Monday, 29 September 2014

Phil 2- humility and divinity

It’s amazing to see the power of celebrity on some people. I remember seeing old news footage of the Beatles and watching girls in the crowd go absolutely bananas. They are screaming and fainting and jumping up and down. It looks like they are on the verge of a riot. To them the Beatles were larger than life.
The power some rock stars and movie stars have over people is amazing. We see them on TV, in movies or hear them on the radio. We see them in magazines as we buy our groceries and it is as if they are from another world. They are beautiful and rich and talented. We see the royal family in palaces, and they almost don’t seem human. They can seem more than human to us mere mortals.
In the ancient would it was like this too. A great military leader like Alexander the Great (who conquered most of what he knew as “the world”) or the Roman Emperor Augustus (who ended a major civil war) was considered divine. (See NT Wright's commentary on Philippians in his "for everybody..." series) They were larger than life. They were considered more than human.  They did amazing things that seemed beyond the ability of a mere human being.
 Paul presents a very countercultural image of divinity. Divinity in Paul’s world was about power and strength. In the ancient world humility was considered weakness and was not actually considered a virtue at all. Paul and the ancient Christians boldly connected humility to divinity. We really can’t grasp how shocking this would have been.        
Divinity in the ancient world was about grasping for power, like Adam and Eve grasping for the power in the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen 3). The way to divinity was about human beings conquering and gaining status and power. Their ambition was to be a god. This is what humans tend to do. We do this in big ways, as celebrities, or political leaders, or CEO’s of multinational businesses, but we also do this in small ways. We grasp for power, or we seek for our will to be done, in the office, or classroom, or at home, sometimes even at church. We seek for our will to be done and that often means conflict with someone else’s will. Power meant you get your will done over and against all other wills.
In the Philippian church there seemed to be some division. Paul names two women who were not getting along. Paul says in 4:2, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” But the early churches were also dealing with people teaching all kinds of strange things and that could have led to disagreements in the church. In these disagreements there is a conflict of wills.   
Paul asks the Philippians to contemplate their Lord. In a world full of back-stabbing and gossip and cruelty all for the sake of power and control, Paul asks them to contemplate self-sacrificing love and the relinquishing of power. To make his point, Paul quotes a hymn, or a poem, or a creed that would have been known to them. Scholars place Paul’s letter between 50 and 63AD. That’s something like 20 to 30 years after Jesus died, and this hymn pre-existed his letter. So it is one of the earliest statements about Jesus we have.  It is an amazing hymn. It begins, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.
The hymn says Jesus existed before he became human and is equal with God, which is a pretty fascinating thing to be said for those inheriting a monotheistic Jewish tradition. But the divinity of Jesus is assumed in this letter. Paul isn’t trying to prove that Jesus is God. What he is showing with this hymn that they likely already know is the amazing humility of Jesus who being equal to God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” Our Lord, the one in whose footsteps we are invited to follow, walked from the throne of God in the glory of heaven to becoming a human being. But not an emperor. He came as one who serves, washing his own disciples feet, then dying on a cross as a rejected criminal. All his power was given up and he loved to the very end and was absolutely obedient to the will of the Father. The idea is that if Christ can humble himself like this, surely we can give up having our way in smaller matters in imitation of him. 
Jesus poured himself out in service to the world. The result was that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  In Isaiah 45:23 the God of Israel says, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” This is now used of Jesus who humbled himself to serve in obedience to the Father. Regardless of what our disagreements are about it helps to pull ourselves out of the details and see the bigger picture. Christ is victorious and has won eternal life for us, so why are we arguing over the color of the carpet. Can we learn to submit out wills to each other given the self-emptying we see in Jesus?
It is important to point out what Paul says in verse 12 and 13. Verse 12 says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”, which sounds like it is all up to us to imitate the humility of Christ described in the hymn. It is a dangerous verse if it is not paired with verse 13- “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Verse 12 makes it sound like it is all up to us and verse 13 makes it seem like it is all up to God. We hold these together. We are the body of Christ, and although we can sometimes not feel very Christ-like God is at work in us. Paul is really calling us to be who we already are as the church. This is who God is making us to be. We will have the courage to do this because this self-sacrificial love is at the heart of who our God is. It is His life coursing through our souls.
