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Pentecost 14, 09/10/2017

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20, by Carl A. Voges

The Passage

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  And if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”         [English Standard Version]


“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.                                                                                                   [Romans 13.8, 10]


                                        In the Name of Christ + Jesus our Lord


Consider briefly what swirls around us from the world’s life: people dogged by their secret faults; parishes building themselves up to heighten their attractive to others; renewal of world-wide nuclear threats; pastors unsure of the ministry given them; young women suddenly widowed with children; church leaders worrying excessively about the futures of their structures; individuals presuming to be right most of the time.


The world’s life is always reflecting itself with such highly uneven pictures. Much of the time the world attempts to make the pictures attractive and promising.  But such attempts often stumble and the realities that ultimately surface are tumultuous, self-indulgent and joyless. 


In middle of all this, it is instructive and stimulating to be pulled by the Lord God into today’s Gospel. The passage plunges us into the basic realities of the Life into which all of us have been baptized.  The reading will also suggest a basic blueprint for the life and work of the Lord’s parish communities.  Today’s Gospel reminds us that the Lord’s Life slices into our unsettled moments, that it rescues us from caring only for ourselves and that it turns us loose to care for others.


Matthew’s eighteenth chapter opens with the disciples wondering what makes for greatness in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus responds by calling a child into their presence and comments on a child’s humble attitude.  He then points out the dangers of being an obstacle for such an attitude.  “Obstacle” is same word our Lord used to describe Peter last Sunday; remember what he called Peter then?  Satan!  “Obstacle” is concentrating on the things of the world, not on the things of the Lord God.  “Obstacle,” then, is the attitude of self-assertion and self-centering (the attitude that drives and maintains this world’s life).

To show his seriousness about this “obstacle,” Jesus states that if one of our body parts is reflecting it, then it is better for us to cut that part off so the whole body is not destroyed!

He reminds us that we are not to despise the humble attitudes as seen in children. Why not?  Because those persons who reflect humble attitudes see his Father and his Father does not want any of them to be lost!


Jesus goes on to relate the parable of the lost sheep (the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine who are secure and searches for the one that is lost). Keeping in mind the entire eighteenth chapter, the purpose of this parable is not to let people drift away from parish communities, but to restore such individuals to the Life found in them, the Life of the Lord God as it pours into his communities from his Scriptures and Sacraments.


Jesus then brings us into the passage that is today’s Gospel. Our Lord states that if another member of the Church sins against us, we are to go and point out the fault when the two of us are alone.  How do we understand this sin?  This is a difficult reality to unpack.  There are many people today who skip over the word and its numbing, crushing reality.  Instead, their tendency is to think of the parish as a place from which they get religious services when there is a need.  They also tend to have no idea of what Jesus is saying in this section. 


However, keep in mind that sin is the desire to be like the Lord God (remember Genesis’ third chapter); such desire is the creator and maintainer of the self-assertion and self-centering that swirls around and through our lives. What this desire does is to break the relationship that the Lord God establishes with his people and with one another.  While we recognize that sin occurs when we stumble over any of the Ten Commandments, it honestly is much more than that because it is an attitude that constantly shows up in our actions.  For us to casually dismiss such breaking in these relationships is tragic.


Jesus goes on, If a member listens to you, you have regained that one. 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.  We are not talking witnesses here as in a courtroom, we are talking “righteous ones” (an Old Testament word), that is, people who see and understand the Life poured in on them by the Lord God (*see note at the conclusion of the sermon concerning the biblical understandings reflected here).


Jesus continues, If a member refuses to listen to them (the two or three witnesses), tell it to the Church. If the offender refuses to listen even to the Church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.  It is because the breaking of the Lord’s relationship with us and with one another is so serious that the circle of participants described by our Lord keeps getting larger and broader.


Behind the descriptive phrase, “Gentile and tax collector,” is the Old Testament understanding of the relationships between the Lord and his people.  As is clear from other passages in the Gospels, the Jewish authorities in Jesus’ day made strong distinctions between themselves as the Lord’s people and all the others as outsiders.  They referred to these others as “Gentiles and tax collectors,” a degrading description meant to reinforce that these outsiders were not the Lord’s people while they were!


