Month: September 2011

A Critique of the Film “Divided”

I recently was asked by a church publication in Taiwan to respond to the controversial film, Divided.  Here is my response. I would be interested in yours.  If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the link to the film’s website.

A Pastor Looks At the Film “Divided”

The recent film, Divided, has attracted national media attention for its critique of age-based church ministries, targeting youth ministry in particular.  But despite the film’s message that families should be more involved in faith development in their own children, the film makes questionable connections in its attempt to discredit any and all age-based church ministry, including Sunday School.

Despite its message that family is the basic unit of faith development, the film’s weaknesses overshadow its main point.  Apparently it isn’t enough to suggest that age-based ministries might not be effective.  The filmmakers not only attempt to discredit youth ministry, Sunday School, and other forms of age-based ministry, but they seek to demonize them as well.  By linking Plato, Rousseau, and Robert Raikes, the founder of Sunday School, into a “pagan” conspiracy to rip children from their parents’ influence, the film fails in intellectual and historic honesty.

Demonizing those who differ with us has become standard practice in politics in the United States, and now apparently it is standard practice in discussions about church ministry as well. The film seeks to equate age-based ministry with public education, the welfare state, and other public institutions that have fallen out of favor politically in the United States.

The film also speaks of “the church” as though the only expression of the church was in the United States of America.  And, despite the appearance of two African-American pastors as interviewees, the film seems to direct its critique of church ministry toward white, middle-class American church congregations.

Completely lacking in the film is acknowledgement that the church of Jesus Christ is a multi-faceted, multi-cultural body that finds unique expression within the cultural contexts in which it exists.

While there is no doubt that church attendance in the United States has been declining, the film Divided does not provide an answer to that decline.  Credible church historians and academics see multiple reasons for the decline in U.S. church attendance, and none have suggested that age-based programs are the reason.

The film and its producers could have done the church in the U. S. a great service.  Instead, they have produced a film that supports one questionable perspective on church life in white middle-class America, which will be largely irrelevant to other expressions of church in other nations and cultures.

Podcast: Changing Your Mind About The Kingdom

The podcast of my sermon, Changing Your Mind About the Kingdom, illustrates the two choices when it comes to participation in the Kingdom of God.  This sermon taken from Matthew 21:23-32 reflects the choices the religious leaders of Jesus’ day made, and asks us to examine our own lives to see if we are making the choice of obedience, or the choice of lip-service only.  The text of the sermon is found here.

Sermon: Changing Your Mind About The Kingdom

Changing Your Mind About The Kingdom

– Matthew 21:23-32 NIV’84:

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The Dilemma of Political Correctness

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the elders, as they are called in this passage – suffered from the same problem that many of our politicians suffer from today:  refusing to take a position because it would offend someone.

At this point in Matthew’s account, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, and is teaching in the Temple courts.  Jesus’ teaching in the Temple is not the equivalent of someone else coming in here to preach and elbowing me out.  The Temple was a much larger complex than our church building here.  The courts were said to cover almost a third of the city of Jerusalem.  Scholars estimate that the Temple area was approximately 500,000 square feet, or about 12 acres, although there are some who believe it was much larger.

There were a series of colonnades, or porches, plus the Court of the Gentiles which was the largest plaza-like space; then the Court of the Women, where only women were admitted; and finally the Court of Israel, where only Jewish men were admitted.

In all probability Jesus was teaching in the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles.  This is the same area from which he expelled the money changers and merchants when he declared that “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer [for all nations], but you have made it a den of thieves.”

Jesus has gathered at least a small crowd, as he frequently did just by his presence.  No doubt many are asking him questions, wanting to know more about this man who could heal, and cast out demons, feed people, and command nature to obey him.

However, the Temple was the domain of the religious establishment.  It was one thing for Jesus to preach and teach on the hills of Judea, or beside the Jordan River, or from a boat in the Sea of Galilee, because that’s where the rabble – the common people – were.  But now Jesus had come into the largest city in the land of Judea, Jerusalem.  He was in the heart of the domain of the chief priest, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Saduccees, the Sanhedrin, and all of the other assembled cast of those who dominated the Jewish people both politically and religiously.

John the Baptist had earned the ire of the religious establishment by drawing great crowds out of Jerusalem with his calls for repentance, and baptism as its sign.  This was an affront to the religious order of the day because the Temple was thought to be the very throne of God.  Devout Jews, religious leaders among them, believed that the Holy of Holies was the residence of God Almighty, or God of the Angel Armies as Eugene Peterson translates that title in the Message Bible.