Our God is not marked by the power of this world. He is marked by condescending. Which has become a negative word for us. It means someone comes down to our level, but we don’t like thinking about people being higher than us. The word can be used well of God. He condescends. The Lord and creator of the universe came to meet us as a human baby laid in a manger. He condescends to meet us in the prisoner, the sick, the thirsty, the naked, and the hungry (Matt 25). God condescends to meet us in simple bread and simple wine. Our God is not about grasping power. He is about open-handed giving 
 The Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says, “… Jesus tells us the truth about God. God is more than omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other non-biblical attributes that we would like to ascribe to God. God is lowest and the least, the little one, the wretched, the one who hangs in agony on a cross, the one who stoops down and washes our feet, the one who emptied himself in order to get down on our level, the one who rose and thereby shall raise us up as well.”[1]   It is his Spirit alive in us. His Spirit that calls us to a unity that can look past our will being done so that His will would be done.

[1] Willimon 37

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Has God mistreated you? Matt 20

A common phrase used in advertising is, ”you deserve it”. I’ve seen it in car commercials- “you deserve a car this good”. I’ve seen it in bank ads, fast food ads, and beer ads. This phrase is everywhere. Why? Because it works on us. There is a part of us that feels entitled. Part of us is always feeling like things just aren’t fair and we deserve something more than we are getting at the moment. We have become hyper-sensitized to fairness. So we look at those who have more and we start to think we deserve what they have too. Be begin feeling entitled.
This way of thinking can sometimes creep into the church too. We can start to feel like we have been mistreated by God. We can think about how much money we have given to the church, or how much time we have given volunteering at the church, and then we reach some difficult patch in our life and we get upset at God as if God owes us something better for the way we have supported the church. Or we get upset because we believe the church owes us for what we have given. Don’t get me wrong, the church should treat her own well and we should be grateful to her own members. No good deed should go unnoticed or unappreciated in the church, but if we think God owes us because of what we have given or done for the church then we should re-think that carefully.
Has God mistreated you? That is a central question for our soul. Don’t answer that question without asking it seriously and deeply. How you answer that question will tell you a lot about your soul. The Christian spiritual teacher Dallas Willard has taught that if you don’t believe God has been good to you, you really can’t believe God is good. And that is a serious matter. … I think we all have moments when we fall into this way of thinking, but it is a pretty significant and poisonous error.     
In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires people to work in his vineyard. Some who had no other work would stand around and wait to be hired for the day. So the landowner went in the morning and hired people to work his land for the usual daily wage- a denarius. He went again at noon, and then 3:00 in the afternoon and then again at 5:00. Each time he went out he hired more people. Quitting time was around 6:00 or 7:00 and so the landowner lines the workers up to get paid. He begins paying the workers and starts with those who only worked an hour. To their surprise he pays them a full day’s wage- a denarius. Those who worked all day start getting excited because they start assuming this is the hourly wage. But when it comes to be their turn they get paid the same as the workers who only worked an hour.      
Then we read, “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'”
Those who only worked an hour did not have any work all day and they likely still had a family to feed. The generosity of the landowner helped them with what they needed for that day. Those who worked harder and longer agreed to work for the usual day’s wage. He did them no wrong, but he wanted to be generous to those who had a hard time finding work and who had children to feed back home.
I think most of us can relate to how the workers were feeling. We see this kind of situation come up over and over in the gospel. Jesus tells another parable about a Father and two sons (Luke 15). The younger son dishonors his father by asking for the inheritance he would get when his father dies. He then takes his money off to another country and uses the money to party. Eventually the money runs out and he finds himself on the verge of starving. He goes back to his Father and is received with open arms. The older son who stayed behind and worked with his father is indignant. He stayed and did what was right, his younger brother who wasted the family inheritance on partying is received back with open arms and a party? It’s not fair. Like the landowner, the father’s generosity is seen as being unfair.
