12th Sunday after Pentecost
It is strangely comforting to hear Jesus talking about a sinful church.
Some heap admiration on Jesus’ teaching, and then dismiss it as too lofty to be attainable. Turning the other cheek is for the spiritual elite. Loving one’s enemies is for the age to come. The Beatitudes are true spiritually, but not in practice.
But if ever we wondered whether Jesus were a realist or not, his words in Matthew 18 put that question to rest. The church Jesus envisions is not some idealized community we have not yet discovered or planted, or can’t belong to. The church Jesus envisions is entirely realistic: it is my sinful congregation and yours. We don’t need to be told that sin exists among the saints. We see the havoc wrought in our parishes by pride, greed, and sloth. We know the devastation of own wrath, envy, lust, and gluttony. Consequently, these words hold out the hope of experiencing grace because they reveal that Jesus knows full well the half-born condition of the community he leaves behind. His words take hold of us as we and our congregations are today and not as they can never be.
The Jesus we meet in Matthew’s gospel speaks to the conditions on the ground in every congregation: sin threatens the most basic of relationships. Fittingly, Jesus’ instructions are nothing if not practical, even methodical.
The first step sets the tone for the whole practice of dealing with sin within the church. Jesus intends for correction to begin in the most personal way possible: one disciple to another. His teaching is not some dry manual of “church discipline” ruled by ecclesiastical processes and judicatories. Sin is not a matter for pastors, task forces, or denominational machinery. The vain hope that sin will remedy itself is banished. The secular practice of tolerating sin is abandoned. A disciple simply takes the initiative by taking aside another disciple who has sinned.
By insisting on beginning personally and privately, however, Jesus equips disciples to deal with sin in the most peaceable way possible. The dignity of the one being confronted is guarded. And the intimacy of encounter even accords space for the one offering correction to be corrected. How often our attempts to correct end up worse than the sin we seek to point out because we come armed with arguments poisoned by self-righteousness! When there are no other forces marshaled on either side, however, there is space for moral discernment and reconciliation without the heighted pressures of one side winning or losing publicly.
Jesus confronts our reluctance to take one another seriously enough to speak in private first to our fellow disciple about sin. Characteristically, we are hesitant in silence or voluble in gossiping or complaining to others. We are trapped in the graceless world of our isolated autonomy. But Jesus assumes that it is grace to the one who has sinned to have his or her blind spot illuminated. And he assures us it is grace to the one offering correction to see a fellow disciple won back to the way of the kingdom.
Jesus’ radical aim is the most critical element in the whole process. The goal is not to win an argument, which would merely cultivate our self-righteousness. The aim, Jesus says, is to win back a brother. We are to feel the loss as if it were a part of ourselves when a sister is lost to sin. Jesus does not use the dry terminology of “church member” (NRSV) but the intimate, familial word adelphos, i.e. “brother” or “sister”. Disciples are to remember their identity is bound up with one another. The Catholic lectionary utilizes Ezekiel 33, in which Ezekiel’s destiny is tied up with his faithfulness to warn others of their sin, just as a sentinel’s destiny is bound up with the city he guards. Sin divides, and the aim of correction is reconciliation, not the creation of winners and losers.
In our ever more fractious era, “church discipline” has come to mean something alien to Jesus’ instruction. The humility required in giving and receiving correction can only be known when the ekklesia Jesus describes in Matthew 18 knows that it lives in the presence of her Lord: “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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus himself is present among his “little ones” to heal and rectify their divisions as they engage in the practical and personal practice of correction.
Next summer EP will gather to reflect on something called “Slow Church”. Jesus’ way of restoring brothers and sisters lost to sin seems a close fit for the slow church. Correction and restoration demand patience and attentiveness. Taking time to take a brother aside and speak correction, making quiet efforts to gather one or two others around an unrepentant sister, and cultivating the right spirit in a congregation over many years so that it knows heartache and does not exercise swift condemnation when one of its own does not desire reconciliation—this is painstaking work.
In Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, John Howard Yoder concludes his section on the “binding and loosing” of Matthew 18, “To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. When we do that, it is God who does it.”
The slow church rolls up its sleeves and gets its hands dirty in order to work things out with the kind of love Paul describes in Romans 13. Love that initiates, confronts, corrects and forgives reveals that Jesus is indeed among us. How wonderful that Jesus’ view of the Church assumes both persistent fallibility and deliberate grace.