This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 18:10-21
Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 51
Sermon prepared by Rev. Darren Roorda, Kitchener, Ontario
Matthew 18, as one scholar has said, empowers the church. "The heights of heaven open up as the church exercises Matthew 18 and... the extinction of the local church is just around the corner as we fail to practice Matthew 18." John Calvin quotes our text about 15 different places in The Institutes - his famous books of theology.
It all begins with the "missing verse." Can you find Matthew 18:11 in your NIV Bible? You’ll only find it in the footnote. It says, "The Son of Man came to save what was lost."
"The Son of Man came to save what was lost." These are Jesus’ words, and Jesus is commenting on what is going to be the entire theme for this chapter and the next.
"The Son of Man came to save what was lost." Now that’s not anything revolutionary in terms of the way we think about faith. We know God sent His only Son so that our sins might be forgiven. This is the idea expressed so clearly in John 3:16 - Jesus was nailed to the cross so that all of the content and brokenness of our own humanity might be done away with. That’s the job of a saviour. But Matthew 18 gets interesting in that Jesus opens up this responsibility of granting salvation also to His followers. Christianity is the only religion in which the followers of their God are given the opportunity to affect the salvation of other people, to somehow regulate the openness of the door into heaven. According to Jesus, it is not just He, but we also, who "seek and save the lost." But how?
A husband fails to remember his anniversary for the first 6 years of his marriage. He is lost. In the eyes of his wife – he is lost. For 6 years, his loving wife on the day after their anniversary takes the time to gently approach him and graciously musters the words "I am hurt that you forgot again. Deeply hurt. I know you love me, but forgetting like that is unacceptable to do to someone who loves you so much. I am offended and really hope we can get it done right next year. I do forgive you. Now, let’s go out for dinner and salvage this with a good laugh and great conversation." She has sought him out and saved him and the situation. She is practicing Matthew 18 and following suit to Jesus’ instruction to seek and save the lost. One person saves the lost, grants the openness and space for forgiveness to another and the offender experiences a little bit about what Jesus meant in Matthew 18.
Our focus in this passage is verses 15 and onwards. You'll note that this comes after the parable of the lost sheep, and now we are entering into the life of a lost person: "A brother who sins against you." And the same principle from the missing verse 11 applies.
Read: Matthew 18:15-21
In this text the breadth and realm of forgiveness that one person creates for another in the context of our Christian faith takes 'forgiveness' from Jesus and places the responsibility upon you and me. Sin and forgiveness is not just an anthropomorphic, human-centered, legal issue that Jesus solves once and for all on the cross. For not only on the cross by Jesus, but we also bring salvation/heaven/forgiveness one to another. And Jesus says our faith depends on it. So does the faith of others. This is forgiveness and salvation realized and practiced for churches and between Christian people. And we can stretch it into Christian homes, into marriages, into friendships.
This is the method of forgiveness taught in Matthew 18 and it is very counter to our knee jerk human character.
There are 4 key parts to the practice of saving the lost [excercising forgiveness]. Let's start with the first, introduced in verse 15. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you." First, the offender is not necessarily the one who has to make the first move toward reconciliation. Look at the instruction given in verse 15. The one who is causing the sin is not the first person to go. It’s rather, the person that is hurt that is the one who becomes pro-active. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault." If you’re the person being hurt it is - according to Jesus - your responsibility to go to the offender and say, "You know, as much as I love you, you hurt me a great deal. And in all Christian love, I want our relationship to be better than that." How different this is than the mindset we even instil as parents in our children! If my child causes the hurt I allow the hurt child to be off in the corner or on someone’s lap and I force my child to go over and apologize. That’s the first action that always happens. Isn’t it?
Now, as seemingly right as that seems, that the apology must take place - isn’t it interesting that Jesus says what needs to happen first is that the crying child/the one seeking solace and comfort after being hurt must with all courage come forth to the person who has caused the offence and say, "You hurt me." Not only has the person been hurt, but now they have to do the work of initiating forgiveness. That's just like a hurt wife. For fourteen years she has been hurt, year after year after year in not honouring a particular tradition for buying an anniversary present. As the offended party she lived Matthew 18 by being the one who comes forward and says, "You know what honey, this hurts." Precisely Matthew 18 verse 15: "if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault."
Now why would Jesus recommend the injured party have to be the one courageous enough to initiate reconciliation? I think Jesus knows often that we sin without even thinking. We insult somebody's dress, we appraise a particular task a person has done, and we have no idea that we are insulting them. We do it by mistake. We do it as a joke. It happens all the time without any intention of hurting anybody. Jesus knows that the person doing the hurting isn’t always aware of the hurt they deliver. I think it is one of the reasons why Jesus on the cross looks around him and says, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing." Even there Jesus, as the offended party, comes forward and seeks forgiveness for the one causing the hurt.
