Kindness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 9-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary afterwards.

We live in a world that seems to be increasingly self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-obsessed. A world that seems often harsh, intolerant, judgmental, hostile and exclusionary. We are seeing a growth in nationalism – people putting their country’s needs first and subordinating or even rejecting the needs of the global community. Perhaps the world has always been this way. But it seems to me to be a growing trend over the past several years.

What do we as Christians do in such context?

When we want to know how to be behave in the world, the best place to go is to the Gospel narratives, to see how Jesus behaved. And to hear how Jesus spoke – not just his teachings, but what he said to people informally and how he spoke to and engaged with people.

In Matthew 15 we find the story of Jesus feeding the four thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread. The story starts with Jesus healing people of a wide array of afflictions, leaving the crowds amazed. But in the middle of this story is a profound verse that ties the entire story together:

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 

What we see here in Jesus is kindness. He is kind. We could say ‘compassionate’ and that would be correct. But ‘kind’ is a much simpler, shorter word. It is the word a child is likely to use.

If we scan through the pages of the Gospels, we will see more and more examples of Jesus being kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, engaged, attentive, slow, open, willing, touchy, generous. in a word: kind.

Psalm 23 is also a set reading for today: The Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd also is kind. Indeed, there are numerous passages in the first and second testaments about shepherds who care for and protect their sheep, who seek lost sheep, who bind up and heal injured sheep, who fight off wild animals. These images of shepherding are images of kindness.

Jesus was kind – let us be kind.

Painting by Lester Kern,
from https://www.amazon.com/He-Walks-Me-Religious-Unframed/dp/B011O9Q2MA

Making church work

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.

So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.

In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:

  1. First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
  2. Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
  3. Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.

We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.

If the shoe fits, put it on.

Featured image from: https://www.xpastor.org/strategy/leadership/the-hidden-sources-of-church-conflict/

Invitation to the Wedding Banquet

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the sermon on Facebook (sermon starts at 19:26) or read the text summary below.

Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of 10 young women who were waiting to meet the bridegroom. They all brought their oil lamps with them, knowing it might be a bit of a wait, but only half of them had the sense to bring extra oil. They all fell asleep waiting, but when the groom arrived, they woke up. The five without extra oil realised that their lamps were going to go out soon and asked the ones with extra to share with them. The wise, mean girls said no – go buy yourself some. The girls with the extra oil went into the wedding banquet, but by the time the other girls got back from buying more oil, the door had closed and they were turned away.

This parable – quite strong in its wording – is narrated during the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Chapters 24 and 25 focus on the end times, and the preceding three chapters have some strongly worded messages. Chapter 22 has another story about a wedding banquet, which ends “Many are invited, but few are chosen” – meaning, few actually will attend the banquet.

Three lessons we can take out of Jesus’ parable:

  1. Come to the banquet! The banquet is the party of parties. The bridegroom is none other than Jesus himself. It is a great celebration and we want to be there! God invites us all to attend – it’s an open and free invitation. We just have to accept the invite and pitch up.
  2. Be prepared! Half the girls came without extra oil. They really didn’t think anything through. They seized the opportunity for the party, but did nothing to get ready for it. We are urged to be prepared for the party, which we can do by pitching into the preparations. We can work in God’s Kingdom. We can exercise our ministry. We can give of our time and money. We can come to church and build the fellowship. In short, we can stewards ourselves, our communion, our things and our world.
  3. Wake up! All the girls fell asleep. Not just the foolish five, but all of them. Indeed, there are several stories of Jesus’ disciples falling asleep: In Luke 9:28-36, the disciples fell asleep before Jesus’ transfiguration; and in Matthew 26:36-46, the disciples repeatedly fell asleep as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The absence of church during Covid may have made us similarly ‘sleepy’. We are out of the practice of coming to church, participating in worship, fellowship together. We’ve become dozy. It is time to wake up and to build up these muscles again!

Jesus invites us to a fabulous celebration – the wedding banquet. Let’s be sure to be prepared and be awake, so we don’t miss out!

Featured image from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-R3zlsxfJV1E/TqtbWlWSagI/AAAAAAAAAKg/l3_WDC3LuDs/s320/parable-of-the-banquet.jpg

The cost of stewarding

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Over the past four weeks we’ve been reflecting on stewardship: stewarding our selves, our communion, our things and our world. The reading set for today is Luke 14:25-33, which the NIV titles, ‘The cost of discipleship’. I suggest that there is a similarity between discipleship – which means to follow Christ and model ourselves on him – and stewardship – which means to take care of the things God has entrusted to us to help build the Kingdom of God.

