St Stephen’s, Harrisburg—Matthew 18:15-20, Ezekiel 33:1-11
Well, have you committed any sins lately?
I know I have, and I would bet you have too!
Have you been approached lately by a member of St Stephen’s who claimed to have been wronged by you, and asked to make amends? Perhaps. But that would be a relatively unusual occurrence, would it not?
Have you been ganged up on lately by two or three fellow parishioners who have attempted to persuade you of some wrongdoing on your part, and that you should change your ways? Again, not outside the realm of possibility, but I myself would be shocked to hear of such an incident.
One more question. Have you recently considered committing a particular sin, and been stopped in your tracks by the thought of receiving a phone call from Fr Tim asking you to appear before the next meeting of the Bishop’s Committee and explain your behavior? Here, I believe, we truly cross the line between conceivable reality and the Twilight Zone!
Have you ever—I know I said only one more question, but … I lied—have you ever heard of anyone having his or her name removed from the parish list, and being physically prevented from entering the church on Sunday morning?
As far out as these possibilities sound, they are precisely what Jesus the Christ, as recorded in St Matthew’s gospel, envisions as routine disciplinary procedures for his church! And at the root of these procedures is the hard reality that Christians, despite being Christians, continue to be sinners. We are, by grace through faith, in the process of being recreated into the image of Christ, but the emphasis here is on “in the process.” For most of us, it’s a process that is still a long way from completion. The fact of our sinfulness is of no small consequence. Sinful behavior, no matter how minor the particular act, is destructive behavior. Any sin is potentially a deadly sin for the individual who commits it, because it inhibits the free flow of God’s love and grace in that person’s life. Sin is the disease and Christ is the cure, but he does not force himself on anyone. Left unchecked, sin is spiritually fatal. It leads to the permanent separation of a soul from its Creator, which is the very definition of hell itself.
But any sin is also potentially a deadly sin for the larger Christian community, the family of the Church, because it inhibits the Church’s mission and witness in the world. For better or for worse, the world out there judges the church in here much more for what we do than for what we say. In the eyes of those to whom our mission and witness is directed, the church’s credibility is no stronger than the personal integrity of her individual members. They look for us to walk what we talk, practice what we preach. Men and women for whom Christ died have rejected his gospel because they have perceived his followers to be hypocrites.
I once ran across an on-line bulletin board for atheists and agnostics. I did some snooping around and was dismayed to find that a majority of self-professed atheists and agnostics who posted messages on that board were at one time or another deeply wounded by the Church or by an individual Christian. They have rejected the gospel—rejected God himself—because of that wound. Indeed, our sins are of no small consequence.
Yet, as destructive as our sinful behavior is, both personally and corporately, we tend to bend over backwards not to confront one another about it. One reason we don’t confront one another about our destructive sinful behavior is our regard for a slightly modified version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” We’re afraid of being made to face our own sin, so we have gentleman’s agreement to simply not bring up the subject, except in very general terms and from very safe places—like sermons! If we venture to violate the agreement of “mind your own business,” we do so at some degree of personal risk. It will undoubtedly rock the boat, and make it very awkward to polish candlesticks or hand out bulletins with that person next weekend.
Then there’s the understandable fear of becoming, or being victimized by, a genuine busybody—one who takes a compulsive and inappropriate interest in others’ affairs.
There’s also the fear of making a mistake, of completely misjudging a situation, and being made a fool of. What it amounts to is that we generally don’t trust one another enough to risk confronting one another with our wrongdoing, even when we’re the victim of it, and much less when the wrongdoing could be construed as someone else’s private business.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” Jesus says. There is something about the nature of our life that makes it exceedingly difficult to successfully put into practice this simple directive from our Lord. Jesus continues, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you … and 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”—which is to say, kick him out and bolt the door.
What can I say? This is so far removed from our normal experience of church life that it’s almost impossible to even connect with it. If Fr Tim, or the Bishop’s Committee, or some other committee, even talked about systematically implementing the sequence of disciplinary events outlined in today’s gospel—well, I can hear the laughter already. It would be, quite literally, incredible, unbelievable. Our habits of thought and feeling, our instincts, our assumptions—everything about our social fabric—is not set up to gracefully and effectively receive such a proposal. (And please don’t think I’m singling out St Stephen’s here—this applies equally to most any parish in any diocese or denomination.) Somehow we’ve adopted the notion that the be-all-and-end-all of our relationships within the Church is that we’re nice to each other.
