This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 6th September 2020. Still in lockdown…
Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-18
Happy Father’s Day everyone. If you are a father then happy day to you, and if you have a father then happy day to you as well. If you are not a father but wanted to be, or you didn’t have a father but you wanted one, then I pray that your day will also be a good one and you will not be overshadowed by the delirious and delighted families around you.
I am not a father, but I have one and he’s my best mate. My brother is a father, my mother and my sister are married to fathers, and I am the cool uncle to a two year old smiley boy and the “oh my God could you just not” embarrassing uncle to a seven year old boy, a eighteen year old woman, and a twenty year old man. We are a loving and happy family, the Tann Clan, I am blessed.
But I know that not everyone is. And even in our blessing, my family’s blessing, we are isolated. My dad and my mum, as well as my sister, brother-in-law and their smiley sons are all in South Australia, just over there but across the Iron Curtain for all it’s worth to me. I know that my dad will be enjoying his smallest grandsons, and his baby girl (who is not a baby, she’s actually twenty-one years old, for the second time!), but his sons are far from him and he from us. My brother and his family live in Hobart. Our family is both very close but very far apart today. I praise God hourly that what divides my precious family is geography, and only geography. For some people listening this morning the separation between parents and children is not an accident of living interstate but an event of emotional and psychological pain. I see you; I hear you; you are welcome too.
Our reading from the Jesus Traditions today finds Jesus speaking, in Matthew 18:15-18, about a broken family relationship. In passing let me say that this is one of two places in Matthew where Jesus speaks about “the church”, and here he is specifically referring to the local congregation. (The other place is in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says he will build his church upon the confession of Peter, a reference to the big idea of church as a universal and eternal body where Jesus is confessed as Christ, The Son of the living God.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here because in the situation we’re discussing with Jesus we’re not at that part yet.
Unlike Sister Maria in The Sound of Music we are not going to start at the very beginning because, in this case, it is not at all very good place to start. We are going start before the beginning with looking at what Jesus has said just prior to this bit of teaching on “when someone sins” as The Good News Bible would have it in a subheading, and we’re going to look at what Jesus says after it too. In Matthew 18:10-14 Jesus has taught the parable of The Lost Sheep, the one with the 99 who remain, and in Matthew 18:19-22 Jesus speaks about where two or three are gathered in my name and seventy-seven times of forgiveness. So there’s our bookends to what Jesus says about the work of reconciliation within the local congregation, “the one who sins” (GNB) is one from within the 100, and the 99 gathered into groups of three must each show grace beyond the total of fingers and toes in those groups.
In Matthew 18:15 it is very clear that Jesus is talking about Jews or Christians gathered together. In various translations the perpetrator of the offence is described as a member of the church (NRSV), another disciple (KNT), and your brother (NAB, GNB, ESV, and NKJV), but in all translations the one who is wronged is the same; you. In other words the person who has caused the offence against you is someone whose relationship you wish to maintain, and the offence is personal. This is not some random idiot from another town, or a complete stranger, he (or she) is someone you do church with and might even do life with outside the Sunday house-party. This fault-line matters, it must be healed because this brother (or sister) is too precious to you to lose.
Jesus advises humility in approaching the breach, and courage as well. It is the wronged one who makes the first move, and he or she makes that move alone. You (singular) go and talk to him/her (singular): as The Kingdom New Testament says in Matthew 18:15b, “go and have it out, just between the two of you alone”, and if that’s the end of it then that’s the end of it. No gossip, no reporting back to me about how gracious you are: resolve, reconcile, resume. If the 1:1 thing doesn’t work then take a witness or two, and it is “a witness or two” it’s not twelve. You don’t need a jury, just some back-up having already tried to make peace 1:1 beforehand. And if not then, then the congregation, which in our case I’m going to suggest is a well-considered letter to the Elders and Deacons rather than a random shout-out during Good News Sharing.
In all things Christians should seek to be reconciled to each other as each of us was reconciled to God through Christ; this is why the nature of the offence also matters. Not only must we be as gracious and forgiving as Christ is to each of us, but we must call the brother or sister to account as Holy Spirit does us if the offence could cause harm. I can forgive a harsh look or an angry word, assume that someone is having a bad day even if they are intentionally rude to me; but as a Christian (if not as Pastor) if something is said or done in my presence which I believe could cause damage to The Unity of The Body or the proclamation of The Gospel then I will be pulling whomever aside and having a quiet word. This is what Jesus is actually saying, so it’s not just “suck it up royal priestess” in red ink in your Bible; in fact, it is very much not that at all. Where there is hurt in the body you are to address it, with grace and humility for sure, but with attention and intention as well. The idea of binding and loosing in Matthew 18:18 applies just as much to bandages as it does to heavenly authority for forthtelling: don’t leave open wounds unattended.
And sometimes the best way to close a wound is to remove the thing that’s keeping it open, such as the unrepentant (and therefore quite damaging) sister or brother. Such a person is to be treated as if she or he were an unbeliever, which is to say not included in the councils of the congregation but included in the mission work as someone in need of salvation. Unity matters to Jesus, even the unity of two as he says in Matthew 18:19; deliberately divisive people are to be offered every chance to join the church, but if they refuse every gracious invitation to restore the relationship then the church in good conscience may desist from extending those invitations.
In Romans 13:8 we read where Paul tells the Christians to owe nothing but love to one another, for whomever loves has fulfilled the law. Love does not harm, Paul says in Romans 13:10, therefore love is the fulfilment of the Law, and going backwards through the text to Romans 13:9 we see that this is obvious because no one can break a commandment against causing harm (murder, theft, adultery, lying, covetousness) if he/she is engaged in love for others. A loving person does not keep a fight going, he/she does not prattle on about an open wound; a loving person seeks restoration and peace where there has been hurt. If you love others you will never do them wrong is how The Good News Bible presents Romans 13:10, likely with the focus on intent than error since even loving people can make mistakes. The point is that a loving person is never spiteful or malicious, but is always looking out for the best interests of the neighbour.
Two things are at play in the Romans reading: Christian morality and good citizenship. A person who acts from love will fill every commandment of Judaism without even trying, and that person will also emulate Jesus by walking the Way of Christ. At the same time to be debt free in all but love is to be a responsible citizen of the Roman world, and your local community, again this is an exemplary person and someone that others might look up to. To live by love, within your economic means, is held up by Paul to be a great example to everyone as well as being the best way to live a good life. Such a life presents a strong witness for Christ; who doesn’t want to do that?
My dad was and is a great example to me. As a man he is one of the best men that I know, and as a dad he is no doubt the best one that I know. One of the things that I value about my dad as a person is that he doesn’t hold a grudge. He has carried pain, his upper lip has been too stiff at times in the face of personal and professional insult, but my dad has never been a gossip, a sook, or a back-stabber. I want to be that same sort of man.
I am very aware that some of my childhood and young adulthood peers are envious of me that I have Rob Tann as my dad. But as awesome as my dad is the most awesome thing he did for me was to raise me to love Jesus in the knowledge and wisdom that I am loved by Jesus even more than I am loved by my dad. I’ve said it before, I find it very easy to live as a son of God because I have been the son of Rob for almost fifty years: Rob is a godly man who as father models himself on Father and he has never got in the way of God’s work in me. Maybe your dad was not like my dad, but your God is like my God. If you haven’t been shown the best example of Father then I invite you to cuddle into Jesus, our brother The Son, and let him and the church show and then teach you to be the best example.