Order, stumbling blocks, and what real Christian community looks like
a Homily for Proper 18 A | Text: Matthew 18:15-20
what we mean by sin
When Jesus speaks to the disciples in this passage, He speaks of sin against each other. This isn’t so much fault-finding, which we all do so easily, but sin-naming. This is about sin.
We have a lot of weird ideas of sin. What sin is. We make it a singular noun. As “a sin”. Like something you can list. Or something from which we abstain. No dancing or drinking or swearing.
Or we frame it from the positive that avoids those things. Like being “nice” or “kind”. As if all this stuff Jesus says can be summed up as “just be nice to each other.” Which I suppose might be fine if we could even handle that.
Here is how the church defines sin. From “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism” which you can find in your Prayer Books:
Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
Sin is our putting of our needs before GOD’s, and the distorted relationships that result from it.
So when we talk about sin, we are not talking about trying to be perfect or eternally corrupt, but that we want to eliminate the stumbling blocks to our relationship with GOD, our neighbors, and all of creation. It is about making better our relationship to everyone and thing around us.
We get nervous when we start thinking of these stumbling blocks as other people. People whose sin (meaning true selfishness: personal needs before GOD’s) keeps our children from the redeeming love of GOD and keeps us from being like those children: so that we might put GOD before ourselves.
But we don’t want to confront each other about that do we? And we certainly don’t want to kick anybody out of our church. And it even sounds like Jesus endorsing a behavior he condemned in the Pharisees! What are we supposed to make of these rules?
what sin looks like
First, we have to deal with the impact of the church’s understanding of sin. When we speak of sin, we are speaking ultimately about relationship. Not “a sin” or “living in sin” as so many like to say. It is about acts of sin against each other. The selfish evils and vices that hurt other people, whether it be pictures of celebrities stolen from their iCloud accounts to demean them in public or when we use names that insult and diminish whole groups of people of a different race, gender, orientation, or ability, just because we like the words. It comes from carelessness and a sense of certainty. It is believing that our rights to hurt other people are more important to us than their rights to not be abused by us.
Sin is the slave trade, which is bigger now than at any time in human history. It is saying that criminals “deserve” to be abused–and that free citizens do to–because they are “acting up” or must have done something to deserve it.
Sin is getting short with your friends and snapping and it is making up stories rather than learning the truth of what we’ve missed. It is treating someone “not like us” as not one of us, breaking our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
And sin is hearing those words as if I were disrespecting you.
All of this is sin. And we know much worse examples.
Sin, real sin, is selfish. It is full of pride and certainty. It is full of things other than the Great Commandment to love GOD and our neighbors as ourselves. Things like maintaining tradition because we like it more than we like sharing. It is demanding faith be personal and private when it has always been public and political. We can’t take up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem without a cross and without a Jerusalem: without a public witness.
Jesus wasn’t crucified in private for things resting comfortably inside His heart. Neither should we.
dealing with sin
There is a lot that Jesus said. Out loud. In public. For people to hear. What He was speaking to here, before this passage begins, is stumbling blocks to faith: what prevents the children from being in a healthy, growing relationship with GOD and what prevents us from becoming like children. Stumbling blocks to one another like Peter was being a stumbling block to Jesus in last week’s story.
Stanley Hauerwas writes
The sin that another member commits is not just a sin against the person injured; rather it is a sin against the whole church. In Lev. 19:17-18 the Lord tells Moses to tell Israel, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Failure to confront the brother or sister whom we think has sinned against us is not simply a recommendation of how we are to work out our disputes and disagreements, but rather an indication of the kind of community that Jesus has called into existence. This is a people who are to love one another so intensely that they refuse to risk the loss of the one who has gone astray–or the loss of ourselves in harboring resentments.
Hauerwas further argues that
The procedure outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18 is how and what it means for his disciples to be at peace with one another. Jesus assumes that those who follow him will wrong one another and, subsequently, they will be caught in what may seem irresolvable conflict. The question is not whether such conflict can be eliminated, but how his followers are to deal with conflict. He assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sins, is to be forced into the open. Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling. Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.
We are talking about healthy relationship and being the blessed community here. It isn’t rules to follow or yet another way to abuse each other and find fault. It is the very means by which we share grace.
This work we are called to here is for all of us. It has nothing to do with being a priest or a leader serving on the vestry. It is not something we can skip or have no stake in personally. It is not about our worship style or music or whether or not we are “being fed” or if we are “into it”. Our selfish impulses get plenty of air.
It is time for the good stuff. It’s time to take on the childlike faith many of us used to know or know when we aren’t tripping over all of the negativity. It is time to listen to Jesus who, just before this story, was telling the disciples
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We don’t get to stay the same and be Christians. Not changing means you’re not a Christian! Jesus never says “stay the same” or “do what you always do.” GOD never urges the people to remain unchanged, no matter how much we want that. Remember, sin is putting our wants before GOD’s!
We aren’t supposed to stay the same. We are supposed to change. Precisely because we aren’t perfect or eternally corrupt. We don’t have it all figured out and we aren’t always right. We all need to keep learning how to be GOD’s children.
So Jesus tells us to change and become like children.
Like the children who come to communion excited and happy and looking for an opportunity to come back up! Like children who give and play and learn: always looking for new ways to move and do. Always watching others to see what they do, to learn and try it out.
Like the children who are eager and hopeful and full of thanks for cookies and hugs and the chance to play. Jesus tells us that’s the entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
So then Jesus shows us what Christian community is supposed to look like: the kingdom, which is like children playing and learning and loving! That’s how we come to understand how we behave. Learning and playing and loving. Not like adults. Like kids. Our kids, here.
Our kids are our true leaders. Our children are our example, our Christ.
And when we build that community, full of faith and hope and creativity, we protect it by talking to each other, listening to each other, and making our house safe for all the children of every age and ability.