Friday, September 02, 2011

September 4, Proper 18: The Costly Method of Reconciliation

(photo © jane barber:

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

The take-home for today is right up front, the gospel lesson, the method of Matthew 18, the three-step process of reconciliation, the discipline of making peace. Learn this pattern, take it home, start to practice it. The point is not that you have to say something every time someone offends you. Good grief, we’re all sinners, we’re all clumsy, we bump each other all the time, and ordinary life is a contact sport. You can’t call every violation. But, when you do have to call a violation, when you do have to say something, this is how you have to do it.

First you have to go alone, in private. This is to protect your offender, to keep him from public embarrassment. You see, this step expresses love and it requires love. It’s hard. It’s so much easier to complain about him to other people, and to undermine his reputation. But it’s love to go to him in private. Especially when you have cause to be angry at him. This love is not love as a feeling but love as ethical action. It is hard, it is a sacrifice, to consider his interest in spite of his offending you.

The second step is to take a couple witnesses. If the first step was to protect the offender, this step is to protect you. If she hasn’t accepted your sacrifice, now you are vulnerable and open, and you need to protect yourself. Love does not require you to make yourself a victim. It is not a bloody sacrifice you make, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. You need to honor yourself as much as you have honored her. This is a hard step too, because it’s getting complicated, and you’re bringing other people in, and having to explain it without prejudice. You might decide to let the whole thing drop. Jesus does not require you to go the second step. But if you feel you cannot let it drop, then this is the only second step that you may take.

How do you know whether to drop it or not? Well, will you be tempted to resentment, will it fester, will you get bitter, will you act victimized, which becomes its own offense? Just by bringing in those witnesses you are refusing to be victimized. You do have the right to go the second step, because you opened with an act of love and in good faith, and you deserve to not let the refusal of the offender to be last word. This is not just self-respect, this is about the importance of truth in the world, the ethical importance of the true story, the version of the story which is true. There is more to community than just our feelings and relationships—there also is integrity. Words have power, stories have power, and the truth itself deserves a hearing. You owe it to the world that some fair measure of the truth is stated and confirmed by witnesses.

And if he still doesn’t listen, then you have to consult with the witnesses whether to go the third step. And their vote should count more than your own. They may encourage you to take it to the church. For Roman Catholics, that means the hierarchy, who deal with it. For Mennonites you do the opposite, you bring it to the congregation as a whole. The Reformed Church takes it down the middle, you bring it to the board of elders, the officers in whom the congregation has invested its discretion and authority. The pastor chairs the board of elders, but the pastor has no vote. The elders have to follow some very strict rules for doing this, rules that go back to 1586, stringent disciplines that really protect the offender, and which keep requiring attempts at counsel and reconciliation all along the way. In my thirty years of ministry I’ve watched elders do this several times, and it’s always painful for everyone involved, the elders too.

No elder likes to do it. We wonder what right we have, who do we think are we, we have our own failings too. But Jesus says that even in our weak and stumbling efforts, God in heaven will back us up. He’s saying that headquarters will back us up if a few of us do it in his name, and by implication, according to his standards. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to keep loving.

What does it mean to treat him as a “Gentile and publican”? It can’t mean to shun him and have nothing to do with him. In Jesus’ time that was impossible anyway. It doesn’t mean stop loving him. The author of this gospel was a publican whom Jesus loved. Jesus ate and drank with publicans and sinners. He’s talking here about the special sacred meal of the Passover. Gentiles were not circumcised, and publicans, to do their jobs, had willfully to keep themselves unclean, so they could not share the sacred meal. And that’s the sanction of the elders, the only sanction they have, to ask the offender not to take communion (which no elder wants to do). The suspension is temporary, unless the offender keeps being adamant, and only then the excommunication.

My own grandfather, because of his adultery, was suspended from communion by the elders of the Third Christian Reformed Church in Paterson, New Jersey. It was just months before I was to be baptized there, and that’s why I’m not named for him, it would have really hurt my grandmother. But my parents did not shun him, they kept loving him, and eventually he came to live with us here in Brooklyn, and he and I got very close, and that’s why I speak Dutch. Eventually he repented to my grandmother, and she took him back, and the elders in Paterson reinstated him; they had never excommunicated him. They waited years for him to come around, which eventually he did. And my little brother got named for him.

Go back to the first step, of going to meet with your offender one on one. Who wants to do this kind of thing. Keep your distance and protect yourself. Have good boundaries. Let people do what they do. Everyone is fallen, everyone has weaknesses and makes mistakes. Just get over it. Go to church, worship God, go home, and be responsible for your own life. People have to figure out their own mistakes, and people who won’t, well, they’re not going to listen to you anyway. Oh, I know.

Here’s why we go through with it. First, because we owe it to our offenders, it is our obligation (Romans 13:8). The translation of Matthew 18:15 is misleading. What Jesus actually says is this: “If your brother sins against you.” Not “another church member” but your brother, your sister. You can choose what church to be a member of but you can’t choose who your siblings are. They are given to you without your choice at all. And you have obligations to them no matter how you might feel about them. It’s organic. The church is not just some voluntary associations, it’s mystical and spiritual, it has a reality beyond ourselves, it’s the body of Christ, and how you behave in it as how you behave for Jesus Christ. You owe it to others because they belong to Jesus Christ.

Second, it’s so much needed by the world. The world has so much need of reconciliation. And the church is called to model it. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Our Lord, and it is his chosen instrument for the healing of the world. If we belong to the church we do not have the right to say “No” to the mission Our Lord has given us. Maybe we should add it to our Old First mission statement. We are witnesses, not that everyone is nice and good, but that ordinary fallen people can work reconciliation. That it can be done and should be done. Of course there will always be some persons who will not reconcile, whom we just have to hand over to the hidden work of God, but we can practice it enough for it to be believed in as a realistic way of living in the world.

Third, we do it for the sake of love. The revolutionary love of Our Lord is always misunderstood and resisted and defended against, and if the best defense is a good offense, then offences will come against the works of love. To live within this kind of love requires you to see it through.

And fourth, you do it to reflect what God has done for you. We go in private to our offender because God sought us out in private. We sacrifice our ease and comfort remembering what great sacrifice Our Lord has done to reconcile ourselves to God, the sacrifice of his own life, which he did for love. “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.”

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Lauri Miller said...

Welcome back ! I've missed your messages.
This one brought back painful memories of several years ago when the Board of Elders, of which I was a member, tried unsuccessfully to resolve a situation involving a member and our interim pastor.
Reconciliation was not possible. . . I love your phrase :have to hand over to the hidden work of God."
Nicely said :)

Old First said...

Thank you. And it's good to be back.

Cotton Wool & Silk said...

Love this sermon Daniel -- especially the touching story about your grandfather.