Text: Matthew 18:15-22
When I was in the sixth grade my family moved from the small community church that my parents had been members of for most of their lives and the only church I had ever known. I was what was known back then as a cradle roll Baptist. I was born into Sandy Plains Baptist Church, went to kindergarten there, lived within walking—or some would say shouting—distance of the church, and one of my best friend’s was the preacher’s son, Paul. Sandy Plains Baptist Church is the quintessential small red brick, white steeple country church. It is situated in a picturesque setting of lush green grass and tall oak trees with a sprawling cemetery that separates its front door from the two-lane winding country road. As a ten-year-old, it was the only church I had ever attended. But, when I entered the sixth grade, my parents decided that as my sister and I got older, we needed to be in a church that had a youth group. I don’t know how the specific church was chosen, but my family started attending another church closer into town—a much larger one that had an active youth group. Now, it’s important to note that any church that had more than 50 members in attendance on a Sunday would have been larger. The new church had, I would guess, about 150 members in worship, or at least that is my memory. Though I am aware, as I say that, that things always seem bigger as a child.
I remember as if it were yesterday, the day we joined our new church. Dad and mom had prepared us by explaining that at the end of the service we would walk to the front of the church, and the pastor would introduce us as a family—much like what happens here at Pullen when I welcome new families into our church. What I wasn’t prepared for were the words the pastor used that day to describe our family. I remember him saying, “We are so honored to have this perfect Christian family join our church.” I panicked, and I wanted to faint. All I could think was, “He doesn’t know us! If he knew how my sister and I fought or how we were, at times, disrespectful to our parents, would they still let us join?” The “perfect Christian family” didn’t quite describe what I knew to be the truth about my family. And as a young sixth grader, I stood there in front of all those people wondering if one had to be a perfect Christian to join the church. Was the church really made up of perfect Christian people?
The memory of that day came back to me when I read our gospel reading from Matthew. “The fact that Matthew included this teaching into his gospel indicates that either Jesus anticipated a non-perfect church [made up of non-perfect humans]—if we assume the words came from him, or—if it is assumed that these words came later—that the church from the very beginning was not perfect.” (Brian Stoffregen) The verses we have read from Matthew are in many ways a step-by-step guide for what to do when another member of the church wrongs you in some way. We are told first that we are to go to the individual alone and try to work out our differences and from there unfolds a progression of interventions, culminating in what the Southern Baptist Convention likes to call “dis-fellowshiping.” It can be tempting to view this passage as a convenient way to get rid of people within the community who refuse to see things our way. But in actuality, the spirit of Matthew’s guide is one of reconciliation; and our personal and collective responsibility to pursue reconciliation with one another when faced with conflict and disagreement.
In reading this passage, it is easy to get hung up on what Matthew meant by “sin.” We can get distracted by the appalling thought that we would haul each other before the entire church over our differences or our feelings of being wronged by one another, as if this were an episode of Judge Judy. And we can speculate all day long on what Matthew meant when he said, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” and miss the point of what Matthew is trying to teach us. What I believe Matthew wants us to hear in this passage is that living in community, as people of faith and specifically as followers of Jesus, is not about being perfect–particularly perfect Christians—but rather it is about being accountable to one another, and being honest and direct with one another. Matthew makes it clear that our first step in these moments of difference is to seek one another out—specifically the one who we believe has wronged us. We are to engage one another, with the goal of finding a way to stay in community, not with the goal of finding a way out of community.
We joke a fair amount here at Pullen about the Pullen way. For anyone not yet familiar with this reference, we are poking fun at ourselves with those words, for our fierce individuality amidst our commitment to community. We have strong opinions here at Pullen, and high expectations for ourselves and for one another. And inevitably, there are times when we disagree. Mightily. Forcefully. Passionately. And, I might add, persistently. On some of those points, we can easily come to that clichéd but effective resting place of, “we will agree to disagree.” On others, rest does not come so easily, and so we work out our differences, and sometimes our perceived wrongs, through committees and congregational meetings. For 20 years I have watched the process here, what can feel at times like bush wars and guerilla warfare, when our sins against one another lead us to fail to be community to each other, and we work against one another in factions to be right.
And yet, when we are very, very brave, and living into our best faithful selves, we talk to one another. One on one—in the hallways, on the telephone, over email, and over lunch—we talk to one another not about one another. We go well beyond our comfort zone to reach out, sometimes more than half way, in order to stay in conversation with one another on the things that matter deeply to us. We transcend the secular understanding of community in those times and those places and truly become the people of God. And out of those places, this congregation as a whole finds its wisdom. I can honestly say that in my almost 20 years of observing and being a part of the Pullen way, one thing is clear: this church makes the right decisions when we trust in the collective wisdom of the group, not in our individual preferences, however well-informed and deeply held. There is indeed wisdom “where two or three are gathered.” And it is this wisdom—the wisdom of the whole along with our common desire to follow the way of Jesus—that holds us together. Our beliefs are important, very important. But what holds us together are our relationships, and how we treat one another, and how we live in community trusting in the wisdom of the whole—for where two or three are gathered in the spirit of love and trust and respect, God is there. This is what I believe Matthew was trying to tell us in these verses.
Our reading today ends with Peter asking Jesus about how many times we are to forgive those who wrong us—seven times, he asks? Jesus replies that we are always to be forgiving of one another. We, the church, are made of up of imperfect human beings who, inevitably, will wrong one another, disappoint one another, and stand in need of forgiveness of one another. To think that the church is anything different is to simply misunderstand the message of Jesus and the words of Matthew. We need not be perfect. Nor should we preach a cheap grace. What Matthew reminds us of today is that being community to one another requires a faithfulness and commitment to being honest with each other and to have a willingness to forgive.