We might feel this inside ourselves when we read about Jesus’ interaction with the criminals on the crosses beside his own. One of them says to the other criminal, “… we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:41-43). Isn’t there a little part of you that goes, “what the…? How’s that fair? Life as a criminal then a deathbed repentance?” Over and over again Jesus tells us that we will be shocked (even scandalized) by the generosity and mercy of God. Jesus often gave his attention to the marginalized- those who were on the outside of the community, rather than to the Pharisees who gave their time to learning the law and trying to live it.   
Perhaps this was the feeling between long-time disciples and new converts. No doubt this was happening between Christian Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish people were chosen by God to enter into a special covenant. God worked with them through prophets, and poets, and priests, and philosophers to help shape them into God’s special people. Suddenly, these non-Jewish Gentiles want to join up. The Jewish Christians had generations of ancestors following God, living with scripture, and waiting for the messiah. The Gentiles didn’t have the family history, if they were Romans then they were a part of the people who were oppressing their people. So it would be tempting for Jewish Christians to treat Gentile Christians as if they were second class. It was as if they didn’t deserve as much because their families and ancestors hadn’t worked for God as hard.         
We can get into the mindset that God owes us for our service and our giving. We have offered more to God and served longer than the thief on the cross, so we deserve more. We can be like the older brother who stays home- we deserve a bigger party for our loyalty and service.
It is important to point out that when we give to God we only really give what God has already given us. In 1 Chronicles 29 we read “Everything in heaven and earth is yours. … Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:11,14).  When I was a child I remember my mom giving me money so I could buy her a Mother’s Day present. It’s a bit like that with God. He gives us everything and we give some back to Him. He gives us time, and we donate a bit of our time to Him. He gives us talent and we use some of it in service to God. Every breath and heartbeat is a gift from God to us. If that’s reality and we actually believe it, then how could God ever owe us? If that’s reality isn’t the bare minimum the whole offering of ourselves to Him? Don’t we owe him a life of service?
We can’t really think about our life with God as an economic transaction though. It’s not about earning and owing. Jesus called us friends. We serve and give because we love God. It’s not about earning anything. It is a relationship. We don’t keep track of the hours we spend with our friends and then think they owe us something for the hours we put in. You don’t earn a wage for spending time with a friend. That is just what friends do. Being friends with God means we will pray, and serve, and give. Not to earn anything, but because we love God.  And sometimes we won’t get thanked, but it’ll be okay because we know that God sees is and receives it as an act of love.    
Some saints talk about there being three spiritual stages.[1] The first is the stage of being a ‘Slave of God’. People in this stage can be deeply religious and devoted. They can have a strong desire to serve God, but they are motivated by fear. They see God primarily as the slave master that is ready to punish them. Some perhaps need to start here. Perhaps some criminals need the fear of judgment to break their addiction to their criminal activity.         
The second stage is being as ‘employees of God’. These people aren’t motivated primarily by fear, but rather are motivated by reward. They want to receive paradise. In exchange for their good works they want to be rewarded by God. They see the spiritual life as an economic exchange. They work for God and He pays them in blessings and eternal life. They want to get paid on the basis of their good works. This also leaves them feeling entitled as if God owes them. The employees that worked all day in Jesus’ parable would fall into this category. These people can do great things for God in the church and they can be very generous with their time talent and treasure. But their error is thinking God owes them.
The third and final stage is that of ‘children of God’ or ‘lovers of God’. In this stage people see god not as a slave-master, or as an employer, but as their loving father.  They don’t act based on fear of punishment, or on the basis of earning. Rather, they are motivated by their love of God. They are like a child comfortable in their Father’s home. They know they are members of the family. It is a relationship of freedom. Service is done out of love and generosity is celebrated.
