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The Church – A Hospital for Sinners

(A sermon preached at St. Margaret’s church, Winnipeg)
(6 September, 2020)

Tony Harwood-Jones

The scripture readings for today 1  present the preacher with quite a number of intense options.  First there is the initiation of the Passover ritual, with the included information that the Lord intends to do enormous amounts of murder – of children and animals, throughout the country of Egypt.  Then, there is a rather violent Psalm, after which we switch to an Epistle that places “love of neighbour” as central to all of the Lord’s commands.

Finally, there is the Gospel, which is all that I am going to talk about.

Today’s gospel passage has always fascinated me, because in many ways it has enormous amounts of organizational detail.

Let me refresh your memory:

First of all, it’s Jesus speaking.  He is giving instructions, and says, “If someone sins against you, the first thing you must do is speak to him or her privately.  Then, if the perpetrator won’t ‘listen to you,’ get some folks to meet with you and this person, so that we can have that conversation again, this time with a couple of witnesses.  And, if he or she still won’t respond appropriately, then tell it to the congregation – to the church!  If the problem person still won’t listen, they are to be treated as… ‘a Gentile or a tax collector.’”

The common translations say, “Gentile or tax collector” but the underlying meaning of these words is central to this sermon, so we’ll come back to the matter of translation, later.

But, note that this is a formal ruling by the church; the person is not cooperative, and thus there is a ruling that they shall be treated in the manner specified.  We can tell that it is a formal ruling by the next thing that Jesus says: “Truly I tell you that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.” That’s pretty clear.  Jesus is saying, “I am instructing you to make some serious decisions, that are binding at a divine level.”

Next, he says that agreement and unity in the church are key: “Truly I tell you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” That’s verse 19.

The passage ends with Jesus’ promise to be present, “whenever two or three are gathered in [his] name.”

Now, I’m going to indulge in a little bit of Greek, but with a disclaimer: I am not a Greek scholar; I had to look up a lot of words in order to do this section of the sermon.

I have long been troubled by the opening words of today’s selection – when Jesus says, “When (so-and-so) does something bad to you, you must...” I needed to know what the Greek word underlying the identification of the offender.  The word is ἀδελφός. 2  It means, “sibling,” specifically, “male sibling” – your brother.  So, the sentence clearly means, “If your brother – your sibling – does something bad, then speak to him, privately, etcetera....  BUT, the translation which we read just now renders the Greek word as: “If another member of the church sins against you...”  Translating it this way is not a stretch, because, as we listen to the step-by-step, gradual escalation of the problem and relationship, it is clearly a series of instructions for the church.  There can be little doubt that the “brother” being referred to, is a fellow church member.

The verse goes on to say – and this is why I am certain that the word, ἀδελφός, means “church member – if the person “listens” – which implies that they’ve acknowledged the complaint and are sorry – the text says, ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου, 3  which is, “you have regained (ἐκέρδησας) your ‘brother’ (ἀδελφόν).”

You don’t “regain” something unless it got lost, or broken away.  The offense, whatever it was, would have broken off, or cancelled, the status of “brother.”  Which you can’t do to your actual sibling!  They may be a jerk or an idiot, but they will always be your brother or sister!  My sister, the idiot!  My brother, the liar.  You can’t “cancel” your sibling relationships.  But, you can cancel membership in a group.  So, according to this set of instructions, if the person “listens” to you, he or she regains the status of brother or sister, “in Christ.”

This understanding is reinforced by the punishment that is issued by the church, should the offender never retract or apologize.  “…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

“Gentile and a tax collector?” What are the underlying Greek words here?  “ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης 4 ” You will probably recognize one of those words, ἐθνικὸς, which is the origin of the English word, “ethnic.” But, its use in those days was not merely to talk about genetic/racial/tribal communities; it was a nasty word!  It was closer to “foreigners” (said almost with a sneer): people who are so different that we don’t understand them and we don’t like them!

And, τελώνης – the only translation that has been used of that word is, “tax collector.” I hope you know a little bit about that ancient time, wherein the Roman Empire – the most powerful empire yet known – collected its taxes by a rather troubling method:

It sub-contracted tax collecting – making use of private enterprise, as it were.  I know all Canadians really love Revenue Canada, but imagine if Revenue Canada were a private enterprise, whose agents had absolutely no rules which they must follow, being permitted to get money out of you any way they liked, in any amount, and keeping much of it for themselves!