This passage makes it clear that stewardship (like discipleship) is not easy. Two key points emerge:

First, Luke 14:25-27 tells us that stewardship will cost us. This passage is very hard to swallow – Jesus says if we don’t hate our family, we are not worthy to follow him. When we consider Jesus’ Great Commandment – to love God and love our neighbour – we must however conclude that Jesus is not telling us actually to hate our family. That would completely contradict what he repeatedly says and demonstrates in his ministry – to love our neighbours as ourselves.

But he is saying that our love for and commitment to God must be radical. We need to give of ourselves to God, to a point of discomfort, to a point where it is hard. Our giving should not be easy and flippant. It requires something of us that is sacrificial.

Second, Luke 14:28 and 31, and the examples attached to these verses, tells us that our stewardship (or discipleship) must be thoughtful and careful. In both verses he asks something similar: When you prepare to do something, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost of doing it or consider whether you actually are able to do it? We are not called to a reckless discipleship. It is careful, thoughtful, considered, sober, rational.

Our love for and commitment to God must be considered. We need to give in a way that we can actually give. We need to commit to the long haul. We move into ministry with sober judgement and careful thought.

Featured image from http://notanormalvicar.blogspot.com/2017/10/keep-ploughing-on.html

Stewarding our world

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Father almighty
we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit
To live and work to your praise and glory.

We end each Eucharist service with this prayer. It is the endpoint of the entire service of communion. We do come to be filled, restored and healed; we do come to worship and praise God; we do come for fellowship; we do come to learn; and we do come to celebrate the Eucharist. But the purpose of all of this is to equip and fill us to go out into the world and serve the Lord.

The church is a refuelling station, in which we are filled up and restored, so that we can go out and do God’s work in the world.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in our stewardship programme.

  1. In the first week, we considered stewarding ourselves;
  2. then stewarding our communion (our church fellowship);
  3. and last week, stewarding our things, particularly our money.
  4. Today, we reflect on what it means to steward the world.

Genesis 2 presents the narrative of God’s creation of humanity. God then placed the man he had created in the Garden of Eden and commissioned him to ‘tend and care for it’; that is, to steward the world. We continue to carry this commission.

Stewarding the world includes a focus on the planet – the earth itself – with all its natural resources: the sky, the oceans, the water, the land, the minerals, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources. We are commissioned to take care of the earth (and indeed the cosmos) – not to exploit, plunder, rape and destroy. ‘Tend and care’ are gentle, kind, caring, nurturing words, to describe the relationship we ought to have to the world around us.

In addition, stewarding the world includes a focus on its people – on all of humankind – regardless of anything (religion, race, gender, politics, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, and so on). We are to be Christ’s presence among humanity – his hands, his feet, his eyes, his mouth, his heart (as Saint Teresa of Ávila may have written – see video below). It is unfortunate that many Christians see their Christ-like presence in the world as reduced just to fighting against two issues: human sexuality and abortion. While these are important topics to engage, Jesus’ own presence in the world focused pervasively on fighting for love, kindness, justice, inclusion. To steward the people of this world is to imitate Christ’s engagement with humankind.

Appropriately, today is All Saints Day, the day on which we commemorate and celebrate the lives of the saints. My church is named after St Stephen, who is described in Acts 6-7. Carrying his name, we in our parish are invited to adopt Stephen as a model or example for our lives. Stephen was a young deacon, whose ministry lasted less than a year. A deacon is a servant, who works out in the community, helping the poor and marginalised. Stephen is described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. He was a bold preacher, delivering the longest sermon in the book of Acts. It resulted in his murder, at the age of 29. As he died, his last words were to forgive those who stoned him.

Stephen is a shining example of stewarding the world. He was a servant to the people of God and to people seeking God.

Let us each take up our own role, in our own place, in our own way, using our own Spirit-given gifts, to love and serve the world.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
In the name of Christ.
Amen

Painting of the saints by Fra Angelico (in the 1400s) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7ymxW3rndk

Eternal perspective

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The ‘reversal of fortunes‘ is one of the central themes in Luke’s Gospel of Christ. The reversal involves a switching around of power and privilege in society. We think of Mary’s, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” and, “he has filled the hungry with goo things but has sent the rich away empty” from Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. And of Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:16-21 (though the reversal is less clear), where he says, “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” And Jesus’ famous, “There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” in Luke 13:30. Indeed, there are numerous examples in Luke’s Gospel.

But this reversal of fortunes is demonstrated most unequivocally and powerfully in Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke 22-24. When all seems lost – when the worst imaginable outcome occurs – we still remember Jesus’ words that he would rise on the third day. And indeed he does! What was intended as an annihilation of the Son of God and indeed of God’s entire plan for the salvation of humankind, turns into the absolute accomplishment of that plan!

Thanks be to God for the reversal of fortunes!

Our reading for today is Luke 6:20-21:

Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

We see again the reversal of fortunes in this passage (mirrored in the woes that Jesus proclaims in Luke 6:24-25 a couple of verses later):

  • Poor > yours is the Kingdom of God
  • Hunger > satisfied
  • Weep > laugh

But what is additionally striking in this passage is the emphasis on time. Particularly in the second and third blessings, Jesus contrasts ‘now’ with the future “you will”. This suggests that what is true now, will not be true for always. While in the first sentence, the phrases are both in the present tense – “are” and “is” – which suggests that the future improvement to our lot can be tasted now already.

It seems that there is folding in of time in Jesus’ understanding of human life. Past, present and future are not as differentiated for God as they are for us humans. For God – being outside of time and space – past, present and future all co-exist. But for us – being bound within time and space – Jesus’ message here is that the reversal of fortune – from struggle to contentment – is something sure and guaranteed that we can look forward to, and even enjoy in moments right now.

All of this points us towards adopting an eternal perspective in which we are encouraged to look at the world and our life circumstance, not just as it is right now, but as it is within the context of out eternal existence. This life, with its challenges and troubles, is not all there is. Indeed, this physical life is but a blink in the life we can continue to enjoy in the presence of God for eternity.

And much can change between now and then. The reversal of fortunes principle continues to emphasise that God will set right what is wrong in the world. And that whatever suffering or oppression or poverty we experience at this time, will not last forever. It will switch. God will set all things right.

As we continue through our stewardship programme, and particularly this week as reflect on how we steward our things and especially our money, let us hold this eternal perspective and the reversal of fortunes in mind. What we do now, has an impact on the future. Our giving of our hearts to Christ now will bring a return on investment, sooner or later. Giving generously now may be uncomfortable, but will repeat rewards that are greatly to be desired.

Featured image from https://latterdaysaintinsights.byu.edu/en/divine-discontent-an-invitation-to-improve/

Stewarding our things

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Today is our third Sunday in our four-part series on stewardship. We have already reflected on stewarding ourselves and stewarding our communion (our church fellowship). Today, we reflect on stewarding our things. By ‘things’ I mean all the things we have or own – our house, our car, our furniture, the space in the place we live, our books, our garden, and our money.

I’m going to focus on our money in this message, because money is in many ways a proxy for all our things – most of our things were purchased with money. But also, money is needed for the church to to be church and to grow – there are real costs associated with operating a church – salaries, rent, water and lights, supplies, and so on. So, we do have to think about the real costs of serving the communion (the local church) and of building God’s Kingdom (the mission).

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul writes an extended passage about giving. The context is that the church in Corinth had promised to give Paul some money towards the spreading of the Gospel, but had not actually paid it over. So Paul tries in this passage to persuade them to pay it over, not out of obligation, but freely. This makes this passage quite relevant for the modern church, as we also need money from our members, but want members to give freely.

There are four primary themes about giving in this extended passage:

GIVE WHAT YOU CAN, ACCORDING TO YOUR MEANS

8:3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able…

8:11 …[give] according to your means.

8:12 For … the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

GIVE FREELY, BY YOUR OWN WILL

8:3-4 …they gave …even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

8:8 I am not commanding you…

8:10 Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.

8:12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable

9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion

GIVE GENEROUSLY, SO IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE

8:2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

8:5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.

8:7 Since you excel in everything… see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

9:5-7 So I thought it necessary to … finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously… God loves a cheerful giver.

GIVE, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE

9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

9:10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps the most striking verse in these chapters is an extract from 2 Corinthians 8:7, “see that you also excel in this grace of giving”. Grace in Greek is charis which means a gift (like the gifts of the Spirit). Paul views giving as a gift, a privilege, an opportunity and something that God enables us to do.

As we come closer to the time when we make a commitment to contribute financially to the work of the church, I pray that God will stimulate in you this sense of the opportunity and gift of giving, and that you will be able to give freely and generously, according to your means.

Features image from:
https://elements.envato.com/coins-in-hand-hands-counting-a-few-euro-coins-a-ha-Z47B9H6

He wants it all!

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus issues a series of ‘woes’ (or warnings) against the Pharisees, who were a group of highly religious, devout Jewish people. They were also religious leaders, so these woes are issued against both those who think of themselves as highly religious and against those who are occupy leadership positions in the church (including both clergy and laypeople).

Today, we focus on just Luke 11:42:

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Jesus draws a contrast between tithing (specifically tithing of food, but we can apply it equally to tithing of money) and justice (which can be considered the love of neighbour) and the love of God.

Jesus draws this contrast frequently in the Gospels. It is the contrast between the inner (heart) life and the outer (public) life. He repeatedly calls for alignment between these two, and he speaks out particularly harshly against those who emphasise the outer life and neglect the inner life.

The story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4 illustrates this very nicely:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

While outwardly, the rich gave more money than the widow, they gave only a tiny percent of what they had, while the little she gave was all she had. The percentage of what is given is more important than the absolute amount that is given. The motivation for giving is more important than the absolute amount given. The external appearance of the money is not important; rather, the inner heart out of which the money is given is what is important to Jesus.

Jesus also emphasises social justice in this passage, as well as love of God. In Luke 10:27, Jesus answers the question about what we must do to inherit eternal life with the Great Commandment:

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

This vertical and horizontal love is absolutely foundational to what it means to be an authentic Christian or follower of Christ. Jesus issues these woes against the Pharisees because they had neglected these fundamental expressions of authentic faith – they had neglected to love God and they had neglected social justice.

We would, however, be wrong to conclude that Jesus is saying the outward expression of faith is unimportant, and only the heart is important. NO! In fact, Jesus stresses that BOTH are important! He wraps up this verse:

You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Tithing – giving of our material resources – remains important! He wants:

  • Social justice
  • Love of God
  • Our money

In short, Jesus wants it all!

Featured image from https://img3.goodfon.com/wallpaper/nbig/8/92/love-heart-romantic-tree.jpg

Church discipline

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Matthew 18:15-20 speaks about church discipline. Jesus provides us with both principles for church discipline and some practical steps that can be followed.

Principles

This specific passage is located within the larger narrative of Matthew chapter 18:

  1. Jesus starts by advocating for humility; a warning particularly to those who think they are important people in the church, including church leaders (Matthew 18:1-5).
  2. Jesus says we should be considerate of our sisters and brothers, not causing people to stumble while we stand on our rights (Matthew 18:6-13).
  3. Jesus tells the parable about the lost sheep – the shepherd leaves (and even risks) the 99, while he goes in search of the one (Matthew 18:10-14).
  4. Then we have today’s passage on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Immediately after that, we have Peter asking how many times he should forgive a sister or brother who sins against him. Seven times? (which to Peter probably felt very generous!) But Jesus, says, no! 70 times 7. And goes on to the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much (as we all are forgiven very much by God) but was unwilling to forgive another person a little (Matthew 18:21-35).

In combination, this chapter strongly emphasizes relationships of love. Love that is humble and little, love that is considerate, love that see the individual as of inestimable value, love that forgives and forgives, love that recognized how we have been blessed and seeks to pass it on.

This is the context within which Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ words about church discipline.

While we are instructed to challenge or confront sin – Jesus says, “Go! And point out their fault” – nevertheless, the way in which we do it, our purpose, our understanding of ourselves in this challenging role and our understanding the person being confronted, are all to be shaped by the deep love, consideration, valuing and forgiving that Jesus has presented to us in this chapter.

Practice

Perhaps the first thing to recognize in practice is that we are all sinners, so this is a case of one sinner confronting another sinner. This is not a situation of the righteous confronting the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The steps are really quite sensible:

  1. Go directly to the person whose sin you have become aware of and point it out to them. Have a conversation with them, according to the principles set out above. And hopefully they will be able to hear you and the prompting of Holy Spirit and repent. (In the sermon, I share an example where I was the one being confronted regarding my own sin against another person in the church.
  2. But if they don’t listen, go again with another one or two people, and try again. These other people are witnesses and may see that actually you are in the wrong in your assessment of the situation. They provide a third perspective.
  3. But if the person still does not listen, then bring it to ‘the church’, by which Matthew probably mean the whole church, though perhaps today it would be better to bring it to the church leaders or elders. This is now a more formal and confrontational situation
  4. But if the person still does not listen, then “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.

This final step appears to suggest excommunication or ‘shunning’, though Jesus does not make explicit what he means. There certainly are other passages in the Second Testament that make provision for casting someone out of the church community. However, when we look at how Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors, we see that he reaches out to them, engages them, works to reconcile them and save them:

  • The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 was a pagan. Jesus engaged with her when she approached him, proclaimed her faith to be incredible, and healed her daughter from demon possession.
  • Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 was a tax collector. Jesus initiated dialogue with him, invited himself to his house to share a meal with him, and concludes by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Regarding both pagans and tax collectors, we Jesus working to reconcile, restore, include, forgive, save. Combining these examples of Jesus’ actual behaviour with pagans and tax collectors, and in light of the words just before this passage – “your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish” (Mat 18:14) – and the words just after it – “[forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22) – we should conclude that the fourth step in Jesus’ practice guidelines is not about excommunication, but rather about persistent attempts to challenge and restore.

Paul summarises this very neatly in Galatians 6:1:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit [meaning we need check our own faith and conduct before we step in to confront someone else] should restore that person [not dump on them, not humiliate or belittle them, not shame them, not cast them out] gently [with kindness, consideration, sensitivity and above all, authentic love]. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted [be humble, watch out for pride, arrogance of complacency, because you might easily be the one caught in a sin next week].

Forgiveness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Today we are reading from Matthew 18, which has a series of parables and teachings about the life of the church, culminating in a teaching on forgiveness. The central verse is, perhaps, v22, where, in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or 70 time 7 times).

The whole chapter speaks about relationships between us and our brothers and sisters in the church:

  • First Jesus  reminds us that greatness is relative, and that if we want to be great, we need to be like little children. (Mat 18:1-5)
  • He then cautions us to avoid doing anything that might cause others (“little ones”) to stumble. Indeed, he goes as far to say that we should mutilate ourselves, rather than cause someone to stumble. (Mat 18:6-9)
  • Then we get the parable of the wandering sheep. A shepherd as 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek out the one. Jesus emphasises the great joy in heaven resulting from the rescue of the one, and refers to them again as ‘little ones’. This passage speaks about love seeking – God is always seeking us out, even just the one, even just a ‘little one’. God is seeking – we need to be seeking. (Mat 18:10-14)
  • Then we have a teaching about how to handle sin in the church – when our sister or brother sins. Jesus presents a nuanced series of challenges – first you go on your own, then you take one or two people with you (again quietly and personally), then you inform the church (presumably the leadership) and they go (again quietly and personally) to challenge the person, and finally, says Jesus, we “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. We might think Jesus means to cast them out, to excommunicate them. But Jesus’ encounters with pagan Romans (Luke 7:1-10) and tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) are to engage with them, not to cast them out. Love challenges and confronts, but in a way that embraces rather than rejects. (Mat 18:15-20)
  • Finally, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant, where a servant owes his king a lot of money, but cannot pay it back. He begs for mercy and the kind cancels his debt. The servant meets someone who owes him a few bucks, demands payment and when he cannot pay, he casts him into jail. The king is outraged at his lack of mercy, given that he had cancelled the far larger debt of the servant, and has him cast into jail. Love forgives, and is willing to forgive greatly and repeatedly. (Mat 18:21-35)
  • The passage ends with a warning, “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to every single one of you who does not forgive your brother or sister, and forgive from the bottom of your heart” (v35). Through these very strong and threatening words, Jesus is conveying the central importance of forgiveness. We have been forgiven much; should we not also forgive others?

Jesus teaching in this chapter presents a picture of a health church and of healthy human relationships – we do not look down on anyone; we are considerate of others and avoid causing them harm; we value the group but we also value the individual, even seemingly unimportant individuals; we challenge wrongdoing, but in a way that embraces and restores; and we forgive those who do wrong against us, again and again, in the same way that God forgives us, again and again. If we could do all this – in the power of Holy Spirit – what a church we would have!

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