Let us serve and give out of love for our Father, and not as employees or slaves. Let us recognize that God owes us nothing and that we owe him everything. But more than that, may God free us from thinking about him in terms of earning. May we recognize that a loving relationship with Him is the greatest thing we could ever need or want. AMEN.

[1] Gifts of the desert, kyriacos markides, ch 7

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Is there a limit to forgiveness? Matt 18

Both last week’s gospel reading and this week’s gospel reading have to do with us getting along as the church. Jesus assumes that this will be an issue. I take a certain amount of comfort in that because it can be disheartening to witness Christians not getting along because the church is supposed to be such a beacon of light and hope for the world. If we can’t even get along then what business do we have attempting to be a beacon? If our light isn’t bright, we aren’t much good as a lighthouse. But, it is reassuring to see that Jesus assumed that we will have problems amongst us in the church. We will sin. We will hurt each other. It will happen. This is not news to Jesus. When Jesus taught his followers to pray he said “forgive us our sins”, so he assumed that we would sin on a regular basis even as we were attempting to follow him. It is a sad reality, but it is also comforting that he knows and wants to give us guidance when we sin against each other.
Last week we read that Jesus placed a burden on the person who was sinned against to confront the person who sinned. It is their responsibility to approach them, not for revenge or to appease their own anger or their wounded ego. No, they are to approach the sinner out of a desire or healing and wholeness for the soul of the sinner so that they can be fully restored to the community. When we are sinned against we are to approach the one who hurt us in love knowing that they have wounded their own soul through their own sin. We are to avoid both the extremes of getting revenge, and of ignoring the sin. Out of concern for our brother or sister we are not allowed to ignore sin.
In today’s Gospel reading we receive further instruction on what to do when a member of the community sins against us. Peter comes to Jesus wondering when his responsibility to forgive ends. He asks, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" No doubt Peter thought seven times would be extravagant. Seven is the number that represents completeness, so surely seven times would fulfill his responsibility. The rabbis of the time taught that you were not obligated to forgive a member of the community more than 3 times for a purposeful sin against you.
Jesus responded to Peter’s exaggerated number by saying, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”.  Jesus blows Peter’s number out of the water, which is basically to say it’s not about the number. The New Testament scholar and bishop, N.T. Wright, has said, “If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge”. Peter’s question is about a legal process. Jesus wants him to change his heart from thinking about his legal responsibility to thinking about dealing with a fellow human being created in the image of God in a world where we all struggle with sin.
To induce this heart shift in Peter Jesus tells a parable. He tells him to imagine a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants.  One man was brought before him who owed him ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest monetary unit of the time. One talent was worth more than 15 year’s wages of a laborer. To owe ten thousand talents is to owe a debt that is impossible to pay back. There is a record from the 4th century BC that the taxes collected for the Roman Empire from Judea, Samaria, and Galilee was a total of 600 talents. This man owed ten thousand! That is the equivalent of billions of dollars. This man owed more money than was in circulation at the time.  There is no possible way he could repay this debt. The idea is that when we sin against a holy and perfect God, we create a debt that we have no way of paying back.
 The king ordered the man and all he owned to be sold to recover some of what was owed.  But, the servant fell on his knees, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' The man asked for more time. More time to pay off an impossible debt is pointless. So the king has pity and gives the man more than he asks for. He releases him and forgives the impossible debt. It is the equivalent of giving the man billions of dollars out of compassion. … It is worth letting that sink in. How would you feel if you owed a debt you knew you could never pay off and that it was likely your children and grandchildren would be saddled with your debt for numerous generations? … Now imagine that debt is forgiven. Imagine the freedom and relief you would feel. You would feel like you and your family have been released from slavery.
Jesus is saying we are in a similar state as Christians. Whether we are aware of it or not we have been forgiven a spiritual debt that runs in the billions of dollars, and that spiritual debt has been forgiven because of what Jesus did on the cross for us. Now this is a critical point because talk about sin has gone out of fashion in some circles and some think of it as being a rather depressing thing to talk about, but unless we grasp our own spiritual debt and the forgiveness we have been granted, we will become the wicked servant in this parable.
