Matthew 18:15-20: Courage to Love
Let me just look at you for a minute. Let me just enjoy seeing you all gathered here inside these familiar walls, on these familiar pews, here from this familiar pulpit. Even as I was writing this sermon, knowing that I would be able to stand up here and speak to you all once again in this familiar way, I could feel the weight of these six months lifting off of my heart. And while we have gathered outdoors several times to worship in person, there’s just something special about gathering here in this sanctuary that eases my heart. It feels like coming home. It feels good, like that feeling of letting go your clinched fists when you’ve been afraid for a long time without really even realizing it. Like that sigh of relief when you’ve been holding your breath for a long time without realizing it. It feels loose and spacious where I had been feeling tight and bound.
All over the state now as we enter phase 2.5 of coronavirus restrictions folks are gathering in new ways and new places:
Mass gathering limits will be increased to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
Playgrounds will be allowed to open.
Museums and aquariums can open at 50% capacity.
Fitness and competitive physical activity facilities can open at 30% capacity.
So here we are worshipping together. But unlike playgrounds, museums, and fitness facilities, our gathering again does more than give us new places and spaces where we can meet and greet other people. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says. What a beautiful and perfect saying for our first Sunday back in this sanctuary! What a beautiful and perfect saying for the gathering of a small church. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I find this verse comforting. I feel reassured that Christ is at work among us no matter how few gather in his name. With Christ in our midst we can and do accomplish things that we could not accomplish on our own. But this is verse is challenging, too, because in this story Christ promises to be with us in a particular way.
In his instructions to the disciples about how to handle the situation when a brother or sister sins against you, Jesus describes one of the hardest things for humans to do: communicate directly and openly when we’ve been offended, or, worse, when we believe someone has fallen short. We adopt all manner of strategies to avoid open and direct communication when we’re upset with someone: we avoid the person we’re upset with, we give them the silent treatment, we complain about them behind their backs, we line up allies against them and describe the nature of their failings in the hope of bolstering our own position. When it comes to avoiding open and direct communication we can be very creative . . . and very cowardly. But Jesus offers a different way to handle hard conversations: the way of courageous love:
The first step is to go directly—and privately—to the person who has offended you or fallen short. “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. Jesus’ lesson is aimed not only at teaching us how to relate to each other directly and assertively, but it provides for the protection of the offending party’s privacy and dignity. We approach each other directly so that we can settle a conflict privately and with dignity. If you take a complaint against a brother or sister to a third party—or two or three or four—then you have exposed that person to the judgment of many before allowing them to speak for themselves. But if you take your complaint directly to the offending party, then you not only preserve their privacy and dignity, but you also preserve their agency in the conflict. You give them a chance to do better by you without tarnishing their reputation.
These are hard conversations to have, and Jesus nowhere suggests otherwise. And if they do not work, Jesus provides the next steps: to approach the offending party with a couple of fellow church members, and only then to bring the conflict to the whole church or church council. And if none of this works? Then, Jesus’s teaching is to treat the offending party “as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
In the history of the church, this Gospel lesson has been the foundation for the practice of ex-communication. It’s how we end relationships with church members who refuse to accept the authority of the church. The instruction to treat an unrepentant sinner “as a Gentile or a tax collector” has been read as instruction to cut people off from the church, and essentially to deprive them of the means of grace. We have justified this reading by Jesus’ next words: “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.” This we read as our authorization to excommunicate: whatever we bind on earth is bound on heaven and whatever we loose on earth is loosed in heaven.
As this lesson has been put into practice by the church, we seem to have unconsciously inserted a “because” into it where Jesus did not: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [BECAUSE] 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.” But what if we read these last words not as authorization, but as warning? “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [BUT BE WARNED] 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.” I think it is entirely possible that Jesus spoke about binding and loosing not to authorize us but to warn us of the power and finality of cutting people off, to warn us that this is not something we want to play with.
After all, how did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He healed them, he changed his mind about them, he sat down to dinner with them, he called them as disciples. If we truly are intent on treating those who offend us as Gentiles and tax collectors—as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors—then we will refuse to give up on them, we will keep company with them, we will keep our minds and our hearts open to them, we’ll reach out to them as friends and companions.
We are entering a challenging electoral season to say the least. I’ve already seen people unfriending each other on Facebook, threatening to end friendships, relating their stories of harsh words and offensive treatment from people they thought were friends. These words of Jesus—to communicate openly and directly with folks who offend us, to remain in relationship with them, to do all we can to draw them in rather than drive them away, and to never give up on each other—show us what it means to gather in Christ’s name. It means to love courageously: to refuse to give up on each other, to keep company with each other despite differences of opinion, to keep our minds and hearts open to each other, and to reach out as friends and companions.
Paul says “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” In this season of high emotions and easy offenses, may we have the courage to love our neighbors as we love ourselves . . . especially the ones who see things differently from us. Amen.