The Temple was where offerings for individual sin or offerings for thanksgiving, or cleansing had to be made.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the nation would gather for the annual ritual when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of all the people.

The giant candelabra burned day and night signifying the light of God.  The bronze laver accommodated the ceremonial cleansing practiced by the priests who ministered in the Temple. And the gigantic bronze altar was the spot upon which sacrifice was offered to Israel’s God.

It was unthinkable that anyone, any Jew at least, could conceive of worshipping or serving God without being in the Temple to do so.

But John the Baptist had done just that.  John had drawn people away from the Temple, away from the stranglehold the religious establishment had on them, until it cost him his life.  And the people held John the Baptist in high esteem, both for his straight-to-the-point sermons, and his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas.

So when the elders come to Jesus, on their own turf, and ask him by what authority he did what he did, they really meant, “Who gave you permission to carry on like this?”

Realizing that their intention was to trap him, Jesus asked them a question in reply.  “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from men?”  (When Matthew uses the word “heaven” he often means “God,” because the Jews did not pronounce or write the name of God.  For example, in Matthew’s Gospel the kingdom of God is referred to as the kingdom of heaven.)

Immediately the religious officials knew that Jesus had them in a bind.  If they gave their own opinion, they would surely have said, “John’s preaching was a man-made publicity stunt.”  Or something like that.  But they knew that the people standing around Jesus held John in very high esteem.

But, on the other hand, if they answered, “John’s preaching was from God (or heaven),” then the next question would have been, “Well, then, why didn’t you listen to him?”

So, they were in a spot.  Realizing that there was no good way out, they simply answered, “We don’t know.”

Jesus knew that their answer was not one of genuine confusion, but rather their answer was a dodge, a cowardly response to a question that put them on the spot.

Appropriately, Jesus replies, “Then I’m not going to tell you where my authority comes from either.”

A Story of Two Responses to the Kingdom of God

With that reply, Jesus tells them a story.  A father had two sons.  To the first son the father said, “Go and work in the vineyard.”  The first son refused, but later changed his mind and went after all.

To the second son, the father also said, “Go and work in the vineyard.”  This son immediately said, “Okay, I’ll go.”  But then he never showed up.

Jesus asked the question then, “Which one of the sons did what the Father asked?”

Even the religious leaders knew the answer to this one – “The first one,” they replied.

Then Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

Wow.  Prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of God ahead of those who have devoted themselves to maintaining the religious institutions of Judaism.

That would be the equivalent of saying to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches, and the leaders of evangelical denominations, not to mention all the priests and pastors within all of those faith traditions — “Those who have broken the laws of morality and common decency are going to get into the kingdom of God and you’re not.”

That was pretty strong language.  Of course, when we hear Jesus’ words, we immediately are glad that we’re not like the religious leaders of his day.  But are we like the prostitutes and tax collectors, because that’s the only other group mentioned here?

Here’s the point that Jesus was making.  The second son whose father asked him to go work in the vineyard represented the religious leaders.  The second son quickly told the father he would go work.  In other words, the second son verbally said, “Yes” to the father.  But his actions said, “No.”

Psychologists and social scientists have observed the phenomena among groups that will sometimes agree to what their leader is asking, only to balk at actually carrying out the leader’s plan.  They call this “say yes, do no” kind of behavior.

That’s exactly what the religious leaders were doing.  They gave lip service to God and God’s rule and reign, but the reality was that when John the Baptist came along they saw John as a threat to both their position and standing, and their form of religious life.

The first son, the one who refused to go to the vineyard, were those who made no pretense about obedience to God.  Prostitutes who sold their bodies in violation of the Law of God, and of common human decency; and, tax collectors who cheated their own people, thereby breaking some of the Commandments themselves.

Of course, these were just representative of those who lived life as if God did not exist or matter.

But then, just as in the story of the two sons, something changes their minds.  In this case, it was John the Baptist.  John preached a message of repentance, of turning around, of being accountable to God, or living according to God’s Law, or being the people of God.

We might stretch this parable to say that the vineyard is the nation of Israel, or even the Kingdom of God, and that those who show up to work are either the true people of God, or those who have entered the Kingdom.  But the important point is that they eventually did what they at first had refused to do.  In other words, they changed their minds about the kingdom of God.