Number two about saving the lost. The reconciler does it one to one. Discreetly. Quietly. Again this comes from Matthew 18:15. "…go and show him his fault just between the two of you" This is also against our seemingly better judgement. It is far easier for someone to say to a friend "when the church made this decision, that really doesn’t sit well with me and so we begin to talk from party to party to party, person to person to person and nobody ever comes to see the church leadership. Isn’t it interesting how - let’s call this - ‘gossip’ moves around a group before anyone ever takes the time to gently speak with the offender?
Part of the reason for that is our desire to have the offending party to be sorry for their actions. Don’t we want them to come to their senses and finally approach us with, "I apologize." Don’t we want that to be the first forgiveness "chess" move. We want people to revel in and to know what they did was wrong, otherwise apology and correction and repair seem meaningless.
Also, does it not seem that you as the person hurt will have more sway and power if you get other people involved? More people on your side, less people on their side. And so we seek agreement, we seek a broader context for the pain that we are feeling. There is something delicious about pulling others into the vortex of our hurt or anger. Our army, our group of people who have this same knowledge that we do now begin to trump the one who caused the pain. But Jesus wants us to pull away from that desire. When you are hurt in your marriage, your friendship, on the playground or at work, it’s your duty to be a Christian absorber, not a relayer of that pain. That’s what forgiveness is. Take it to the offender quietly as a first step.
We have also convinced ourselves that there are also good reasons not to tell the offender. We don’t want to hurt them. Husbands, I think we are guilty of this quite often. We don’t want to hurt our wives if they offended us. A marriage counsellor heard a husband say, "Well I don't want to tell my wife that, because I think I'll just hurt her. I don't want to do that. She is far too sensitive and far too bubbly and beautiful to bring her to tears about an issue in which I have to point out her wrong." The counsellor properly replied, "Who do you think your wife is? Do you think she is some kind of cheap cardboard suitcase that, when you begin to dump some of your complaints into her, she is just going to fold up and turn to mush and melt away? I ask that because when you tell me that you don't want to share with her, you're saying you don't think she is strong enough. The result of your desire to protect her is ultimately a put down."
The skill of taking your hurt to a person - even if you think it might hurt them but to do it kindly, and warmly and lovingly - compliments the person you are headed towards. You honour them by admitting right up front, "I think you're strong enough to handle what I have to say and even though there has been some wrong done here I think our marriage, our relationship, our friendship is worth it to go through this pain. With God we're going to walk through this in strength. You are a strong person not a weak person and so I am not going to hide this from you."
I think Jesus knows this. It's why the beginning steps in reconciliation are one to one, quietly and discreetly. Jesus doesn't say, "Pull back and make sure you protect the feelings of another." There are other places in the New Testament where we are told about patience and kindness and goodness to avoid hurting someone. But here, it’s after the fact of the offense – go to that person and speak to them. This is counter to our typical logic and it’s the logic that we must embrace from Matthew 18:15 "…just between the two of you."
Let’s go to number 3 for saving the lost. "Invite others in only if you have found yourself unsuccessful." There is no telling how your discreet conversation will go. You hope for repair, but that doesn’t always happen, does it? Well, then, there is a time and a place, Jesus says, to invite others in. You find the people who love the person whom you have a grievance against, you find the people who love them just as much as you do. One, two or three others and you again approach them. Quietly and discreetly. The first principles haven’t gone out the window. Now it’s the same principles but just with more people involved. You strike out, try again. You get three chances at it, the first strike-out demands you just get more people involved. That’s a pretty simple one. Verses 16 & 17 "…if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses…"
Commonly, when an individual tells another "they did 'X' wrong," defences go up. Offenders create a defence or excuse for why "it" happened. They protect their own space. Don’t break it. Don’t bust it. Don’t make me feel bad! But in the case of - let’s say - family relationships again, if all three of your children begin to chime in to say, "Dad, this really did hurt. When you yelled at us after supper, we really didn’t like it and it was inappropriate behaviour." Then it becomes a little more convincing. When one person confronts me, I go on the defence, when two, three or four people speak to me, then I have to face reality. If this is done quietly and discreetly, in love and conversation, with the offending or the party that I offended, it works well. This is not an occasion for a beat down, drag out. It’s an occasion for honesty and admission. It’s a group of people, saving the lost.
