by Daniel Harrell
The Lenten season invites serious self-examination on our part. The road to resurrection is littered with sin and failure redeemable only through truth and grace. Still, as thankful as we are to the Lord for forgiving our debts, did he really need to die to do it? Am I as bad as the gospels insist? Ashes and crosses and nails and blood all due to my transgressions? The cross can seem like overkill. It is true we can underestimate the severity of the wrongs we’ve committed and need to address, but don’t we also run the risk of overestimating our sin? It’s hard to say for sure. Our personalities are not perfectly partitioned: light on the one side and darkness on the other. Instead our souls are shadowed and uncertain, murky as to motive. Self-examination is always laced with self-deception. We need perspective, but perspective is not something you can give to yourself. You should not try to be your own doctor. You shouldn’t be your own pastor or spiritual director either. We may call it self-examination, but you need more than just yourself to do it right.
The same holds for Christianity in general. Jesus says “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We preachers like to roll out this verse on Sunday mornings when only two or three people show up for church, if only to make us feel better. It’s also helpful against “spiritual but not religious types” who justify skipping church to spend “time alone with God in nature.” “Church is so hypocritical and irrelevant, don’t you know.” Boring too, I might add, and as well as burdensome and inconvenient and frankly, a bit barbaric. This is a second sermon out of Matthew 18 where already Jesus has commended slicing off your hands and gouging out your eyes if they cause you to sin. You want to worship the Lord with a walk around the lake? How about “tie a millstone around your neck and be drowned in the lake”? Jesus suggested that too. Mercy.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t reserve his presence for a quorum of two or more, but on the other hand, there is something to the assertion that faith, while personal, cannot be personalized. Like it or not, you don’t get to invent your own individualized version of Jesus. No gospels according to me. Our faith has been forged over centuries by communities of Christians who have worshipped together and worked together and served each other and fought and failed and found redemption with each other over and over and over again. We’re indebted to a great cloud of witnesses who staked their collective souls to the one nailed to a stake for their sake. By way of the cross, God fashions sinners into the very body of Christ, with Jesus himself as head and the Holy Spirit the life coursing through our corporate veins. “Each of you is part of one body,” the apostle Paul insisted. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” You cannot be a Christian by yourself any more than you can raise yourself up from the dead.
This is the theological backdrop for this morning’s passage. While some take Jesus’ four-step instructions to be mostly about getting a recalcitrant sinner to finally fess up and take his grace, a bigger concern is for the integrity of Christian community. One bad apple can spoil the whole bushel. Confront the bad apple, Jesus says, in private, and if he listens, everybody eats pie. If he refuses, you should take a few people to turn up the heat. If that doesn’t work, tell the whole church, and if still there is no repentance, “let the offender be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” code for the outcast and corrupt. Throw the bad apple out of the basket.
Too harsh and humiliating some say, too judgmental and susceptible to misapplication. Given all the hyperbole already used by Jesus in this chapter—amputating your limbs and drowning in the sea—some might say he’s probably exaggerating here too. The harsh threat of confrontation and public exposure is meant to make you take responsibility for your behavior in the first place. Be self-aware. See your sin and confess it. Do right by those you have hurt. Love and duty demand it. The integrity of community needs it. Old Testament law required it.
In my Leviticus book where I write about a whole month spent obeying Old Testament law, I tell of a time following the death of a longtime church member who had long since moved away but whose family desired to return and hold his funeral at our church. None of us on staff personally knew the deceased nor his family, but that was no problem. We had a pastor whose role was to assist with these services. On this particular occasion, however, the pastor was indisposed—on vacation in Hawaii, not healing from a car accident—so we did have a dilemma. Every other pastor’s calendar was unusually packed, so to decide who’d have to reshuffle we drew lots, which for us, meant pulling a name out of a hat. I wrote our names on cards and placed them into my hat and a colleague’s name was drawn, for which I felt relieved, knowing I wouldn’t have to rearrange my tight schedule.
As I emptied the remaining contents of my hat into the trash afterwards, I discovered, to my horror, that I had neglected to write my own name on a card. I felt terrible, but quickly rationalized: I didn’t mean to do it. I have so many more important things to be done. God understands. Besides, who else knew? A decision had been made. Just let it go. No big deal.
I do this a lot. I minimize the effects of my actions on others to alleviate personal responsibility. Confession, reparation and reconciliation take time and energy and courage too, even for the little things. Apologies are difficult and always humbling; our flaws as sinners are exposed. But refusing to confess and make right, even for minor offenses, can create huge chasms in our relationships, a separation occurs between us. Jesus, in line with Jewish tradition, demands we act quickly to admit our sin and remedy our wrongs. To resist does damage to the person I’ve wronged, but it threatens to contaminate the community too.
In Leviticus 6, there’s the line about being unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving your neighbor. I’d read this verse just after dumping the hatful of names in the garbage. Crap. Now what must I to do? Leviticus gave only one option. “You must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner. And as a penalty you must bring to the Lord, as your guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value.” In the case you didn’t have a ram, Leviticus allowed for two pigeons or grain from the harvest as an offering.
I found my colleague and sheepishly confessed my sin and told him I could do a ram, two pigeons or a pound of flour—or I could do the funeral. He concurred (with Leviticus) that not only had I sinned against him but against the whole staff and that, yes, I should do the funeral and for my penalty (since sacrificing a ram was illegal in Massachusetts and catching two pigeons nigh unto impossible), I could just take him to lunch somewhere they served lamb and then buy him a scotch (which would count as the value-added “fifth.”). On account of my sin, I would now readjust all my own plans, serve as funeral officiant to strangers I’d never known, plus take my colleague to a pricey lunch, all of which made me feel fantastic. Any potential rift between us was gone. Everything was honest and open and good between us, so good that the next day, my colleague told me he’d do the funeral anyway. He’d actually decided this earlier, and as soon as he did, the conflicting appointments on his schedule cancelled themselves. God worked things out. (Though he said I still had to buy him lunch—which I gladly did.)