Now I’m not trying to demean good manners, but “being nice” is not the ultimate Christian value. Those of us who have the professional responsibility of providing pastoral care are among the worst offenders here: in tending the flock of Christ, we’re so afraid that a sheep might jump to another fold that we avoid ever using the business end of our shepherd’s crook.
The bottom line is this: For whatever reason, the internal discipline of the Church is lax, if not non-existent. And the consequences of this lack of discipline are that people who are precious to God are allowed to slowly commit spiritual suicide, and the witness of the Church in and to the world loses its power and credibility.
But hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel, which are addressed to us today as surely as they were to the Jewish exiles in Babylon 2,500 years ago:
If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.
These are sobering words. God indeed does not hold us responsible for the actions and decisions of others. But he does hold us responsible for speaking a word of warning to a brother or sister in Christ who is about to fall off a spiritual cliff, or is doing something that undermines the mission of the Church to which we are all committed. Together, we have an obligation to somehow find a way of taking seriously the fact that we are all spiritually interdependent on one another. We’ve got to deal with our destructive sinful behavior in a way that is credible and effective, in a way that enables us to either give it or receive it, in faith, in hope, and in charity, by the grace of God. Believe me, no one is more aware than I am as I stand before you at this moment, that I’m talking about something that is much more easily said than done. In fact—I’ll make a confession—I don’t even have a clear vision of what it would look like if what I’m talking about actually came to pass!
I do believe, however, that change in perception is usually a pre-requisite to change in behavior. And in this case, I believe we need to change our perception in one fundamentally important area. We need to change our perception of one word that, in all four gospels, occurs only in Matthew, and within Matthew’s gospel, is found only in this passage and the one we read two weeks ago.
“If he refuses to listen … Tell it to the Church.”
Tell it to the Church. We tend to think of the Church as an institution, and “institution” is a rich image. It contains everything from hierarchies and chains-of-command, to constitutions and by-laws, to standard operating procedures, to membership requirements and initiations, to warm fuzzy feelings of comradeship and togetherness. The Church, indeed, includes institutional aspects, and these institutional aspects of the church are necessary and important, even good. But I would suggest to you that the institution is perhaps the least helpful single image of the church one could choose, because it also carries with it the idea of being a voluntary association. We join the Rotary Club, or the Junior League, or the country club, or whatever, if we perceive that membership would be advantageous or desirable. And when we no longer find it advantageous or desirable, we can resign or renounce or revoke, or do whatever we need to do to end our association with the institution. The institution can even end its relationship with itself if it sees fit, by disbanding. But one thing an institution cannot do is interfere in our personal lives. The country club may require white shoes on the tennis court, but it cannot tell its members what to wear at the grocery store. So if we perceive of the Church as an institution, it’s no wonder that we hesitate to either give or receive discipline through her.
The church is not, in its essence, an institution. The church is not merely an aggregation of individuals who perceive that they share similar opinions or experiences about God and want to get together for worship or fellowship or service or whatever. The Church is a tribe, a clan, a family. The prototype for the Church was the ancient Hebrew nation, the twelve tribes of Israel. They were related by blood. We are related by water, the water of baptism. And in this case, water is thicker than blood! One does not choose to become a member of a tribe—one is born into it. One does not apply for admission to a family—one is born or adopted into it. We are adopted into the family of the Church, the Christian tribe, at our baptism. And, most importantly, we can’t resign from our family. We can abandon or betray it, but we can’t ever stop being a member of it. At the font, we were marked as Christ’s own forever, and nothing can erase that mark.
If we can alter our perception from Church-as-institution to Church-as-tribe, if we change the way we think about the Church from being a voluntary association to being a family, an extended family which can never disown us, we are moving in the direction of experiencing the bonds of trust, of mutual confidence. And although a functioning family is never perfect, it does create the environment in which discipline, even if not always or ever successful, is at least credible. It creates the environment in which it is natural for members to express concern about one another, in which it is expected that a warning about impending danger is not considered an unwarranted intrusion into personal affairs, but as evidence of love, the love of one family member for another.
As long as we choose to relate to the Church as an institution, we will always recoil at the thought of church discipline. But if we see the Church as an extended family into which we have been born, we have a chance, at least, of developing the trust necessary to submit to her discipline. And if we are able to do that, we will ensure that our sins never become deadly sins, either for ourselves, or for those who may depend on us as mediators of the word of the Lord and the gospel of his Christ. Amen.