The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 18A (9/7/2008)

Not in the Church!

Lessons: Ezekiel 33:7-11 Psalm 119:33-40 Romans 13:8-14 Saint Matthew 18:15-20 Semicontinuous Reading and Psalm: Exodus 12:1-14 Psalm 149

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

18.15 "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. 16 But 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. 17 If 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. 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, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

St. Matthew 18:15-20, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

In the two decades or so that I've served as Lutheran pastor I've heard it dozens of times. Often it comes from someone who has become involved in the church as an adult for the first time. Usually they have become disillusioned because of conflict they've witnessed. It goes something like this: "Pastor, when I signed up to serve in that way, I had high expectations of what it would be like to work together with other Christians. I thought it would be different - more fulfilling - in a spiritual way. But I've been disappointed to find out that it seems no different than any other organization. People bicker. They bring their own self-serving agenda with them. They manipulate the system to get their way. Why is it like that in the church?"

My usual first response is to remind them that for some unfathomable reason, God has entrusted the work of the church to human beings. Human beings "are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 95). Human beings can bicker; can be self-serving; can be manipulative. Until God finds a better group to do the work of the church, we're stuck with it. I encourage them to see this as an opportunity to let God develop in them the gifts of patience and understanding.

At the same time, I am aware of how important it is not to let these kinds of difficulties go unresolved. We shouldn't be surprised that this is an issue for us. As early as the close of the first century, when Saint Matthew was writing his Gospel, he chose to remember this weekend's words from Jesus. They are words suggesting that his community also wrestled with what to do when church members behave in ways that are hurtful and divisive. The principles our Lord shared with his followers continue to shape our response today, when we become aware of difficulty in our midst (many church constitutions include some form of these words, from Matthew 18):

  • When there is sin, let the one who is wronged speak privately with the offender, and work it out.
  • If the individuals directly involved can't work it out alone, try it with one or two others helping.
  • If that group can't work it out, bring it to the church, and see if that larger group can work it out.
  • Only if all three steps are unsuccessful are you free to go your separate ways.

Do you see what lies at the heart of this four-fold process? Work it out. Work it out. Work it out. Or in more theological terms: confession, absolution, and restitution. As we order our life together, Jesus counsels us to do the same work that we do every time we gather on Sunday morning. The same work we do when we seek to proclaim the Gospel. The central task of a community of faith is the naming of sin and the proclamation of God's forgiveness. And so it is only logical that, when we find ourselves in conflict, we stay focused on that same task.

Is there bickering, self-serving behavior, and manipulation in the church today? If so, then I say: "Thanks be to God." Not because I enjoy (or commend) this kind of behavior. But because it gives us an opportunity to do what the church ought to do best: the work of confession, absolution, and restitution. Let us be so grounded in the forgiving grace of God that we are committed to helping one another experience it day after day. Amen.

David J. Risendal

Exploring This Week's Text:

  1. What conflicts existed in the early church?
  2. How did Jesus direct his followers to address those conflicts?
  3. What principles do we learn from reflecting on his directions?

Connecting with This Week's Text:

  1. When have I hurt another Christian by my words or actions?
  2. Who helped me to see what I had done, and did they do so in a way that invited me to experience God's forgiving grace?
  3. How do I react when someone points out my sin?