Now had I decided instead to keep my sin to myself, and somehow my colleague found out, Jesus would have had him confront me directly in private. I would have gotten defensive, naturally, wanting to know why he’d been rummaging around in my trash. Reconciliation always starts with accusation. Grace is fundamentally an indictment; extended only to those who need it. Grace begins with blame and human pride vigorously resists any blame. Knowing pride’s power, Jesus makes the next step, if necessary, the reinforcing intervention of one or two others, “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” a stipulation from Deuteronomy 19.
If that doesn’t work then you tell the whole church, and not in the gossipy ways our sins typically get told. The goal is reconciliation, getting the stray sheep back into the fold, even if it takes abandoning the other ninety-nine sheep to do it, as insane as that sounds. While the sin of the one endangers the integrity of the whole flock, the love for the lone sinner is worth the risk. But if the shepherd can’t retrieve the one who is lost, if the offender resists the whole church, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The lost sheep becomes the black sheep— outcast and beyond saving.
Is this the gospel? Given Jesus’ loving posture toward Gentiles and tax collectors everywhere else, surely Jesus exaggerates here. In the next section he will tell his disciples that forgiveness knows no limits. Jesus loved every sinner and outcast, the corrupt and the criminal. And yet there remains a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a oneway action. Reconciliation takes two. The forgiving father who loved his prodigal son was willing to wait forever, but the kid still had to come home for reconciliation to happen.
Still, with all Jesus’ talk about amputation and millstones and chasing single stray sheep and limitless forgiveness—not to mention the Levitical requirements of sacrificing farm animals—what’s to say the Bible’s not just being dramatic for effect? Why must the offended be responsible for facing the offender? Why make the wronged initiate reconciliation? Nobody likes confrontation. Piling on only makes matters worse. Don’t tell people how to live their lives. My faith is my own. Who needs a whole church getting into their personal business? Under the old parish model, where you automatically belonged to the church closest to your house, refusing reconciliation meant selling your house and moving away. These days, thankfully, you can simply go a few miles to another church. Better yet, spend time with God in nature. Repentance and reconciliation take too much time and energy, and too much courage, even for the little things. Then again, by refusing to reconcile, by moving on or dropping out, we lose out on the deeper qualities of character to which redemption gives root. We lose out on the deeper aspects of relationship reconciliation nurtures. We lose out on a chance to deepen our souls with true transformation. We lose out on a chance to be deeply loved. I don’t think Jesus exaggerates about that.
Many years ago now a minister’s wife left him for another man and ended their marriage. It was devastating to the minister but also to a church who believed their pastors should exemplify wedded bliss, no matter the trouble, for better or worse, bearing and believing all things. Scripture never promotes divorce or condones it, however there are exceptions. God divorced ancient Israel on account of her infidelity, and Jesus allowed divorce on account of adultery. Yet pastors can do better. Members of the congregation were scandalized. “How can I listen to a preacher who can’t keep his own house in order?” “Why does he get to end his bad marriage if I have to stay in mine?” “Divorce is a sin and he must be dismissed.” “Let him be as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Admittedly, both parties always share fault in divorce, and the easiest option for this minister would have been to leave and try to start over elsewhere. Nobody likes confrontation. Don’t tell people how to live their lives. My faith is my own. Who wants the whole church getting into your personal business? Then again, when your life has been wrecked, you need your church. The church leadership turned to Matthew 18. They formed a committee of three who spent a year alongside this minister: hearing the story, understanding the situation, asking the hard questions, holding him close when he cried. They also brought him before the church, first to announce the failure (“if one member suffers, all suffer together”)—but then again a year later, to reinstate and restore. Grace begins with blame, but never ends there. Those who’d wanted to let the pastor to remain a Gentile and tax collector had time to reconsider and come around. While horrible and humiliating, the experience proved profound and transformational. To confess and repair and reconcile takes so much time and energy and requires so much courage. The risk is great and too many would never dare do it. And yet I wonder if more Christians and churches had the courage to take time and do the hard work repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation demand, maybe churches would be viewed differently in our day. No longer as haunts of hypocrisy, irrelevant, boring and burdensome; but as habitats of humanity where truth and reconciliation are celebrated, where love redeems conflict and resurrection from the dead really happens.
“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.” “Binding and loosing” is an ancient way to describe conflict resolution. Our sins and our hurts bind us and harden our hearts. Only truth sets us free to forgive and repair and restore and make new. Jesus makes sure we have help. “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.” Taken out of context, this promise sets us up for extreme disappointment. No amount of human agreement guarantees God will give you whatever you want. Stay in context, however, and interpret “anything you ask” from the Greek word “pragmatic” to mean “the matter at dispute,” then what you have is God already doing what needed to be done to make forgiveness and reconciliation of sinners a reality, even though it killed him to do it. That’s the Good Friday part.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus said, with language that goes far beyond that particular moment in time. Here’s the Easter part. When doing the hard work of grace—the kind of reconciliation that kills you to do it—the risen Jesus is right there in it right now. And because it’s the risen Jesus who’s in it—resurrection will surely happen.
It happened for that divorced pastor, ashamed of his failure, who fully expected to be kicked out of ministry and kicked out of his church, but instead was sought out, brought back, hammered and humbled, restored and embraced and put back to work. Most of you know that minister as me.