By the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; or Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Remember, Peter said, “God forbid,” and got severely reprimanded by Jesus: “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.”
That whole story was pretty serious. It's the kind of gospel that should make us sit up and take notice and realize that being a Christian isn't a lark, it's a serious commitment to a radical new way of life.
Well, to tell you the truth, this week's gospel makes taking up your cross and following Jesus look a whole lot easier. There's a little bit of chest-swelling pride in being able to say, “Yes, indeed, I'm willing to carry any cross. Willing even to die for my faith.” We can say that because as we sit here in the U.S., we can be pretty sure we'll never have to die for our faith.
But look at this gospel. Here's where the rubber hits the road. This is part of what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross.”
Today Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Oh, right! Is there anything harder than confronting someone who's grieved you? Especially when it’s someone you know well? It's so much easier for us to take our grievance to someone else – to talk about it to anyone else who would listen. Anyone else that is, except the one we ought to. But this is what this gospel is all about. It's about how we should behave if we are indeed going to call ourselves members of God's family.
So, let's take a look at what's going on in this straightforward gospel passage.
There are no secrets here. We don't have to look too far beyond the images Jesus uses in order to understand what he's saying.
What is often helpful is to look at what comes before and after the Sunday passage. The whole of chapter 18 talks about our behavior as God's people. In verse 1, the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven is, and he says it's anyone who is like a little child. In fact, he says unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom. And worse, anyone who causes the downfall of a child would be better thrown into the sea and drowned.
Then he told the parable of the lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 and goes to find the 1 that is lost.
Today's gospel follows directly after this parable. All of this concerns what our faith life should be like. Bottom line: we should look after one another and be honest with one another.
But of course, that's not as easy as it sounds, and we know this. We often fail, even in the best of circumstances – or more accurately, in what we know should be the best of circumstances.
But this is life. Gossip happens and people are wronged in many different ways. We all make poor choices at times. We're human; life here will never be perfect.
So this gospel also talks about reconciliation. Reconciliation, because our actions have an impact not only on the one person we've wronged, but on the whole community. Because we are the people of God, what we do affects the whole. We show that in the way we worship together. That's why we baptize and confirm people within a community celebration. That's why we say the confession and pass the peace together. That's why we say, “We” believe in one God. That's why our hymns have a lot of “we” and “us” in them instead of “me” and “I.”
So, Jesus says, go to the one who wronged you. If that doesn't work, go to the community. Now, more than one thing can happen. Going to the community means sharing perceptions. Maybe we've misunderstood what someone has done. The community could help us see our misperceptions – see things in a different light so to speak. Maybe it turns out that we've not been wronged at all.
But if the other is at fault, he says, and if the community doesn't seem to be able to help, treat this person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. His disciples would understand that image immediately. A gentile or tax collector was about as much of an outsider as you could be in that culture. They could be ignored, pushed aside.
Except these same disciples had seen how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors.
A couple weeks ago, we had Matthew's account of the Canaanite woman. Remember how Jesus was forced to go beyond the cultural boundary and extend his care and healing to a gentile? Jesus also called a tax collector to be in his closest circle of disciples.
So, evidently, we can't put limits to our forgiveness either. We can't say, “OK, fine, that didn't work. I don't have to do anything more.” Reconciliation means the door to forgiveness has to stay open. But there’s more. When we wrong others, we must repent. We'll hear more about that in next week’s gospel.
So, what do we take home today? If we want our life as a church to grow, we need to work constantly on our witness. Others must see us care for each other. They should hear us speak kindly of one another and they should see us forgive and ask forgiveness.
It's not always easy, and we won't always do it. But as we try to live as we are called to live, we have only to remember that Jesus also said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
-- The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.