the one or two other witnesses are to decide if I am or am not in error.  If the two other witnesses deicide I am in error, and I still don’t repent, then it goes before the church.

            Now verse 18 comes into play, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  It is the church, the gathered group of believers that has the authority to interpret scripture, this is what we call the hermeneutic community.  Together the church decides if I am in error or not.

            So we have done a lot of exposition of this text, but I haven’t touched on verse 17, which tells us to treat an unrepentant person as a Gentile or a tax collector if they still refuse to repent after the entire church has gone to them in attempt to restore them to good standings with God and the church.  This is where I differ in theology and ecclesiology from the first Anabaptist confession of faith, the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.  Article 2 of the Schleitheim Confession states that anyone that slips into temptation should be admonished twice in private and once in public, according to Matthew 18.  After this, they are to be separated from the fellowship of the community.

            We still see some of the more conservative Anabaptist groups, such as the Amish, practicing the ban or shunning those who refuse to repent for a sin.  I believe I told you about how my friend John’s family was excommunicated from the Amish church when they bought a car.  Family was not allowed to communicate with them, they were not allowed to come to the church or the fellowship gatherings of the church. 

            But how does Jesus say we are to interact with such unrepentant church members?  We are to treat them as Gentiles or as tax collectors.  And how did Jesus treat tax collectors?  He ate with them…regularly (admittedly, Jesus didn’t do this with Gentiles).

            Remember, the purpose of this entire section is restorative, not punitive.  We are not to punish someone, kicking them out of the church.  That is not our job.  Our job is to restore an erring brother or sister.  And I cannot see how cutting them off from fellowship with the church is ever going achieve that cause.  I believe that what Jesus wants the church to do with an unrepentant church member, a church member that won’t agree that he or she is in error, is to go back to the drawing board.  As Paul puts it elsewhere, these unrepentant church members need to go back on milk because they are not ready for whole food.  We don’t cut them off from the fellowship of the church, we include them as neophytes, newcomers to the church, or as outsides whom we are trying to evangelize.  The point is we want to restore them to God and the church, not kick them to the curb and say, “To hell with you.”

            It’s tough, I know.  It is tough to tell another church member that you think that they are living in sin.  Especially when we all know we have planks in our own eyes.  But when we stop looking at this as a way to make ourselves look better, to punish those that have been backsliding, and focus on the real reason for this passage, to restore people as citizens of the kingdom of God, then we should all be willing to help one another with the specks of sawdust in our eyes.  If I am sinning, please don’t let me continue to do so, alienating myself from you, the rest of the church and God.  I want to grow as a Christian.  And though growth can be painful, I hope that we will all agree that it is worth it.  It is what we are called to do.

            I wish that when I went on my bike ride last Monday that someone would have been able to warn me about the stinky mud that I was about to ride through.  After I had ridden through it, I wish that I had someone to help clean myself up.  Sin stinks.  It destroys our relationship with God and our relationship with others.  Let us help one another to stay out of sin, and let us continue to work to restore those who have wandered away from the flock.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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