15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “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.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
I want to start today by setting up our scripture for this morning by looking at a passage from a totally different part of the Bible. Psalm 51:4 says this: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” I don’t say this often, especially because I believe that the Bible is inspired by God, but that is a bunch of crap. This is King David praying to God, saying against you and you alone have I sinned. And if you read this Psalm in context, you find that what David is referring to is an event that we find in 2 Samuel chapter 11. It is a story you may have heard about involving King David and the wife of a common man named Uriah the Hittite.
Uriah was a member of David’s army and he was out in battle in the spring of the year. This left his wife, Bathsheba, home alone, just down from the king’s palace. I don’t think that I need to get into all of the details of this story, but David and Bathsheba hook up and Bathsheba gets pregnant with David’s child.
David tries multiple times to trick Uriah into thinking that the child in Bathsheba’s womb is Uriah’s, but he fails, in part because Uriah is such a noble servant of the king. So ultimately David devises a plan where Uriah is sent to the front line in battle where he is killed during an attack. Then David is a nice enough guy to take Bathsheba into his palace as his wife.
So let’s recap quickly. David was tempted and seduced another man’s wife. We call that adultery. When he found out that she was pregnant, he tried to cover it all up. We call that lying. When the cover-up didn’t work, David had Uriah sent to the front of the battle where he conveniently died. We call that murder. And in Psalm 51 David says, Against you and you alone, Lord, have I sinned. If I could take David aside and have a conversation with him, I might say, “What about Uriah? Didn’t you, I don’t know, sin against him?” Uriah, though a Hittite by birth, was at least a god-fearer, and likely was a convert to Judaism. Absolutely, David sinned against God. But he also sinned against a brother in the faith, and a faithful servant in the king’s army.
I think that it is clear that David’s sin affected the lives of others as well as affecting him. And maybe now would be a good time to define what sin is again. Sin is anything that misses the mark. It is an archery term. And if you miss the bull’s-eye by an inch or by a mile, it is a miss. It is a sin. So when I talk about sin I often use the phrase “miss the mark” because I think it helps us all to keep in mind that we all miss the bull’s-eye; we aren’t always perfect.
Often I hear people saying things like, “Yeah, I might be doing something wrong, but I’m not hurting anyone else.” I usually hear this in cases of alcohol or drug abuse, maybe people addicted to pornography will claim that they aren’t hurting anyone else. People might admit that they have a problem, but they would claim that it is their problem and since they aren’t hurting anybody else that it is okay. If they aren’t physically or verbally hurting others, if they don’t get behind the wheel and drive while impaired, some people would say that their abuse of substances isn’t hurting anyone else. It is that whole, “God, against you and you alone have I sinned” mentality. And I believe that mentality is always flawed.
The apostle Paul gives us a good metaphor to work with to see how we sin against more than just God. In his writings, Paul uses the metaphor of a “body” to describe the church. We often look to 1 Corinthians 12 to discuss Spiritual Gifts and how God has given some people certain gifts and other people have received other gifts. Paul emphasizes that all gives are just as valuable to the church, even if not all gifts receive the same amount of glory from the other members of the church. So Paul says that the church with its members is like a body with many parts. There are eyes, ears, hands, feet, knees and elbows. Some of these positions might get more attention or glory from the rest of the body, but they are all just as important. Everyone wants to be an eye, but the elbow is just as important. Does anyone ever want to be an elbow? I didn’t think so, but how important are our elbows? Without elbows it would be a lot more difficult to eat, get dressed, and comb your hair.
As Paul brings his thoughts on Spiritual Gifts to a close in chapter 12, he builds upon the metaphor of the body by saying this in verse 26, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” We are really good at rejoicing together as a body, celebrating things like birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. But we often neglect the fact that when one part of the body isn’t functioning as it is supposed to, the entire body suffers.
So I thought of the spleen. We all have spleens, but, if you are like me, you don’t really know what a spleen does. We just go about our regular lives, enjoying a healthy spleen and counting on our spleen to perform whatever a spleen is supposed to do. But spleens will from time to time rupture. And if you have a ruptured spleen, you can bleed internally to the point that you black out, get dizzy, or can’t think clearly. You might not know what a spleen does, but your body will suffer if your spleen stops working as it is designed to work.
It turns out that a person can survive without a spleen. If a spleen is ruptured beyond repair a doctor can perform a splenectomy and pull that bad boy right out of you. But if you have your spleen removed, you will live the rest of your life with a higher susceptibility to serious infection. Even a part of the body that we don’t really know much about has a purpose and without it, the rest of the body will suffer.
You might think that your sin doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself, but you are wrong. The entire body is affected by the sin of one member. As Paul says, when one part suffers, the entire body suffers.
In Matthew chapter 18 we find Jesus talking about Christians wandering away from the faith. In the text leading up to our text for this morning we find Jesus discussing how a farmer with 100 sheep would search relentlessly for one sheep if it were to wander away. To paraphrase Jesus, he says that there is no farmer that would sit back and be like, “Well, I still have 99 sheep, I guess I’ll be happy with that.” Of course not! The farmer goes looking, searching, seeking out any sheep, even the most insignificant of the herd that might wander off. And we know that Jesus is not simply talking about agricultural practices here. He is talking about how God pursues His sheep that wander away.
