Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

by Bear Wade

Matthew 18:15-20
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 18–Sunday between September 4 and 10 Inclusive)
analysis by Norbert Kabelitz

15Jesus said to his disciples: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have retained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, I truly tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

DIAGNOSIS: The Ego-Saving Mentality

Step 1 — Initial Diagnosis: Refusing to Listen
The sin which lead to the “fault” and fracture may not be personal (against you); but sin does, nonetheless, affect one and all in the community. The nature of the sin may range from everything to a violation of the “law of love” with which Jesus summarized the second table of the law to an alien belief which undermines the life of the church. In any case, non-listening shows up as defensiveness and refusal to be open about the fault. The initial confrontation is private, one on one, alone, to allow an opportunity for gracious hearing and overcoming immediate embarrassment. “Listening” in this one-on-one conversation is the key to openness and becomes the bridge for both confession and absolution. “Refusal to listen” precludes the faith relationship which can be a balm to heal the cut, the wound and mend the fault. A non-listener is left to defend himself, justify himself, apart from what is heard, that is the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Not-listening sets up the beginning of a sound barrier which deflects potential recognition of the fault and the word of forgiveness which alone can reconcile.

Step 2 — Advanced Diagnosis: Hardening
Refusal to listen to one or two others leads to “hardness of heart.” That is a description which Jesus uses of a self-justifying, stubborn, ego-saving effort. The concern of the two or three is not merely to substantiate the malady, but to heighten and intensify a concern with the issue and to avoid a crisis in the church’s life together. The idea is not to push some personal agenda — not even a church’s agenda — but to center the relationship in Jesus, with two or three, for there He is also. Margaret Palliser’s spiritual song captured that sense: “Our sins have estranged us too long, from God, from life, and from each other. The Lord calls us again to be one in Him: Repent and believe the good news.” Refusal to listen at this point reveals the terrible stubborn desire to “save oneself” and be free from the dependence of God’s grace and forgiveness, and our inter-connectedness with one another. Continued refusal shifts the issue from mere denial to “unfaith.” The danger for the church is to become embroiled in the unfaith.

Step 3 — Final Diagnosis: Declared Bound and Outside
The “fault” has now widened into a genuine crisis for the whole church. Yet even here, this third confrontation must work to “catch and hold, rather than throw or push.” Bringing the issue to the church should not be explained as bringing in the big guns, but to demonstrate a third level of deep concern. The formal declaration, “let such a one be declared a Gentile and a tax collector,” says that one’s life is in “cross” relations with God and neighbor and are at cross purposes with God’s will and intention. Refusal for the third time suggests “strike three and you’re out!” But it also suggest the mythic third day of the dead when the soul is gone for sure, really dead! The issue is deadly serious, because danger of that death embroils us all.

PROGNOSIS: The “I” in the Midst!

Step 4 — Initial Prognosis: Immanuel and the Cross of Reconciliation
Curiously, however, this makes “Gentiles and tax collectors” candidates for resurrection! Jesus said of such persons that “none should be lost.” The Church has in its midst the Shekinah, the Presence, and, by it, is empowered to pray about anything asked, even agreement (reconciliation), confident that such prayer has promise and power for new beginnings. Christ has the last word for even hardened sinners. And is He not Immanuel, God with us? The curse which accompanies one who hangs on a Cross decrees Jesus himself an outsider, cut off from the land of the living. He can identify with the separation of the outsider. Christ’s Crossing is on our behalf, to take us from death to life, from accuser to vindicator, from bound to forgiven and free.

Step 5 — Advanced Prognosis: Reconciliation and Gain
What we are also freed from when we are touched and softened and won by Christ’s love over our separation is our own ego-saving enslavement. God’s love is stronger than our apathy, stubbornness, defensiveness, self-justification, sin, hardness of heart, even death. The “fault,” the rift, like the great gulf between heaven and earth, has been crossed, bridged. Heaven itself participates in the agreement. Heaven is on the side of mercy and life. The ego bound are freed to listen, really listen to the truth of the good news. Guarded gates open. The member, the brother or sister, is regained. Agreement and reconciliation lead to a joyous celebration in which even angels rejoice. Members of the body live again in mutual support celebrating reconciliation. It’s an Easter world where openness and forgiveness reign over a sunless dead end.

Step 6 — Final Prognosis: Living in Forgiveness
Christians have a uniquely redemptive way of dealing with damage in the “Body of Christ,” the Church, and “Members of the Body,” the brothers and sisters. How about the metaphor of our own body which confronts the problem of a cut, a bruise, sickness or disease to repair the cut, the bruise, and heal the infection? The church, as those re-gathered in Christ’s name, deals not merely with damage control, but are redeemed to restore. This calls for patient, caring, hard work. It is the “Cross work.” The Church, as the Body of Christ, becomes the setting for what Luther (Third Article) caught and taught, that “In this Christian Church day after day He fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers.” The basis for this astounding message is the Holy Spirit who testifies on behalf of Jesus’ redemptive cross work, so proving the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit becomes Immanuel for us, pushing God’s reconciling Balm of Gilead through us, to “make the wounded whole”; for it is not the will of your Father that even one should be lost.” (Matthew 18:14)


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