Advent: Hope

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Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.

Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)

Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.

There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.

But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.

Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.

Amen

I really love this song!
Featured image from https://revivalfellowship.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/12_LUMO_Ascension_1920.jpg

Ignorance and ambition

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James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.

Ignorance

First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.

We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.

The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.

Ambition

In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].

He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.

We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.

In short

Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.

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Following Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (message starts at about 20 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.

Regarding his own death he shares:

  • Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
  • Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
  • Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
  • Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.

In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:

  • If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
  • For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
  • He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
  • Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.

During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.

Featured image by David Byrne, from http://monolandscapes.net/portfolio/cross-road

Married to God

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We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.

However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.

Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.

The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!

But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:

The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”

We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)

As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.

Featured image from: https://iglesiatijuana.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Marriage.jpg

A long story of God’s salvation

Click here to listen to the audio recording of today’s 17-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 25 minutes). Or read the short summary below.

Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.

I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:

  1. God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
    • Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
    • God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
    • The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
    • This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
  2. God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
    • Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
    • In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
    • However, now the covenant has conditions:
    • Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
    • Males must be circumcised.
    • Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
  3. God’s external law, which humanity must obey
    • Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
    • God now sets external laws by which we must abide
    • Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
    • Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
    • The solution of the Law alienates us from God
  4. Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
    • Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
    • But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
    • Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
    • But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
    • Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
    • This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
    • The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
  5. God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
    • Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
    • God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
    • This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
    • And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
  6. Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
    • Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
    • Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
    • We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
    • God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
    • We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
    • We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it

There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:

  1. God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
  2. God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
  3. Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
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Resurrection life

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I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.

I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)

Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:

  1. He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
  2. He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
  3. He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
  4. He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.

The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.

First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.

Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.

Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.

How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.

The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.

Featured image from https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/8904/resurrection-and-suffering-saints

Follow me

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Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.

In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.

Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.

I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.

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Rend the heavens and come down

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the Facebook video (the sermon starts at about 24:30). Or read the text summary that follows below.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.

Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.

Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)

Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:

Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)

But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:

But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)

And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.

This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)

As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.

And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,

“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'”

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Making church work

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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/

Church discipline

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below or read the text summary that follows.

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].