“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” St. Matthew 18:17
There is very little direct teaching in the Gospels about the church and its life. What there is, though, is found in Jesus’ discussion with his disciples in the central chapters of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, from which this evening’s lesson is taking. These chapters have come to take on a kind of special importance, especially among Christians who try to base everything the church does on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
For example, this three step process that Jesus describes for dealing with a member of the church who sins against another has been treated by some as judicial proceeding. First, confront the person with the sin. Then bring some witnesses. Then present the person for judgment before the entire congregation. One commentator compared it to reading someone his Miranda rights—did you “Matthew 18 him?” one Christian might ask another in talking about how an inter-church controversy unfolded.
I read a story recently , and the teller swore it was true, about a Pentecostal Holiness church in Southside Virginia where this was not just the occasional, but the annual judicial process. This was a part of the country where nearly everyone made his living as a tobacco farmer. And the official book of discipline of the Pentecostal Holiness church banned not only smoking, but any involvement in the tobacco trade. Now the Methodists and the Baptists, officially, were supposed to look down on this as well, but in that kind of community, their ministers were content to look the other way. But not the Pentecostal Holiness pastor. He was a man of his word, and he expected his people to live by that code of holiness that they had sworn to follow when they became members of his church.
So on a Sunday in May, when the time came to plant the tobacco crop, he would stand in the pulpit on Sunday and read out those words about the sinfulness of the tobacco trade. And the next Sunday, he would stand up in front again, and read those words with one of his elders on either side of him. And then, the third Sunday, he would formally excommunicate every man and boy in that congregation—shun them like “Gentiles and tax collectors.” And for three and a half months, while that tobacco crop was growing, there wasn’t a man or a boy to be found in the Pentecostal Holiness church
But then, the day would come for harvesting the crop, taking it to the warehouse and getting that annual windfall—the tobacco harvest check. The next Sunday, those women and girls would vote every man and boy back into full membership in the church. After all, they needed them to keep that other article of the discipline, which insisted on a full tithe.
Now, yes, I’ll admit there’s something slightly ridiculous in going about the life of a church in this way. Magnifying things into grave sins that aren’t really anything of the sort is to start off on the wrong foot from the beginning. But I wonder if, in its backward, hypocritical sort of way, that pastor wasn’t on to something important about how Jesus means for us to understand the way discipline should work in the life of the church.
It’s important to say, on the one hand, that Jesus meant that there should be discipline in the church. His three part process isn’t really original to him, but is adapted from the standards set out in the law of Moses, the way God told the Israelites to deal with destructive sin in their community. The Church is a community set apart for God’s purposes, called to holiness of life that will reveal his purposes to the world. It can’t be a place where “anything goes.”
We are called, as our First lesson reminds us, to a life of integrity and steadfastness, without “a desire for evil,” not “putting Christ to the test.” God doesn’t merely expect conformity to a minimal code of ethics. Instead, he calls to a divinely empowered, holy life, a consecrated life, as I was discussing this morning. Because God’s standards are high, we will all fail. And sometimes we will fail very badly, and the ways that we fail will become not just a disappointment, but a scandal to others.
Jesus knew this. He did not invite his followers to entertain any illusions about man’s noble nature or instant purification by the Spirit. We will fail each other, and sometimes we can’t all just look the other when this happens. The evil needs to be confronted. We need to speak the truth to each other, to have that difficult conversation about why this thing you are doing is threatening all of us in a very real way.
Not all sin is this serious, of course. I don’t think that Jesus meant for this kind of procedure to apply to every kind of sin, nor do I think that He meant it to apply to any one particular sin in every community. But there will be some kinds of wrongdoing that we cannot tolerate and at the same time remain faithful to the way of life God has called us to share.
I think particularly in our time of the abuse of children by the clergy, and the way that this sin as been such a tremendous cause of scandal in the way the church is viewed by the world. We can’t just overlook this. It must be confronted. The integrity of our common life demands that we confront it.
And so for this kind of sin, and for other kinds of grave scandalous sins, we have disciplinary procedures in the church. In the Episcopal Church there is an established procedure for dealing with serious sins, especially among the clergy. It is based at the diocesan level, and it has these three steps given to us by Jesus, among other safeguards to make sure that the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In my last diocese, I served as an alternate judge on the Ecclesiastical Trial Court, which administered the process. Thankfully, over the years I served on the court, a case was never brought to us. It’s important that we have these rules and procedures, that we take them seriously and that we try to administer them fairly. But they never have the last word.
You see, I think Jesus is intending a kind of irony in these directions about church discipline, an irony that that Pentecostal preacher might have understood as well as anyone else. This teaching comes just after a parable of Jesus, you see, a parable you all know very well. It’s the one about the lost sheep who runs away, and the master leaves the rest of them behind, so much does he love the one that is lost. He leaves them, and goes out to search for that sheep and then he brings him back and rejoices.
And then there’s that way Jesus describes what you should do to this obstinate sinner who refuses to repent even when the whole church has tried to show him he’s wrong. “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” He says. And how was Jesus with Gentiles and tax collectors? Well, He sought them out, of course, He shared His suppers with them, he lured them into the kingdom of God.
Where two or three are gathered, He concludes this teaching, two or three gathered for a session of the Ecclesiastical Trial Court, to condemn another, to tell him that this sin simply cannot be tolerated—where they are gathered, I am there in the midst of them. And maybe Jesus means “I am with them to second their condemnation,” but to be honest, I’m not so sure.
Because this is Christ’s justice we administer in Christ’s Church. It’s not the blindfolded woman with her infallible scales that stands in the midst of us, but Jesus Christ, with his nail-scarred hands extended. How is it in that old Gospel hymn? “The vilest offender, who only believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives .”
We must take serious things seriously. We must speak the truth and call one another to holiness. But with Christ we must also be ready to forgive, to extend mercy, to “overcome evil with good.” There is something more precious than justice, something truer than law. Let us use discipline faithfully, but remember always that Jesus holds the scales.
 Hoeeze, Scott. “Matthew 18:15-25: Comments and Observations” Center for Excellence in Preaching. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/viewArticle.php?aID=534
 Chilton, Delmer. “Sermon.” The Lectionary Lab: Pentecost 12. http://lectionarylab.blogspot.com/2011/08/twelfth-sunday-after-pentecost-proper.html