15 "And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 "But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 "And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. 18 "Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst." (NASB)
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Our Gospel lesson for this Sunday combines things that we would normally not expect mixed together. We have Church Discipline - including excommunication - mixed with the authority of the Apostles and the promise of Jesus that our heavenly Father will answer our prayers, mixed with the wonderful promise of Jesus to be present among us in a special way when we gather in His name. It is a wonderful combination of command and promise, of instructions, and authority, and reassurance. I could preach all day on this text - but you only give me about twenty minutes, so I will try to pull it all together into one short sermon under the theme, His Power, His Presence, His Church.
The first thing our brief text tells us is how we are to deal with one another when one of us sins. I have witnessed many people refuse to do what the Lord instructs here. They think it is unloving, or they are uncomfortable with confrontation, so they let it go. It is, after all, a personal matter and Jesus just suggested these things, right?
Jesus didn't say, when your brother sins you should go to him. He said, If your brother sins, go, and reprove him, in private. This is not advice. It is how we are to deal with one another. If we see our brother in sin, we are to love him in Christ so much that we cannot just let him wander on in sin. So we go to him - or her, women are not excluded here. We are to go to him or her and reprove him.
To reprove someone is to tell them that what they are doing is wrong. It doesn't mean to harangue. It doesn't mean to brow-beat. It doesn't include any kind of threat. It means to tell them that what they are doing is sin. A brother is a fellow Christian, and realizing that we are sinning should be all that we need to turn away from sin and repent. So Jesus says, If he listens to you, you have won your brother. If he actually hears that what he is doing is sin, he or she will repent and you have won your brother back from sin and death and into eternal life.
Notice that this is a private thing. You reprove him in private. I can confess my guilt and acknowledge my sin better to my good friend than I could in front of a crowd. It is even more effective if, when you see me sin, you come to me, rather than talk about my sin with your friends over a card game, or the gang at coffee. I am more likely to accept correction privately than when I am shamed in front of others, or I have heard that others are talking about me. Unfortunately, people in the church often put this process into reverse - telling others, and maybe never telling the one person who can repent and put it all to right.
If your brother repents, you have won, and the well-being of your brother is the prize. That's how Jesus wants us to do it.
Of course, if he or she does not listen - they refuse to sin their sin as sin, or they refuse to repent, we don't just wash our hands of them. We keep trying. Jesus has just explained how we leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and search for the one who has wandered away. He wants us to love one another. This is not just a set of rules to obey, this is how we love one another. Jesus doesn't want to lose them. He died that they, too, might live. He came to seek and to save them no less than anyone else. This procedure, if you will, is an act of love for the welfare of the erring brother or sister.
So, if he refuses to listen (to come to repentance), we take the issue back to him with others along to help us encourage - and to serve as witnesses that the proper reproof was offered - sincere and in accord with both the Word of God and the spirit of love that we should have for others. With help, we again earnestly entreat our brother or sister to turn from their sin, and endeavor to show sin as the deadly thing that it is. Again, if our brothers listens - which means that he repents, we have rescued our brother and won him back.
But then comes the difficult part - the part where our brother refuses to acknowledge sin as sin or, knowing that it is sin, refuses to repent. Then we bring the issue to the church. One small note here, is that the Church will only deal with manifest sins -- sins that are openly committed and publicly known. If you are dealing with a sin of a brother that no one else knows of -- you are required by God to make sure no one else learns of it from you.
Having said that, when you bring the issue to the Church, the entire congregation, acting through the pastor and the elders and the voters calls the brother to repentance, and warns him that if he does not repent, the road he is walking leads to hell, and that he will be excluded from the fellowship of the body of Christ. The purpose is to lead the brother to see how precarious his situation is, and how serious the need to repent and turn from sin is, and to win back our brother. But if he refuses to see and refuses to repent, Jesus tells us to let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax-gatherer. Now the Gentile was hated and ignored, by Law. The Jews were commanded by God not to mingle with them, not to intermarry. And Tax Gatherers - what the King James Version called "Publicans" - were the lowest form of human life. They were traitors to their people, and serving the enemy, they even abused their fellow-Jews by collecting too much and getting rich in the process.
Jesus tells us to do these things in order to win our brother. It is His power we exercise, not our own. It is His church, not ours. He commands, and if we are faithful, we obey. Always in love, with humility, and always for the hoped-for good of our brother. We call it Church Discipline, and the root word here is "disciple." It seems so hard and harsh to so many - they think of it as "kicking someone out" when in fact it is loving and faithful, and we are really simply making a painful truth painfully clear - for the one who lives in sin and refuses to repent has chosen the world instead of Jesus Christ and has actually withdrawn from the body of Christ already. We just make it formal in the hope that this final, abrupt and offensive preaching of the Law may wake someone up to the enormity of their sin and their danger, and call them finally to repentance. To do this is loving and faithful to our Lord. To fail to do it is to love ourselves more than our brothers and sister, and more than our Lord Jesus, and to be utterly unfaithful to this command. It is His Church, after all.
Then Jesus seems to break stride and go off in another direction and says Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. But, in truth, Jesus is simply adding His own authority to the discipline of the Church. He is saying that is we declare a man outside of the body of Christ and without salvation, so he shall be and remain until he sets that excommunication right by confession and repentance and absolution - and he must go to those who excluded him to do that. Until the Church, who removed him, welcomes him back, simply going to another congregation and feeling Christian is a pious fraud. He is excluded from the kingdom of God by God's own Word and authority.
Now, so far, you might be wondering, what it the good news here? This sounds pretty dark and dismal. The good news, of course, is hidden in the phrase "Listens to you." That phrase contains repentance and, therefore, forgiveness. The verse just before our text says, Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. Without repentance and forgiveness, we will perish. And Jesus would not have it so. He already died, horribly, so that we might have life. He hung on the cross for our sins so that we might have life and forgiveness and salvation. So Jesus tells us how to win back the erring and the sinful. He tells us how to make His payment of full effect. And He teaches us how we are to be reminded ourselves of the great evil that our sins truly are, that we flee from them into His loving arms and receive His grace and forgiveness. Your sins have been paid for. Your father in heaven has been propitiated. You have been redeemed. He who believes receives and possesses the forgiveness won on the cross, and the full righteousness of Christ - symbolized by this white robe I wear.
We receive His righteousness and with it, all that He has won for us - eternal life and resurrection from the grave, and glory everlasting. It is all His, and He gives it to us, that He who believes and is baptized is saved.
Then Jesus promises to hear our prayer, and answer them - and He bases His promise on the promise that where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst. What a wonderful promise! He promises to be present with us whenever we gather together in His name, as His people. He is present here today - in His Word, in the Holy Sacrament in which we receive His true body and blood, and in a special way - not defined, simply promised here. He is among us to bless us and cheer us. He is here as certainly and as really as any one of you. And I know it because He has promised it.
That is why we pray together as we gather for worship. Jesus has promised that our prayers will be answered. And our prayers will be answered because He is here, present among us. Our course, the form of the promise troubles some. Jesus said, Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. It sounds like any two of us should be able to pray for rain and force God to give us rain, but you may have noticed in this recent dry spell that it doesn't work that way. We tend to misread the promise.
The promise is that whatever we pray together for will be granted - but the missing words are, according to the will of God. We should be praying, if it is Your will, O Lord. And when we do, God always grants our prayer - that His good and gracious will be done. If we forget that we always pray, as His children, that His will be done, we then may wonder why every wish does not occur just because we got a couple of people to join us in asking for it.
Although the strands of this text seem to be separate and not well related to one another, they connect quite nicely around Jesus. His Church, and therefore we deal with one another - and with sin - His way. His power and authority are given to us to deal in love - and in discipline when needed - with one another, because it is His Church. And because it is His Church, and we are His people, He promises us His presence. And they are connected, for when we act on His behalf, and in His name, we have His authority - even to shut the gates of heaven - or open them again. He stands present among us as we speak His Word and act according to His will and command. To hear our prayer for our erring brothers, and to receive them back into His grace when our brother - or sister - repents. He stands among us because we are His Church. His Power, His Presence, His Church. What wonderful good news! We are never alone, but we share His power, His Presence, and His Church.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.