Two Stories About Two Men Who Changed Their Minds About the Kingdom

The first person I thought about when I started thinking about this sermon was the late Sam Kinison.  Sam Kinison was born in 1953, to a mother and father who were both Pentecostal preachers.  Kinison himself became a Pentecostal preacher, and attended Bible college to further prepare for ministry.

After a failed first marriage, Kinison was serving as a youth pastor when he became fixated on stand-up comedians.  “I can do that,” Kinison is reported as saying.  And the rest is history.

Kinison’s comedy act was often vile, profane, and frequently ridiculed Christianity.  His license plate read, “Ex Rev,” and Kinison sought to distance himself from his former profession in his lifestyle.  He developed a well-known appetite for drugs and alcohol, hung out with rockers in the LA scene, and simply became the exact opposite of everything that he once said he believed.

Sadly, Kinison was killed in an automobile accident in 1992, just 5 days after marrying his third wife.  I remember watching Kinison’s MTV music video, which was a remake of the rock song, “Wild Thing.”

The Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal has just unfolded, and Jessica Hahn was making the rounds of the talkshow circuit, and enjoying her 15 minutes of fame.  In the music video, as Kinison sang the lyrics, Jessica Hahn danced provocatively (I’m trying to keep this G-rated).

Kinison was killed not long after that video aired.  I don’t know why I thought of Sam Kinison, and certainly consider it a tragedy that he was killed before he could reconsider the choices he had made in his life.  But Kinison is an extreme example of those who said, “I’ll go” but then turn back.

Of course, there are stories that are the opposite of Kinison’s. You probably haven’t heard of Brian Welch.  Brian’s friends and fans call him “Head” and he was the lead guitarist and co-founder of Korn, a really loud and very popular band that brought Brian lots of money and lots of fame.

But in the midst of all the glitz and glamor of a rockstar’s life, Brian knew something was missing.  He tried to cover up the pain and failures in his own life with drugs and alcohol.  But when his daughter Jeanae was born, Brian began to question his own lifestyle.

It would take several years, and lots of setbacks before Brian would find a way to turn his life around.  The moment of truth came after his wife left him with Jeanae, and he heard his preschool daughter singing one of Korn’s songs.  The song was titled ADIDAS, which stood for “All day I dream about sex.”  Brian knew something in his life had to change.

Tired of the drugs, the alcohol, the parties, the pain, and what he was doing to his own daughter, Brian attended a church service with friends of his one night.  That night he prayed to receive Christ, and then went home and promptly did some more drugs.  But during that night he prayed for God to take the drugs from him, because he couldn’t quit on his own.

In an intense week of drug use and Bible reading, Brian experienced the presence of God in a way that he had not before.  “The first thing I felt was love,” he said in an interview.

And so in a concert before 10,000 people Brian Welch told the Korn audience that he had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

Now Brian Welch doesn’t look like your typical church member.  His hair is still long, his beard is still scraggly, and his arms and neck are covered with tattoos.  On the fingers of his right hand are tattooed the letter J-E-S-U-S, and on the fingers of his left, L-O-V-E.

Brian would have fit neatly into the company of the prostitutes and tax collectors Jesus referred to.  Today Brian still makes music, which is still loud. But this time it’s music about that talks about God, about Jesus, about his new faith, and about how Jesus is the answer for life’s deepest pain.

Brian was like the first son who refused to obey his heavenly Father, until later he changed his mind about the Kingdom of God.

God still changes lives. God still calls people to obedience.  The question you have to answer for yourself is, “Which son am I?”

Podcast: After 9/11, Forgiveness Cancels A Debt

This is the podcast of the sermon I preached on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  I titled this sermon After 9/11 Forgiveness Cancels A Debt.  Appropriately the revised common lectionary Gospel reading for that day came from Matthew 18:21-35 which presents Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  I hope you find this helpful as you reflect on the ongoing tragedies that occurred on and after that sad day in the life of our nation and the world.

Podcast: The Reconciling Community

This is the podcast of the sermon I preached on September 4, 2011, titled The Reconciling Community.  The podcast is also on iTunes (search for Chuck Warnock under iTunes Podcasts at the iTunes Store).

This sermon is based on Matthew 18:15-20, and explores the idea of reconciliation within the community of the followers of Jesus.  I hope you find it helpful.

