How to Handle a Sinner, Part 2

Reconciliation Statue
Reconciliation Statue, placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, England, bombed by the Nazis in World War II.

Being emotionally and/or spiritually wounded by another downright hurts. So, what do we do when it happens? Gratefully, Jesus provided some clear teaching on how to handle a victimizing person. (Matthew 18:15-20)

In part one, we considered the initial step to be taken when a person has been offensive and brought damage to another and/or the community. In their straying from the law of love, we are to respond by speaking to the person privately, to attempt a one-on-one reconciliation and restoration. This effort may be repeated several times over.

These next two steps are only to be undertaken when it has become evident that the person’s intransigence about hurting others will not budge.

The Second Step – Take One or Two Others (Matthew 18:16).

Reconciliation Statue Berlin
Statue outside of the Church of Reconciliation in Berlin, Germany.

“If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” –Jesus

The idea here is not to get a few buddies together who agree with our assessment. Rather, we seek others who know the person and can provide loving and objective help. This upholds the ethics of the Old Testament:

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

When a person fails to respond to reproof privately, then others need to get involved so that there is not a situation of “he said, she said.”  The witnesses are to help establish the nature of the problem. This is purposely meant to be a rather drawn out process because the goal is restoration. We are to give the person every chance to respond to correction.  People need to be given the grace of time to be effectively wooed back to the flock.

The Third Step – Tell It to the Church (Matthew 18:17-18).

Reconciliation Statue Hiroshima
Reconciliation Statue in Hiroshima, Japan

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” –Jesus

If the person ignores the group of witnesses, the group is to report the problem to the church. If the person still refuses to listen, then the person is to be treated like “a pagan or tax collector,” that is, the person is to be excommunicated and treated as though they are an unbeliever who has different needs. Jesus did not mean that we never talk to the person again. It is just the opposite: We communicate to them the need for grace just as we would to anyone.

The sixteenth-century Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, took up this this matter (Question and Answer 85):

Q: How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?

            A: According to the command of Christ:

Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition – such persons the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God himself excludes them from the kingdom of Christ.  Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.

This approach is also germane with groups of people, churches, or Christian organizations. In the last century, churches around the world ostracized the South African Dutch Reformed Church for their refusal to bend concerning their racism and stance on apartheid.  Restoration did occur.  Not only that, but the Belhar Confession was eventually crafted from this church, a document which stands as a thorough biblical stand against structural racism and racist actions.

The Power of the Small Group (Matthew 18:19-20).

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Jesus

Jesus reiterated his point about binding and loosing; opening and closing; banning and forgiving. One of the great Reformation teachings is the priesthood of all believers.  The beauty of this is that we may confess our sins to one another in a close, intimate setting so that the steps do not need be done. Small gatherings of believers coming together to confess sin and pray together is the most powerful setting there is.  If we neglect this, we are missing out on the power of God.

Conclusion

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons to him. “I am too old to work anymore,” he said. “I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends.”

When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then, one day there was an argument between the two brothers, and they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, not a word was spoken between them.

One day, one of the brothers was at his house when a carpenter came to his door and said, “I would like to do some work. Do you have any work that I can do?” The brother thought for a moment and then replied, “I would like for you to build a fence on my property. Build it down near the stream that separates my farm from my brother’s. I do not want to see my brother and I would like for you to build a high fence there. I am going into town and I will return this evening.

Bridge over stream

When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence he built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side. His brother said, “After all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can’t believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back.” He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.

The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. “Can you stay?” he asked. “I have more work for you to do.” The carpenter answered, “I’m sorry but I can’t stay. I have to go, for I have many other bridges to build.”

Sometimes you and I have hurts and wounds from our brothers and sisters in Christ. When that happens, we often build a fence between ourselves and them. We stop talking to them. We do not want to see them. We do not want to be around them. However, Jesus wants something different. Instead of fences, he wants us to build a bridge of love.  He wants us to connect and work it out.

How to Handle a Sinner, Part 1

Christ teaching the disciples
A medieval portrait of Christ teaching his disciples.

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  It is filled with broken people. And broken people tend to hurt each other. None of us are immune.  What do you do when you are hurt?

Jesus had something to say on the subject (Matthew 18:15-20). It would be good to hear him out on it because all of us get hurt at some time or another and we need to know how to handle the offending person. We need to get this right. If we do not, the cycle of pain, hurt, damage, and brokenness gets perpetuated.

Just before Jesus offered some teaching on how to handle a sinner, he a parable about a lost sheep – communicating that he is not willing that any sheep should be lost to the sheepfold (Matthew 18:10-14). The teaching on dealing with a person who wounds us is simply the logical extension of the parable. That is, Jesus told us in clear terms what must be done to bring the straying sheep back into the fold.

