One of the things I dearly love to talk about and proclaim to you is that God forgives sinners, and more particularly, that God forgives you and me. To that end, we confess our sins each and every Sunday at the beginning of the service. And then I give what is called the absolution, “I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.” Often enough, I talk about God’s forgiveness in the sermon as well. And then, to really drive the point home and to put it into a form that touches our bodies as well as our ears, we take communion, which is for the forgiveness of sins. God’s forgiveness of us is the heart of every one of our worship services. It is the heart of our faith. Without it, there really wouldn’t be any such thing as Christian faith. We wouldn’t have any good news to hear. And we wouldn’t have any good news to tell.
But there is another side to the forgiveness of sins that we speak about less often. Or at least I feel convicted for not having spoken about it during my time with you. This other side of forgiveness has to do with what happens outside of the church building, what happens between us, what happens when we hurt one another with our sins. So here’s what we’re going to do. Next week we’ll talk about how we are commanded to forgive one another; that’s what the gospel lesson is about and it’s pretty important. This week we’re going to focus on what we do when a Christian brother or sister has sinned against us.
Our gospel lesson today begins, “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The rest of the lesson describes a whole process to be gone through that includes bringing witnesses, involving the whole church, and then finally kicking the offender out of the church entirely. Now this is the kind of thing that makes many of us very, very uncomfortable. Do we really have to do this? Do we really have to go to the one who has sinned against us and invite them to repent?
It is at this point when we can start to rationalize.
- Going to someone to point out his sin might cause more problems than it solves.
- Wouldn’t it be easier just to forget about it?
- Couldn’t we just forgive him without having to say anything?
Avoiding confrontation might seem like a good idea, but it’s no good. Jesus isn’t calling us to avoid confrontation. He isn’t calling us to sweep things under the rug. No, he is calling us to go to the one who has sinned against us and “point out the fault.”
Why is this so hard? When I am confronted by situations like this, I come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid the confrontation. I’m deathly afraid of it. I’m afraid of damaging a relationship. I’m afraid of having my own sin pointed out. I’m afraid that I have no right to confront someone else over their sin because I know all about my own and secretly I hope that no one else will notice it. Maybe if I don’t say anything to anyone else then they won’t say anything to me. Perhaps you have felt yourself caught in the same situation.
These evasions that I have just described are dangerous because they are based on a lie. The lie I tell myself is that the sin is between me and another person. Not true. Sin is not just a matter between two people. Sin is always against God. King David wrote in Psalm 51, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” Sin against us damages the one who has committed the sin because they have sinned against God. We dare not sweep such sin under the rug for we do no favor to the one who has sinned against us. Nor do we do any favors to ourselves by ignoring the sin. Sin that is ignored doesn’t disappear. It festers and it hurts and ultimately it kills
So if you are like me, you find yourself in a predicament. You know that you should do something, but you’re afraid of doing it. You know that you should be concerned about sin in the lives of people you love, but you don’t want to mess everything up by following Jesus’ command.
Well, I am going to try to give you some encouragement. But to do that, we need to take a step back and look at all of Matthew 18 and not just our gospel lesson. Today, we’ll look at the part of chapter 18 that comes before the gospel. [We’ll look at what comes afterwards next week.]
At the start of Matthew chapter 18, the disciples ask a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They are being prideful and seeking to be better than one another. They are seeking honor for themselves. But Jesus confounds them by giving them an unexpected answer. “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
What is it about children that makes them greatest? It is their neediness, their dependence, their weakness, their inability, their vulnerability. Jesus is identifying children as a model because they can do nothing for themselves, but must rely completely on their parents for everything they need. Jesus is telling his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who are most dependant on God, those who are weakest, the most vulnerable, the most needy.
Chapter 18 illustrates how this principle works, how God instructs us in very, VERY strong language to care for these vulnerable ones. For example, in verse 7, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” I have always heard this to mean that we must take care with children, which is certainly true. But Jesus isn’t talking about children here. He is talking about the ones who have become like children; he is talking about those Christians who are vulnerable and weak. In other words, if you are causing a weak and vulnerable Christian to stumble, to lose faith, then you are committing a very terrible sin.
Then we get to verse 10 and Jesus says, “Take care that you do not despise these little ones (that is to say, weak and vulnerable Christians)” And then he tells a short story about a shepherd and his sheep. One sheep out of the hundred gets lost. What does the shepherd do? He leaves the ninety-nine behind and he goes after the lost one, the one who is weak, the one who is vulnerable, the one who screwed up. God is that shepherd and prizes the one who is in danger more than all the others. Jesus is clear about this.
Then we arrive back at our lesson for today. And as we look at it we should ask ourselves the question, “In this gospel lesson, who is the little one? who is the lost sheep? who is the weak and vulnerable Christian?” The vulnerable one is not the Christian who has been sinned against. The vulnerable one, the weak Christian, is the guilty one, the one who has sinned, the one who has caused hurt. The precious lost sheep is the one who has caused the problem. The greatest one in the kingdom of heaven is the Christian who desperately needs God’s forgiveness and grace because he has messed up.
This, therefore, is what Jesus is saying. “You must go to the one who is causing problems, the one who hasn’t repented yet, the one who is stubborn. You must go after this lost sheep of mine in order to bring him back. Do not just let him wander off! Do not wash your hands of him and let him stay lost! No! Go after him!!! Set the sin before him and give him the chance to repent. Bring him back into the fold. I don’t want sinners to be judged; I want them to be forgiven. But it is you who must go. You must go to bring about this restoration.”
So this gospel lesson is about repentance, yes, but even more it is about watching out for the weak and doing everything in our power to protect them and bring them back when they stray. And it describes a process to bring them back into the fold. This process begins by going to the person by yourself. Do not shame a brother or sister unnecessarily by making things public. After all, the point is not to set the sinner straight, but to bring them back in love, as gently as possible. And if we are unable to do this ourselves, then we must bring other brothers and sisters with us. Again, the point is to be discreet and considerate because we want restoration, not a big fight. And if that doesn’t work, then and only then, should the church be involved.
All along, the point is always to bring them to repentance and to bring them back in love because as we have learned, the one who is desperately in need is very precious in the sight of God. We musn’t let one of our brothers or sisters in Christ remain in unforgiveness. It is only after trying everything that we are to cut the person off, and this not as a punishment, but in the hope that this last resort might awaken them.
Now this is an awful lot of responsibility. Jesus is telling us here that we are responsible for more than ourselves, we are responsible for our brothers and sisters, particularly for the ones who are weak and who do not do what they should. How can we handle it?
This is where Jesus gives one of the sweetest promises in the Bible. “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on anything you ask it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
These words, given in this context, mean that you will not go alone. It is your job to go to the Christian who has sinned against you, but you must know that Christ goes with you. And this is a great advantage. God our Father hears us when we pray for the restoration of this lost one, because it is Christ who is there with us praying for it, praying that the lost one’s sins be forgiven.
So there it is. This hard lesson about sin and confrontation ultimately comes around to God’s promise to forgive sin for the sake of his Son. As I said at the beginning, this is the very heart of our faith. This is the good news.
One last word. I have spoken all through this sermon as if we were the ones who were being commanded to go to the one who has sinned. And this will sometimes be true. But it will also be true that someone will come to us, putting our sin before us, calling on us to repent, seeking to restore us. In such a situation, it is easy to be defensive or angry. That is understandable. But know this. Christ comes to you along with your brothers and sisters, Christ comes to you in order to forgive and to restore. And in that moment when you so desperately need his forgiveness, you are God’s child, the one he loves, the very greatest in the kingdom of heaven.