The forgiven servant soon comes across a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. One denarii was equal to a day’s wage for a laborer. So he owed him something like 1/3 of a year’s wages. It’s not a small debt, but it’s not an impossible debt. It is thousands of dollars, but not billions of dollars. It took 6000 denarii to equal one talent which gives you a little bit of a sense of the difference between the debts.  This servant owed 100 denarii, compared to the previous servant’s 10,000 talents.
If we have no real sense of our own spiritual debt it is very easy for us to become like this servant. We can become very easily offended by the sin of another and think that they are so much worse than us and we find it very easy to judge them. If we believe Jesus then we have an incredible spiritual debt that God has forgiven us. When we sin against someone there are really at least 2 people that we have wronged. One is the person directly involved. If I have said something mean to you, I owe you an apology. I am spiritually indebted to you in a way. But, the other person I wronged is actually the primary person I wronged. That’s God. If I spoke cruel words to someone then I have attacked the image of God, a child of God, and a part of God’s beautiful creation. Take all the little sins I do every day- I neglect the beauty of the day, I’m unthankful for my health, I’m not mindful of someone’s feelings, and so on. All these produce a spiritual debt over a lifetime. We live in a world drowning in sin and when we swim in it we can become complacent in our sin. It becomes normal to us, so we convince ourselves we don’t really sin. Real sinners are people like Hitler, or people in jail. But N.T. Wright says that, “from God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun”. Being conscious of our own spiritual debt and how much we have been forgiven is essential in order to have the capacity to show mercy.       
So how does the servant who has just been forgiven billions of dollars in debt react to this fellow servant who owes him a few thousand dollars? … He grabs him by the throat and tells him to pay him what he owes. The other servant responds using almost the exact words he used in response to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” All he was asking for was more time, not for the debt to be forgiven. But, he wasn’t even willing to give him more time and has him thrown into prison. The servant seemed to have no empathy for the one who owed him the debt.  It is as if the servant was not conscious of how much he had been forgiven, or he was not truly grateful.
The other servants are shocked and tell the king what has happened. The king scolds the servant for being so cold and unmerciful. The assumption is that if someone has mercy on you, you should also have mercy on others. The king then changes his mind about forgiving the debt and throws the man in jail until he can pay his debt, which he will never be able to pay.    
Then Jesus offers the chilling conclusion to the parable, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."  Forgiveness is not a static thing. It has to flow. It is like breath entering the lungs (another image from Wright). The air has to flow in and out for it to work. God has chosen that forgiveness will work like breathing. It has to work both ways. In order for it to be received it has to be given. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins and we forgive those that sin against us”. One requires the other. If we are unwilling to forgive, then we are cutting ourselves off from receiving forgiveness. I would even say that to forgive well also means knowing what it is like to be forgiven.     
This is not to say that forgiveness is easy, or even that it happens in an instant. More and more I’m coming to believe that forgiveness is a process. It is an unwillingness to close the door on the relationship. It is leaving room for hope and for healing. It is not sweeping the problems under the carpet and pretending everything is okay. Forgiveness is looking straight at the sin with the other person and working through it together. It is stark and loving honesty in the face of sin.
Jesus calls us to be a community that recognizes that sin is a part of our relationships, even in the church. We are to be a community that looks at sin honestly, but as people who have personal experience being sinners. We look at sin not as sinless judges, but as patents recovering from sin-sickness who are able to empathize with other patients. We are not called to be a community of perfect people. We are called to be honest and loving people who care about each other so much that we are willing to name sin, not to judge, but out of love for the other.  Jesus faced sin. He did not hide from it. He named it when he saw it, but it was always in love for the other as a doctor would diagnose an illness as a part of making the patient well. May we have the courage and love to deal with sin well realizing how much we have been forgiven and willing to be merciful to those who sin against us.     


Monday, 8 September 2014

Jesus' advice on dealing with conflict- Matt 18

We sometimes have the impression that if the church was what it was supposed to be then there should be no conflict in it. Jesus speaks about his followers as salt, which preserves and brings out flavor. Jesus speaks about his followers as light that shines into a dark world. His followers are the ones who put Jesus’ profound teachings on love into practice. And if not us, then who? We are to be a people shaped by God’s love.  This means that, as Christians, we are God’s missionaries in this world. As Abraham’s spiritual ancestors we are to carry the blessing of God into the world as inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis that his ancestors would bless all the families of the earth.
So we might assume that the church would be a kind of utopia where everyone always gets along and a smile is always on every face. …Sometimes it can be that way. Sometimes everything seems to go well, but it often doesn’t last very long. We often see drama and conflict among members of the church. Sometimes it can seem so bad that we are left wondering, how we are supposed to bring blessing to the world when we can’t even get along ourselves?
The first thing I find encouraging about Jesus’ teaching in our gospel passage is that Jesus anticipates that there will be problems. Jesus gives us a way to deal with conflict. We sometimes think the church should be a utopia, but Jesus never had that illusion. Jesus’ own disciples argued about who was greater. One of them betrayed him into the hands of those who killed him, and Peter denied knowing him. I’m sure there were all kinds of squabbles that happened between the disciples, especially considering they were with each other day in and day out for around three years. We could also look at Paul’s letters, most of which seem to have been written in response to a conflict in a church. This was nothing new for God’s people.  They squabbled under the leadership of Moses, under the prophet Samuel, under King David. The thing that matters isn’t if there will be conflict, it is how we deal with conflict as followers of Jesus.  Conflict is expected, so Jesus gives us some guidance. Even though it is expected, and even normal, there is also potential for a lot of harm to be done, so how we deal with it is important. 
The process Jesus gives us is this. If someone sins against you, first, bring it up with them just between the two of you. If they won’t listen to you, then bring along one or two others. If they still won’t listen then bring it before the church. If they still won’t listen then treat them as you would treat someone who is outside the church- a Pagan Gentile, or a traitorous tax collector.        
This seems like a pretty cut and dry process, even a bit stark and cold, but that is only at first glance. We get a hint as to what our motivation should be at the end of Jesus’ first step in dealing with the conflict. “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”. The actual motivation isn’t justice for the offended person who was sinned against. The motivation is “regaining that one”.  No doubt Jesus cares about the person who was sinned against, but Jesus asks us to endure all kind of wrongs. … Jesus is more concerned about the person who was able to sin against another, and then to not seek forgiveness and reconciliation. That person has wounded their own soul and they need healing. Otherwise they are beginning to separate themselves from God and His people.
So first we begin with our motivation, which is concern for the soul of the other person who committed the sin.  Again, we don’t want to ignore the person who was sinned against, but the assumption is that they are still in a good position before God and are able to endure wrongdoing because they are united to Christ. The person who has sinned has begun cutting themselves off from Christ and is the one in more danger.
The early Church Father Chrysostom points out that Jesus does not say, “’accuse him’ or ‘take him to court’. He says ‘correct him’. For he is possessed, as it were, by some stupor, and drunk in his anger and disgrace. The one who is healthy must go to the one who is sick… be earnest toward his cure, not toward satisfying your anger and hurt feelings”.[1]
  Similarly Augustine says, “If you fail [to confront him], you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when anyone sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. … for the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself.”[2]
The first step, once we have corrected our motivation, is to confront the person directly. We might assume that we should wait for the person to come to us to seek forgiveness, but surprisingly the person with the burden is the person who has been sinned against. We humbly and lovingly point out the sin of the other, not to satisfy our own hurt feelings, but out of concern for the wound in the soul of the person who has sinned. We come to them alone. We don’t gossip to all our friends about it, or yell at them, or attempt to humiliate them- we go to the person alone. We also aren’t supposed to merely be “nice” and pretend the sin never happened, which is an equally powerful temptation for some of us who don’t like confrontation and would rather avoid it at all costs.      