When attempting to retrieve a wandering person, the tools of guilt, gossip, nagging, and punishment are not consistent with the gospel of grace. Standing at a distance and lobbing verbal grenades toward an erring person is not mentioned by Jesus as an acceptable means of proceeding with those who have caused us suffering.

Jesus offered a three-step process of gracious intervention and a compassionate confrontation with the aim to rescue and restore. Radical independence has no place in the Church.  Strays must be lovingly pursued, carefully rescued, and gently restored.  Anytime someone wanders from the Lord, they hurt another or a group of people, and that wayfaring sheep’s life gets worse. We are not to add to their misery by going to the extremes of either being obnoxiously passive-aggressive to get them to change, or simply ignoring the person altogether, doing nothing, and just hanging back and licking our own wounds.

What others call an “intervention” Christians call “church discipline.”  It seems to be rarely practiced today, which is one reason why we have growing legions of de-churched people. In this post, I focus on step one of this process, because nine out of ten times this first step takes care of the situation. A subsequent post shall deal with the second and third steps.

Cartoon Matthew 18

The First Step – One on One (Matthew 18:15). 

Here are several observations about this step:

  • Approach the person privately. We are never to confront an individual in a group, having not first talked to the offending person one on one. We do not start with step two because these are progressive steps.  Furthermore, we are to avoid what I call the “Middle School adolescent way” of confrontation by having someone else do it for you and report back.
  • Focus on the sin event. We are to show the person their fault, and not make a list of all the things the person has done wrong in the last ten years; or, talk about how terrible they are. We must stick to the offense.  What is more, confrontation is not to be done simply with something we do not like. A person’s individual idiosyncrasies or personality is just that, and we need to have the maturity to allow people to be who they are.
  • Be vigilant to avoid overreactions. Steer clear of accusing others of wrongdoing based in some disputable matter. Let us be sure to face the person about a clear sin which has been committed. On the contrary, if we tend to dodge conflict at all costs, we must watch for our own denial and rationalization by saying “it wasn’t so bad.” The health of the church, not to mention our own personal well-being, may very well require that we do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has affronted us.
  • Pay attention to the approach. The manner in which we oppose another person is critical. The bull-in-the-china-shop approach is nothing more than responding to a sin with another sin. For example, rather than saying, “You need to stop and get right with God or you’ll go to hell,” you could say instead, “When you did that I felt sad and upset because I need to be in a place that values love. Will you please stop this unloving action?” In other words, knee-jerk reactions rarely go over well. But well-placed words said in love and wisdom go a long way toward restoration.
  • Confront our brother or sister. No one is to be the self-appointed ethics Nazi for people outside the church.
  • Confrontation is commanded. If we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, this is not a matter which is open for debate on whether we do it or not. We are to take the attitude that I am my brother’s keeper.  I am not to let a person run rampant with their sin over myself or others. When we are abused and offended, we do not wait for the person to come to us. Even as the victim, we are to initiate the reconciliation and restoration. “Go” to the person, Jesus said. Face-to-face is the way, without reliance on email or voice mail.  It is to be a conversation, not a drive-by comment or accusation.
  • Confrontation is not negotiation. This is a matter of restoring a person who has sinned.  Having differing positions on certain issues in a church or Christian community is a matter for negotiating, not confronting.
  • Do it more than once. This first can (and should) be repeated many times over. The goal is restoration, not get-this-step-out-of-the-way-so-I-can-see-you-get-in-trouble attitude.

Jesus did not invent something new with his teaching but upheld and restated Old Testament ethics about our attitudes in reproving others:

Do not secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.” (Leviticus 19:17-18, MSG).

In most situations, this first step takes care of the issue and mends the problem with a genuinely restored relationship. If, however, this does not occur, yet other steps ought to be taken. These will be handled in the next post.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our heavenly Father, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always. Amen.

Matthew 23:29-36 – “Woe Is Me!”

Ethiopian Jesus
Jesus, from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, c.1750 C.E.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So, you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you; all this will come on this generation. (NIV) 

I almost feel the need to place a warning label on this blog post: “The writer has determined that a careful reading of this Scripture is dangerous to those who think their current state of Christianity is just fine.”  Jesus stands in a long line of Old Testament prophets as the ultimate prophesier calling the people to see things as they really are and come back to the God of all, not the God of their own making. 

I feel yet another warning is warranted, knowing from years of experience that there is an Enemy of our souls: The dark forces of this world will try every which way to get us to believe these words of Jesus are for other people, not me or you – that you and I are okay and that this is for “those” people [probably ones we don’t like] who are clearly deluded. We, however, are simply fine.   

