Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Instructions. From Exodus to the Gospel our readings this morning are just filled with detailed instructions about how things are to be done.
What happens when we get instructions with something? What does that tell us? Well, it might give you hope that a thing that initially seems overwhelming can be done. Recently a pastor friend of mine in another town told a story about getting a new office desk. When the desk arrived it came in a box in what she said felt like a million pieces. She said if it had been up to her she might never have gotten it together, but that by faithfully reading the instructions (with the help of a magnifying glass) two of the men in her congregation worked for two days and assembled the desk out of all it’s myriad parts.
Or it also might say that this thing you are undertaking is so important that even HOW you do it matters. And we all know that sometimes if you ignore that, things may not work so well. I am famous for following my mother’s line of “if all else fails follow the instructions.” I’ll get something that comes with instructions and I’ll be so sure I know how it should be done that I’ll just ignore them and start setting it up or assembling it. Only later on I’ll discover that there was an order I should have followed, or something important I would have known…had I followed the instructions. Sometimes my not having done so means I have parts left over. Or sometimes I have to take things apart and begin again. Or sometimes it won’t work at all.
We know just like with the instructions that come with the things we have to assemble, the instructions in our Gospel reading this morning are telling us something. Apparently human nature has not changed a lot in the last couple millennia. It sounds like the people back then were having the same sorts of interpersonal struggles and conflicts we find ourselves in and were looking for answers just as we are. Matthew records Jesus trying to give his disciples some instructions about how to be the church, how to be together in a community based in love, to handle the inevitable conflicts and struggles that arise when people are in relationship....and to handle them from a new perspective, the perspective of building God’s kingdom among us. Unfortunately, like the instructions we get with things, these instructions can be ignored, or what’s even worse, in the case of Scripture, they can be misconstrued or misused. This particular text is one of the ones that has been misused in various ways. It has been quoted at people to silence them, and keep needed truths from being told, it has been used as an excuse to gang up on people who held unpopular viewpoints, and it has been used to justify shunning and exclusion “in the name of God.” That clearly was not what Jesus had in mind, so let’s take a few minutes to look at what these instructions are really telling us….First I’d like to re-read you the first few lines in the King James translation, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”
Suddenly we are up close and personal here…the brothers and sisters of our daily lives….not some anonymous “church member” but someone with whom we are in close and intimate personal relationship, someone with whom we have kinship, like a brother….or sister. And what does Jesus say to do when this brother or sister has “trespassed” or done something that has damaged the relational bonds between us? He says “GO to them.” Now how countercultural is that? I don’t know about you, but often the last thing I want to do when someone has upset me is approach them! Oh, I want to talk about it, I want to get it off my chest….but often the temptation is to do it with anybody but the person whom I feel has wronged me. But Jesus is pretty clear, go and tell that person, and do it when it is just the two of you. And why? Is it to chastise, or to fix? To punish or correct? No. It is to “regain” that one. To bring them back to you, to restore the relationship, to heal the breach in the communal connection, the wound in the body of Christ. To try to bring that sheep that might otherwise be lost back into the sheepfold. Then Jesus continues the instructions. Suppose things have not gone well with you and your brother or sister in this conflict resolution. The problem continues and you have not reached resolution on that first try. You are at an impasse. In our language perhaps we might say we are stuck at “he said/she said.” Then, he says, take it to the level of the larger community and bring witnesses. Rather than talking about ganging up on someone, which is what our modern Western minds might conjure, what Jesus seems to be really talking about is an application of justice which incorporates the biblical provision that charges must be supported by at least two witnesses. Jesus’ listeners would have understood this, and if we think about it a bit, we can too. Jesus will even help us with it…”where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there” he says. So take heart, we are not working without a net here. And if we are still stuck, even there, let’s widen the circle even more to include even more community in trying to bring this lost one back. Bring it to the church...to this whole loving community who can surround the struggling brothers or sisters with their collective strength and wisdom. “And even after all this effort is applied, if the one who has offended is not able to hear us, then what? “If they refuse,” he says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is the place where we might get confused. Those people after all were not part of the community. They were excluded. They were outsiders. Precisely. And what did Jesus do with the excluded and the outsiders? He drew them in, he ate with them, he included them….and we are back full circle….all about the returning and the regaining….all about the love.
Because really Jesus was saying what Jesus is always saying, “Go in love. Do this in love. Act in love.” As we heard in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
It’s that countercultural thing again…if someone has hurt us, wronged us, upset us….we are to make the first move, take the first step. Go to them in love. All by yourself. Tell them. That takes a level of radical trust and vulnerability that few of us come by naturally. It truly is an act of faith to do this. And to have as our hope and our goal to restore relationship, to bring the other back towards us, back into connection with us in loving communion. This too is not always our first impulse when our feelings have been trampled or we perceive we have been “trespassed against.” Sometimes that takes a bigger vision than we might come by naturally….perhaps that takes God’s vision prayerfully and faithfully discerned in God's community. And if a true breach in relationship has happened, if someone has “become as a Gentile or a tax collector” to us…it truly does seem almost superhuman to expect that we could reach across that breach and welcome them in, welcome them back. And so it would be, if we were on our own. But the thing is we’re not. We have this Jesus…this self-same one who gave these impossible-sounding instructions, the one who offered his own life as an example that it can be done….who came as the Incarnate one to show us God and show us what is possible for us. We have his ongoing presence in the Spirit always present among us. We have strength in the Eucharist and in the Word and in community. The church that Jesus was talking about….it is us…. and it continues in us…not just when we are gathered in this place together on Sunday, but every minute of every day of each of our lives. We, you and I, each of us, is the only church there is. And if we are willing to try to live our lives according to the instructions that Jesus gave, we can bring the world just a little bit closer to God’s vision for God’s kingdom here on earth. May it be so. Amen.