Every once in a while I hear the claim that the Bible isn’t practical for today’s living. People say it’s out of touch, too difficult to understand, or it talks about an ancient world that doesn’t bear any clear resemblance to modern life. I’m not saying I hear those kinds of things here, but I do believe it’s an attitude that people contemplate in wider culture. Although I ultimately disagree with it, it’s an understandable view. There’s still a lot that initially leaves me scratching my head.
But there’s not much to scratch our heads about in this morning’s gospel lesson in Matthew. Talk about practical! Talk about real-life applicability! Here is Jesus giving step-by-step instructions to his disciples about what to do if someone in the church sins against them. In other words, Jesus prepares his followers for the off-chance that there might be some conflict in the church at some point. It is an off-chance, however—a contingency plan for that rare scenario when someone in the church actually does something to hurt another. I know, I know: things like this only happen in congregations south of the river. Nevertheless, Jesus feels it might be helpful to be a little explicit with everyone about how to handle it.
Some could say that if Jesus were ever going to get practical about life in the church, he should save it for something we could really need, like how to run a Rally Day that doesn’t wear everybody out, or how to choose hymns that make everybody happy, or how to call an associate pastor in six weeks or less. But no, none of that. Jesus is all but silent on those areas of church life. When choosing to get his disciples ready for the life of Christian witness, he spends his time focusing on how to repair relationships when they become broken. That is sin’s nature, after all: brokenness.
My uncle, who is a Lutheran pastor, once interviewed at a small rural church situated on a large tract of land in another state. As he drove up to the church, he noticed a sign on the far edge of the property that said, “No Trespassing.” To be fair, the sign had probably been put up when the property was privately-owned and the members had forgotten to take it down when the church acquired it, but it made an impression on my uncle. “Here,” he said to himself, “I’ve hit the jackpot! A congregation where no one trespasses!”
It’s easy to laugh at one congregation’s folly, but the fact of the matter is that many congregations don’t need to post a “No Trespassing” sign to convey that message. I think we’re all aware of the perception out there that people who go to church think they’re perfect, that congregations project the attitude that they’ve got it all figured out, that they can do no wrong. The reality is, brokenness doesn’t just affect those congregation’s “south of the river.” It affects any group of disciples, because the brokenness of sin affects every human relationship. It would do every congregation well to remember the adage of one of my theology professors: the church is a hospital for sinners where even the doctors are sick. Considering that, congregations might want to post a sign that says, “Trespassers WELCOME.”
Looking more closely at these practical instructions, we see Jesus does not spare us the nitty-gritty. First, go to the offender alone and point out the offense. Let’s be real: at that stage, 99% of interpersonal conflict would probably be solved. The person who has done the trespassing, for example, may not even know that his actions hurt the victim. In confirmation class, we talk about how this important first step is actually just honoring the 8th commandment: you shall not commit false witness against your neighbor. False witness does not have to occur in a courtroom. In reality, it involves honoring your neighbor’s word and character and keeping a matter of reconciliation between the people who are affected rather than involving others unnecessarily. All too often when we’ve been hurt by someone, who’s the first person we go talk to: someone else! Or we just never bring it up and passive-aggressively move on somewhere else.
Jesus continues: if the person still does not repent of the sin and wishes to continue in the wrongdoing or not ask for forgiveness, then the matter may begin to involve the support—not the gossip—of others. If, at that point, there is still no reconciliation, the matter should be brought before the whole assembly in some fashion. If even that does not help bring about forgiveness and reconciliation—and here’s the real surprise—that person, Jesus says, is to become to you like a tax collector or Gentile.
At first, that sounds like the person is to be banished, rejected, and forgotten about, until you remember how Jesus himself treats tax-collectors and Gentiles. He reaches out in mercy to them. He shares meals with them. In spite of their sin, he announces that God’s kingdom is open to them. Repentance will come at some point.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us find following such a detailed set of instructions just too painstaking. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to sin and reconciling, many of us would rather just not bother with it. Faith in God is reduced to a private, personal issue, so that the only real reason why “I” come to church or participate in its activities is to work on “my” own relationship with God. Such an attitude is not helpful for the church, and, in the long run, is not helpful for the individuals either. One bishop in the Church of England writes, “The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It many sometimes look like that and even feel like that…You can hide in the shadows at the back of church for awhile, but sooner or later you have to decide whether this [community] is for you or not.”
He is absolutely right. Sooner or later, we will realize that the other people in this place matter, even if we don’t really know their names or much of their stories. Sooner or later, it will dawn on us that God is more concerned with the formation of a moral community than God is with the formation of moral individuals.
And sooner or later we will realize that the world, even in its skepticism, is paying attention to followers of Christ and how they relate to one another. As impressed as we often are with well-run Rally Days, or worship that jazzes us up and hits home runs every week, or which pastors we call to serve us, those things eventually lose traction with the “tax collectors and Gentiles.” They really want to see the quality of our common life, the grace contained therein. The world wants to see how dedicated we are to embodying forgiveness—whether we take seriously our commitment to “owe nothing but love to one another,” as the apostle Paul reminds us in this morning’s portion from Romans. Those on the outside will take notice if we treat each other like dirt, or if we take the steps of grace that involve binding and loosing, the tedious but life-giving process of holding each other accountable and extending mercy.
The one thing about practical instructions from the Bible is that the sermon ends up sounding more like a “how-to” seminar than an opportunity to announce God’s grace. To a certain degree, there’s nothing a preacher can do about that. But what I can announce today is that Jesus has some skin in the game. This is not just a list of instructions we’re left to do by ourselves, and the hard work of negotiating forgiveness will not be done in a vacuum. “Whenever to or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there with you.”
These words are spoken by someone who knows what the hard work of forgiveness really means, how you have to hang in there with those who have wounded you and often have to live with the brokenness for a while. Just as sure as we are that the cross means complete forgiveness for all of our brokenness, we also have the assurance that Jesus is always on the side of those seeking to restore broken relationships, ever-present with his steadfast love.
The middle hymn this morning, which I suspect was new to many of you, was written several years ago by a man who grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland. His family had sheltered a young Jewish woman and a political prisoner—and he watched three of his grandparents die of starvation—before they immigrated to England. He eventually became an ordained pastor and hymn-writer. The words of this particular hymn were written by couples he was counseling who were going through divorce. Here is a hymn that is literally borne of people who are literally seeking the path of forgiveness and restoration, people who trust the Lord is with them in the midst of it, just as he promises. The third verse is perhaps the most moving. Speaking to God, it goes,
“You in us are bruised and broken: hear us as we seek release.
From the pain of earlier living; set us free and grant us peace.”
From the pain of earlier living; set us free and grant us peace.”
“I am there among you,” Jesus says to his disciples. And one day he shows his hands and his side, and he opens his arms. Waving us in, he says, this is for you. He invites us to his table—tax-collectors and Gentiles, and everybody who bears some kind of scar, themselves. “Eat,” he says. “Drink. Come, let’s get practical.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.