Sharing Christ’s Love – “Discipline and Discernment in the Body of Faith”

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Matthew 18:15-20

September 10, 2023


Matthew 18:15-20

The context for Jesus’ teachings are important.  We often understand scripture more fully in light of surrounding passages. Our text from the Gospel of Matthew for today comes just before Jesus’ words to Peter about forgiveness.  Do you remember how Jesus answered when Peter asked: How many times must we forgive?  As many as seven times? “Not seven times,” Jesus responded, but “seventy times seven.”  (Matthew 18:22)

Our text for today comes just before this conversation. And our text for today comes just after Jesus tells his disciples that they must become humble,  like children, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Jesus tells them to be careful not to become a stumbling block for others, for it is not the will of your Father that any of these be lost. Just before our text for today, Jesus asks: Does not the shepherd leave the ninety-nine and go and search for the one that went astray? (Matthew 18:12)

Hear the Word of God from Matthew 18:15-20.

‘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. But 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. If 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. 

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

My heart is heavy when we see the images from the earthquake in Morocco, or the shock of the videos from that terrible wildfire in Lahaina, Maui. Those events happened so suddenly. 

People in Lahaina, like Wick and Kim’s son, had only minutes, sometimes only seconds, to evacuate their homes. And an earthquake, such as the one in Morocco, often comes with no warning at all.    

We may think that we have time to reconcile with someone who has wronged us, or with someone whom we have hurt in some way, but we human creatures never know what may happen in this life. 

 We do not know what may happen tomorrow; tomorrow may be too late. People in the Caribbean and in Florida are watching carefully Hurricane Lee, not knowing where it may pass and what damage it may do. Oftentimes, when such natural tragedies occur, we begin to realize what is most important. 

In the whole scheme of life, that dent in your car, for example, is not such a big deal after all. That dispute with your neighbor over some mundane domestic issue will seem far less important in the wake of a local tragedy. 

That conflict with a co-worker, in the light of the aftermath of a workplace shooting or a cancer diagnosis, will seem smaller when compared to the suffering around you. Even those deep hurts that can come from family members, pains which can cut deep into the soul, might be viewed differently when a tragedy of some kind strikes someone whom you have loved. 

Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week that “In every human relationship, no matter how loving, there will be conflict, self-righteousness and hurt feelings.  Loving does not protect us.  In fact loving will make us more vulnerable. No matter how loving a relationship is, there is no question that we will be hurt, and sometimes badly.  And likewise, there is no question that we will cause harm—even to the people we love the most.  

The question is not if such harm will occur, the question is how often. Then we have the problem of how we will cope with the pain of such conflict.” 

    (Vernon Gramling blog 9/8/23)

Jesus pointed out to his disciples and to the early church that they should not wait.  They should not ignore. They should not sweep conflict under the rug and act as if nothing has really happened. They should not take for granted that there will be time later to reconcile. 

Jesus knew that broken relationships would harm not only the individual, but also the body of the church, and the mission of the church. Vernon pointed out that broken relationships can become like a festering wound. Untreated, they can become much worse, and in some cases, even become fatal. 

However, when we treat a wound, the treatment itself may hurt. A scar will likely remain,  but the end result is far, far better than if the wound is left unattended.

Attending to wounds, addressing broken relationships, requires humility and courage.  When the disciples asked Jesus who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told them that they must become humble like children to enter the kingdom. 

“Unless you humble yourselves and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Whether we are the one who has been sinned against, or whether we are the one who has sinned by what we have done or said, or not done or not said, a strong dose of humility may be required to even begin the conversation. Humility and courage are critical for the health of the individual and of the body.

Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that frightens you.”  Courage is defined as “strength in the face of pain or grief”.  Going to talk with someone who has sinned against us can be scary.   Seeking to reconcile a relationship that has been painful takes courage.  What if the other person doesn’t listen?

What if they reject me outright?

What if they hurt me again?

What if I make the whole thing worse by bringing it up to them?

Because of fear, we often will leave a wound untended. And an untended wound will tend to fester. And an untended would will impact not only the person who has been harmed, but everyone around them whose life becomes caught up in what becomes an obvious need for healing. There are a couple of variants in the English translation from the Greek in this passage.  Once again, we discover that it can make quite a bit of difference  how the Greek is translated into English in such passages!

Our NRSV translation states:  If another member of the church sins against you… But the literal Greek words are:  If your brother sins against you… In today’s context, depending upon the size of the congregation,  “another member of the church” may not seem as close to you as someone referred you would refer to as “brother”. 

