(The Sunday I was scheduled to preach on Matthew 18 was interrupted by an ice storm. I continued working on the written version, and it got a little long, so I broke it into two parts.)
Jesus established a church. He formed his band of disciples into a family, a community with a mission. The mission of his disciples is to be his eyes, ears, hands, and feet in the world. The mission is to demonstrate, at least in small ways, what the kingdom of God will be like when it comes, what the world will be like when the Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The church is a community with authority. If you were shocked by Christ’s words to Simon Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” think about what he says in Matthew 18. He gives that same authority to any two or three disciples gathered in his name.
The word church, ekklesia in Greek comes from Athens, Greece; the city that invented democracy. The ekklesia in Athens was the assembly of citizens who gathered to debate and enact the city’s laws and business. When Athens decided to go to war, it was by a vote of the ekklesia. Every citizen was guaranteed the right of free speech and the right to an equal vote. In the ekklesia of Christ, everyone is equal and the united decision of the assembled disciples has authority.
Matthew 18 shows us two things that were very important to Jesus. The first is the well-being of children. The second is reconciliation.
In the ancient world there was no public education, no laws guaranteeing food or medical treatment for children, no laws protecting children from dangerous work or even slavery. Jesus disciples (we are always slow to learn) thought his work was too important to allow children to interrupt; but he rebuked them. “Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.” When heaven comes to earth, when God’s will is done here, children will be the greatest.
Several years ago when I was in seminary we visited a juvenile detention center (a jail for kids). The chaplain told us, “We think we are a youth culture, but we don’t care about kids. People want to imagine that they are forever young, but they don’t want to help those who are young.” He described how the facility was run down, overcrowded, and understaffed. He described the brutal treatment the kids often received. He said, “I know we as a nation have given up on the idea of rehabilitating adult criminals; but these are kids. They can change if we show them a better way and give them hope of living a better life.” He complained that instead of investing the money needed to help troubled youth, the state was building a new highway.
Jesus cared about children. In fact, he said no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become like a child. Children are naturally trusting. The don’t learn how to be suspicious or how to hate until adults or older children teach them.
Jesus also cared about reconciliation. So reconciliation is to be the rule for his followers. Too often we wait for the other person to make the first move. In Matthew 5 he says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you . . . go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” In Matthew 18 he says, “if your brother or sister has sinned against you,” you should go to him or her and seek reconciliation. The burden is on the one who is aware of the problem. Notice he does not say we always have to turn the other cheek, or just take it. We have the right and the responsibility to correct a brother or sister–one with whom we have a relationship. We have the right to demand that they do what is necessary to make it right.
If the offender does not listen to us, we can enlist two mature, wise, sensitive people to accompany us on the next visit in hope of reconciliation. Then if the offender still refuses to budge we bring him or her before the whole church. The church then has the authority to give binding instruction to the offender, and if he or she refuses, the obstinate one is to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Those last words are a little ironic: Matthew who wrote them was a tax collector when Jesus called him. And Jesus heard the pleas of Gentiles when they came to him. It does not mean we should regard them as an enemy. There are some churches that practice a very harsh form of shunning; that is not what Jesus means. It means we regard them as someone who needs to be converted. They are like someone who betrays there own country or like someone who worships false gods. They need to be instructed–if they will listen. Otherwise, they are treated with basic human decency and respect, but they are no longer regarded as a follower of Jesus.
Then Jesus said something even more amazing. Simon Peter (the Rock) knew there must be more to it. I imagine him thinking to himself, “But I suppose he’s going to tell us now that we have to forgive him if he repents.” So he asks the question, “How many times to I have to forgive someone who wrongs me? Seven times?” And Jesus responds with the answer, not seven times, but seventy times seven. The purpose of discipline is redemption and reconciliation.
If your church has archives, it is interesting to look back at the records. If you go back many years you will find that “Brother X” or “Sister Y” was removed from the membership roles for repeated gossiping, using vulgar language in the presence of a lady, lingering over strong drink, or other such offenses. We don’t see that much any more, and I think for good reason. We are aware of our own faults and don’t want to be judgmental.
I think there is one area at least where the church has to enforce discipline, and that is when it comes to the abuse of children and other vulnerable people. Usually in cases of domestic violence, it is women who are more vulnerable and more in need of protection. Sometimes the elderly suffer abuse. We cannot tolerate abuse within our walls or in the private homes of our members. When it happens the first priority has to be the protection of the innocent and vulnerable.
There is a danger of the misapplication of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness here. When there is a conflict between the two priorities, the safety of children and the vulnerable comes first. You don’t get a second chance to abuse children.