Christians do not have a strong history of working things out. Well, at least not over the last 500 years. Ever since that October 31 in 1517, when Luther started asking the wrong right questions in Wittenberg, we have developed a habit of splitting. Argue about fault and cast blame all you like, any way you slice it, the history of the church since then has been a history of divisions and splits. Among Lutherans alone, there are 62 different denominations listed on Wikipedia, many of them the result of a long chain of mergers and splits. Some estimates say that there are as many as 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. 33,000. Of course that includes a lot of traditions that might not be called Christian by everyone, including 9 denominations that are classified under the title, “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ.” Seriously, how do you wind up with 9 different denominations of “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ?” Well, in many instances, it is because of this passage that we have heard today.
On the face of it, this passage sounds like instructions for a disciplinary committee. It sounds like for dealing with toxic people that you find in any community:
1) talk to the offender one-on-one;
2) take one or two others along to confront the offender;
3) tell it to the church;
and if the offender still won’t listen, then and only then,
4) “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
But we’re not very good at following through on this. Because it involves awkward conversations. Remember those “hard conversations” I talked about last week, the conversations that we mostly avoid having, because they’re awkward and uncomfortable and lead to conflict? The conversations about race and sexuality and gender and privilege and death and grief and shame and economics and every thing else we ever disagree about, which is everything?
For some reason, instead of following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, the church often just pretends like everything is fine, and go along to get along. Until we find something really innocuous to argue and split over. And so the church has the reputation of either being a schismatic, judgmental group of hypocrites, or of being a bunch of pollyannas who avoid dealing with the real nitty gritty stuff of life. Lately my non-church-going friends have been posting comments asking when Christians are going to stop sending thoughts and prayers, and start actually taking some action – on anything. Don’t stop praying, they say, but don’t stop at praying. Do something!
But of course, we can’t agree on what to do. So we don’t. We send our thoughts and prayers, and keep our opinions to ourselves, because we don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to ruffle feathers. We don’t want to do that most un-Christian of things, to disagree, to argue, to have conflict.
Except that conflict is not unchristian. Given the history of the last 500 years, it seems obvious that conflict is in our DNA. Churches argue over everything!
Do you know that one church actually split over a piano bench? But of course, it wasn’t over a piano bench. It was over something else, probably something really important, that no one wanted to talk about, because it would have been too awkward. So instead of having the awkward conversation about whatever was really going on, they split over a piano bench. It’s not the conflict that’s unChristian. It’s that we often forget who sits at the table with us. So maybe we ought to revisit exactly what Jesus is telling us about conflict.
First of all, there’s the Greek. In Greek, there are several different kinds of “ifs.” There’s the causality if. “If X, then Y.” And ifs that imply something unlikely. “If pigs had wings, they could fly.” There are ifs that apply to a single situation. “If I find out, I’ll let you know.” And there are ifs that are for a thing that happens all. the. time. “If it rains, the streets will get wet.” That’s the if that assumes that something will happen because it always does. You know that it’s going to rain again. And you know that the rain will cause the streets to get wet. There’s not really any doubt implied in this statement.
And that is the “if” Jesus uses in this passage. In the Greek, what it says there is “If another sins against you,” which they totally will because you people always disagree about everything, “then the next thing you do is to go and point this out to them.” This whole passage assumes that we are going to disagree, because that’s what communities do. Disagree. But it also assumes that we’re going to talk about that disagreement. That we’re going to do the hard work of having the awkward conversations. And then, when those awkward conversations go off the rails, we are going to do the hard work of following up on them.
Not “kick ‘em out.” That’s not what this is about, though this passage has been used to justify excommunication and worse. This is the passage the piano bench church used to justify splitting. But this passage is not about schism. It’s not about Kick ‘em out.
After all, it comes right on the heels of the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus has just finished describing how God rejoices more at finding one lost sheep than at the ninety-nine who never strayed. And then, just after today’s passage, Jesus tells Peter that if (when) a member of the church sins against him, he is to forgive the offender not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
How, then, can we read this passage in between as permission to kick someone out of our community? How can we read it as permission to enforce the same rules as society. Where we are expected to hide our imperfections in order to prove that we are better than our neighbor. Where justice has more to do with revenge than with reconciliation.
