September 10, 2017

On Love and Reproof

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

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 regained that one.
Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

The George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, is a busy thoroughfare for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists—including one cyclist whose weekly trip across the bridge was paused by a (literal) life-or-death encounter. Julio De Leon was on his bike when he spotted a dog tethered to a rail on the bridge, which was "something unusual." Then he noticed a young man close by, standing on the ledge over the river. It was 5:30 p.m., and the police wouldn't be able to arrive quickly in the thick of rush hour traffic, so De Leon took action himself. De Leon recalled, "I said: 'Don't do it. We love you, my heart,' something like that." He grabbed onto him, and with the help of another passerby, brought the now-emotional man to safety. Even then, however, according to one news report, "Mr. De Leon did not let go of [him] once he was safe." (August 4, 2016)

1. Reproof in our Lord’s teaching is his gracious action to keep us safe. The picture of this rescuer holding on to the man even after he has pulled him to safety is an apt parable of our Saviour having rescued us from the penalty and power of sin ever holding on to us to keep us safe. The One who seeks and finds us, showers us with love and then won't let us go. This love that won’t let us go is the heartbeat of the One who teaches, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The church is not to be a society of “finger-pointers” but a community that lives out this love of our Lord that is reluctant to let people go.

Most every parent has felt that barb in their heart when, in the midst of reproving a child, the child blurts out that accusation, “You don’t love me anymore!” And we know we do. Oh, the path of least resistance would be to let the child have their own way—and in that moment we are tempted to relent. But our love for them to keep them safe from harm propels us to persist in our reproof. The Apostle Paul wrote that “love does no wrong to the neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Stealing, coveting, adultery—these things harm the neighbour. Love does no wrong and, to say it positively, love steers us away from the wrong that harms.

Context in important for understanding the tenor or spirit of a particular text of scripture. Some have read this text in Matthew as a manual for church discipline and as soon as you hear the word ‘manual” a cold feeling comes over us. The heartbeat of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus giving his life for us. Matthew places this teaching of our Lord regarding reproof in the section that follows the second time Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. The context for all our Lord’s teaching is his self-forgetful self-giving for our sin at the cross. Jesus’ self-giving at the cross to rescue us from sin is the tenor for hearing his teaching about reproof.

Two things are held together in what feels like tension to us but is resolved in God’s action to save us. It is in this section of our Lord’s teaching—the section that follows his second announcement of his pending death—that we hear his metaphor that indicates the serious problem that is sin; “if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8) Following this pronouncement is our Lord’s parable of the lost sheep. Jesus tells us the point he wants to make with this parable. “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

We see both of these things held together in the saying on reproof. The teaching begins on the seriousness of sin. “If another member of the church sins against you.” The assumption is that sin separates the person from the people of God. I want to point out here that the words “against you” do not appear in many of the ancient manuscripts. So we could read, “If another member of the church sins.” The point being that our Lord regards sin to be as a serious matter. Sin destroys fellowship.

The second thing I note is the pains that are to be taken so that no one should be lost. Note the effort that is taken in order to restore the person—not to cast them out. First a one-on-one private conversation, then confirmed by two or three, then the whole church and at each juncture the objective is that the person is preserved. I do not presume to speak for you but I am not fond of being corrected; yet I can say that I have been grateful for those trusted companions in this walk with Jesus who have the courage to point out what I may not want to hear. Our Lord intends that reproof offered in love consistent with the scripture keeps us safe in this journey of faith.

This whole text then exudes grace. The translation “another member of the church” is, I think, too clinical. The text uses the Greek word for “brother.” A better translation would be “if a sister or brother sins.” It underlines the family relationship that is the church. It speaks of the love of Christ through which we are joined together and that we are to exhibit towards one another. We are our brother’s keeper. Further, even at the point when the offender refuses to listen to the church and they are to be thought of as a “Gentile and a tax-collector” this does not put them outside the ministry of the church. The prayer is that they find their way back to God. Just as the witness of the church to Jesus Christ is in the hope that people will find their way home to relationship with God so also for those who have left the company of the church.

In our United Church we have the very painful and public issue of a minister who avows atheism. The governing body of the church (Conference) found this minister to be unsuitable for ministry and recommended her being placed on the discontinued list. Even so, my prayer and I hope ours is that she be able to come to the place of faith knowing Jesus Christ in personal encounter.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Reproof then, takes place in the announcement of the gospel. As we come and hear scripture read and probed in sermon part of what our Lord is doing is reproving as we take this and reflect on our own lives. We hear, for example, that the love of God is self-forgetful self-giving made known at the cross. Our own self-absorption is exposed by such self-giving. Dr Stephen Diamond writes in Psychology today “ … if a friend says to you “you’re selfish” you are unlikely to thank her for the compliment. But we’re also quick to pin the “selfish” label on others but not so often on ourselves.” The New York Times Magazine reported on the findings of a (2015) Pew Research poll which found that “only 17 percent say they are overly concerned about themselves but 60 percent think that most people are overly concerned about themselves.” The article was titled I’m O.K., You’re Selfish.