Podcasts now available on all formats and devices

Podcasts of my sermons are now available across all platforms (Apple, PC, iPhone, Android, etc), and on all devices.  You can access my sermon podcasts in three ways:

  1. Go to the iTunes Store, search for “Chuck Warnock,” then click “Subscribe.”  (If two podcast choices appear on iTunes, click the one with my photo, not the one with the WordPress logo, which is an inactive account.)
  2. Go to my blog,, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, and I’ll post the podcast episode each Monday.  To access all the podcasts in one place, go to the right widget column and click on the Podcast RSS feed for the specific episode you want to hear.
  3. Go to my libsyn blog, which will contain all the podcast episodes at  The podcast RSS feed is also live at and you can subscribe directly through your feed reader.

However you get there, I hope the sermon podcasts will be helpful. Peace. -Chuck

Podcast: To Save The World

To Save The World
Here is the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 18, 2011.  In this message I address the issue of religious liberty because the ACLU has challenged our county Board of Supervisors for having prayer before their monthly meetings.  The Scripture text is John 3:13-17.

Sermon: To Save The World

To Save The World

“13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  – John 3:13-17 NIV’84

Public Prayer In The Name of Jesus

These are interesting times in our community.  Unless you have been away on a long vacation, you are no doubt aware that the American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to our county Board of Supervisors threatening them with legal action because they have in the past opened their monthly meeting with prayer, a prayer that has been offered to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

According to the ACLU, that makes it a Christian prayer, and therefore it is a sectarian prayer that violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 The part we are interested in here in Pittsylvania County right now is, of course, the first 16 words –

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

I discovered while doing research for this sermon that although the First Amendment was thought only to apply to the federal government initially, a series of rulings particularly in the 20th century, applied the First Amendment prohibition against state-sponsored religion to all governmental entities, which would include the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors.

So, what should we make of all this?  Do we agree with many that our personal freedoms, including freedom of religion and speech, are being violated by the threats of the ACLU?   Do we believe that the ACLU is in one letter writer’s opinion “The Anti-Christian Litigation Union?”  While that might have been a clever appropriation of the ACLU initials, it doesn’t seem to do much to clear up the issue.

Baptists And Religious Liberty

You also might be surprised to learn that Baptists historically have fought like, well…Baptists…over the issue of state-sponsored religion.  We experienced that right here in Virginia, when Baptists were outlawed and Baptist preachers like John Leland (1754-1841) were persecuted for their faith.

John Leland is a Baptist hero for his work in persuading Thomas Jefferson and others of the need for a Bill of Rights that would guarantee the freedoms on which the young republic had been founded. One rather amusing story about John Leland is that he was given the responsibility for delivering a mammoth round of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. Apparently the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts drew milk from every cow in town to craft the 1600 pound cheese that was their gift to Thomas Jefferson.

Why did they send President Jefferson this huge chunk of cheese?  Because they were afraid that recently-elected Jefferson, being part of what they called the “French Revolutionary School,” would destroy all their churches, and forbid religious practice.

Reverend John Leland disagreed with this fearful line of thinking, and so after some deliberation, John Leland was given charge of the mammoth cheese, which he delivered to President Jefferson as a kind of goodwill gesture.  Upon Leland’s arrival, and I assume the safe transfer of the cheese, Leland was invited to preach to the President and to Congress. Leland said of the three week trip to Washington, DC, that he preached there and back.  Typical preacher not to miss any opportunity to preach.

Oh, and just so Jefferson got the message of the cheese, the town’s people had engraved on the top of the round of cheese, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

Leland would be among the Baptists who would influence the addition of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment which guaranteed freedom of religion.

But, even in the colonial period of the history of the United States of America, there were those who argued that America should be constituted as a Christian nation.  Listen to what John Leland said in reply –

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” – John Leland, A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia. (courtesy of Wikipedia).

This issue of religious liberty is as old as our own constitution, and older than our nation’s history.  We as Baptists sprang from the Radical Reformation in the mid-1500s.  Objecting that the reforms of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin did not go far enough, our Baptists forebears believed that Christian baptism was reserved for those who had made their own confession of faith.  Therefore, infants should not be baptized because they had not yet reached an age where they could of their own free will make the decision to follow Christ.

Baptists also insisted that anyone could read and interpret Scripture, and that the Holy Spirit would guide each follower of Jesus Christ.  These and other views espoused by this radical group were unacceptable to Luther, Calvin, and the other leaders of the Reformation.

“If it’s baptism they want, then they shall have it” said their persecutors.  And so these early proto-Baptists were often sentenced to death by drowning for their unorthodox views.  For you see, in the days following the Reformation, lines of loyalty developed into political fiefdoms.  If the prince of your area was a Lutheran, then all within his jurisdiction were Lutherans.  Conversely, if your prince or king remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all of his subjects remained Roman Catholics.

Of course, this does not mean that all were practicing Christians.  And, even within each province or country, there were those who dissented, who sought to follow their own conscience.  But for the most part, citizens went along to get along, because death was frequently the punishment for not complying with your state’s religious stance.

These Anabaptists (re-baptizers) eventually fled from England to the Netherlands in search of religious liberty, and finally found a home they hoped would be free from persecution in the United States of America.

But, even in the fledgling United States, old patterns of religious practice had begun to prevail.  Baptists in Virginia were forbidden from preaching, their marriages were not recognized, and many were accused of child abuse because they refused to have their new babies baptized.  As Baptists in Virginia grew in number, the established civil and religious order tried to stamp out this rag-tag religious band.  Bruce Gorley reports that Baptist preachers endured the following, just because they were Baptists.  They were…

“pelted with apples and stone”
“ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men”
” jailed for permitting a man to pray”
“meeting broken up by a mob”
“arrested as a vagabond and schismatic”
“pulled down and hauled about by hair”
“tried to suffocate him with smoke”
“tried to blow him up with gun powder”
“drunken rowdies put in same cell with him”
“horses ridden over his hearers at jail”
“dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about”
“shot with a shot-gun”
” ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him”
“severely beaten with a whip”
“whipped severely by the Sheriff”
“hands slashed while preaching” (This happened to Samuel Harris right here in Pittsylvania County).

— Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia:

But preachers like Samuel Harris also used humor to answer their opponents.  Once when Harris was preaching to a crowd outdoors, part of the group suddenly pulled back and started making a commotion.  Obviously, this distraction had been planned, just like some of the others I read to you earlier.  Samuel Harris was not deterred, however.  He paused for a moment, looked at the group of rowdies, and then addressed the crowd in his booming voice.  “Never mind those disorderly people,” he said, “there are enough going to heaven without them.”  Observers later reported that the disorder stopped immediately!

Here in Virgina, the Episcopal Church was the official state church until it was disestablished in 1776, but it wasn’t until 1786 that Thomas Jefferson’s idea of religious liberty was adopted by the commonwealth of Virginia.  And, it wasn’t until 1791 that the Bill of Rights was ratified, based largely upon the work that John Leland, other Baptists and Presbyterians, and Thomas Jefferson had done.  (courtesy of The Baptist Index)

Of course, that is too brief a description to do the whole thing justice, but you get the idea – Baptists have always been proponents of religious liberty because they wanted freedom of conscience for themselves and others.

Down through the years, Baptists have fought not only for their own rights, but for the rights of others to follow the dictates of their own conscience when it comes to matters of faith and practice.  And, Baptists have always been suspicious of any government involvement in prescribing religious activity, including prayer.

The Board of Supervisors last week made it clear that prayer prior to their meetings was not part of their official government function.  The county attorney, in conference with the Board of Supervisors, crafted a resolution on prayer that removed the opening prayer from the official agenda.  Of course, the ACLU this week said that was not sufficient, so we will see how this all turns out in the days ahead.

Lifting Up The Snake in the Desert

So, how do we as Christians navigate the difficult terrain of conflicting civic opinions, and yet remain true to our faith.  We do it by lifting up Jesus, which is why we are looking at this passage of Scripture today.

I do not think there is a more relevant passage for us to think about, commit to our hearts and minds, and meditate on during these days here in our own community.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, according to John.  Nicodemus recognizes that “Jesus is a teacher who has come from God.”  No one could do the things you do, Nicodemus says, unless that were true.

But Nicodemus is just like we are – he is locked into his own system of belief, and he cannot understand who Jesus is, or exactly what Jesus is doing.  Still, he is strangely drawn to Jesus, even though he came in the dark of night to see Jesus, probably so others would not see him.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, or born from above, to see the Kingdom of God.  Nicodemus is puzzled by that, and asks how he as a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born.  Jesus explains that this “new birth” is a spiritual birth, a birth of the Spirit of God.

Nicodemus is still confused, and so Jesus refers to a story from the book of Numbers, a story that Nicodemus will know.  It is the story we read early this morning, the story of disobedience, death, and deliverance.

In Numbers 21, the people on their way to the Promised Land, grew impatient.  They spoke against God and against Moses.  The NIV translates it this way –

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread!  There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

God’s rebuke was swift, and deadly.  Numbers says that God sent poisonous snakes among the people.  Apparently, there were lots of snakes, who bit lots of people, and tragically some of the people died.