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” says Jesus. And for so long, we in the church have read that as a command to cast those who sin and fall short into the outer darkness. Yet throughout the book of Matthew, Jesus has dined with gentiles and tax collectors; throughout the gospels, Jesus has gone out of his way to welcome people like Zacchaeus, a tax collector; like the Canaanite woman, a gentile; like lepers and blind men and bleeding women and centurions; like Matthew himself, who was a tax collector. Jesus has gone out of his way to seek out people who are broken and scarred, inside and out; to find people who have lost themselves in their search for acceptance; to welcome people who are not perfect, not insiders; not upstanding and righteous and sinless; but people like you and me.
That is what makes a community in Christ different from other communities, if we will take him seriously and have the awkward conversations. If we will remember who else is sitting at the table with us. If we truly gather in His name, Jesus is at the table, too.
It’s not just rhetoric, just throw Christ’s name around, and use it in vain, all the while acting like He is not sitting there with us.
It’s taking seriously what that name stands for: healing, reconciliation, love. Taking seriously the promise that Jesus is with us in our gathering, and that because he is right here with us, whether it’s in the sanctuary or the kitchen or the narthex or the nursery, we want to do better. Knowing he is there, ready to bring the fulfillment of the law, love, to be the heart of the conversation; knowing that Jesus is willing to place himself in the middle of any gathering, we can go ahead and do the hard work of making ourselves truly available for one another. Even, especially, when we disagree.
Because Christ’s name is a name that means that you are gathered, not in spite of your brokenness and need, but because of it. Christ’s name means that you are welcomed as you are, in all your sinfulness and in all your saintliness. Christ’s name means that your community comes after you when you stray, not to punish you or to make you feel shame or to ostracize you, but to remind you of God’s promises, and to welcome you back when you are ready.
That is the name that we gather in. And that is what makes us different from other gatherings. We gather in the name of reconciliation in the midst of a world that calls for revenge. We gather in the name of hope in a world that thrives on fear. We gather in the name of unity even in our differences in a world that bullies those who are different. We gather in the name of life, in a world that has made fortunes and nations by glorifying death.
I recently read a quote from a theologian, who said, “Sin makes you dead, not bad.” In other words, our brokenness cuts us off from the abundant life that God wants for us. It doesn’t make us bad people, it doesn’t even make us different. We are people. We are broken people, looking for community. When we sin and fall short, we are not being bad. We are being human. When we close in on ourselves it is because we are afraid, afraid to be vulnerable, to be open, to be shown for who we are; we are afraid, and our fear kills us, it cuts us off from those around us just as surely as if we were in a tomb. Sin makes you dead, not bad.
But this theologian then went on to say, “God wants you alive, not better.”
“Sin makes you dead, not bad; God wants you alive, not better.” Not better. But alive!
God wants you alive – God wants you to have life and to have it abundantly. God knows that you and I are broken people in a broken world, and that we are going to screw up. We are going to find ourselves cut off time and again, and not know how to get ourselves back out of that tomb.
And so God goes into the tomb after us. God in Christ dies, and dying, overcomes death, and draws you and me back out of that tomb and puts us right back into the world of the living, into the world of reconciliation and healing, into community that meets us right where we are, and then challenges us to grow into what we could become.
God calls us into a community gathered in the name of Christ, and knowing that we cannot make such a community ourselves God sends the Holy Spirit to help us. To help us be the authentic community that our world so badly needs.
It is not our doing, but it is our calling. To be a community that gathers in the name of the healing and reconciling Christ; a community that sees past the sin and brokenness, to the beloved child of God, and draws that child into the light; a community of broken people, gathered because of their brokenness, not in spite of it; a community gathered to show their scars, not hide them; a community of sinners and saints, bumbling our way into the light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ.