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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 10 September 2017
A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 by Samuel Zumwalt
Matthew 18:15-20 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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 collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you 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, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask,it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Preaching professors, of which I have had many, say you should never begin with a quotation. I’m breaking that rule today, because this quote sets the right tone for this sermon.
“Matthew 18:15-20 is not primarily about executing church discipline per se, nor is it a checklist for dealing with flagrant sinners. Even less is this teaching of the Lord about weeding out deadwood, that is, removing inactive or seemingly ambivalent members from the church rolls. Instead, this pericope (reading or text) is about one thing and one thing only: caring for a needy, wandering, sinning brother or sister. If anyone takes up this teaching in heart and hand with any other understanding than this, they are abusing the words of Jesus” (Professor Jeffrey Gibbs, Concordia Commentary: Matthew 11:2-20:34, 927).
So if this passage is not about church discipline, removing inactives, and cleaning the rolls to have more accurate numbers, then how do we care for a needy, wandering, sinning brother or sister? And whose job is it to do that? So, isn’t that what pastors are paid to do? Well, let’s stop to talk about what it means to be a community of faith.
The Lord Jesus is very clear, and so is St. Paul. You become a Christian by being baptized with water in the name of the one God in three persons. The Lord says very clear: “Go; make disciples of all ethnic group, (by) baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20). Our Lord says again: “Truly,truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). St. Paul writes, “…he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). We become Christians through Holy Baptism.
So, then, what next? St. Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). And, then, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). We belong to each other in the body of Christ across space and time. We belong to each other in this local assembly of the body of Christ. We are not the whole Church, but we are indeed the body of Christ in this place.
Because the word for church in Greek “ekklesia,” means those “called out” of the world to assemble with the Lord to hear His Word and to receive His Supper, there is no such thing as a free agent Christian apart from the community of God’s people. Revivalist theology gets this entirely wrong where someone can become a Christian by praying the sinner’s prayer quite apart from the Church’s worship, and this leads to bad ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church). Let’s be clear. Someone may be baptized, but if he or she is not regularly assembling with the Lord and His people around the Word and the Meal, then that person has disconnected from the community. That member is not connected to Christ’s Body.
Now shut-ins who cannot get to worship are not in this category. The Church has to go to those who cannot be present due to health or infirmity and bring the Word and the Meal to them. This is what our Visitation Pastor, Joel Kettner, does. Folks who have decided to change communities of faith (moving from one congregation to another) are also not disconnected unless they have gone over to a cult. More later about that later.
Now if we were a small congregation with only one service, as the congregation I was confirmed in continues to be today, then we would easily know everyone in the congregation and would always know who was and wasn’t present for worship. The first congregation I served as a solo pastor had only about 35 attending on a weekly basis when I got there. There were well over 100 on the rolls, but many of them were grown children, and some had already moved to another town. The pastor and other family members needed to urge them to join a congregation in the community where they were living or going to school.
As soon as a congregation has more than one worship service, that congregation has now become a congregation of congregations. So when a congregation grows to more than 150 worshipers weekly, it usually begins to have more than one worship service. It becomes more complex in its organization. It hires more staff and usually has more than one pastor. And those who began as a small congregation often have a lot of grief about the loss of family, meaning they grieve those days when they knew everyone, who was and wasn’t there. In a worst case scenario, those locked in grief try to sabotage growth in order to maintain control. That is a sign of spiritual disease and congregational dysfunction. The preaching and teaching has to be more pointed. We still belong to each other, even those we don’t know well. It’s still Christ’s Church and, of course, not our church to do with whatever we want or don’t want. “Thy will be done!”
Now let’s go back to Professor Gibb’s point about Matthew 18. If this passage is not about church discipline, removing inactives, and cleaning the rolls to have more accurate numbers, then how do we care for a needy, wandering, sinning brother or sister? And whose job is it to do that? And, isn’t that what pastors are paid to do? Well, no, that’s everyone’s calling!
The first year I took campers to Camp Lutherhill near LaGrange TX, I pointed out a sign on the side of the dining hall: “In order to have a friend, you must be a friend.” Each of us in the body of Christ is responsible for our family members. This means that if you don’t see someone in worship that you know well, you don’t say, “Pastor, you need to check on so-and-so.” Instead you call that person on the phone and say, “I missed you at worship.” That works a lot better than, “Where have you been, you old backslider?” Chances are that person will say, “Well, I went to a different service” or “I was sick” or “I had to work.” If that person says, “Well, I decided to stay home today” or that person says, “I decided to go some place else,” now you have something to talk with them about. You can care enough to listen and pray for them. You can encourage them to talk with a pastor or a Stephen Minister. You can also let the pastor know there’s a problem. Of course, he may already know about that problem.
