By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV)
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The past few weeks we have been with the disciples and Jesus in the region north of Israel, where they visited the countries we now call Lebanon and Syria. These nations that we often hear about in the news are significant to our Christian heritage. We often disregard them because a thousand years ago a conquering force came into those nation and converted them to Islam, but they are still significant. Even today there are Christians that live in those areas, even in Israel some of the people known as Palestinians are Christian, and many of them can trace their spiritual heritage back to the very pages of scripture. We cannot imagine that in our culture because we do not live in the lands Jesus walked. And very few of us have even visited those lands.
We hear about these lands in the news and we hear only the items that make the news. News is filled with the sensational, the violent, the riots and protests, and the attacks. News is rarely filled with the common things of life, families raising children and teaching them to follow God, individuals that go out of their way to assist another for no other reason than to encourage them. We do not hear these things in the news because that does not sell. What sells is the feud between Israel and Palestine, what sells is the violent conflicts between religious zealots, what sells is the pain of others. We look at these lands and we see them as uncultured and uncivilized, but those same conflicts happen all around us even in the United States. And people in those areas we often look down on are watching their news and they are wondering what is wrong with us.
I thought about this as I contemplated this week’s passage. I thought about this because we like to call ourselves a Christian nation. We call ourselves this, but what do those outside of our boarders really see? I thought about this and I lower my head because what is seen in the media is not Christ. I have urged you all often to turn off the news, to stop listening to the radio for a reason, because what the media is doing to us is causing a continuous cycle of anger that is drawing us deeper into darkness. It is distracting our attention from what is most important and focusing it to things that overwhelm us. We are allowing the opinions of the news channels to place wedges between our friends and even cause division between those within our family. But I want us to consider something, how much does the things we hear about on the news really affect your everyday life? Yes, at times it is important to know, but are we using the information to encourage those around us or to cause greater tension?
Today, Jesus and his disciples have returned to their home base by the sea of Galilee. And Jesus is still trying to get his disciples to understand what his ministry really is. We often look at the disciples’ lack of understanding and laugh but we are seeing them on this side of history. We know the outcome, the history we know had yet to occur for them. Each of them had perspectives and opinions that were being derived from their current events. They were attempting to understand what was going on around them while only knowing a small portion of the total story, and they were interpreting that story through the ideas they hoped for. When Jesus told them that he was going to die at the hands of the religious and political elites, they did not want to hear those words because they were hoping for something else, they were hoping for a kingdom and a nation of their own.
What is a kingdom or a nation? When we look at a map, we see a world filled with nations. Each different nation or state has a different color that is set off with a dark line. We know the reality of those lines because one of those lines is just a few blocks to the west of our Meetinghouse, the only reason there is a line on that boarder is because there is a road, without that road we would be unable to distinguish where Missouri ended and Kansas began. If you were to download the Google Earth app on your phone you would see this expanded to the entire world. Where are the nations on our satellite images? You cannot see them because nations and boarders are concepts that humans develop and are recognized by consent. Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the other central American nations are one land mass the boarders that we recognize were agreed upon by mutual consent of governing bodies of people made an agreement at the end of a war. And those boarders are maintained as long as the people continue to agree. When one side chooses to stop recognizing that boarder peace has been broken.
But what is a nation? A nation is simply a group of people that have been unified or brought together under a common system or form of order. A nation like a boarder is nothing but a concept within the minds of humanity held together by the consent of the people within. How that consent is obtained and maintained is different. The majority of nations garner consent with the use of force, but there are other organizations that are built by voluntary consent. This is the difference between that kingdom that the disciples are wishing to gain and the kingdom that Christ is ushering in. The kingdoms of men use force where the kingdom of God is voluntary.
A kingdom or nation can also be a scope of influence and not merely geography. We consider ourselves part of the United States, but we are also part of other nations as far as influence goes. The organizations of NATO, and the UN offer avenues that allow influence to extend far beyond the boarders of one geographic nation. And in these voluntary unions of nations seemingly small nations hold an influence that is greater than their collective might. This idea causes many to become fearful of the future.
I want us to think about nations, not as geography, but as people. When I was in school we would often go on field trips and our teachers would tell us before we got off the bus that we represent the school. I always found that annoying because I was an individual not the school, but as I have matured I have come to realize that it is true. We are more than mere individuals, but we are part of a community. Our position and influence within that community can be positive or negative, and it can inspire a community or promote feelings of despair. When the read the words of the prophets we can sometimes be confused by some of the wording because they speak as parts of a community and not just as individuals. When Isaiah says, “I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” He says this because he knows that he is part of a community that has not always done the things that it should. He knows that he personally had not contributed enough to his community to move them to righteousness, so he held some of the blame. Spiritual directors across Christian traditions recognize this phenomenon, even among Protestant groups. Dallas Willard, in his writing on the Renovation of the Heart, recognizes the community as part of an individual’s soul, because the community can influence the individual and the individual can influence a community. You are Willow Creek Friends, you are Kansas City, you are Kansas or Missouri, you are the United States. You might seem insignificant, but you are important.
The influence of the individual within a nation, or group of people, is the kingdom that Jesus is concerned with. When he stood in trial before the people of great status they asked him if he is the king of the Jews, and he responded you say so. It seems like an odd response, but it is accurate. When the Roman official made that statement, he was forcing Jesus to represent the entire population of the Jewish people. At that moment the behavior of this one individual was seen as the response of the masses. This is also why Jesus also said that his kingdom is not of this world, because the nations of the world use force to influence where Jesus uses voluntary response. The kingdom of God is beyond the borders of earthly nations because the kingdom of God includes all people.
The disciples, like many of us, were unable to see the difference. They have a desire to make Jesus their king, but they do not understand the manner of which Jesus will provide influence. Jesus told them that he was going to suffer, and they responded in a manner that prompted Jesus to call them sons of Satan because they had their eyes set on the things of man instead of the things of God. Today Jesus is explaining to us the true kingdom.
“If a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother.” If someone sins against you, what do you do? The natural response is often to hold a grudge against the person. They have wronged you, so the response is to withdraw from that relationship, to stop talking to them until they realize how they have wronged you. There is a problem here, and that problem is that we as humans are stupid. We do not always realize what we have done and we will never know until we are told. If we train someone to do a job, we show them how it should be done and then we let them do it. As they are doing the task, if they transgress we quickly correct them. In some cases we do this because if they do not perform the task in a certain way they can cause harm to themselves and others. We again show them the proper way to do the task and we let them try again. We do this in a work setting but when it comes to our relationships we often withdraw. We leave those we often care about the most blowing in the wind. They are doing something that threatens the community, threatens our friendship but instead of speaking to them and building a stronger community we often let the transgression cause division.
Jesus urges us to speak to them, let them know how their actions are causing harm within the community, and maybe if we speak together, we can build understanding and a compromise that will be mutually beneficial. Jesus says when we do this, we gain a brother. We have gained someone in our community that will assist and promote a common goal.
But personal relationships are tough. There is an entire industry within our culture devoted to assisting others talk with each other. If we are unable to find a way forward individually, we are charged to seek counsel with others. And if we are still unable to find a mutually profitable way forward we are to take it before the community. This very specific counsel from Christ points to something deeper and more pressing. The kingdom is not about force. The kingdom is not about power over others or even power within a nation. The kingdom is about how we interact with each other.
You are the church. You are our nation. You are the world. And you are the kingdom. We can look at everything going on around us, we can even cast blame upon a specific generation or political ideology if we want to. But what does this actually gain? If we do not personally get involved encouraging the people around us to enter a different type of lifestyle, we have done nothing and are just as equally at blame as those on the other side of the issue. That is a very sobering reality, but the reality all the same. What are we doing to promote peace in the Middle East? The reality is that that process does not start in Israel or the United Arab Emirates, it starts right here in our own community. Peace begins in your own interpersonal relationships. It begins with how you respond to your family and your friends.
What we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loose in heaven. Again we this weird saying comes to us in the words of scripture. Before it seemed like power over others but when it is spoken in this instance it takes on a new form. We are actual instruments of binding and loosening, and more accurately we are the one bound or loosed. If we refuse to initiate the acts of reconciliation we bind not only those that offend us but we bind ourselves. They are bound on earth, but we are bound in heaven. We are bound because we know the truth and by refusing to participate in the call of the kingdom, we close the gate on ourselves.
There is much at stake in this passage. How we respond to something as small as a seemingly insignificant slight of another can build into quarrels between nations. Am I being a bit overly dramatic, sure, but there is truth in the words. If we do not practice conflict resolution with those around us, how can we expect it on a global scale. If we will not encourage those within our community that seemingly fall away from faith, how can we expect to legislate faithfulness on a national scale? Are we a Christian nation? The answer will not be found in the media, the answer is right here. Are you? Today we have an opportunity to adjust our course and repent. Today we can take steps of reconciliation and promote faithfulness. Today we can become instruments of healing, by speaking to our brothers and sisters. We can encourage those around us to turn from a life of pain and destruction and embrace an abundant life with Christ. We can loosen the gates of heaven and it all begins with how you respond to the ones God has by his grace allowed you to live among.