The first thing to note is that Jesus realises that disputes will happen – a Christian community is full of saints-in-the-making – not people who are already holy and who have everything all together. Members of the body will sin and make mistakes. And we need to learn to deal with this. But dealing with it does not mean ignoring it or pretending that nothing happened in the first place. Forgiveness does not mean saying that it doesn’t matter. Sin does matter. Anything that breaks the unity of the body does matter, because it is serious.
When there are disputes, when someone has done something that breaks the communion of the body, then we need to resolve this, to ensure that the concern of the Father – that not even one of these little ones should be lost – is fulfilled. We are rarely told in the pages of Scripture what the will of God is – so when we are told so clearly, we need to sit up and take notice!
So when a dispute happens – when someone has done something that is against the teachings of Jesus and the spirit of the kingdom of heaven, then we have in Matthew 18 a four-stage process to follow. One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that this clear process has so rarely been followed, and leaders and others have been too quick to jump to stage four and neglect the first three stages.
So first we need to ask for the courage to confront our brother or sister in love with the concern that we have. Note – take it directly to the person. Not your friend down the road, or to talk about it at work, to write about it on your blog, or on Twitter or Facebook; not call your local radio station and discuss it with the shock-jock or write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. No, go in love to the person and share your concerns. If they listen – you have won back your brother or sister into the communion of the church. If not, and only then, take it to stage two.
Here Jesus invites us to seek the wisdom of others in the church – take it to one or two others, who can listen to both sides of the questions – who may be able to offer other insights and discern with both of you a way forward. If the person does not see a way through to reconciliation here, then you should take it to stage three – involving the wider body of the church. Note, there are only two cases where the word for church – ekklesia (the called out ones – the community that have been called from the world, into new life together with God) is used in the four Gospels – here and in Matthew 16, which we had two Sunday’s ago. For Matthew and Jesus, their idea of the church community is probably much smaller and more intimate and way less institutional than our usual idea. The church community were those that you shared life with, and were able to know the essential details of the whole situation. They don’t have in mind nameless and faceless bereaucrats on the other side of the world!
If there is still failure to win back the one who is breaking communion with the church after this three-stage process has been thoroughly undertaken – then, and only then – should the fourth stage be contemplated – which is to treat the person as a pagan or a tax collector. We must note, of course, that we find this passage in the Gospel of Matthew, the one who is called by Jesus in chapter 9, and who is a tax collector himself. He knows very well that the way that Jesus treats tax collectors is with great kindness and compassion – he eats with them, forgives them and shares life with them. A great model for true excommunication!
What would our church look like if we applied this passage with great courage and compassion?
Recorded at SJV, 8.30am (12’20”)