We all need these words from Jesus and to let them speak to us. Christ’s scathing and damning critique was leveled against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God. Jesus pronounced seven woes on the religiously pious spiritual brokers of his day. Today’s Gospel lectionary contains only the seventh woe. This woe, along with the rest, are not directed toward the irreligious or the spiritually lackadaisical folks among us – the woes are aimed squarely at the religiously committed. 

Ethiopian Orthodox Jesus
Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus

The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” and “misery.” Jesus pronounced a woe against ultra-religious persons who were obsessed with respecting the tombs and the graves of the ancient prophets. It was considered a terrible travesty to walk on such a grave, even accidentally. The concern about it would be something like today’s respect given to the American flag by many people. 

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on those being so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people and inanimate objects like graves while ignoring live people is not good. Respecting dead people of the past means nothing if we simultaneously ignore the live people right in front of us. For Jesus, one of the surest ways to hell is to give credence to Christian leaders long dead while flippantly disregarding the prophet or pastor presently in our lives who is taking pains to communicate God’s will and care for God’s people right now. 

Jesus knew quite well the telltale signs of hypocrisy: 1) hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; 2) hypocrites keep other people out of God’s kingdom; 3) hypocrites focus on externals; and, 4) hypocrites major on the minors. Hypocrisy, however, never has the last word – grace does. The final word to everything is God’s grace.  

For all of Christ’s severe words, his heart was filled with a love and a longing for his wayward people. Jesus died for the ungodly with deep concern, intention, and hope that everyone would come to know the true worship of God – filled with an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner. 

When the prophet Isaiah experienced a vision of God his response was “woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). The appropriate response to today’s Gospel lesson is repentance – to see and turn from our own propensity toward spiritual and/or religious pride and the tendency to view the “other” as needing to repent, but not me.  

Let us, then, come to the cross of Jesus Christ and there find the grace which absolves us from such sin. Let us approach the empty tomb and find Christ’s resurrecting power of transformation. Let us approach the ascended Christ on the throne with both humility and confidence. Let us intercede for a world which desperately needs the peace of Christ. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed that we would be one as you and your Father are one. We confess our resistance to your prayer. We have failed to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have broken the bond of peace. For the times we have not listened to each other, when we have spoken in anger, haste, or fear, we are sorry. For the times we have not loved each other, when we have competed, or insulted or judged each other, we are sorry. For the harm that our disunity has done to our witness to the Gospel, we are sorry. Have mercy on us, we pray. Restore us to friendship with you and with one another, through the power of your Spirit. Lord, grant your grace for repentance to spiritual charlatans and victimizers; and, give your power to those distressed and victimized for forgiveness of their abusers, so that all of us together may strive to break the chains of oppression and show the peace of Christ in the world. Amen. 

Romans 7:7-20 – Facing Our Bundle of Contradictions

contradiction
“Humanity is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.”-Charles Caleb Colton, 1780-1832

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s vulnerable expression of his dilemma resonates deeply with many people. There are times when we say things to ourselves such as, “I told myself I wasn’t going to be like my mother, and here I am responding just like she would;” “I know better than to drive by the liquor store on my way home and pick up a pint of vodka, yet, I still did it;” or, “I don’t want to die, but my thoughts keep racing about a plan for suicide.” And, there are many more situations in which we are both frustrated and befuddled by our doing the things we do not want to do, and not doing the things we want to do.

Yes, indeed, Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. We all can relate to the seeming inability to do what is right in so many situations. It can really drive us nuts, even to a constant and never-ending low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.

Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law. He understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail. Neither our brains nor our spirits work that way. Our willpower was never designed to be the driver of what we do and do not do. If anything, willpower, and the lack thereof demonstrate just how much we are climbing the ladder on the wrong wall. People are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.

God’s law was not crafted to transform us from the inside-out. The law has three solid purposes, none of which are meant to bring deep personal transformation: attention to the law works to restrain sin in the world; use of the law provides us with a helpful guide for grateful living in response to divine grace; and, it’s use here by Paul is to show us how bad off we really are in this world and in need of forgiveness.

We need a change of habits, and this is different than adopting a list of laws. Habits are developed from our desires, our affections. In other words, we do what we love – more specifically, our ultimate love(s) drive us to do what we want. To put it in a straightforward way: We sin because we like it. And the path to overcoming any besetting sin is to have an ultimate love trump the lesser sin which we like.

St Augustine quote 2

For example, I have developed daily habits or rituals of faith which enable me to commune with God. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and this ultimate love enables me to push out all competing gods who want my devotion. I also love my wife with all my heart. We work on developing habits of a marital relationship which reinforce our love for each other. Love is what drives me to do right and good by her.

So, what do we do when we mess up? For the Christian, no matter what the question is, the answer is always grace. God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit is the operative power that changes lives. The law has no power to do that kind of work. Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires and disordered loves comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace.

Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize spiritual healing and practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.