15“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. 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, truly I 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.”
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Paul gives us two very practical guidelines for faithful living in this short passage from Romans. The first is love and the second is living like it’s daytime. Paul says when we love each other we fulfill the law. That’s because real love demands a lot from us. Paul’s guidance is simple, but it is also challenging. It’s not that the commandments go away, but if we follow where love leads we won’t even have to think about the commandments.
Imagine love as a road we drive on. The law, the traditions, the rules we grow up with are the guard rail bordering the road. The guardrail will keep us on the road, and sometimes when it’s dark and the road is hard to see we need the guidance of the reflectors on the guardrail. But most of the time we don’t want to be close enough to the guardrail to count on it. We follow the road; not running into the rail comes naturally.
The commandment tells us not to commit adultery, but the fact that we love our neighbor and our spouse means we wouldn’t do it anyway. If we love our neighbor not only will we not violate their marriage, we’ll go out of our way to strengthen and support that marriage.
Love isn’t usually glamorous. It’s everyday stuff like changing tires and cleaning up after ourself. It’s making sure we do our fair share of the work and leave enough for others. Love starts with respect and honesty and sometimes includes self-sacrifice. Hailey gave a great example of sacrifice a couple of weeks ago, which is really an example of love. She talked about standing up for people being picked on and stepping in to break up a fight. Love sometimes means saying “no” to things that are wrong.
That’s where things get tricky in community. It’s easy enough to be a loving community when all that means is being friendly at coffee hour. Things get challenging when love demands questioning a brother or sister’s actions. Things get challenging when we think someone is following a self-destructive or immoral path. That’s where we move from Paul to Jesus in this morning’s readings.
We had a fascinating discussion last month at our session meeting about scripture and about church discipline. The idea of church discipline makes many of us very uncomfortable. We remember that Jesus teaches us not to judge each other, and we know that we are not perfect ourselves. Who are we to tell someone else what to do?
Maybe the idea of discipline takes us back to bad childhood memories of being told what to do or what not to do in church. Maybe it makes us think about self-righteous TV preachers pounding on the pulpit and calling other people sinners. The idea of discipline is so tied up with judgment that it’s hard to even think about it, so most of the time we don’t.
On top of all our religious objections, we’re also part of our culture, and modern American culture values privacy more than just about anything else. We are used to leaving other people to do what they want and expecting them to treat us the same way. Of course, that doesn’t keep us from commenting on other’s behavior to our friends in private.
In the passage from Matthew that Scott read, Jesus seems to have something totally different in mind. This isn’t the passage we were talking about at session, but it is usually the first passage that comes to my mind when I think about discipline in the church. As usual, Jesus cuts through my excuses and shows me a better (but not easier) way to go.
So let’s look at the passage. What’s the first step Jesus tells us to use when someone in the church sins against us?
Why do you think that’s the right place to start?
Jesus shares some of our concern with privacy in a way. He wants us to address the problem first in the most discreet way possible. I think it’s a natural human tendency to talk to our friends when we have a problem with someone else. The trouble is that often leads to gossiping and reinforces our negative ideas about the person we’re having trouble with. Plus it doesn’t do anything about the problem; it just makes us feel better by having other people agree with us.
On the other hand, if we follow Jesus’ advice and go right to the person who’s done us wrong we can talk with them about what’s bothering us. Often, the other person won’t even know they have hurt us. They may also see the issue very differently, which we’ll never know unless we talk to them; in other words, we might learn something.
We may also help our brother or sister see their actions in a new way. I think we’ve all had the experience of simply getting caught up in the flow of something that has led us in the wrong direction. Without a loving question from a friend, how can we find our way back?
Jesus is so compelling because we already know that what he’s saying is right. Something about these words just rings true. The challenge is doing it. So how do we put this advice into practice? How can we help each other be better followers of Jesus? After all, that’s the point of accountability in the church.
The first step is to take a little time to ask God for guidance. In that time we can reflect on what it is that we think the other person is doing wrong. We can think about why it bothers us and what our faith has to say about it. In prayer we ask God for an extra dose of humility, grace and a listening spirit.
Once we are ready the next step is to approach our sister or brother at a good time. It’s best to find a time when they are not in the middle of something else and not surrounded by others. The goal is to take the pressure of other eyes off the conversation so you can both focus on each other. Maybe a phone call to meet for coffee is a good first step; maybe going out for lunch after church will provide the right setting for a challenging conversation.
The point of Jesus’ guidelines here isn’t for us to judge our brothers and sisters, but to give us ways to help each other thrive. That’s why he says, “If the member listens to you you have regained that one.” The goal is reconciliation and bringing each other back to the right path, the path of love and discipleship.
The flip side is that if we start down the wrong path, if we hurt another member of the community or seem to be hurting ourselves, we hope one of our brothers or sisters will approach us with love and help us find our way back.
Living like that, expecting to correct and be corrected is very different from what our culture does. It goes directly against our culture’s expectation of privacy, but it fits perfectly with Paul’s guideline to live like it’s daytime. What Paul means is that we should live in such a way that we don’t have anything to hide. In other words, if we’re doing the right thing, we aren’t worried about people seeing us. If we feel uncomfortable about what people would think if they saw what we are doing, it’s a good sign we need to reevaluate our behavior.
It doesn’t matter if our values fit with the culture around us; our calling is to live by God’s values. That means following Jesus’ footsteps, living in love, committing to community and proclaiming what we believe with our actions.
At Christ’s table we’re reminded of all these things. At Christ’s table we remember that the love of Jesus is for everyone as we are called to love all our neighbors. At Christ’s table we remember the broken body of Jesus and the cost of love. At Christ’s table we see our brothers and sisters and strengthen the bonds between us so we can learn to lean on each other. At Christ’s table we see a glimpse of the kingdom and remember that even when everything around looks dark, we belong to God’s light.
So come to the table. Come find the strength to follow the path of love. Find the connections to grow in faith and discipleship. Find guidance to follow God’s calling for you. Together we are built up in community and service and together we go out to build the kingdom of love.
Thanks be to God.