September 7, 2014, Pentecost 13 – Inquisition or Rescue Mission?
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Some of us here in this room today might be old enough to remember August 6, 1945, when the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped a five ton bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the purpose of bringing an end at last to what we call the Second World War. In order to prevent the ongoing death toll that was rising daily from continuing to rise, the decision was made to drop the bombs, even though it meant the deaths of over 80,000 people, most of them innocent civilians. It was an act of desperation – a choice of fighting evil with evil, as a last and terrible resort.
And at the risk of stating things too strongly, I think that the Church has very often been guilty of using the gospel passage we read today as a sort of religious H-bomb. The verses from Matthew 18, the words of Christ himself, have often been, are often still, used in a way that views conflict between brothers and sisters in the church as a kind of warfare, where Christ supposedly has authorized the use of excommunication as a “secret weapon” in desperate cases – as a last resort, of course.
The interpretation goes like this. If one member of the Church is sinning against another, the first step the offended brother needs to take is to go and confront the sinner privately and make his accusation. If the sinner refuses to listen when he is confronted, the next step is to call in the troops, but just a few – one or two others, as it says “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” And if that proves fruitless, and the offending brother persists in being offensive, you call in the whole army – the whole Church community is brought in to bring the accusation before the sinner. And if he refuses to surrender – or rather, to listen to reason – he’s out. Because isn’t that what Jesus means by “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector”?
Maybe most Churches don’t practice what we call excommunication, or “shunning,” openly, as the Amish and some other churches do, but that is certainly the equivalent of what many churches do. If a “sinner” or a troublemaker, or whatever we want to call him or her, won’t listen to reason, even after the Church has “taken all the steps” prescribed by Jesus himself, then we are justified in writing him off as a bad job, and there’s an end of it. Our consciences are clear, because we did everything we were required to do. And most of the time the person we have written off obligingly makes himself scarce so that we don’t have to have anything more to do with him.
And it works just about as well, I think, as the bombs did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over within a month, but at an unacceptable cost. In the end it came at the cost of over a hundred thousand innocent lives, untold suffering, damage to culture and property that took generations to rebuild, and a climate of fear and distrust that ushered in the era of the Cold War.
I am not at all an expert on history. People much smarter and more knowledgeable in world history than I am might argue with my facile conclusions about World War II and the dropping of the bombs, but I am absolutely convinced about this: when we use the words of Christ as a WMD – a Weapon of Mass Discipline to establish order and control in his Church we have done violence to his words and we inflict wounds and sow bitterness. In our mistaken attempt at following Biblical principles we have sometimes been guilty of dealing out human justice rather than divine grace; we have dealt death to preserve our own lives.
We don’t have to look very far to find people who used to go to Church, but who found themselves un-welcomed, un-accepted, who grew tired of feeling un-worthy, and who simply gave up. It is SO much easier to sleep late on a Sunday morning and read the paper and drink your coffee and get a little yardwork done, than to face the toxic atmosphere of judgment and condemnation. Who wouldn’t choose to leave? And whether these people actually did something offensive and wrong that brought about their rejection or not, the fact remains that the Church failed them, because we held the keys of the kingdom in our hands and we used them to lock people out or to leave them bound in chains of their own making instead of setting them free.
We, the Church, have often, very often, been guilty of misreading and misunderstanding and misusing the words of Jesus Christ. We have been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and we have too often failed to use them with the power and grace with which we were intended to use them. But if we read this passage in its context, we can see that we are not at all being called into some kind of dreary warfare of discipline and control; we are being enlisted in a glorious rescue mission. We have the keys of the kingdom in our hands: we have been given the incredible authority from heaven itself, to wrench open the doors of those in prison and to bring healing to the wounded.
It is absolutely essential to read Scripture in context, and there is so much that could be said about the context of Matthew chapter 18, but you probably don’t want to hear a three-hour sermon. So I’ll just widen the spotlight ever so slightly and look at the verses immediately before and after the passage we read today. When Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you…” he has only just finished telling a story about a man and his flock of sheep. “What do you think?” he asked them. “If a man had a hundred sheep and one wandered off, wouldn’t he leave all the rest and do everything he had to do to bring the one back safe and sound? Of course he would, and that is exactly how the Father feels about every single one of you. He is determined that not one will be lost.”
