Matthew 18:15-20 (14th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 18)
“Dealing With An Offender”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 10, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the Gospel lesson for today from Matthew 18:
15Now, if on any occasion, your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others with you so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every statement should be established. 17And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you just as the Gentile and the tax collector. 18Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will stand bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will stand loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I say to you that if on any occasion two of you on the earth agree concerning any matter of which you ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.
You have been sinned against by a sister or brother in Christ, by a fellow Christian! This is not a matter of someone saying something and, in your opinion, they are wrong so you get your feelings hurt. It’s not a matter of someone not acting or thinking like you and so you get “offended.” A brother or sister in Christ has sinned against you.
Sin is any thought, word, desire, or action that is contrary to God’s Word. Literally, it is “missing the mark,” not “hitting the target” of God’s commandments. A fellow Christian was threatening or abusive to you in words or actions. A fellow believer in Christ demonstrated hatred toward you. They lost their temper. They injured you by what they said and how they said it or harmed you physically. They cheated you, lied about you, or gossiped about you. A brother or sister in Christ has sinned against you, failing to love you, their neighbor, as themselves.
You are hurt and grieved. You are saddened and angered. What was said or done against you is not something that you can simply overlook. It is not something that you could let pass as a weakness and fault such as we all commit, sometimes daily. Your relationship with that person is damaged, broken. A Christian spouse, child, father, mother, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, friend, or co-worker has sinned against you. You know that you are like that sister or brother because we all have sinned (Rom 3:23). You admit that you are no better than this person—“Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.” Jesus took God’s punishment for all sin on the cross. He bled and died for you as well as for that fellow Christian who has sinned against you. Through Baptism, you share with that Christian in the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection: the forgiveness of sins and the new life of faith and holy living. But sin has taken hold and you are the one to whom this fellow believer in Christ has failed to show love and mercy. What do you do?
First, let’s look at what we as Christians do not do. From the Large Catechism, “In Matthew 18:15, Christ says, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.’ Here you have a precious and excellent teaching for governing well the tongue, . . . Let this, then, be your rule, that you do not too quickly spread evil about your neighbor and slander him to others. . . . If you were acting for your neighbor’s reformation or from love of the truth, you would not sneak about secretly nor shun the day and the light [John 3:19–20].” As Christians who have been sinned against by a fellow believer, we do not spread evil. We do not gossip about what was done or said to us. We do not go out and tell other people what so-and-so has done. We hold our tongues and speak directly to the person who has sinned against us in love and only to that person.
Why? To show him or her the sin, of which he or she might not even be aware of. The sin, the fault, is shown to the person so that they can see it truly as sin, seek forgiveness from God and from you, and receive that forgiveness from the Lord and from you. In that way, you will have gained your sister or brother back. The purpose of showing the fault is not to rub it in the face of the other. Showing the one who has sinned against you their sin is applying God’s Law. It is revealing their sin so that they will be able to acknowledge and confess their sin and so desire the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name which you have the joy of proclaiming to them!
As Christians, we seek to share the forgiveness of sins and the restoring love of God in Christ by focusing on restoring the relationship with a straying disciple. Jesus shows that each believer is important to Him. In the verse before our text, our Lord teaches, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray” (Matt. 18:12-13 ESV). So it is Jesus’ instruction to us that we start by going to the other person one-on-one. Remember, the goal is to “gain” the sheep who strayed by sinning. We show our true concern by going privately to the person so there will be no embarrassment.
Our life together in Christ is the motivating factor and the Gospel is the enabling power to do this. Because we are now spiritual people by virtue of our Baptism into Christ, we have the privilege, much less the command of Christ, to restore the one who has sinned against us “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1 ESV). We speak the truth in love with an eye toward repentance and forgiveness given in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and theirs.
If the first visit fails with the sister or brother who has sinned against you, go a second time, and a third, and a fourth between you and that person alone. How many one-on-one conversations and prayers? No one can say. At any point, there may be repentance and forgiveness. But if you should become convinced that there is no movement toward repentance and reconciliation, Jesus instructs you to go with one or two others. These witnesses are there to witness to the sin—that it is indeed contrary to God’s Word—and to witness to the desire of Christ for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Their goal is to support the Word of the Gospel in order to gain the brother or sister back. How often do you take others with you? As many times as is necessary until the Law and the Gospel do their respective work and forgiveness is given in Jesus’ name to the repentant lost sheep.
But, if the wandering Christian still refuses to listen, you and these witnesses can tell the rest of the community about the situation (Deut. 19:15b). The local congregation, then, will seek to bring the wandering sheep back into a healed and restored relationship with the Lord, with you, and with the community of saints. Again, the goal is always the blessing of the sinner by means of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
But what if all such attempts come to nothing? After repeated one-on-one conversations, after repeated taking along others, after repeated attempts by the body of Christ to lead the person to repentance without result, then the Church must move to discipline. The leaders of the Christian community have reached out to this brother or sister. If the person still refuses to listen, the straying lamb becomes cut off from the Christian community. The church then disciplines the member by making official what, in effect, was requested by the individual’s lack of repentance—cutting the member off from the church. Being cut off from the Church and the Sacrament is meant to be a shock to the spiritual system. It is meant to bring the straying believer to his or her senses so that the goal of repentance and forgiveness might be reached.
Jesus wants the Christian who sins against us to be forgiven even as He wants you and me to be forgiven. That’s why He suffered and died on the cross—to win the forgiveness of sins for us, sinners one and all! When you and I do sin against one another, Jesus has given us a way to live out our life of faith together so that we may receive forgiveness from each other. In the Office of the Keys, Christ has given to His Church on earth, to the believers in Jesus Christ, the authority to forgive the sins of those who repent and to withhold forgiveness from those who do not repent until such a time as the Holy Spirit by means of the Gospel brings about that repentance. Yes, some Christians do harden their hearts against the Gospel and refuse to repent. In doing so, they refuse the forgiveness of Christ and put themselves in eternal danger. But that doesn’t mean we stop applying Law and Gospel. Even when someone is excommunicated, it’s not the end of the relationship. The Church continues, as it is able, to witness to the call of Christ to repentance and forgiveness. The Church still gathers together in Jesus’ name and prays for repentance for the one who is lost and trapped in sin. And when that repentance happens, there is much rejoicing as the person is loosed and set free from their sins from by the forgiveness of Jesus Christ given to them.
This, then, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is how we deal with the fellow Christian who sins against us. It is a process of sharing the love of Christ that is found in the forgiveness of sins. It is a heartfelt desire to gain back an erring sister or brother in Christ by means of the forgiveness of sins so that they might not be lost to sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. As we would do this for a Christian who sins against us, we pray also that when we are the sinning Christian that our brothers and sisters would show us our sins so that we may confess them as sin and receive forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ.
In love, then, speak the truth. Show the sin so that it can be confessed and acknowledged as such. In Jesus’ name, pray together for the forgiveness of sins that is yours by virtue of His shed blood. And in the name of Jesus, grant forgiveness to the repentant one. Release them from their sin and guilt and be restored as brothers and sisters of Christ in His Church. Amen.