Sermon – Matthew 18:15-20
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and he is already teaching his disciples about how to live without him. Specifically, he is teaching them about what they should do when they have disputes in the church which will be founded on the rock of faith in him.
Ordinarily, of course, when we have disputes, we like to take it to a higher authority. We want a parent, a teacher, or a judge to step in to settle things in our favor. But in the case of a dispute between disciples, when one disciple sins against another and there must be resolution, what is to happen?
Until now, the disciples could simply have gone to Jesus. But that won’t be possible, for Jesus won’t be around to make a binding decision. But is this really true? For Jesus says: Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Jesus is indeed present with us. His death and resurrection do not mean the withdrawal, but rather the transformation, of his presence. He is present whenever disciples gather as both the content of conversation and the witness of conversation.
Jesus is the mediator between God and humans. For it is impossible for us to encounter God face-to-face. We need a mediator, a human being to speak to us for God and through whom we may speak to God. That is what a priest is – a mediator, a middleman, a go-between. Jesus, the great High Priest, as the divine and human one speaks to us on the Father’s behalf and also represents us to God the Father.
That is one aspect of what being a mediator is. But Jesus is not only the mediator between us and God, but is also the mediator between individual human beings.
What does this mean? It means that I do not encounter another disciple without Jesus. Jesus is to be both the content of our conversation, no matter what it is about, but he is also the witness to our conversation. This means that our conversation must be both truthful and merciful, for Jesus is not only truthful and merciful, he is Truth and Mercy. And if we believe this it should transform our relationships, and it should transform our way of dealing with disputes and offenses in the community.
This is easy to understand with our heads, but it is a much longer journey for this faith to sink down into our hearts. It is easy to believe that Jesus is present whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, but it is so hard to let that knowledge go deeply into our lives so that it transforms our relationships.
If we believe this, then when there are disputes between Christians, when one believer has wronged or offended another, truth and mercy are to unite to bring healing. The offender is to be confronted with the problem, and offered a chance, several chances, to repent. The purpose is not to destroy the offender but to restore fellowship. If possible, the offender’s good reputation is to be preserved. Both mercy and truth are to be used properly, to diagnose the problem and make healing possible.
But, unfortunately, the disciples of Jesus have too often looked, not to Christ, but to the world and its ways, for a model of handling disputes. For truth may be used not to heal a relationship but to humiliate others, destroy their reputations, and to point out all their faults publicly.
Mercy can also be misused in the Church. Real problems can fester and go ignored. Those who are being abused, financially, sexually, mentally, and spiritually, are often made to feel as if their abusers are more important than they are, especially if the abuser is a pastor or someone important in the Church. The command to be merciful and forgiving can become a club to silence those who would bring up uncomfortable truths.
So often we see truth used as a cudgel to bash others and mercy used as an excuse to let wrongdoing continue that we may despair of the Church being anything more than another human institution. We long for some unimpeachable court to referee us, so that we may no longer have the responsibility of decision, of making ourselves vulnerable to each other, of having to speak truth and embrace mercy. In this case, Jesus is present in the Church, and we may realize this with our heads, but not in our hearts.
But if the Church is God’s people, it is only so because Jesus is present with his Word, Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. The Church guided by the Spirit of Jesus is able to hold both truth and mercy together without violating them. The fact that the Church fails and falls so often in this regard paradoxically proves her need for her Lord and the wisdom and goodness of his teaching.
But perhaps the Church lives by the word of Christ more often than we think she does, because we will never hear about it when reconciliation happens the way it should. Repentance and absolution, restoration of community, happen in secret – between believer and believer, penitent and confessor, in the hearts of people who desire that Christ be present in their midst.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz,
St Stephen Lutheran Church
September 6, 2020