Now, you’ll see as well in verse 17 that it gets larger and larger … "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." So it goes from discreet individually, to discreet with a few people, and then the broader church. How ashamed we should be of the times in church history when we – as a first step - we have brought someone with one "cardinal" sin and told him to stand up in from of the church and to bear his soul for all the wrong he’d done. Most of the time when this happened, the result was alienation and not salvation.
Now number four. Behind all of this process stands The Goal. It is the goal that will temper your conversation and the means and the method by which you approach the offender. The goal is, according to verse 15, to win the offender over. Listen: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." This is a matter of gaining a victory. This is a matter of looking for the best thing for the other person. You want to celebrate at the end of this work – not cry.
And all of a sudden the celebrations in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and prodigal son make sense. There is a party because the goal behind all of this is to win somebody over, not to separate somebody out.
But how often? How often do we do this? I can just imagine Peter and some of the other disciples sitting around. Peter sees how different this gracious method is and says, "Whoa!!! How many times am I going to have to do this?" This is spiritually back-breaking work. And Jesus responds with verse 22. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (the footnote says this may also be translated not seventy-seven times but seventy times seven times). Seventy multiplied by seven. Four hundred and ninety times. The point is that this is a practice that never, ever, ever stops. This is just something that Christian people do. This is salvation work that Jesus hands off to believers. And the church will rise and fall based upon the manner in which we practice this. Marriages will rise and fall based upon the practice of this. Friendships between Christian people will rise and fall based upon the practice of Matthew 18. One friend won’t become so disillusioned with the other that they just walk off and six months later haven’t really talked and then friendships die and they find new friends. That won’t happen if Matthew 18 exists as a practice in the church, as a practice in relationships.
The consequences of this kind of a practice in the church for a local body of believers or in your marriage or in your friendships, the consequences if this kind of a practice takes place are astounding.
Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" Now here’s the echo "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." Our salvation is regarded upon how we exercise Matthew 18. And it echoes the Lord’s Prayer, "Forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We admittedly, before God, give him full permission to work forgiveness in our life as we work forgiveness in the lives of others. As we seek reconciliation and improvement for the ones who are causing hurt in our life, so too, Christ looks upon us in our desire for our forgiveness of sins.
There still exists a couple of chapters in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus will pay the price for all sin. But there still exists something in God’s economy of spiritual reconciliation that says we receive as we give. And I’m not sure exactly how that all works out but Jesus is explicit enough in Matthew 18 to say "Be careful" because the way you work this kind of forgiveness will be the kind of forgiveness you receive.
And if you don’t like that kind of explanation, take your Bibles and turn to the next parable that Jesus begins to tell after he says seventy times seven. He tells the parable of the unmerciful servant, as it's called. The unmerciful servant receives great forgiveness from the king and then turns around to tear a strip off of the people that still owe him money. And look what the king, who represents God in this parable, says to him. Verse 32 says the master calls in the servant and says, "You wicked servant" (that’s about as strong as biblical language can get without having to white it out and put little exclamation marks and stars and brackets there; you know, like the cartoons or comics do on Saturday afternoon where there is supposed to be a cuss word) Jesus says, "You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" The obvious answer is, Yes. In anger, God, the Master "turned him over to the jailor to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. This (Jesus said) is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you [he is talking to the disciples again; remember, he is talking to those inside the church] unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Whoa! My forgiveness hinges on my capacity to be a forgiving person. The character of faith is a product of its natural capacity to be the kind of person or people group that exercises Matthew 18.
Lord’s Day 51 of the Heidelberg Catechism encapsulates this entire process of saving the lost. It asks the question, "What does this fifth request mean - forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." And it answers "Forgive us just as we are fully determined as evidence of your grace in us to forgive our neighbours." That’s what's behind all of this. We give God permission to grant forgiveness in our life as we are willing to give it to others; fully determined. God is calling all of us in our Christian relationships to be fully determined forgivers. As the missing verse says, "to seek and save the lost."
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 118:1-4 (could be done as a responsive reading)
Opening Song: "My Redeemer Lives, Heart of Worship"
(or "Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer" PsH #543)
God’s Greeting: "May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen."
Songs of Praise: "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee" PsH #573
Prayers of the People focussing on forgiveness and reconciliation closing with Prayer for Illumination
Confessional Reading: Heidelberg Catechism LD 51 (could be read responsively)
Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:10-21
Sermon: "Seeking and Saving the Lost – Jesus Shares His Work"
Prayer of Application: "Sing the Lord’s Prayer" – various versions available, including in the Psalter Hymnal.
Hymn: "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" PsH #556
Doxology: "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow" PsH # 637