Relationship, not procedure

Matthew 18:15-17

A while back I attended a social occasion at which there were a lot of people.  There were two people there whom I hadn’t seen for many, many years.  And I realised that in all of those many, many years I was quite happy not to have seen them.  So…though I was polite, I wasn’t really warm…I mainly avoided them.  I realised later that I was still hurt.  A long time ago they had hurt me.  And they knew it; but they were in a situation where, in order to protect themselves, they just let me hurt.  I had actually been hurt more than they realised because not only had they been dishonest to me, but they had let me carry the anger and hurt of others.  (Pastors get to do that sometimes.)  So I carry the burden of the hurt, even though I actually understand what went on and I think I could say that I have forgiven. 

It’s complicated.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Maybe some of you know what I mean.

A few years ago I got a phone call from an old school friend whom I hadn’t seen or talked to for many, many years.  In our last year of school together this guy had treated me dreadfully.  It happens sometimes.  Now he was planning on coming to a reunion dinner after 30 years.  And through the course of his phone conversation with me—he had managed to find out where I was and what I was up to—he asked if I was planning on going to the dinner.  I was.  And though he never quite said it quite directly it was clear to me that he probably would not have come to that dinner if he had sensed that I didn’t want him there.  He wanted to see if things were OK now; whether I harboured any anger, resentment.  He didn’t actually ask it but he wanted to know if I had forgiven him. 

It’s uncomfortable.  And it’s complicated.  Maybe some of you know what I mean.

I don’t really carry grudges.  It’s not in my nature.  But sometimes I carry some hurts, some scars.

I have some really good techniques that I have learned over the years to deal with situations where others have “sinned against me”, that help me hear and know the Gospel for myself—techniques that encourage and empower me also to be gracious and forgiving to others.  But sometimes I still carry some hurts, some scars. 

It’s complicated.  And it’s uncomfortable.

Matthew18:   "If your brother sins against you, go to him. Tell him what he did wrong. Keep it between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won him back.  But what if he won't listen to you? Then take one or two others with you. Scripture says, 'Every matter must be proved by the words of two or three witnesses.'  But what if he also refuses to listen to the witnesses? Then tell it to the church. And what if he refuses to listen even to the church? Then don't treat him as your brother. Treat him as you would treat an ungodly person or a tax collector.

It is very easy to miss the point of this passage.  When I started out in the ministry I was somewhat amazed by, and uncomfortable with, the way this passage was often wielded as a kind of procedural sledgehammer.  I recall debates about pastoral practice—especially pastoral discipline—in which the phrase “Matthew 18!” was just shouted out there as ‘the answer’.  Do Matthew 18.  Do the steps:  confront personally; take witnesses; make it public; throw ’em out—four steps; four chances for the sinner to fix it, to change.

I am absolutely positive that what I was hearing did not really truly reflect what was being intended.  But the formulaic approach was certainly there.  No one even had to delineate the four steps.  Just say “Matthew 18”.  (Mind you, Matthew 18 also contains the passage about forgiving 70 times 7!)

Even some of the modern translations make it easy to miss the point.  It is hard to translate the phrase “if your brother sins against you” in a non-gender-specific-politically-correct way.  Earlier we heard a translation that said “if another member of the church sins against you”; I also came across “if one of my followers sins against you” or “if a fellow believer sins against you”.  These are reasonable translations in their own way.  But they don’t really get at something that is central to the thought here; not in the way “your brother” or “your sister” does.  The family reference, I think, has a certain innate significance to it.

A little earlier in this same Gospel of Matthew we have Jesus’ teaching on the commandment “you shall not kill”:  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”   And a little further, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

“Be reconciled to your brother.”  Very often the biblical language about sin is the language of the courtroom.  It is language that talks about ‘punishment’, and ‘payment’; it is language that makes us think of ‘guilt’, and ‘justice’; it is the language of ‘trespass’ and ‘rules broken’.

But there are many places in the Bible in which we are reminded that sin has to do with people hurting, with broken relationships, with deep sadness and confusion; and often with consequent despair.

And this is when forgiveness is really not about procedure; it’s about recognition of hurt, of brokenness in a relationship; it’s about not only not being uncomfortable in the same room with someone, but wanting to be there, longing to have the comfort, the peace, the joy even, of a relationship restored, healed.

The apostle Paul—who himself struggled with deep rifts, broken relationships with a lot of people, even fellow Christians—in his second letter to the Corinthians Paul describes the ministry of the Church as one of ‘reconciliation’:  God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus; God gives us the ministry of bringing this reconciliation to others.  Other translations use the words “make peace” or “make friends” for “reconciliation”.

Reconciliation.  Having your brother back.  Peace.  Friends.  It happens as the result of God being gracious to us, and then enabling us to grow again, to heal, to be restored, to rediscover and re-know peace in him.  At one level, and with one metaphor, when God declares “it is finished” and “not guilty” sin is gone, it’s over—just like that.  But within the realm of day to day experience we all recognize that it rarely happens in such a punctiliar fashion.

Healing takes time.  Healing rarely works in a simple, every-step-every-day-is-another-step-forward sort of way.  Healing is not only about forgiveness directed towards the sinner forgiven, but also towards the burden born by the one who has been hurt by the sin.  Forgiveness always works that way.  Forgiveness is actually not so much about “sin” but about “sinners” and “sinned against”; it’s about relationships.

Sometimes it is important for us to realise this, especially in the context of the congregation or community, and in the context of public worship.  As most of you well know and have experienced, public worship can be a place of great discomfort and awkwardness when there are those moments when we are brought together—in the church, in the foyer, at the altar!—brought together with individuals or groups or families or an institution or a text or a symbol or anything that represents and reminds us of hurts long carried.  And we may have confessed our sin and prayed about our hurts hundreds of times, and heard God’s absolution and said our “Amen”…and still feel scarred and injured. 

Reconciliation with your “brother” or your “sister”—the Christian concept and experience of that reconciliation—is, first and foremost, what God does in Christ Jesus.  He comes to us to reconcile and to be reconciled—to us!  He comes.  He works reconciliation.  He comes to us, even as little children, in baptism, and says, “I want you to be my brother, my sister; I claim that relationship with you.”  He comes to us in Holy Communion.  For us, here, he comes every Sunday—he is here whether or not you and I show up, whether or not you and I are too burdened or too distracted or too busy, he comes, to be reconciled to us.  Even when it’s awkward.  He puts it all on the line and says, “For all that is wrong, between us—for all that you have done wrong and wandered or disobeyed or whatever—I am for you; I claim you; I give myself to you, for you.”

It is complicated.  It can be very uncomfortable.  Writing in his Large Catechism about how we ‘feel’ when we come to Communion Martin Luther wrote:  “Now if you are weighed down and feel how weak you are, go to the Sacrament gladly, and be refreshed, comforted, and strengthened.  If you’re going to wait around until you get rid of all your heavy loads so that you come to the Sacrament only when you are pure and deserve to come, you’ll have to stay away for ever.”

It’s OK to struggle.  It’s OK even to struggle with giving and receiving forgiveness.  (I don’t say it’s OK in the sense that “You’re still feeling hurt?  Great!”)  You know what I mean.  It is human to struggle to let go of hurt or burden or deep, deep sadness and loss, even when with all our heart and in true faith we trust in God’s forgiveness and desperately want to make that forgiveness real in all of our relationships.  We are human—we are the humans God made us to be and, in our weakness and the pain and struggle of that weakness, we are the humans whose existence God came, in Christ, to share.

Be forgiven.  Be reconciled.  And be at peace with the peace that works even when our understanding and our efforts haven’t quite made it…yet…the peace of being united as one in Christ Jesus.  Amen.