The love of God that rescues us from sin at the same time also reproves us. It exposes our self-absorption. As the gospel forges its reality in the life of the believer we are first directed to be for God and then turned to be for one another. It is in giving ourselves for the sake of the gospel that we find life and are freed from self-absorption.

2. We noted how this teaching by Jesus regarding reproof is to be understood in the context of the love of God for the world broken by sin. Love and reproof go together. God makes known to us the disease of our sin in the process of providing the cure.

A second note on context is how Jesus envisions the ministry of the church as his body making this love visible in the world. We have already hinted at how reproof happens in the proclamation of the gospel. Jesus speaks about this ministry that the church is to fulfill when said “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What is Jesus talking about when he speaks of “whatever you bind” and “whatever you loose?”

We need to go back to an earlier incident in Matthew’s gospel where to bind and to loose is first discussed. Jesus had taken his disciples on a retreat from the press and busyness of public ministry—it was here, as they enjoyed some downtime, that Jesus asked who they though he was. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In response Jesus affirms that Peter is correct and went on to say, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

“Whatever you bind” and “whatever you loose” are understood in relationship to the image of having the keys to a door or gate. What are the “keys of the kingdom”? Do we have magical power? Does it mean that we (or at least some of us, perhaps the clergy) have commandant-like power whereby we can decide who is admitted to the kingdom and who not? Of course not.

It means that the ongoing event of the congregation’s faith and faithfulness and self-renunciation are precisely what Jesus Christ uses as the vehicle of his bringing others to know and cherish what he has already brought us to know and cherish. Our lived awareness of his forgiveness, for instance, will be the event whereby he brings others to the same reality. Our self-renunciation will be the means of his bringing others, now fellow-disciples like us, to know the “open secret”: service is freedom, self-forgetfulness is self-fulfilment, crossbearing binds us to the crucified One himself whom we have come to know to be life. As we have stepped through the doorway into the household of faith, other people will find through our faith and obedience and service the same doorway unlocked, and shall then run to join us on the way.

The symbolism of scripture is endlessly rich, so very rich that many different symbols are used to speak of the same reality. Instead if thinking about doorways and keys, let’s think about boats. In Mark’s gospel there’s a great deal of water, and Jesus is always getting into and out of a boat. (The boat is an early Christian symbol for the Church, and was widely used as a symbol by the time Mark’s gospel was written — 65 C.E., approximately.) In Mark’s gospel, only Jesus and the disciples are ever found together in the boat. The crowds, the “multitudes,” are never found in the boat. In other words, there is a special relationship, a unique relationship between Jesus and his followers. At the same time the boat, rowed by the disciples, “conveys” Jesus to the crowds who aren’t disciples at present but have been appointed to become disciples. The boat (the Church) conveys Jesus to the deranged man whom Jesus restores. The boat conveys Jesus to the hungry listeners whom he feeds. The boat conveys Jesus to the agitated and perplexed whom he describes as “sheep without a shepherd” even as he becomes their good shepherd.

On this Sunday in September we experience a kind of new year. We look forward to this fall and our worship, our music programme, our small group study, planning for the Advent and Christmas season that will be on us all too soon. The committees of the church are gearing up to take on the various components of church life each contributing to our collective responsibility to bear witness to our Lord and his love for the world. In all of this we convey Christ to the world. The ministry that seeks to bear Christ to the world also is one in which we care for one another. We seek to bless and promote and preserve people in faith.

It is clear that this matter of reproof is to be handled with great care. The point I raise with you here is that it is understood in the context of our calling as Christ’s people to live out God’s love towards one another. It is us living out this love of Christ that won’t let us go.

As additional takeaway today—this context we have been speaking about the church conveying Christ is the believer’s life calling; it’s your purpose. The essence of living life as a Christian is to allow the revelatory fullness of Christ to shine forth in the particularities of one's own existence. This vocation means responding to the call of the Gospel – the demand for obedience – in the specificity of one's own life situation. For the believer the matter of vocation is settled. The particularities of how we earn a living and manage the other practicalities of life is also the places of living out our vocation. It is a high calling.