But, more to our Lord’s point, what if you know for a fact a sister or brother is falling into unbelief? What if you know that a dear one is truly messing up her or his life? That’s your Christian sister or brother. Talk to that one kindly. Listen to that person. Care about that person. Encourage that person to come to the services of God’s house. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes that the more we stay away from the Lord’s Supper the weaker we will become and the less hungry we will be to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood. Our Lord wants none to be lost.
The Lord goes on to say that if you aren’t making any headway with a person who has fallen into sin, now two or three family members go to speak concern for that sister or brother. At this point, the wandering sister or brother may yet be able to be brought to repentance and renewal of faith and life. The sister or brother has been regained and restored to the family.
But, she or he may become hard-hearted, having been catechized more by the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh than by the Word of God. In this case, we never stop praying for those who have wandered away, precisely because we remember we are sinners in need of the same grace and mercy of God as they and daily so. In a worst case scenario, the congregation speaks a word of tough love: “You have chosen no longer to be a disciple of Jesus. You have chosen to live outside the family of God.” In which case, the person is removed from the rolls, but she or he continues to be one for whom we have prayer and concern. It is very much the same case as when we have an estranged member of our earthly families. We love and pray for them always!
We Lutheran Christians are monergists, which means we believe God does all the work of saving from sin, death, and evil; all the work of forgiving sins and giving eternal life in Christ Jesus; and all the work of creating trust in His promises. Because we believe that the Lord Jesus has lived the perfect life of obedience we cannot live and died on the cross for us sinners the innocent death we cannot die, and because we believe that He has given us all of this in the washing of Holy Baptism, we confess the Holy Spirit alone can change a hardened heart. And so we pray for those who have fallen away, and we continue to love them enough to keep reaching out to them as one sinner to another with a gentle but firm invitation: “Come, home. Please.”
There are not many paths to God. All churches and religions are not interchangeable. Our Lord Jesus tells us plainly: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If a person receives the Good News of the unmerited, unearned forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ saving death on the cross, that forgiveness is bound in heaven, because that is God’s Word. If a person refuses the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, saying she or he has no need of Christ to save her or him, that she or he does not need forgiveness, that also is bound in heaven.Why? Because that person has knowingly and willingly refused God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ. That, too, is God’s Word.
So…if Christ is crucified for our sins and those of the whole world, then, because of His grace and mercy to us, we respond by repenting of our sins daily. This is, of course, the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: Our Lord intends that all of life be repentance. And we never cease to model this to others and to pray that none would be lost and all would be baptized into our Lord’s saving death and raised to new life in His body, the Church, in which there is a passionate hunger and thirst for Him. For that is where Christ’s Church is always known: where there is a hunger and thirst for the Lord who comes both in His Word and in His Holy Supper!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Bulletin Insert (see below)
Christ Crucified: We Repent!
“Grant to us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 620).
Matthew 18:15 “…go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
St. John Chrysostom (late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople): “The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick. You must conduct your judgment of him privately. Make your cure easy to accept. For the words ‘correct him’ mean nothing other than help him see his indiscretion. Tell him what you have suffered from him” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28, 76).
Matthew 18:16 “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…”
St. Augustine (4th century Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa): “If you fail to do so, you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves” (77).
Matthew 18:17 “…let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
St. Jerome (late 4th –early 5th century translator of the Vulgate [Latin] Bible): “Then if he refuses to listen even to these, the congregation must be told, so that they may curse him. Then the one who could not be saved through shame may be saved through their approbation…the person who under the name of faith does an infidel’s works is shown to be more cursed than those who openly are heathen. Publicans [tax collectors], figuratively speaking, are those who pursue the profits of the secular world and exact taxes by business, fraud, theft, crimes and false oaths”(77).
Matthew 18:18 “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”
St. John Chrysostom: “Thus, by fearing both rejection from the church and the threat of being bound in heaven, he may become better behaved. And knowing these things, if not at the beginning, at any rate through so many judgments he will put off his anger. For this reason, Jesus set up a first and a second and a third judging. He does not immediately cut him down, so that if he does not obey the first, he may still yield to the second. But if he rejects that too, he may still respect the third. But if he takes no account of this third danger, let him be terrified of future punishment, of God’s sentence and vengeance” (79).
1. Do I understand that I continue to crucify Christ each time I persist in my sinning?
2. Do I take the world’s demonic counsel and offer myself absolution without repenting?
The Ten Commandments (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.
The Second Commandment
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
1. Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how casual disregard of God’s name is a window into the condition of our relationship with God. Discuss how even the tone of voice used in calling another’s name says much about what’s in the heart of the speaker.
4. Set aside a time for reading the Bible and responding with prayer each day. If your daily schedule is busy, write it down into the schedule for a time when your energy and focus are higher. Try to use the daily prayer offices, daily psalms, and daily lessons found on our website at under the DAILY WORSHIP tab.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”