I have always found our gospel reading for this morning challenging – to the point that I almost didn’t preach on it. There is something a bit scary about two or three people gathering and having the authority to bind things in heaven and earth. It seems so final and it doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the good news of God’s abiding love. Because I know, and perhaps you know, what can happen when two or three people are together. They can bind on earth and in heaven that this one is in and that this one is out. They can loose and on earth and in heaven a variety of terrible ideas.
I know because sometimes when I am gathered with my closest of friends how the conversation can go. Its starts off innocently enough. Perhaps with the question “did you know?” And before you know it, you’ve arrived at “well I never really liked so and so anyway.” It is human. Most of us do it. It happens among friends, in families, in community groups. People think it shouldn’t happen in churches. But human beings make up the church. And sometimes we don’t get along. Sometimes we are unkind with one another. Sometimes we can’t resist the urge to judge. So it makes me wonder, “What was Jesus thinking trusting two or three people to bind and loose things in heaven and on earth?”
Then I read these words by Stanley Saunders, “The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3392 It helps put our reading in the context of everything that happens in Matthew chapter 18.
The chapter opens with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who get the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1). Jesus answers the question by placing a child in their midst and reminding them whoever becomes like this child will be greatest and if you welcome a child you welcome Jesus. And he doesn’t stop there, if you put a stumbling block in front one of these little ones it would be better for you to be dropped in the lake with a milestone around your neck. In the verses just before our reading, Jesus reminds us what happens when there are 100 sheep in the fold and one wanders off and gets lost. God goes after the lost sheep because he does not want to lose a single person.
It is only after Jesus reminding us of the importance caring about the well-being of all these, that Jesus begins his teaching for today, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” (Matthew 18:15 – 20)
This reading is not about binding law. It is about living together in community. It is about how we treat one another and work out our differences. Dr. David Lose writes, “All of which makes me think that this week’s passage is not simply the product of an all-too-legalistic Matthew (as many, including myself at times, have been tempted to read him), but rather is offered by someone who knows that relationships take work to maintain and that community is harder to forge and nurture than we might imagine. Because – think about it – going to someone with your concern or grievance is a lot harder than talking behind his or her back. Bringing others to listen closely to what is said a lot more courage than posting something on Facebook. And working out disputes as a community together rather than simply dispensing judgment can be really, really hard.” (In the Meantime, Wednesday September 9, 2017)
The good news is this. Jesus knows we are going to get it wrong. That people are going to get hurt. That at some point we are all going to say the wrong thing and hurt another. So Jesus gives a roadmap on how to work it out. Jesus offers us the reminder to care for the vulnerable in our community. Jesus reminds us about the importance of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that when we are lost God is always seeking us out. And then Jesus shows how to work it. Talk with one another. Listen to one another. Don’t give up on another. Offer forgiveness. This is the hardest work we will do because it means being vulnerable. It means admitting we are hurting. It means admitting we are wrong. Thankfully, we don’t do this hard work alone. Jesus says it so well, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” (Matthew 18:20) This is the work of the body of Christ and Jesus us entrusted us with binding and loosing all matters in in heaven and on earth.
David Lose concludes with these words, “There is so much that is challenging in our world just now – from hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance – that the world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ. Moreover, there is so much going on in [our lives] – from heartaches we barely sense to hopes we can scarce imagine – [we all] need to be cared for by, and to be part of, the Body of Christ. And so I’ll say it again: authentic community is hard. But also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. And a heck of a lot of work, to be sure, but always worth it. And when we grow weary following the path Jesus set, perhaps we can remind each other that we have Jesus’ promise that each and every time we try, he is there with us – instructing us in the way of love, urging us on, forgiving us, and sending us out to be agents of reconciliation and peace, accompanying us wherever we may go.” In the Meantime, Wednesday September 9, 2017) Amen.