Thankfully, Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels made it clear that his Life, while proclaimed first among the Jewish community, was eventually going to make its way to all the “outsiders” that reside in this world. In that view Jesus’ use of this derogatory description (which demotes one’s status) is always intended to lead us to restoration in his Life and its ways. 


In a general way it is similar to people becoming aware of how much debt they have accumulated, a debt that is crushing them with no easy options. Or people going through the loss of someone they deeply loved and have no idea how that emptiness will be filled.  Both circumstances are intended by the Lord God to bring the lives of such people back to him so his restoration can get underway.  The point in this demotion is that such people need to find out why they do not have the resources to get through these circumstances on their own.


This suggests that the forgiveness of our Lord is not to be cheapened in our relationships with him. Such cheapening occurs when we demand that the Lord God understand our self-absorbed and self-assertive ways!  The Lord God does not understand these ways, rather he demands the repentance and confession of such ways!


Jesus then brings up the binding and loosing he mentioned in the Gospel back on Pentecost Twelve. The actions of such binding and loosing not only occur on earth, they are also mirrored in heaven!  Remember that binding ties sin down to particular moments and places.  Binding sees to it that sin can no longer run wild, stirring up more of its chaos in our lives.  This binding occurs every time we step into confession, whether that be public or private, whether it be weekly or daily.


Loosing, on other hand, restores the relationships between the Lord God and us, as well as our relationships with one another. This loosing occurs in our lives every time we recall our Baptism into the Holy Trinity, hear or read the Scriptures, receive the Lord’s Forgiveness, and eat the Son’s Body and drink his Blood in the Eucharist.  This loosing turns us from the world’s life to the Life of the Holy Trinity.


Then we come to the most mysterious part of passage where Jesus states, 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. The agreement Jesus is describing concerns his Life, not the life of the world.  He is talking about the relationship that exists between his Father and his people,  and the building of that relationship between them.  Jesus is not speaking of agreements that enable a school board to select a new principal or a local political group to determine its candidate for county council.


The Greek word for “agreement” literally means “building symphonic relationships.” Such building occurs when the Lord God draws people into his Life and sticks them there with his Scriptures and Sacraments. This relationship between the Lord God and his people, as well as their relationships with one another, is further described when Jesus observes, Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.  “Gathered” carries the sense of “being bound together” (again reflecting how the Lord God draws people into his Life).


As we let this passage slip into our lives, we recognize it is extraordinary! It reveals the basic realities of the Life into which all of us have been baptized; it gives us a blueprint for the life and work of the Lord’s parish communities!


It reminds us, first, of the reality that since birth we have this natural desire to be like the Lord God.  Such desire is what fills us with self-assertion and self-centering; this desire is what spurs us to be the center of the universe!


This passage reminds us, second, that a parish community is less a provider of religious services for the culture to being more a faithful and honest reflector of the Holy Trinity’s Life.  Today’s Gospel reminds us, third, that we do not work to get lost people out of our parishes, but to restore them to the Life found in them, the Life streaming from the Scriptures and Sacraments!


As these reminders weave into and out of our lives, we see the Lord’s Life slicing into our unsettled moments, we see it rescuing us from caring only for ourselves and we see it turning us loose to care for others! Remember, it is the Lord’s Life, his crucified,  resurrected and ascended Life, that alone wheels us through the chaos, destruction and death of this world’s life!


  Now may the peace of the Lord God, which is beyond all understanding, keep our hearts 

                                     and minds through Christ + Jesus our Lord.



*Pr. James Qualben is the source of the biblical understandings in this passage. He researched the Old Testament background of many of these New Testament passages.  These understandings are developed more fully in two of his writings - Peace in the Parish (Counselors’ Handbook), 1984-1985, and Peace in the Parish, Langmarc Publishing, 1991.


Pr. Carl A. Voges
Columbia, SC
E-Mail: carl.voges4@icloud.com