Thus there were two reasons people hated the Roman tax-collectors (and they did hate them, all over the ancient world): (1) tax-collectors were collaborators with the empire – centred in Rome – that had invaded and conquered their country; and (2) they cheated, and stole, and gouged the taxpayers.

So, what we have, in this set of instructions by Jesus, is that the church must treat the problem individual – if he or she does not listen, and cooperate, and apologize, and make amends – as an outsider, an alien – as somebody you don’t like, and wouldn’t want to know!

In other words, not a brother or sister “in Christ.”

Now, as I said at the outset, this passage has always intrigued me because of its detail, because it comprises such a specific series of steps, for dealing with conflict in the church.

What it points to is the fact that Jesus was carefully and deliberately building an organization.

One of my favourite little asides – and I ask your forgiveness if you’ve heard me say it before – but you may know that, in a number of Gospels, there is reference to a “treasurer.” Yes, the apostles had a treasurer!  And (with apologies to the treasurer of St. Margaret’s), that treasurer’s name was Judas Iscariot.  Judas is quoted on one occasion as saying, “Why was that done!??  The money could have been given to the poor!” Then, on another occasion, at the Last Supper, when Jesus gave Judas some of the food, saying, “Go and do what you have to do!” it says, in the text, that everybody thought that Judas was being sent out to make a donation to the poor.  Thus, even before Jesus’ crucifixion, the organization had “accounts,” financial record books, donations, receipts and expenditures.  It’s very likely that they used some of this money – true, it was an era where barter was common, such as, if I did a favour for you, you, in turn would do something useful for me, or give me a valuable object, such as a chicken – but money was also in circulation, and was used to pay for goods and services.  Travelling apostles could have stayed at a motel, at the expense of the organization.

Jesus was building an organization, and we cannot escape that fact.

Here, in today’s Gospel reading, we even get some of the “house rules,” the bylaws, of the organization – in the case where somebody offends someone else, this is what you’re supposed to do!

Do not let anyone tell you that to be a Christian, all you need to do is say your prayers, be loving, generous, peaceful and forgiving!  That is not all.  You have to be active, in the Christian organization; in a church.  You have to take part.  Put clothes in the clothes hamper; food in the food bin, sing in the choir, help count the money, run the P/A system, repair stuff that needs fixing, and get to know the other people, such that if somebody is sad, or in trouble, you are to care for them, and reach out to them.  The church is an organism – an organization that Jesus built – and if you believe in Jesus as God’s Only Son, our Lord, then... be in church!

Here is Jesus giving bylaws about conflict.  So, church life – including the meetings and the projects and the expenditures – are part of God’s plan for us. 

In the next line in the reading, Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in Heaven.” This is an echo of something said in Matthew’s Gospel, and read out here a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus gave Peter the “keys to the Kingdom.”  He said then that what Peter would “bind” on earth would be “bound” in Heaven, and what he, Peter, would “loosen” on earth would be “loosened” in Heaven. 5  But now Jesus is saying to all of his followers, that whatever they, as a group, bind, or loosen, is, in fact, divinely driven.  It is done in heaven.

So, not only was Jesus deliberately building an organization, he was building God’s agency.  The work of the church is the work of God.  Your decisions, at meetings – “Be it resolved that...” and “All in favour...???” – such decisions are part of God’s work.

Jesus knew that this organism, this organization that He was developing, would not consist of a bunch of saints!  Wonderful, perfect humans?  Always doing beautiful, and absolutely holy things?  He did not expect that this was going to be the case.

He said, “If somebody in the church sins against you – if your αδελφος, your brother, sins against you, then do this: speak privately… uh-oh, not cooperating, not willing to say ‘sorry’?  Then, get a couple of friends to have a chat with the person; and if he or she is still not sorry or cooperative, then take it to the whole body.  And, the whole body will make a ruling.”

Jesus expected conflict and trouble, right from the get-go.

Now for the big one:

That sentence, that ruling, seems to say that we must treat a church member as absolutely despicable – to shun them, send them away.

I’m deliberately using the word “shun,” because some Christians have done just that.  You can imagine a fairly small town, where the only community centre is the church, and when someone does something really, really wrong, there would be an actual decision – in certain branches of Christianity – to “shun.” We must no longer talk to the person in the drug store, or greet them on the street; we won’t talk to them at all, because they are despicable.

Now, not to pre-empt David Widdicombe’s sermon next Sunday, but I can’t resist bringing in here the Gospel reading that is scheduled to be read a week from now.

In his recent sermon, Graham MacFarlane pointed out two very contrasting passages, that are back-to-back in Matthew’s Gospel, and Matthew is about to do it again!  In this case, he has regulations and prescriptions for dealing with a bad person in the congregation, and the very next thing he records – we’ll read it in church next Sunday – is how Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “If my αδελφος sins against me… (if my brother, my sibling, my “brother-in-Christ” sins against me…) how many times am I supposed to forgive him?  Seven times?” To which Jesus says, “Uh-uh.  Seventy times seven.” Which is about the biggest number that He could call up in a hurry!

Forgiveness… unbounding… non-stop… constant and continuous!

How do we hold these two things together: “kick them out!” and “forgiveness, seventy times seven”?

But, wait a minute!  It says… “treat them like a foreigner or a tax collector.” How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He ate and drank with them, and partied with them!  Although it is also quite clear that he would say to this, or that person, “Go, and sin no more!” he kept a door open… and was warm.

One of the options for treating a person like a “despicable” is not: to not speak to them!  The option is, rather, to continue to be available to them, for healing.

So, the instruction to the church isn’t that it should be a hostile environment, but one where an opportunity for healing and restoration of relationship is always available!

Forgiveness requires something on the part of the person that has hurt you; it requires them to be sorry.  You can be ready to forgive “seventy times seven,” but there is nothing that can flow forward until the word, “sorry” is said, and heard; until “amends” 6  are offered.  Then, the hug, and the tears, and the forgiveness flow!  Until that happens, we are called to be totally ready to forgive, twenty-four-seven!  And constantly to make opportunity for that “sorry” to happen.

An offense?  Speak to them quietly (“You know, I heard that you said that about me… or did such-and-such…”).  The first thing is a personal word (“Let’s talk about that; I got kind of bugged when...”)

Then, if there’s no repentance, get some friends, and say, “Can we go together to talk to him (or her) because of that thing they said or did?”

Then, if there is still no repentance, the whole congregation gets involved!

And, if there is still no repentance, treat them like “a Gentile or a tax collector” – with a door open, and willingness to be with them the very minute they turn and repent.

I’ve had a saying, for years (I don’t know where I picked it up, and I should have noted it when I heard it first).  That saying is: “The church is a hospital for sinners… not a rest home for saints!”

In this pandemic time, we have many, many mental pictures of the first responders – of the people who are face-to-face with this incredibly frightening virus – risking themselves in order to help and to heal….

Using this mental image, we are well advised to think of the church as a hospital, wherein we reach out and heal one another, risking anger and resentment and jealousy and nastiness!  We wear our “spiritual face masks” – reaching out, again and again.  The church is a place where our worst side is treated the way Jesus treated foreigners and tax-collectors.

Finally, the passage for today ends with Jesus saying, “Whenever two or three agree, are in unity, it is supported by my Heavenly Father; wherever two or three are together in my name, there am I, in the midst.”

These relationships that we are to have, are not done in a vacuum.  This “hospital for sinners” carries out its work with the “great Healer” right there.  And, as Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus’ words, “Behold, I am with you always; even to the ends of the earth.” This is the place, and the community, and the group of people where Jesus stands, and where healing of all our offenses – carried out by us, one to another – is done with His help.

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© 2020, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


(These footnotes were not read as part of the sermon, but are here to assist with discussion and reflection)

1  Revised Common Lectionary Scripture selections for this Sunday (Year "A" – Proper 23, in Canada [Proper 18, in the USA]): Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40), Romans 13:8-14, and Matthew 18:15-20.  This sermon focusses upon Matthew 18:15-20.
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2  ἀδελφός (pronounced, adelphos) = “brother.”
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3  ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου (pronounced, ekerdaysas ton adelphon sou) = “you have regained (ἐκέρδησας) your ‘brother’ (τὸν ἀδελφόν σου).”
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4  ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης (pronounced, estoh soy hosper ho ethnikos kai ho telownays) = “let such a person be to you as an ethnikos and a telownays.” ἐθνικὸς = foreigner, heathen, gentile;  τελώνης = tax collector.
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5  The two promises by Jesus, about “binding” and “loosening” on earth and in heaven – the one to Peter (Matthew 16:19), and the one, in today’s reading (Matthew 18:18), about Church conflict, are word for word identical.
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6  “Amends” is a term commonly used in “twelve-step” fellowships (Alcoholics Anonymous, and its spin-off groups), for the process of apology and reconciliation.
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