Every Monday I open the appointed lessons for the coming Sunday, and recently my reaction has been, "This text is going to be difficult to preach." Perhaps when I have been a pastor for forty years like Pastor Radunzel I won't say that anymore, but I don't think so. I think it has more to do with the fact that Jesus' teachings are difficult for sinful humans. They’re not necessarily difficult for us to understand. Jesus did not speak in a secret code. They are difficult for us to accept. The sinful heart sees things very differently than the way Jesus sees them, and so what Jesus says often seems wrong. "Take up your cross and follow me"? "Deny yourself?" “Confess Jesus publicly as opposed to only privately?" “That we are beggars before God?” “That faith in ourselves will sink us?” All of that seems to go against the self-esteem psychology of today. And so, Jesus’ teachings are challenging, and more so when we understand him correctly.
Most people have no clue what Jesus is really saying in the Gospels, and that is why his teachings don't challenge them. People like the “Love each other” parts. They approve of the “Be merciful” parts. But basically, what they take from it is that Jesus tells us to be nice to each other.
I’m not sure that society today would have considered Jesus a particularly nice man. He was very direct at times, and he told people that their way of thinking was wrong. No, the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching of love in the Bible is found in the words, “Love one another even as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That’s the key. Jesus did not avoid the sin of the world. He engaged it in order to forgive it. And that is what he is telling us today.
He says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault [sin] just between the two of you” (v. 15). Most people shy away from direct confrontation, especially when it involves sin and guilt. We are much more comfortable avoiding the issue. And yet, Jesus clearly says that when a fellow believer sins against us we are not to avoid but rather to engage. Not to fight. Not to create even more division, but rather to achieve reconciliation. “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (v. 15). Literally, “You have regained your brother.”
You see, God’s desire is for there to be peace among believers, and sin disrupts that peace. The reason there is peace among the saints in heaven is because there is no sin, and so, they don’t sin against each other. But, here on earth we sometimes do. Nay, we often do. Does that mean that we are to just throw up our hands and say, “Oh well! That’s just the way it is. What can I do?”
Of course not. We may not be in heaven yet, but Christ’s forgiveness is very much present on this earth. And if sin is what separates two believers, then Christ’s forgiveness is what reunites them. And Christ is all about unity. He is not all about “sameness”. We do not have to all be exactly alike. But he is about unity. Unity in diversity. And what unites us? Two things. That when God looks at us, he sees that we’re just as sinful as the next person, and that because of our sin Christ died for us, just as much as the next person.
Therefore, Jesus continues. “But if he [your brother] will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (v. 16).
Do you see how important it is to resolve things within the family? Because we are a family in Christ, because we have all been made members of God’s family through Christ’s blood, there can be no lasting division. The key word here is “lasting”. There will be division because of sin, but there can be no lasting division. So, when division arises, it must be dealt with. And it must be dealt with according to the danger that it really poses.
When siblings are divided for extended periods of time, that is dangerous. When a husband and wife are divided for too long a period, the entire relationship is at jeopardy. So, when two believers (or more) within a congregation become divided over sin, that is not something they should ignore. It is not only dangerous to themselves; it is dangerous to their individual relationship with God, and it is terribly dangerous to the life of the congregation as a whole. Entire congregations have been known to fall apart because of this. And for those that didn’t fall apart, they basically rendered themselves useless to God’s kingdom because they can’t work together to get anything done. So, if the division is not repaired by two or more Christians sitting down and talking to one another (Jesus says, “take one or two others along”), then the church of God doesn’t look like God and the world labels it as a bunch of hypocrites.
Now, you say, “Yeah, but one of the individuals is innocent. Jesus says, ‘If your brother sins against you.’” Well, sometimes one is innocent and sometimes not. Most times both have sinned plenty against each other. But you talk to them and they insist, “No, he is the one who sinned against me!” And so, these things can get pretty messy. Which is why we must take them seriously from the get-go so that they don’t linger and grow out of hand.
And that takes courage. Would to God that people were more courageous nowadays to talk to each other face to face and sort things out! Passive aggressiveness is sin according to the Bible. It is not the way God deals with people, and therefore, it is not the way God’s people are to deal with people. So, gossip, social media comments, cliques, politicking, and bullying are a stench in his nostrils. None of that gets to the issue. It only exacerbates the sin that is the real issue!
How many people have become lost sheep because nobody had the courage to go and talk to them? And yes, the pastor is included in that. But if the sin happened against you, Jesus says you are to be responsible and first to talk to that brother before involving others. Then you are to involve others, and if the individual is not even willing to recognize his or her sin to these other brothers and sisters, Jesus says then you need to involve the rest of the family. Because this person is lost. And Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost.
You see, there is a reason why under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Matthew includes this discourse of Jesus after the Parable of the Lost Sheep. There Jesus says, “If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? … In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (vv. 12, 14).
The reason a family confronts the addict in the family is because they love him. It is because the addict is lost and doesn’t realize it. It is because the addict’s behavior is not only ruining himself, but it’s ruining the entire family. And there is no joy in a divided family. There is no joy for God when a family of believers is divided, whether the family is bothered about it or not!
So, it may be that there is sin between two or more people in a congregation, and then one family or both disappear from public worship. And the congregation, although they don’t want that, silently say to themselves, “But at least we don’t have to deal with that anymore.” And so, there is peace again. But is God happy about that? The sheep are still lost!
The only time a congregation is to disassociate itself from a member, is if that person by their own confession says, “I will not repent.” Then the congregation has the duty to say, “If you do not repent, there is no forgiveness for you.” For forgiveness of sin comes through the repentance of sin. And if Christ’s forgiveness is what brought us into God’s family in the first place, then the lack of Christ’s forgiveness naturally excludes one from the family, not because the rest of the family is more holy than the sinner, but because by definition a believer is a repentant believer.
Christians are not better. They are forgiven. They lament their sin that has grieved God and their neighbor, and they ask for forgiveness. This is why Jesus goes so far as to say, “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (v. 17). Because if someone refuses to acknowledge their sin, that means they are an unbeliever. Hence the responsibility God has given to the Christian church. Verse 18, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
You see, the way God has chosen to go about finding and rescuing lost sheep is through the local congregation. He could have chosen to give that privilege to the angels, but he has instead chosen to give it to the Christian church. It is our privilege and responsibility to bind and loose. It is our privilege to announce the forgiveness of sins, and it is our responsibility to let someone know when they are not forgiven. Why? To make them feel bad? Well, whether they feel bad or not isn’t really the issue. The issue is that they are lost. The issue is that they are terminally ill. The issue is that they are outside of the family of God. And so, the loving family member summons up the courage to say, “You’re in trouble.” In the same way that a doctor, very seriously, tells the person frankly, “You have cancer. Now, let’s look at what we can do about it.”
Many Christians don’t take this responsibility seriously. We, in this congregation are going to. We are not going to meddle, but we are going to talk to each other. Why? Because we love each other. We love one another as Christ has loved and continues to love us (John 15:12). And how does he continue to love us? Through the rest of the body of Christ (our brothers and sisters) that engage with us rather than avoid us. Because let’s face it. The reality is what it is. The person’s relationship with God is either in trouble or non-existent. And so, we point out the fact and then say, “Now, let’s look at what we can do about it.”
“In the same way your Father is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (18:14). And so, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”
That is real love. That is a mature love. That is the type of love that God has had with you. He did not just stay away in heaven. He came to this world to engage with it rather than to avoid it. Let us love each other with that type of incarnational love. For when we get close enough to each other, we will never need to shout. Amen.