September 5, 1999

Matthew 18:15-20

If one of my followers sins against you, go and point out what was wrong. But do it in private, just between the two of you. If that person listens, you have won back a follower. But if that one refuses to listen, take along one or two others. The Scriptures teach that every complaint must be proven true by two or more witnesses. If the follower refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Anyone who refuses to listen to the church must be treated like an unbeliever or a tax collector.

I promise you that God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth, but he will not allow anything you don't allow. I promise that when any two of you on earth agree about something you are praying for, my Father in heaven will do it for you. Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you. [CEV]


1. Context is important. This passage is immediate preceded by the story of a lost sheep which is so important that everything else is left behind to bring it back. Immediately following is the instruction to be never-ending in forgiveness. This is important because if one were only to listen to the words for this Sunday there is built in schism, division of the church. You have to listen real hard to hear any Good News here.

2. Without the lost sheep and seventy-times-seven forgiveness context, both sides of whatever conflict is at hand would appeal to Jesus saying, "If you and a couple of others see things the same way, just pray hard and you will find that God agrees with you." This is the equivalent of both sides of a war exhorting their side to know that "God is on our side - so pass the ammunition."
     There is a presumption here that listening only goes on in one direction. It grows out of a false logic that runs: I know I am right: those known to be right ought to be listened to: therefore I ought to be listened to. How do we get beyond this all too human reading?

3. One ray of hope comes from raising the question how an "unbeliever" is to be treated. Do we especially engage them or isolate ourselves from them? If you answer engagement, then there is a sense in which those who are most challenging to the church most challenge the church to engage them before, during, and after any dispute.
     Following this comes a wrestling with Jesus' promise about God working on a consensus model, not a majority-rules model. Does the second part of this Scripture passage presume a Body-of-Christ which has worked through the difficult business of the varying gifts, even gifts which on the surface feel contradictory, which are given to a whole community without summarily dismissing one for their sin against another? This question comes in light of the context - does the one sinned against not sin in return by pressing things to confrontation, condemnation, and eviction?
     There is a sense in which it would take a miracle to get two or three United Methodists to agree with each other on every point. It is only out such a miracle that the promise of agreement that Jesus is with us can be experienced. To oust folks is to break the model of community growing from consensus. To break this model is to send Jesus packing.

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