If the person is unwilling to listen to you when you are alone, then Jesus advises bringing along one or two more people. Bringing in others who aren’t immediately involved in the conflict can give some level of objectivity. Perhaps no sin has taken place and it is really in the imagination of the offended person, or it is a misunderstanding. Bringing along one or two others can help clarify the situation and help to determine if a wrong has actually taken place. If the other person is respected by both people then it is more likely that a person will admit their fault, repent, and seek forgiveness.
But involving others from the church isn’t just about gaining objectivity. Sin in the church is also a spiritual matter that has an effect beyond just the immediate people effected. The sin of Christians presents a particular image to the rest of the world.  Sin within the church also effects the culture within the church. It changes how much we trust each other and how safe we feel with each other. So really every Christian has an invested interest in the sin of other Christians for a variety of reasons, including concern for the sinner. Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). We are all parts of that body and we have an effect on one another. If we stub our toe the rest of our body reacts.
I know a theologian and pastor named Gordon Smith who served a church where two people had a long standing feud that stemmed from a church split over 30 years before he met them. The two did not interact at all, but still came to the same church. They just avoided each other.  On one level they might have believed that their issue was between the two of them and it was no one else’s business. But, he and others at the church were convinced that their feud was a sickness in the church that had a spiritual effect far beyond the two of them. Sin has an effect on the church that runs deeper than our individualism wants to lets us believe.
So first we confront them alone, and if that doesn’t work then we bring along one or two others from the church.  If that person still refuses to listen, even before one of two others, then we are to bring it to the broader church. We involve more people in the hopes that the person will see the wrong they have done as they see the will of the body of the church in agreement on the matter. Again, this is not in order to shame the person, or to get the church to take sides, all of this is out of concern to regain the one who has sinned- to help the person to see the wound in their soul so it can be healed. As long as the person does not believe they are wounded, their wound cannot be tended to. No medicine can be given as long as they deny the illness. 
If the matter is brought before the church and the person still refuses to admit it then they have cut themselves off from the direction of the body of Christ. They essentially have made themselves equal to someone outside the church and should be treated that way so they have no illusions about where they have placed themselves. So they are to be treated like a Gentile who was usually a Pagan that did not follow the Jewish God. Similarly, they are to be treated like a tax collector who betrayed their own people to make a profit for themselves while working for the occupying forces that were oppressing their people.
This sounds very harsh. Treat the person that sinned and refused to listen to you like a gentile or a tax collector. It sounds like we turn our backs on them and refuse to have anything to do with them, but then we have to think about how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. The Apostle Matthew, who tradition tells us wrote this Gospel, was called by Jesus when he was a tax-collector. Jesus was primarily called to Israel, but he also worked miracles of healing for Gentiles and applauded their faith. After the resurrection he commanded his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all people. So, to treat a person like a tax-collector or a Gentile is to love them and go to great lengths to help them be restored to a strong and healthy relationship with God.          
            Jesus also promises that this isn’t just an unspiritual political process. The actions of the church have an effect in heaven because the church is the body of Christ, and the church in heaven exists in union with the church on earth. And so, as the body of Christ, there is a certain level of authority given to make decisions that bind a person’s behavior for the benefit of their soul. Now this has to all be done carefully, compassionately, and prayerfully because this kind of authority could be quite easily misused. But Jesus says that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So heavenly realities can even be effected by our own choices here.
            This process is really about radical love. How do we live a life of compassion for everyone around us, even when they hurt us? Can we love the sinner even when their sin burns us? It we think about it from the other side, isn’t this exactly how we would want to be treated if we were the sinner? How would it feel to have someone genuinely approach you with compassion when you have harmed them through your sin? The church may not be a utopia, but if we learned to treat each other with this kind of love then we would truly be light shining in a dark world.      

[1] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Matthew II p 76
[2] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Matthew II p 77, 79
Follow @RevChrisRoth