We live in a world which likes to quote or rather misquote the Bible. How often do we hear someone say something like, “My god is not like that,” and then they go on to describe, not the God of the Bible, which is what they are implying that they are describing, but they go on to describe, what I call their own, “god in a box,” which they have created. But, let us go back in time a little. I have to begin in the sixties, because that is where my memories begin, some of you can remember further back and I think you may have similar memories. Anyway, I remember the so called sexual revolution of the sixties and the outcry that came when anyone suggested that what was happening was not right. The outcry was a misquote of the Bible, something like, “Well, the Bible says you are not supposed to judge other people.” The meaning of that misquote was to suggest that anyone can do anything they want, and it was often added, “as long as they are not hurting anyone else,” and we should approve, otherwise we are judging. Today the outcry is one of, “Well, we should be tolerant of other people,” and with that phrase we imply, once again, that we should not say anything bad about anyone or anything they do, and again, “as long as they are not hurting anyone else,” only approve, otherwise we are intolerant. And let me take that one step further. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the world is to be tolerant of everyone except those of us who have a different view of the world, or to be more blunt, the world is to be tolerant to everyone except true Christians who understand that there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad.
But, what does the Bible really say? The Bible really does say to not judge other people, but it also says we are our brothers keeper, we are to recognize sin, and the Bible even gives us ways to recognize sin, such as the ten commandments. The problem is that in an attempt to get by with “doing as we please” in the name of the Bible, we have put up a false definition of “judging” and “being tolerant.” To judge someone according to the Bible is to say that they are “damned to hell.” That is what we are not to do, but we are to recognize sin and call it what it is, sin. Think about it this way. Is it more loving to let someone go on sinning and doing something that is not good for them, such as abusing alcohol, drugs, or others or themselves, or is it more loving to confront them with their destructive behavior? Is it judging a person to call into question their self-destructive behavior? The Bible says “no.” The Bible also says that we are to be tolerant of others, but not at the expense of breaking the loving commandments which are given to us by God. When we sin, God is not tolerant of us, so when others sin, we are not to be tolerant of them. So, how do we go about, not judging, but calling one to account for their actions? That is what Jesus lays out for us today.
Step one, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother”(Matthew 18:15). The first thing you do is not go tell everyone else, but go to your brother, or sister, who has sinned against you, or against whom you have sinned, or just to the one to whom you have seen sin, just the two of you. This is not a time to judge, “you are going to hell if you do not repent and mend your ways,” rather this is a time to simply share your love and concern for that person and help them to see what they have done or are doing wrong according to what God tells us. If your brother or sister repents, you have won them over. You rejoice and pray a prayer of thanks. You do not tell anyone else of the incident, it is over.
If your brother or sister does not repent, keep trying. Interestingly enough, most of the time when we hear this passage of the Bible we hear something like, “do step one and if that does not work, move on to step two.” Actually, what we are to do is to do step one and continue to do step one until we are totally convinced that step one is not working and is not going to work. In other words, do step one and if it does not work the first time, do it again. The goal is to get our brother or sister to see their sin, not to advertize their sin, not to judge, but to gently get them to see their sin. Before we move to step two we are to exhaust step one.
Step two, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses’”(Matthew 18:16). Step two is to take a witness, another friend. This is still not to make this a public spectacle, but to show your friend and help your friend to understand your sincerity and the severity of their sin. Again, your brother or sister is to be approached in love, gently and with kind words, in other words, we go and speak to them recognizing our own sin and imperfection as well. And again, if he or she repents, it all stops, no one else needs to know, the matter is dropped.
And again, if he or she does not repent, you do not go directly to step three, instead you do step two over again. You continue to do step two, over and over again, you and your friend, until either your friend repents, or you believe you have exhausted the whole situation.
Step three, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). At step three, and only at step three do you take it to the church. But even here, this is not something which becomes a smear campaign. This is shared only with the church, the members of the congregation and this is done in the utmost of confidence with the best construction put on everything, as much as possible. If you win the brother or sister over, if they acknowledge and repent, then there is forgiveness and the matter is dropped.
And again this is not something which is done once, but this process is repeated until either the person repents, or there is no resolve. If, and only if, there is no resolve, then you move on to the final step which is excommunication. And again, the whole point in this exercise is to win the brother or sister over to repentance and forgiveness.
After He outlines these steps, Jesus again reiterates the giving of the office of the keys, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:18-20).
The office of the keys is judging, so that whatever is not forgiven on earth will not be forgiven in heaven. And, whatever is forgiven on earth will be forgiven in heaven. As a church we have the duty, the privilege, the obligation, and the responsibility to lovingly recognize sin, to call it sin, to confront sin and to seek ways of winning the sinner over to Christ and forgiveness. We have the awesome responsibility to say, “you have sinned and unless you repent, you will remain in sin and your soul is in peril.” Not because that is something we say, but because that is what God says, that is what the Bible says, that is how we are to love others. What we are talking about is not judging and intolerance, rather that is love and care. The other option, which is the option that is truly judging and intolerance, is to let them go on sinning and let them die and go to hell. We could let our drug addict friend go on doing drugs and they will kill themselves. How much greater is our need to confront someone with sin because sin has to do, not so much with physical death, but with spiritual life and death. And yes, God is a just God, lest we forget this fact.
The goal of Christian discipline, of confronting our brother or sister with their sins, is to win the sinner, to get them to repent so that they might hear those most precious words, “Your sins are forgiven.” The most loving thing we can do is to not be tolerant of sin, to not let our family and friends go on doing the things that they want to do, but to confront them so that they might repent. If you had charge of a child who liked to run out into the busy street to play, would the most loving thing be to let your child do as he wished, or to discipline them so that they would not harm themselves? And, just as little children do not like to be disciplined and just as it is difficult as a mother or father or guardian to discipline, because it does not “feel” good to do so, so it is even harder when it comes to doing the things of God.
Jesus’ final words are a reminder of what is the church. The church is “where two or three are gathered together in His name.” We are the church. We have the duty, the responsibility, the privilege to rightly preach the Gospel in all its truth and purity and here I am speaking of the Gospel in its broad meaning, that is proclaiming what is sin and proclaiming what is forgiveness. We have the duty, the responsibility, the privilege to rightly administer the sacraments. And we have the duty, the responsibility to rightly say, “your sins are not forgiven” and unless you repent and change your ways, your sins will remain unforgiven. And we when there is repentance, when there is a change of behavior, when there is faith given through the means of grace, we have the privilege and joy to say, “your sins are forgiven” and go out and sin no more.
Today we are reminded that there is a right and a wrong. We live in a world, even in a country which is so intent on tolerance that it often refuses to make any distinction between right and wrong, or for that matter between religions, whether one is more valid than another. As Christians, as believers in Jesus, as followers of His Word, we are reminded this morning, by our text, by Jesus Himself, that there is a right and a wrong, that there is only one way to eternal life as Jesus Himself tells us that He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that there is no other way to eternal life than through faith in Him and in His death and resurrection for us. How much more is it important that we first remain true to the Word of God, that is that we ground our faith and our lives in His Word, and I do not mean in our own understanding or misunderstanding of His Word, but in His Word whether we like that word or not, and that we ground our lives in His Word, living our lives according to the way that He would have us to live. Our text for this morning reminds us of the importance of caring for one another, which flows out of the fact that first God cares for us, because, yes, we are our brothers and sisters keepers.
Again I am reminded of the fact that we get it right and we know we get it right when we get our focus right. When our focus is on ourselves, we get it wrong. When our focus is on Jesus and His cross we know we get it right. May the Lord guard, guide and direct us so that we might always focus on Him. To Him be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.