Then Jesus gives specific instructions on how we as the church are to go about bringing wandering sheep back into the fold. In verse 15 he says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” We can easily get caught up in the language of this passage and miss the point. The version that I chose for today says, “If your brother or sister sins.” Some versions simply say brothers. The Greek word used here is adelphos, which is a reference to believers. So I would say that the best translation is “If a fellow believer sins…” This is important, and I will come back to it shortly. Some versions of the Bible specify that if this person sins against you, then you are to follow this procedure. Other versions, like the one I have drawn from (NIV) just simply says “If your brother or sister sins.” As I have tried to show with the examples of King David and the metaphor of the body, a sin is not simply between a person and God. If you are a part of a church, a gathered body of believers, then your sins affect the entire body. The entire body does not operate as it is intended to operate if even one part of the body fails to do what it is supposed to do. So the way I see it, whether the text says “against you” or not is a moot point.
The most important thing about this passage is a simple two letter word: “go.” If a person seems to be doing something that is damaging their relationship with God or with others, the most important thing that you can do to make things right again is to go to them. Don’t send an email, don’t text them, don’t even give them a phone call. Go to them, sit down, and have a conversation. And not just any conversation. Have a one-on-one conversation.
I think that one of the worst things that we can do when we feel that someone has sinned against us or the church or God is to seek discernment from others first. Because I believe that “seeking discernment from others” is really just pious code for gossiping about others. We might think that we are avoiding some unnecessary conflict by approaching someone else to discuss the shortcomings of another person, and that might be true in some situations, but really, I think most people just do this so that they can talk about people behind their backs and still look like fine, upstanding Christians themselves. “Oh no, did you see the way that Robert talked to his wife the other day? I don’t think that he respects her the way he should. Do you? I just wanted to check with you to see if I was making it up or seeing something that wasn’t there.”
No, if you are going to talk about approaching someone that you believe is missing the mark, then talk with God about it. Not your spouse, not even your pastor. Jesus tells us to go to the person directly.
Email or text messaging might be easier to do, but we can’t convey in an email the things that we can in person. When we approach someone who is missing the mark, we need to do so out of love with humility and support. It is really hard to show love, humility and support through text messaging. I can maybe put a little emoticon, perhaps a smiley face, in the text, but that just isn’t going to cut it. Go to the person and go humbly. No that they might have a good reason for doing the things that they are doing and perhaps you just don’t know all of the story. If we go to someone and start throwing out accusations they are going to get defensive. We need to approach the situation with humility, using “I” phrases like “I have noticed that you are…” And we go to support others. When it is pointed out to someone that they are missing the mark they are likely to be embarrassed and ashamed. They don’t need someone wagging a finger in their face, but they might need a shoulder to cry on. You can’t give a shoulder to cry on if you text someone.
If the brother or sister does not change their heart, attitude, and actions, then Jesus tells us that we are to go and seek discernment from others. This is when you talk to your spouse, pastor, or trusted friend about the situation. And this is not to be you ganging up on the individual to try to force them to change their ways. This is about all of you discerning together what God’s will is.
You see, I might think that something that you are doing is missing the mark, but you might not feel that way at all. Perhaps I don’t think that you should be spending a large amount of money on a Porsche when there are others in our congregation who are having problems paying medical bills. If I go and share my feelings with you and you still don’t feel that you are in the wrong, I am to gather the wisdom of one or two others to seek to discern together what God’s will is.
So if the group decides that the individual is indeed missing the mark, then Jesus instructs his listeners to go even broader and tell it to the church. The word Jesus uses here is ecclesia, which literally means “gathering”. When Jesus was telling this to his disciples, there was no such thing as an established church as we know it. So Jesus wasn’t telling them to announce that somebody was sinning in front of Staunton Mennonite Church on a Sunday morning. No, what Jesus would have been likely referring to here is a group of committed Christians that would meet together in homes on a regular basis for fellowship and worship. We might call this a “small group.”
Jesus himself had a small group made up of 12 disciples. I get the feeling that when Jesus is talking about telling the ecclesia about the sins of one individual, he is talking about having this discussion within a group of about a dozen close, intimate friends who love one another, care for each other, know the details of each other’s lives, and want what is best for an individual.
What we need to remember is that Jesus is giving this teaching in the context of the shepherd who lost one sheep and searches for it relentlessly. The goal is always to restore relationships. As I have said before, I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is how we can find reconciliation: reconciliation with God and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. Remember that Jesus himself said that the most important law for us is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and strength while the second most important law is to love our neighbor as our self. The good news is that through Jesus, we can do just that.
Now, here is the tricky part. This practice is for the church. Remember that Jesus instructed his listeners that when an adelphos sins, that is a fellow believer sins, this is how we are to go about restoring right relationships with them. This entire teaching is meant for the context of the church, not for the random person walking down the road.
When we receive new members into this church there is always a line that I say about the new member being willing to give and receive counsel. Entering into this kind of relationship is voluntary. And I want to say again today that I want you to help me by keeping me accountable. If you believe that I am doing something that is missing the mark, if you believe that I am failing to love God and love my neighbor, please come to me and tell me. This isn’t about trying to look better than one another and it isn’t about trying to be better than another person. It isn’t about having a sense of pride in being a good little Christian. I think we can seriously miss the point of Matthew 18 if we fail to see that what Jesus is talking about here is about restoring broken relationships, healing a broken body, and reconciling with God and neighbor. I want to have the best relationship possible with my God and my neighbor. And I want your help in doing just that. It is my prayer that we all want the best relationship with God and with our neighbor. Thanks be to God that through his son Jesus Christ we can have both.