September 10, 2017, Not Being Judge and Jury – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000041
The gospel reading today is one that churches have used in a particularly effective way to hurt one another, in the name of obedience to Scripture. These verses are used to support various kinds of church discipline, like shunning in the Amish tradition and excommunication in other branches of the church.
Carroll and I had personal experience with the application of this passage in a church we attended many years ago. A member of that church, who was mentally unstable and a very difficult person in general, had begun to speak publicly against the church, making false accusations and criticizing the pastor and elders. And so, the church followed the step-by-step process outlined right here in the 18th chapter of Matthew. They went to this person privately, and then in a small group, and finally brought the matter before the whole church. Knowing the people involved, I am sure they intended to proceed in a loving manner. But when the person continued to refuse to apologize or to stop what they were doing, the church leadership felt it had no choice but to publicly excommunicate them. They expressed genuine sorrow, but they just couldn’t see another way to go.
It was one of the most painful meetings I have ever been a part of (and I feel personally that I share the guilt for the harm that was done by the church as a whole because I was there and didn’t take any action beyond raising questions). But I am convinced that as a church we acted in a way that did violence to this person, and to their family, and to the church as a community, and that we damaged the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the wider community. It was a case, I believe, of good, faithful people who sincerely desired to act in obedience to God but who made a very bad decision, the wrong decision.
I feel sure of that for several reasons, but the obvious one is that the action we took bore very bad fruit. Especially now, at a distance of many years, I can see that rather than bringing this individual to repent f what they were doing and to reconcile with the church, the end result was that we alienated their whole family along with them. The family were blameless in the situation, and worse, they were particularly vulnerable in many ways, including financially. By cutting off one “sinner” we did great harm to others in ways that were felt for years, possibly even down to this day.
It’s what happens when we apply the word of God as a law, and forget about the over-arching law of love that supercedes and informs all other laws. We overlooked the words we read today from Romans, “Love does no harm – literally, love works no evil – to its neighbor; therefore love fulfills the whole law.” And even more strongly, in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians he contrasts the law of righteousness by works – “the law of the letter” with the law of the Spirit, which is the good news of grace, saying, “the letter kills – but the Spirit gives life.” Paul even calls the law the “ministry of death.” Love is always the greater law, and we always have to take great care to discern the way of love from the way of heartless obedience.
Jesus said the words we read today because there are times in the church when one member sins against another member. But we have to read them and put them into practice – as we should always do with the word of God – as a way of loving one another, rather than a means of controlling one another. Jesus is telling the disciples, what do you do if someone, a brother or sister of the church, is doing harm to you. It goes without saying – which is why Jesus doesn’t even bother to say it right here, though it comes up later in the passage – but it goes without saying that our first action is to forgive. “Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So from the start, even if we have been wronged, God calls on us to forgive.
But love also seeks reconciliation, so from the act of forgiveness we are supposed to go to our brother or sister, one-on-one, to try to work things out. We aren’t to go telling everyone and trying to get others “on our side” – which is a very human tendency. If we can work things out privately the least harm is done to the community as well as to the people involved in the dispute.
If we are still being hurt by this person, we might need to go to another member of the community and ask them to help us. More witnesses can help avoid a standoff where it’s my word against your word. It might even be that the whole community needs to be brought in to try to reconcile you with your brother or sister. This is a very practical, down-to-earth passage.
But there are times when reconciliation doesn’t work, when the love and forgiveness is on one side only, and even with forgiveness, the relationship cannot be mended – at least for now. Then, Jesus tells us, let this brother or sister be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector. In other words, there are times when you just have to let go of the relationship because it is broken beyond human repair. No relationship is beyond repair by God, but on the human level, it happens. And when it does we have to let it go.
This passage gives the church the authority to release someone who has been wronged from the burden of fruitless effort. The community of the church (even though it is made up of human beings) is intended to have the collective wisdom and authority to declare that for the time being, at least, everything that can be done has been done. The church can loose the bonds of guilt and bind the power of accusations, with the authority of heaven. Jesus says, “What you bind on earth has been bound in heaven, and what you set free on earth has been set free in heaven.”
It is a life-giving authority, just as an example, that the church can declare to a person whose spouse has refused all efforts to heal a marriage, that they are free from being shackled to what is only the corpse of their former union. We know that marriage is intended to be a lifetime commitment, but there is grace for those who find themselves in what has become a hopeless situation. That is the kind of power this passage gives to the church – not power to punish or condemn, but power to heal, power to set free, power to protect the helpless – but only by the law of love, that seeks all reasonable reconciliation before letting go.
Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” But it is possible to put the word of God into practice in ways that do harm rather than good. “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” And when the church uses the word of God to tell a gay teenager he is an abomination; when the church uses the word of God to tell a woman in an abusive marriage that it is her duty to stay in that relationship; when the church uses the word of God to defend racism or greed (as the “Christian” slaveholders of our nation used God’s word to support their right to own another human being) – anytime the people of God use his word to condemn or to control their brothers and sisters – then they are like a little child with a chainsaw. Everybody gets hurt. Then we have chosen to be ministers of death rather than ambassadors of reconciliation.
The law of the Spirit of life has set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. In the freedom of the Spirit, we have only one gloriously outstanding debt toward one another, and that is to love each other. “Owe no one anything except to love, for love is the fulfillment, love is the perfection, of the whole law.” Let us use our freedom and the authority given to us as his church to love rather than to control, to set free rather than to judge, to show mercy rather than to find fault, to bring forth life rather than to pronounce a sentence of death.
Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Human beings being human and all, there will be disputes and conflicts in this world, and even in the church, until the kingdom of God comes in all its fulness and all sins are healed and all relationships are made right. And God has given the community of his church real authority in this in-between time to declare forgiveness and to mediate in situations where one member has wronged another, even to the point of discerning when the wrong is beyond reconciliation. But thanks be to God, we are not called upon to execute judgment even on the one who has done the wrong. “It is God who justifies. Who are we to condemn?” “Owe nothing to anyone,” Paul wrote, “except to love one another. For the one who loves another has fulfilled the whole law.”