If you read that first it makes all the difference in how you understand what Jesus says next, because the meaning of our words has to be understood according to the context in which we say them. Just for an example: if a man says “I don’t want to see her face” it makes all the difference in the world whether he is talking about being careful not to catch a glimpse of his beloved before the wedding, or whether he is speaking in bitterness about the girlfriend who cheated on him. Just so, when we read this passage in the context of the dedicated shepherd who refuses to give up his search until he finds the lost sheep, then we know what Jesus is talking about is a rescue mission. Then the steps that Jesus enjoins us to take if our brother or sister sin against us have to be seen as steps of love, steps to rescue, steps to bring healing, and not steps to restore order and require obedience, and certainly not steps to preserve our own comfort or justify ourselves. “Do everything you need to do, everything you can do,” Jesus is saying, “to make sure your brother is not lost. Because that is my Father’s will for every one of you.” Jesus is sending us on a rescue mission; he is not sending us into court. He is not authorizing an inquisition.
But there are times, and we know it is true, that no matter how much we reach out to people, no matter what efforts we make to be peacemakers, no matter how much grace we extend to people – there have been times and there will always be times, when our grace is rejected and our peacemaking is met with hostility or contempt. It happens, and for a lot of different reasons: a person might not be ready to let go of his or her own bitterness; they might choose to interpret our love as being insincere or manipulative; they might be hurting in some deep way that we have no possible way of understanding or recognizing. We are not God the Father, and it will not always be possible for us to make things right with everyone.
And that’s where the Secret Weapon comes in. Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen, even to the whole church, then let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” And then he reminds us again about those keys of the kingdom we hold in our sweaty little hands. “Remember, anything you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and anything you set free on earth will be set free in heaven. If two of you come together in my name, I’m there with you, and my Father will do what you ask.”
When all else fails, we have great power in our hands. But what is it? What does it mean to let someone be “as a Gentile and a tax collector”? The Church has often read that as license to throw someone out, if no other course of action works. But I believe this is a terrible misreading of the passage, and the reason again is the context. Right after this passage, Peter comes up to Jesus and asks him, “Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Seven times?” That seemed generous enough, but Jesus replied, “No, not seven, SEVENTY seven.” And then he proceeded to tell them another story – this time about a man who got into serious trouble with his master because even though his master forgave an enormous debt he owed him, the man went out and refused to forgive quite a small debt that his fellow servant owed to him.
The point is clear. We all have been forgiven, and in being forgiven we have been set free to offer forgiveness to others. When all else fails, when reconciliation and grace and kindness are met with ungrace and ingratitude, this is our secret weapon – that we are still free to forgive. No matter what the other person might do or say or even think about us, we have the freedom to set them free from any guilt or blame. We are free to not press charges, as they say in the police shows. And if we have set someone free here in Norwood, as amazing as it sounds, they are also set free in the kingdom of heaven. If we forgive them, God also forgives them. Jesus modeled it for us on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And he calls us to do the same.
To be a Christian doesn’t keep us from illness or being foolish or sinning or growing old. But being a Christian means one most wonderful thing; and that is that we are a free people. In the cross of Christ we have been given a clean slate, an absolutely new beginning. And it didn’t come with a hefty price tag: we are not forgiven as long as we toe the line and follow the rules and cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. We are debt free, with one exception only – that we are called to love one another as we have been so wonderfully loved. That’s it. “Owe no one anything,” Paul wrote, “except to love one another, because love fulfills the whole law. All those pages and pages of rules and regs are summed up in this simple principle: don’t hurt each other. Love – it’s the whole ball of wax.”
And that means that when everything else fails, when we do our best and receive the worst, the secret weapon of the kingdom of heaven is not the nuclear devastation of judgment and condemnation. It is that we are still free to love – and being free is a billion times more powerful than being right. If our brother has chosen to see himself as our enemy, we have the freedom to let that go. If our sister has injured us in some way, we have the freedom to forgive our own hurt as we have been forgiven. If our brother is involved in some sin, and we cannot in love and gentleness turn him from his sin, we still have the freedom – and the divine authority – to release him from guilt and to leave him in the hands of the Father, who loves everyone, Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners included, and whose power to heal and to rescue is infinitely more effective than our own, because he is not willing that any of his children should perish.