CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Reconciling the Body of Christ
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about 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 among them.”
- Matthew 18:15-20
Well, it’s happened again. One of the most famous professional Christians in the nation has been caught in a scandal. If you’ve seen the headlines, you know that there was infidelity involved, accusations of bribery, and plenty of blame to go around. And, if that’s not enough, the professional Christian was a staunch supporter of a major political candidate. You know who I’m talking about without mentioning names.
Of course, plenty of Christians had problems with this person for a whole host of issues long before the scandal broke. Unfortunately, the American Christianity landscape does not make it easy to follow the outline for what to do when Christians disagree with each other that Jesus provides in this week’s gospel. For one thing, it’s hard to say that this person sinned against me, exactly, but even if I make the case for that, it would be even harder for me to get a conversation with them. Who would I take along as witnesses to the conversation? And what church would I then report this to if the person refused to listen?
Of course, all of this is the trap that Jesus lets us walk right into. As we ponder how to ‘get’ this person for sinful behavior towards us, Jesus tells us that, if such a one won’t listen to even the church, then let them be as a Gentile or a tax collector.
Why is that a trap? Because any examination of Jesus’ life should remind us that Jesus hung out with Gentiles, tax collectors, and a whole host of folk with whom respectable religious people would never associate. In fact, he made a point of listening to these outcasts, eating with them, and sharing God’s love with them.
This does not mean, of course, that Jesus simply overlooked sinful behavior. Scripture points to plenty of cases where Jesus calls people out, although it is often the so-called respectable people’s behavior, to be sure! What it does mean is that he did not make a habit of simply cutting people off from any ability to make things right with God. When we are ready to seek God’s forgiveness, we’ll discover that God is already reaching towards us. This is not the cheap grace that demands nothing from us but the loving hand ready to guide us through the sometimes difficult path towards reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings.
We should not ignore the fact that this passage is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep and followed by Peter’s question about how many times must we forgive another member of the church who sins against us. One is an image of God seeking us when we allow ourselves to be separated, and the other is a call to continued forgiveness as God forgives us.
In the end, the gospel message is not about what the person who sinned against us should do (that’s another week!), but about how we respond to them. Folks are going to change, repent, deny, obfuscate, and attempt to distract us. Some will be honest and forthright about their own minor and grave actions. It does not matter. Jesus doesn’t want us to get caught up in the equally grievous-and all too often disappointing--behavior of obsessing over others behaviors or waiting for their apologies. When we do that, we get sucked into the sinful behavior, sinners by proxy, if you will. And we never become the agents by which the other person might just find a way back to harmony with God.
But forgiving is also not about being a doormat. Nothing says we are expected to allow others to continue to abuse their relationships with us, or that we cannot call them on their behaviors. After all, that’s where this passage begins, right? Let us just be careful that, in calling out others on their sins, we do not succumb to our own prideful or arrogant natures, or soon someone may be taking us to the church too!
And one last issue needs to be considered here. How many times have you confronted someone, certain that you are right, only to learn later—sometimes much later—that you were wrong? At those moments, we’d best hope that the other person heeds Jesus’ words and maintains some kind of relationship with us. After all, being treated like tax collectors and sinners the way Jesus does it is a lot kinder than what we often see in the Church, much less the rest of America.
Is this easy to do? Of course not. If it were easy, Jesus would never have talked about it. However, it is part of what it means to change the world. The other options are to make enemies of the other or to discard them like yesterday’s trash. We can see how well that works just by looking around us today. It may be common practice, but it is not the way of Jesus, for whom even the most despised of us is still beloved of God. To follow Jesus means they become our beloved too. Let us go practice that one for a while until it becomes our way of life.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus