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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Featured image from https://www.practicalrecovery.com/prblog/how-to-forgive/

Sower, Soil, Seed

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Matthew 13: 3b-19 presents to us the well-known parable of the sower, in which seeds are sown on four types of soil – only one of which is good soil that produces good crops. Usually our sermons focus on the types of soil. Today, I’d like us to focus on some of the key characters, and imagine that we are that character.

1. The Sower. The key thing that stands out about the Sower is that he is careless. He scatters seed carelessly, without thinking. He is given a bag of precious seed, that presumably had significant value and a limited supply. And he scatters it left, right and centre without thought for where it might land.

If we are the Sower, then God is calling us to be responsible for the opportunities God gives us to do the work of God in the world. We should not be careless; we should be responsible. The opportunities we are give to do God’s work are precious and we should treat them all, even the tiny ones, with a sense of gravitas and reverence.

2. The Soil. The key thing that stands out about the Soil is that it is not conducive. Some of it is compressed and hard, exposing seeds to the elements and birds. Some of it is rocky and shallow, not allowing seeds to take root. Some of it is riddled with weeds that dominate the soil and do not allow the seeds the opportunity to breathe and grow. It is only the fourth Soil that Jesus says is ‘good’. It is good because it is able to create a conducive environment for the seeds to grow and mature.

If we are the Soil, then God is calling us to be receptive to the voice of God. Jesus ends his parable with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” Some commentators argue that the soil refers to our ears – it is our capacity to be hear God’s voice, to receptive to the seeds God drops in our ears, that Jesus is calling for.

3. The Seeds. Arguably the hero of the story is the Seed. Ultimately, the Seed is central. The key thing that stands out about the Seed is that is wasted. We know that seeds are a precious commodity; there are seed banks around the world that serve to preserve this precious commodity. But in this story, three quarters of the Seed is wasted – it cannot grow, cannot flourish, cannot produce a crop. Only one quarter of the Seed is productive. Imagine if only 10 hours of the work you do each week is actually useful or productive, and that 30 hours are wasted. How disillusioning that would be!

If we are the Seed, then God is calling us to be fruitful. Jesus wants us to be productive – to produce more than we started with. He is looking for a small input and a large output. Indeed, he quantifies the productivity: “it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown”. That’s a big increase from the current 25%. And now Jesus says, if we have ears, then hear!

This is a central message of this parable:
we must be fruitful and productive.

Featured image from gardentech.com

Be audacious!

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

In Matthew 10:7-14, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on their first solo mission, and his instructions seem to be grounded in this message:

Be audacious!

Jesus is not saying, be arrogant, insolent, obnoxious, offensive, dogmatic or judgemental. But he is saying, be brave, be courageous, be reckless, jump in the deep end!

Here’s what we are to do:

  • We proclaim the good news that God is present in the midst of human life. God is near, right here, present, engaged.
  • We heal, cleanse, raise and cast out illnesses in all its manifestations, at both personal and social levels. Healing is, in Jesus’ understanding and practice, not only physical, but also relational and social.
  • We are generous in our investment in the lives of others – freely we have received, freely we give. We don’t hold back, we don’t over think, we don’t over risk manage.
  • We don’t take provisions with us, we don’t over plan, we don’t pamper ourselves. We simply go – a bit reckless.
  • We don’t take from the people we go to. We don’t go to enrich ourselves. We go to give.
  • We find people who are receptive to what we have to offer, and we spend time with them. And if people are not receptive, we just move on, shake the dust off our feet. It is almost blasé – if people want to listen, we talk with them; if they don’t, we don’t worry, we just move on.

Be audacious, be courageous, be reckless, be blasé. Don’t worry, don’t over plan, don’t over think. Jump in! Be brave!

Be audacious!

Feature image from here.

Welcome & Reward

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

Matthew 10 presents the narrative of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples to do his work in the world. The chapter is filled with all kinds of dire messages about how difficult this work will be: the disciples will be rejected, beaten, persecuted, threatened by Satan, etc. They are like sheep among wolves. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and prophecies deep discord between family members. And finally he says that anyone who loves their family more than him is not worthy of him.

These are tough words! Being a disciple is not fun and games! It is hard, threatening, demanding work. 

By the time we get to verse 40, the disciples were probably feeling rather shattered by what was expected of them and daunted by Jesus’ expectations. But finally, in the last three verses there is a little respite:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are two messages here: one for the disciples (and all Christian workers) and one for all Christians:

  1. For the disciples (and all Christian workers), there is the encouragement that we will be welcomed by members of the church. The word ‘welcome’ appears six times in two verses. Welcoming suggests at least the following:
    • That Christian workers are embraced warmly by church members, valued, appreciated, encouraged, thanked, etc. This welcome is relational, personal, support.
    • That Christian workers’ subsistence needs are met. This appears particularly in the last verse which refers to “a cup of cold water”. I’m not advocating that Christian workers received sports cars and mansions! Definitely not!! But I am saying that Jesus promises that workers’ needs will be met by the church.
  2. For the Christian who does the welcoming, there is a promise of a reward – when we welcome a Christian worker, we welcome Christ; and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God the Father (and no doubt Holy Spirit also). The reward is not a pat on the back, community recognition or a medal. The reward is the very presence of God!

Finally, we note that Jesus seems to present some kind of hierarchy of Christian workers: the 12 disciples, prophets, righteous persons and little ones who are his disciples. The implication is that all Christians are Christian workers, whether you are an illustrious disciple or prophet, or ‘just’ a humble follower of Christ doing what you can – a ‘little fish’, so to speak. If this is the case – that all followers of Christ, all Christians, are Christian workers – then the welcoming that we do for each other is mutual – we welcome each other.

That means Jesus is describing the whole church as a working and welcoming community.

 

Featured image from https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/jesus-asked-the-right-questions/

Shrewd Christian

Our reading for today (Luke 16:1-9) has to be one of the oddest of Jesus’ parables. Here it is in full:

“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Three thousand liters of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifteen hundred.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘Thirty tons of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it twenty-four.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Instead of preaching a sermon on this topic, I engaged a few of the parishioners in enacting the scene. This service took place at Irene Homes for intellectually disabled women, a ministry setting that brings me great joy. The ladies participated wholeheartedly in the acting out the story, as you can see in the video taken by someone in the congregation.


The moral of the story is that we should use what we have in life (what Jesus refers to as ‘worldly wealth’) to build positive relationships with people and to invest in the development of the world. While the people we invest in might not open their homes to us, as the dishonest manager in Jesus’ story hoped. But God will open his eternal home to us. And that’s a worthwhile investment!