Scots Church Adelaide
If another sins against you

Lectionary:  Mathew 18:15-20

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:15-20

You've heard me say that part of what the church is supposed to be is a glimpse of heaven, the beginning of life in the kingdom now. I've used the term, "heaven on earth...." What makes it heaven on earth? (The congregation contributed ideas)

Andrew's answer was this: Society tells us Heaven lies in looking after number one. (Remember those MLC adds with the family out on the glorious beach playing cricket.) No, heaven lies in looking after our brothers and sisters in the church. Heaven is in the family of the congregation.

We can have a religious experience anywhere. It's only in church that we get the people. Let me read the beginning of chapter 21 in Matthew.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Then he says

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea....' and later he says ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

And we think about this in terms of children. NO, he's not actually talking about children. It begins using children as an example. We are the little ones. We are the ones who count...

Let's imagine we are looking at a new church hall here. There are two suggested options. In the first the car park is maintained as it is, and we add a hall to the back. In the second option we put the parking on the back block, and we build a hall in the current carpark with a side door from the church.

Let's say there is a lot of argument about the best design. What is the most important thing in all of this? The most important thing is that people still in relationship with each other at the end, after the decision is made. Without relationship we have nothing. The way we relate to each other is of prime importance. It is what makes us a church. It is what separates us from a social club.

It's a problem that sometimes churches are full good friends, but not good neighbours. Mary will always take Margaret's side in an argument, because they are friends. Tom will always stick up for Harry, regardless of what's right or good, or sensible, because Tom is his friend. 

We have to move beyond good friends to being good neighbours. You seen Marlene and I might never be best friends. We may have completely different interests. She might read the bible differently from me. She might like hymns that I don't like. But if I can trust her, if I know she is honest, if I know she will be up front with me... that's heaven!

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The first thing for being neighbours is about being honest with each other, and open.

If some one sins against you go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone...

The thing is not to publicly explode all over the place about someone who may not even be aware they have offended us! Why escalate a dispute when one party is perhaps not even aware there is a dispute!? It's good communication even if there is not a dispute. At it's base it's about taking responsibility for our own ideas and talking. We could say, Don't Triangulate, Don't Gossip, Don't Pass Messages through. (These terms come from an excellent Alban Institute article Cleaning Up Bad Communication Habits  by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock)  

Triangulation is talking about feelings, opinions, or personal issues regarding some person or group with a third party instead of with the person or group actually concerned. Some congregations get in the habit of pass-through communication. To get a message to someone, you tell someone else.This also degenerates into gossip.

With both triangulation and pass- through communication, few people take responsibility for what is accurate and few people speak directly to each other. Informal channels of pass-through communication lead to misunderstandings down the road. Like the children's telephone game, the content usually becomes distorted and often the necessary action delayed. Miscommunication may occur unintentionally, but individuals or groups also can use pass-through communication to divide congregations and stir up conflict.

Giving the message to whomever is close by and expecting him or her to pass it on may seem expedient, but there is no substitute for the direct message. And like triangulation, pass-through communication must be stopped for healthy congregational functioning. Again, the individual being asked to pass something on has the power to stop the pattern. A simple statement such as "I'm not comfortable carrying that message" or "I might mix up what you've said, so perhaps you could call him yourself" is very helpful.(Cleaning Up Bad Communication Habits)

The second thing about neighbours is to make things safe, and to maintain a clear head, balance, honesty on all sides.

If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If we do this, then both sides are subject to the listening of the church. It may be that we find we are the problem! You can see here there is openness, there is taking responsibility for my situation, and there is still some restriction and localising of the whole thing, instead of a congregation wide bun fight breaking out. The less people involved to begin with, the less opportunity there is for misunderstanding, and the more opportunity there is for a good solution.

Finally, if there is a real problem, among neighbours there can be no secrets.

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church....

So much damage is done by secrecy that should not remain secret. This should rarely happen. What mostly happens though, is we go straight from the point of being offended to this third point, without the two steps in between, or we have simmering, half secret things going on, that eat into the life of the church. 

It says in Matthew,

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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

If I do not forgive you, and release you (unbind you) from our clashes and hatreds in our daily lives (that argument over the colour of the paint in the church kitchen, or the fact that your kid beat up my kid at school) then you and I will be bound by that same argument in heaven. Our unresolved and unforgiven issues will come into heaven; that is, they will come into church with us, and taint the church, and suffocate the glimpses of the new deeper life our discipleship and community together is offering us. We will be bound in heaven, prisoners to our earthly arguments.

Of course there are legalities about libel and slander, and there are church regulations to follow. But this little pericope in Matthew is superb in suggesting some basic principles to follow. It is not followed enough. 

Andrew Prior September 2008
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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