Christ Teaches His Church to Love

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Quilt Blessing
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:15-20
Peder Stenslie

Jesus tells us today that the job of the church is to never let go of you. God has made it clear that he will never let go of you… and so neither can we. You are a part of us… and we are a part of you. All the resources we have… the Gospel of Jesus Christ… his love and teachings, the people of the Church… their gifts and energy… these are to be given to God’s work of reconciliation and healing; so that we, his people, may become whole.


(Photo: Quilt blessing at Heart River Lutheran Church. With quilts we receive from congregations throughout the region, we give a quilt to each youth leaving YCC as a reminder of their belonging in God's family.)

At the Mandan Middle School where I teach 6th grade, I frequently get to observe how fragile human relationships can be. I see, for example, how mean behavior tends to spread and spiral out of control. Sometimes I’ll have a student come to me in tears saying how mean another student has been to him/her.

But as I investigate and try to sort out what has happened, I quite often find that the cruelty was mutually exchanged. One student insulted the other. The second student responded in kind. Mean exchanges then went back and forth until it became unbearable for one or the other… and so they came to me and want me to make it all go away.

It is hard for people to deal with conflict in relationships. That’s true for 6th graders and it’s true for adults. Often we respond to people who hurt us either by suffering in silence, hiding from the conflict or by hurting them back. None of these methods are effective. They all result in more stress, sadness and dysfunction. Relationships stay unhealthy and the people in them remain miserable. It’s impossible to overstate how much pain in life is caused by the failure to face up to and resolve conflict between people.

This is, of course, of great concern to God. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives instructions about how to respond when people mistreat each other.

At first glance, it’s easy to read this scripture passage and get the idea that Jesus is giving instructions on how to protect the community of the faithful from destructive sinners by making provision to remove them. Religious communities often act in this way — create clear and effective methods of keeping out or getting rid of undesirables, people who don’t belong. I’ve certainly heard this passage used this way.

But that is not at all the case here.

The main concern of Jesus’ instructions is not getting rid of undesirables or keeping the community pure; rather Jesus’ focus is on keeping the community whole. His emphasis is on hanging on to the offender, not getting rid of them. He tells his disciples what to do in order to keep the disruptive individual in the community and to restore relationships.

He gives them specific suggestions. First, talk to the individual alone and address the problem. If the person refuses to listen, then have two or three other people come and be present to help find resolution to the problem. If even that doesn’t work, then throw the problem into the daylight. Let the resources and authority of the church help restore the relationship.

Jesus does not want us to cut off or reject those who do wrong. He has never regarded us that way when we do wrong, and we are not to regard one another that way.

Jesus also doesn’t want us to ignore the problem or hide from it. When people hurt one another, it is a serious matter that we simply must face up to. That is because abuse heaped on another human being denies God’s will for both the one who has been wronged and the one who has done the wrong. No one can accept seeing people they love hurt each other. And that is most certainly true for God.

Also, Jesus recognizes that it is incredibly difficult to restore wounded or broken relationships. So if we cannot work it out on our own, he directs us to get help… from friends and from people who have the background and authority to help us when we can’t do it ourselves.

And lastly, he tells us to keep at it. Don’t let go of the offending person. Keep calling them back. Keep working for wholeness, reconciliation and healing.

He ends his instructions with the phrase: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”

This is a curious phrase. It might sound at first like Jesus is finally closing the door on the offender here. But of course, we know that Jesus welcomed tax collectors into the Kingdom of God and opened the door to Gentiles as well. In this last statement, it is as if Jesus has laid out a provocative riddle for his followers. His relationship with tax-collectors and outsiders had already shocked the religious leaders of his community, and even his own disciples; and here he brings it up again.

It reminds us of the fact that Jesus simply never closed the door on people; neither should we. And if you have any doubt about this at all, the passage that follows today’s Gospel makes it crystal clear.

In the very next verse that follows today’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many times then should he forgive a member who sins against him. It’s like Peter is asking for yet more clarification on exactly how far we should go to restore one who hurts a member of the community. Peter even offers a gracious suggestion — “Should I forgive him as many as seven times?”

Jesus response is “No. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus, of course, doesn’t expect us to keep count of the times we forgive. The point is that we simply don’t close the door on children of God. We always live and work for wholeness, reconciliation and healing.

God’s deepest concern is, and has always been, for those who have the greatest need for his love and healing. Christ didn’t die for, or build his church for an exclusive club of self-righteous church goers. God despises that tendency in people to exclude others from his church because they aren’t “good” enough.

Christ paid too high a price for such people to have them now excluded from the very community of faith he created for their benefit. “Learn what this means,” Jesus said. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Jesus takes outsiders and outcasts into his arms and loves them, and in doing so teaches them to love. Here in this Gospel lesson, he also tries to teach his church to love.

So I wonder, can you see the clear parallel between this story in today’s Gospel and the situation of you students here at Y.C.C.? Most of you are here because of offenses you have committed against members of your communities. Of course, the whole story of why you are here is more complicated than that; but it is the offenses against others that most directly led to the decision to incarcerate you here.

So here we stand in the same situation that is described in the Gospel. And the big question facing all of us is: “What happens with you now?” That is the question that society must face. It is certainly the question the church must face. It is the question you must face. Now that you have been removed from the community and placed here for a period of time, what happens next? And as we all face this question, we would do well to listen to the voice of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.

Jesus shows us that the goal, the hope for us… is wholeness, restoration. We hope that we will, as Jesus calls it, “regain you” in our community. We hope to see your smiling face working at some local business next year. We hope to read your name in the paper as having received a scholarship for college. We hope to hear news someday that you are living out on your own and doing well. We hope to one day run into you somewhere and find out that life is good for you and that you are happy and healthy.

Jesus tells us today that the job of the church is to never let go of you. God has made it clear that he will never let go of you… and so neither can we. You are a part of us… and we are a part of you. All the resources we have… the Gospel of Jesus Christ… his love and teachings, the people of the Church… their gifts and energy… these are to be given to God’s work of reconciliation and healing; so that we, his people, may become whole.

And even though today’s Gospel lesson is addressed to the church, it also makes reference to how essential your role is in this work. You cannot be passive if hope is going to be
fulfilled. Four times Jesus speaks of how the one who is to be regained must participate actively. Your task here at Y.C.C. is to listen, learn and grow. Your part in this work is to receive and accept the grace of God and the efforts of those who would help you… and to rejoin the community to which you belong and to share your life and good gifts with it.

There is a beautiful promise that seals this hope of wholeness and restoration that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. He promises that in the midst of human conflict, behind our hope for healing, and through our work for reconciliation… he is always there. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” he promises.

If Jesus is among us, then his power to heal and restore is at hand. It waits for us to join each other and begin our work together.


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