It is a far different matter to go to someone you refer to as a brother or sister than it is to go to another member of the church. In today’s context, in our daily lives we may easily avoid another member of the church. In the first or second century context, in a far smaller community, It would have been far more difficult to avoid for the long term a brother or sister from within the tight-knit family of a small, house congregation. 

Another variant relates not to translation but to which ancient Greek text was preferred. Our NRSV includes a commonly agreed upon translation:   If another member of the church sins against you…

However, a note in the NRSV says: other ancient texts do not include “against you.” How different this passage becomes when those words “against you” are not included.  If another member of the church sins, or if a brother or sister sins…  It is far different for me to go to a person who has sinned against me than it is for me to go to a person who has sinned against you.  

The key is that Jesus recognized that broken relationships will affect not just the two whose relationship has been broken by sin. A broken relationship between two persons affects the whole body,  the whole group or organization – whether that be the body of a nuclear family or the body of a church or the body of some company or community organization.

A single broken relationship will affect the ability of the entire body to do what it is meant to do.

Sin matters. 

When we have said or done something that has harmed another human being, when we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with them, when we have broken God’s commandments in some way in regards to another person, that action or inaction matters. Sin has consequences.  And those consequences will remain and will continue… unless and until some form of reconciliation is sought. 

Seeking reconciliation will not always work.  Seeking reconciliation will not always turn out well. 

Seeking reconciliation can result in further harm and brokenness. 

But seeking reconciliation, carefully, safely, intentionally, is what we are called to do. 

It can be worth the effort, because sin matters and must be dealt with. 

As Vernon wrote:  “The first step is to recognize there is a problem and address it.  I wish it were that easy,” he wrote. “The principle is simple, the application in real life is often terribly difficult.  Most of us are afraid.  We are afraid to be accountable.  We are afraid we will not be heard.  We are afraid we will be rejected. We are afraid our best efforts will fail and the conflict will escalate.  In real life, all of these happen.  Our best efforts to love will make us more vulnerable.” 

   (Vernon Gramling blog, 9/8/23)

There is more to explore in this passage from Matthew,  but we should at least address this statement from Jesus:   “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

When you have done all you can do to reconcile, to forgive and move forward, to seek healing in the relationship, and the other person refuses to participate, refuses to listen to you and others, refuses to listen to the church, let them be to you and to the church as an outsider. 

Do not allow their refusal to admit fault or to seek common ground to continue to harm you or the body of the church. Let them be to you as an outsider. 

Of course, this verse has been misused terribly throughout history  with various excommunications from the church,  with self-righteous judgments from self-righteous congregations.  Terrible things have been done to people in the name of righteous action.   Even so, the intent of the passage remains. Do not allow the other person who has done harm to continue to cause harm to you  and to the church body.  “Let them be as a Gentile or tax collector to you.” 

Now, we need to be reminded here of how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  The disciples may not have thought very well of them.  The disciples may have avoided them, but Jesus reached out to them.   Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors.  Jesus loved Gentiles and the tax collectors.  And we readily confess that we often do not and cannot love as Jesus loved. 

We struggle mightily with Jesus’ command to love our enemies.  But we are still called to love, to act in love, to keep the door open to the offender, to keep the door open for confession and repentance and restoration, even in those circumstances when the offender has been removed from the body. 

To close, allow me to offer this:  If you are experiencing a broken relationship with some other person, go to them.  If it is safe to do so, go see them in person. This may need to be in a safe, public place. At minimum, call them on the phone. If they do not listen to you, take one or two others with you and keep trying.  Keep knocking on the door. 

Remember, the goal is not to win. 

The goal is not to prove to them that you are right and they are wrong. 

The goal is to be in relationship; the goal is to reconcile; the goal is to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ and to love them as Jesus loves them. Many of you have heard Vernon ask the question of his small groups: Do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?

Friends, we were created to live in peace and harmony with much joy in this limited, fallible, temporary earthly life. Jesus came and sacrificed himself upon the cross so that we could live lives reconciled to God and reconciled to our neighbor, reconciled to our family member, reconciled to that former co-worker or former friend.  You matter, and what has happened to you matters, to God and to your Church, and to everyone who knows you. And, ultimately, what has happened to you affects your personal calling and the mission of the church. So let us humbly, courageously, carefully, intentionally seek and find reconciliation.  And let us begin to do so this week. This afternoon.  

Your best efforts may or may not work out as you intended.  Your best efforts may fall flat, but it will be worth the effort.  And you just may find peace in your soul regarding that other person. 

As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…  If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:18)

To God be the glory as we seek to do so. Amen. 


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia