September 13, 2020
Community Baptist Church of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
Today, I want to talk to you about Forgiveness.
“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But 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.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:15-18, 21-22
How difficult a passage this is. Because what we essentially see is an argument for excommunication, exclusion, alienation, a statement that a brother who wrongs you and still does not do right by you when you confront him, ought to be regarded no longer as a brother, but an outsider.
But weren’t we told to be nice? To accept everyone? To turn the other cheek?
Let’s look a little deeper, to understand the layers of relationship that Jesus is talking about here.
First of all, we need to understand what Jesus means by brother. Jesus says plainly, in the gospels of Mark and Matthew:
“Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus couldn’t be more clear: his brothers and sister and mother are believers, those who are partaking in the work of the Holy Spirit, who have a “faith working through love”, as Paul calls it, which sanctifies us.
In the book of Hebrews, Paul goes into detail about how this mystery works:
“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom all things exist, to make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. For both the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Heb 2:10-11)
So while no man except Christ can be “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect”, Christ, who was “made perfect through suffering” by that very act of suffering like us and for us, has demonstrated that he is not ashamed of us or our imperfection, and his suffering was to the end that we may be brought into the family of God.
Scripture tells us over and over again: there is only one Son begotten of God, Jesus Christ the Lord. But through faith in Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be adopted into the family of God the Father and become His sons and daughters, and by the Spirit we cry “Papa! Father!” to the Father of Jesus Christ.
In this way, Christ, who is our Lord, is also our brother! And all we, who by adoption are the children of his Father, become brethren of one another, brothers and sisters — in Christ.
So when Jesus is talking about “if your brother sins against you”, he is, in fact, talking about this very special kind of brotherhood in Christ, or brotherhood in the Church. And it is additionally evident that he is speaking of the church because one of the measures he recommends for an escalating controversy is to bring the matter before the church.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus is talking about the church. In fact, that is all Jesus ever really talked about. The church, after all, is his kingdom, the two thousand year old community that proclaims, as rapper Kanye West recently did to the horror of the secular world, Jesus Is King. King of the Kingdom. We can sum up the 3-year ministry of Jesus Christ in the words of Mark, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus preached the Kingdom until the day he died, and then a preached it a little more when he rose from the dead, and keeps on preaching from the right hand of God the father.
But, Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world”. And his disciple John taught that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” that is, the “whole world” which Jesus said his kingdom is “not of”. So for now, we will examine Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness as He commands His church, before we examine the ramifications of this teaching-to-the-church on “the whole world”.
- So, what if one of the brethren sins against you? First, rebuke him privately. Stand up for yourself! Rebuke him! Yes, Jesus says turn the other cheek, do not return evil for evil. So while we are to be like meek and mild sheep, gentle as doves, we also need to be wise as serpents, if we’re going to rebuke, that takes some skill, right?:
- That means we need discernment. If we are going to stand up for what is right, we need a strong sense of what is right, and what is wrong, and that strong sense is what discernment is.
- We need wisdom. We need a strong sense of the reason something is right or wrong. We need to be able to advocate for our position with a reasoned argument, not irrational displays of emotion like screaming, or worse, violence. We know that violence provokes more violence, whether from an opponent or from the law. In fact, it is the last resort of the law — therefore it should never be an early step in conflict resolution. This is true of small squirmishes between individuals as well as larger struggles. Our American patron saint of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr., in his speech where he famously said “riots are the language of the unheard,” concluded that observation with this definitive prescription: “Riots are socially destructive and self-defeating…Violence will only create more social problems than they will solve…so I will continue to condemn riots.”
- We need courage to stand up to someone who has sinned against us, since often when someone victimizes us, we can feel powerless. But we are not powerless: we are children of the Living God, who lives in us. We can find our courage by resting in that knowledge.
He is with us every step of the way. And if we pray for discernment, wisdom, and courage, He will surely give. With all of these in place, we can certainly then deliver our message with gentleness. After all, we are told by James the Brother of the Lord to be “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.”
- But if your brother who sins against you is not quick to listen, we are told, “take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” From very early times, the people who gave us the Scriptures have been a people of witness, because they are a people of justice, and our God is a God of justice. To witness is the ultimate vocation of the Godly person, and our Lord Himself said “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” The justice system of ancient Israel required that every controversial matter be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses, so that the truth may be discerned. Our very justice system today in America adapts this approach. Our God is the God of Truth, and He gives us the Spirit of Truth. In the church, we are to come together to discern the truth in prayer. In a dispute, the same must be done. If a brother who sins against you denies that he has done you wrong, that’s your word against his, and from the outside it might look like one of you may be lying — but if you can bring in witnesses who can corroborate your claim, you can defend your claim against the person who has harmed you and refuses to be held to account by you alone.
- But in the event that two or three witnesses are in agreement about a grievance, and the person accused will still not listen, it becomes a matter of the church as a whole. That famous old New England preacher Jonathan Edwards was known as a mighty scold. In those days, a Massachusetts minister could bring a member of the church to the front of the congregation and berate him for all sorts of sins — usually what he was seen doing in the tavern the night before! Sunday mornings must have been great fodder for gossip. They took this rule very seriously. Sometimes, they could send you into the stocks! Today, we don’t do that, lucky for us! For better or for worse, however, the extent to which we do not take any disciplinary for bad behavior measures is the extent to which the moral fabric of our church deteriorates.
It is often at this step that we have seen a church fail those who have been harmed by someone in the church. Something really bad happened, but nothing was done. The person causing harm was maybe spoken to, by some elders or willing members, but nothing changed. That person “would not listen”. At best, they would not apologize. At worst, they would not repent — and they continued sinning against their brother or sister. The most common reason this kind of behavior continues is that it is not brought to light, but hidden in the shadows. Jesus told us, if a few witnesses can’t effect change, it must be brought before the whole church. This step which Jesus prescribed, to bring it before the whole church, is crucial. Too often, it is never reached, for fear of scandal. For the sake of the soul of the accused, it is the last chance at mercy and repentance this person has. The soul of the church is also on the line: for once a grave matter is brought before the whole church, she has a duty to obey Christ and deal with this spot and stain, since the body of Christ is one with many members, and the whole of it is meant to be pure. Jesus told us it is better for a sinful member to be cut off than for the whole body to be thrown into hell — this could apply to the body of the church. We are in our day not unfamiliar with the story of an entire church scandalized by corruption in the body which was harbored in secret, or worse, an “open secret”, without ever confronting it with real consequences. It is one of the reasons many people are walking away from Church, and Christianity, as a whole. They don’t say “Someone in the church harmed me,” they say, “The church harmed me.” This is a mortal moral failure for a church. Jesus warns sternly against it.
- What then, is the state of the person who sins against a brother in the church, but will not listen to one, two, three, the whole church, and will just not repent? John says,
“If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
John calls such a person a liar who doesn’t really love God. Ouch! And what else does Jesus say?: “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” What type of judgment? Well, Jesus said that such a person is to be regarded as a pagan or a tax collector. Well, waitaminute. Jesus, after all, enlisted a tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his 12 Apostles; and shortly after Pentecost, all sorts of pagans converted to Christianity and were welcomed into the church and have been ever since!
But we must remember how controversial these things were at the time, and consider the reason why. At the time Jesus, who was a Jew, uttered those words, the Jews did not consider pagans or tax collectors to be acceptable company: they had no fellowship with them. The Pharisees called them sinners, and Jesus called them sick! But of the sin-sick folk with whom he often spent time, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
So, tax collectors and pagans might be sick sinners, but God looks at them with mercy, and has a special call for them. So if a brother sins against you, and you can’t reason with him, and you’re supposed to regard him as a tax collector or a pagan, that’s not so bad, right?
But, waitaminute! John says that “If anyone claims to be in the light but hates his brother, he is still in the darkness.” Jesus speaks of darkness too — where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. If God is light, what is darkness but separation from God Himself? Scripture is clear: not only is an unrepentant sinner cut off from fellowship, but they are cut off from God. That’s some serious stuff. It’s almost as if they never believed in the first place: they are cut off from fellowship, they are cut off from God, and if they say they love God, they are lying.
Thank God, then, that God has a plan for this person: he is called to repentance.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation”. For such a believer who repents, John says “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
If he repents, he is forgiven by God.
Therefore, even after a sinful brother has been cut off from fellowship in the Body of Christ, he is in no way without access to grace. God’s call is irrevocable: every person on earth is called to repentance that leads to salvation. We as Christians are called to repentance every day. Repentance is the work of faith, turning toward God, and when we talk about “working out our salvation with fear and trembling”, one could say that repentance is the fear and trembling part! It’s recognizing bad habits, deciding to give them up, and fearing their reprisal, fearing the consequences of sin; it’s seeking after a higher joy, and coming to grips with and mourning missed opportunities to allow God to work in your life; it’s setting your eyes on Jesus, imitating him, deciding that you’re life’s purpose is to obtain that great prize of eternal life, to live a life of prayer, of devotion to your family and to your community, to the works of mercy, to love. But the first step is godly sorrow, that realization when you’re looking at Jesus, that God made you and all mankind to be like him, and realizing your own shortcomings, your own failures, your own sinfulness, before God and God alone, and mourning.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation”.
We must all remember that God is no respecter of persons. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If Jesus offers forgiveness to all who repent, so then so do we.
Now, after Jesus teaches the disciples how to handle controversy in the church, we have part of the picture. But Peter follows up with a question, and when Jesus answers, we really get the whole picture. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
“I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
This is a commandment! So we can see that, as a whole, the church is to be held to a special standard of holiness given by Jesus, and that we are to hold one another accountable to it. But more importantly, we are to hold ourselves as individuals to the standard of forgiveness Jesus has commanded, and that means we never cease from being a forgiving people, even as Christ forgave those non-believers who beat him, scourged him with whips, crowned him with a crown of thorns, made him carry his weighty cross, nailed him to it, and mocked him as he died an unjustified, ungodly, and brutal death.
Now here’s a question. What do we do if someone accuses us of something, and let’s say that we are repentant, but they refuse to forgive us? Or maybe it was something that was beyond our control, maybe not even our fault, but nonetheless, repayment is being demanded, or worse, vengeance? For instance, in the times the Bible was written, and even now in certain places in the world, it wasn’t uncommon to hold sons accountable for the sins of the fathers. If your daddy did something bad, you might get the whooping! Sometimes, a grudge could be held for many generations! That’s called a blood feud. Can you imagine? Sometimes, families involved in a blood feud would attack each other back and forth over many generations, sometimes hundreds of years — tit for tat, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, over and over again so often, that if you asked them what the score was, you’d not get a straight answer: the only reason it’s still going is because each side thinks that their side still needs vengeance, needs repayment, from the other.
They’re still keeping score.
But we should know better. God settled every man’s score. “He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” All it takes is you wake up, look at Jesus, and believe: “I believe, Lord, you have forgiven my sins, and you died for everyone, forgiving their sins, so I need to spread the good word and show them that they’re forgiven, by being a forgiving person.”
Unforgiveness, spite, holding grudges, perpetuating grievances — it’s a scandal before the Lord. Jesus had something to say about that.
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlements, a debtor was brought to him owing ten thousand talents.f 25Since the man was unable to pay, the master ordered that he be sold to pay his debt, along with his wife and children and everything he owned.
26Then the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Have patience with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
His master had compassion on him, forgave his debt, and released him.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’
29So his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you back.’
30But he refused. Instead, he went and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay his debt.
31When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and recounted all of this to their master.
32Then the master summoned him and declared, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave all your debt because you begged me. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should repay all that he owed.
35That is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
This is something we need to think about. Freely we have received — freely we ought to give. And we really need to wrap our head around this. This simply does not just apply to Christians. All people are called to repentance, and to partake in the salvation of Christ, and the forgiveness of sins. Remember what John said: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” — that is, believers — “and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Whether someone has saving faith or not, Jesus died for him and for his sins. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. The real debt is our debt to Christ, to God. Why outrage the spirit of grace by being unforgiving, holding grudges, pushing and participating in a culture of grievance rather than grace? Those who have heard the gospel are especially without excuse for unforgiving behavior. Paul says, “if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every transgression and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?…(heb 2) “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think one deserves to be punished who has trampled on the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and insulted the Spirit of grace?”
This is not to terrify believers whose only hope is in the Son, and the Blood of the Lamb. For we have a living hope, the greatest hope of all, the Pearl of Great Price which God gives us in Christ, the gift of eternal life, sealed by the Holy Spirit. But this is all a gentle reminder, to be humble. We are all sinners, living and dying to the Lord and the Lord alone. It’s muddy and gritty, we’re all doing our thing in the same dirt, bodies made of the same clay, just getting our hands nice and dirty. It’s all good.
“So why pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
What use is it for us to judge, when the Lord is judge? What do we gain from projecting judgment and negativity, which is common in the world? Why continue in judgment, and condemnation, and negativity, and anger, when we know what the sin-sick world can gain, and the health of our souls can gain, from radiating mercy, love, positivity, and joy?
If and when we bring a controversy before the church, the goal is not to condemn and excommunicate, but to forgive and restore. The same is our goal in the world.
“The whole world is under the power of the evil one,” said John. But His master says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world…God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Indeed. It is our job, as disciples of Christ Jesus, as brethren of the Son of God, as children of the Father Almighty, to minister reconciliation.
The world today is filled with grievances; grievance after grievance. The voices of those who demand vengeance and repayment for such grievances grow louder and louder every day. Perhaps they have forgotten “Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” — or perhaps they never knew Him. But if we are believers, we make the audacious claim that we do know Him — so let’s not make ourselves liars by promoting false hope in vengeful futility, but share Christ.
Truly, truly I say to you, that today, many have forgotten, and many have not yet heard or understood, that Christ has settled everyone’s debt, and that they, we, all of us, are called to “be forgiven as we forgive” — God’s justice, not the justice of men but God’s justice, demands it, lest we outrage the spirit of grace.
So, in order to minister reconciliation, we declare the Good News. We say, Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at Hand! Repent and believe the Good News! This is the business of the Church. This is what life in the Kingdom is all about — right here, right now.
We gather here today in the name of the one who accomplished this grace for us at Calvary, Jesus Christ. We ask, why pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of our just and merciful God of Love. We lift high the banner of His lordship, and we do declare the Good News that God demands mercy, not sacrifice. Grace, not grievance.
Once again: Grace, not grievance.
Let us pray:
God, if it were possible for man by his own power to truly forgive and be forgiven, you would not have taught us to pray for these things.
With man it is not possible, but with You nothing is impossible.
By the power of your Holy Spirit grant us the grace to forgive as we are forgiven, and to fill up the measure of the works of mercy which you have prepared for us. Amen.