This is the Word of the Lord.
One thing people are really good at is arguing. Christians will argue with people who aren't Christians, or with people who are different kinds of Christians than we are, or with people who are in the same denomination as we are. People will argue politics, football, what state has the best barbecue, which Pokemon is the best, we will argue about anything.
A lot of times, arguments have to do with ego – I want to be right, and if I am right, you can't be. Other times, it has everything to do with context and interpretation.
One example of all of this happened with me this week. I was browsing either FaceBook at home, or Yahoo News at work, and I ran across an article: “Five Reasons to Suspect That Jesus Never Existed.” Now, the article's points were easy to respond to, and me being me, I did... I made a blog post. As of this morning, less than thirty people have seen the blog post, compared to the millions that saw the original article, but... that'll show 'em, huh?
One of the things that caught my eye was a quote by Bart Ehrman, which seemed to support the writer's contention that the existence of Jesus is a myth.
Now, Bart Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's a graduate of Princeton Seminary, the author of twenty books, and he is a well known speaker. Some of the books he's written include “Misquoting Jesus,” “How Jesus Became God,” and “Did Jesus Exist?” - which is the book that's quoted from.
Bart Ehrman will never, ever get a prize for being the world's most passionate Evangelical. He is, in fact, an agnostic – someone who believes the existence of God is something we can not know. However, that is not to say that Ehrman thinks Jesus did not exist. He has said, both in the book the article quoted and in several interviews, that there is very little reason to doubt that Jesus did, in fact, exist.
Here's a couple of quotes from Ehrman from an interview on NPR: "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did, If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed."
Also, “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah, You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies.”
Pretty ironic, I guess, that the author of a book named “Misquoting Jesus” would, himself, be misquoted.
Taking words out of context, purposely misquoting people in order to make a point or to bolster your own position... these things happen all the time. Politicians do it all the time, and so do the news media.
And Christians do it, too, and we do it most often with the Bible. There are very few places this is more true, than with our Gospel reading today, what to do if a fellow Christian sins against you.
This Gospel passage has been misquoted, maligned, and misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.
What is Jesus really saying? If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?
To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. We seem to operate as if church discipline is a hammer, and people are nails... but I digress.
I want to suggest to you this morning that this passage speaks less to classic church discipline and more to personal discipline within the body of believers. If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…
That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue, and it's fun, because it's gossip… but it all too often leads to churches splitting, fellowships breaking, or families being destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments.
Confrontation is tough – and by “confrontation” I don't mean reality-TV style confrontation; rather I mean conversation, difficult talks whose foundation is love, speaking softly, with humility, and with an eye toward working things out. This is hard, hard work. But the Gospel is about relationship. Through Jesus Christ we are related to one another, and related to our loving Creator God, members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.
And the Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out! No, the focus is upon reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!
That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!
That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!
And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?
Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] 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.”
And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…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.”