Quickly, the nation realizes what it has done.  They come to Moses and say, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  The Bible says Moses prayed.

In answer to Moses’s prayer, God gave them a remedy for their snake bites.

“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So Moses made the snake of bronze, and lifted it up.  When anyone was bitten by a snake, if he looked at the bronze snake, he would live.

Lifting Up Jesus

That’s the story Jesus told Nicodemus, and then he said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Of course, we understand Jesus to mean that he will be lifted up on the cross.  Whether Nicodemus understands this or not, we aren’t told.  But then Jesus explains why this must happen, why he must be lifted up just like the bronze snake was.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

“For God so loved the world…”  When Jesus says “world” here, he is not referring to the world order that is opposed to God, which is how the New Testament sometimes uses the word “world.”  Here Jesus means creation, that which God set in motion in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, and after everyday’s creative act stops and says, “That’s good.”

God loves his creation, including the apex of his creation, humankind.  Men and women, boys and girls, people of all races, people from all time – God loves what God has made.

And because God loves this world, and everything He made in it, He sent Jesus God’s only son.  Whoever, Jesus says, commits himself or herself to Jesus, God’s son, trusts and believes in him, shall not perish like the world is perishing, but will have life eternal.

Then Jesus says something that we often do not quote, after we have quoted John 3:16.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In other words, God’s purpose isn’t to pronounce judgment, and kill everybody, and destroy His handiwork in the process.  God’s purpose is to save the world.  To draw it back from its own self-destructive behavior, to pull it from the brink of self-annihilation, to save that which He has created.

Jesus is God’s antidote to the poison of our sin.  Jesus is God’s answer to our questions, the relief for our sadness, the purpose of our lives.

I often wondered why God didn’t tell Moses to make a bronze angel, or bronze bird, or anything but a bronze snake.  And then one day it hit me, in what I hope was a moment of spiritual insight.

God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up, because the thing that kills you is the thing that saves you.

Let me explain:  I am sure no one in the camp wanted to be reminded of snakes.  But the snakes were God’s punishment for their sin.  When they looked at the snake that Moses had lifted up, they were reminded that God could take the instrument of their punishment, and turn it into the remedy for their disease.  God could take judgment and infuse it with life.  God could take that which had killed them, and make it the only way to redemption.

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, God showed us a man, a man who in all of his humanity was tempted, was accused, was attacked, was beaten, was ridiculed, was tortured, and finally was crucified.

Looking at Jesus we see our own handiwork.  We see our own disobedience that inflicted the pain of the scourge in Jesus’ back.  We see our own selfishness and hatred and fear that lived in the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and lives in us today.  We see all of our own sins, our own barbarism displayed in the bruised and scarred body of Jesus.

And when we look at Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that someone must save us from ourselves.  We are reminded that if we would kill the Son of God, there is no crime that we would not commit, no deed too dark for the human soul, no act too horrific for us to participate in.

When Jesus is lifted up, we must first see our own failure, our own sin, our own helplessness, just as the nation of Israel did in the desperation of the desert.  For unless we do, it will not help us to lift up Jesus in public or private prayer.  Unless we look at the result of our own sin, the marred visage of Christ, just as the Israelites had to look at the bronze snake, we will miss what God is trying to tell us.

But we also see in the lifted up Jesus the possibility for which God has created us.  We see the capacity for self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated.  We see the sacrifice he made so that others might also live.  We see the best that Jesus calls us to in living out the values and commitments to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus does not need anyone to defend him, for he did not even defend himself.  What Jesus seeks is the same thing he offered to Nicodemus. Jesus seeks those who will look at him on the cross, and will see themselves reflected in him.

And it is those who look and live who will go out to lift up Christ so that others may see themselves reflected in him, too; so that others may measure their lives by his and realize that there is no life without Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.”  Let’s lift up Jesus as the hope of all humanity.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the answer to all of the world’s terrible predicaments.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the model for a selfless life, lived to serve others, lived to save the world.

Sermon: After 9/11, Forgiveness Cancels A Debt

Forgiveness Cancels a Debt

Matthew 18:21-35 NIV’84

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talentswas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

The 10th Anniversary of 9/11

We are gathered here today as we usually are at this time on a Sunday morning.  But by this time of the morning  10 years ago, we knew that American was under attack.

For those of my father’s generation, the question had always been, “Where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?”  Of course, Pearl Harbor became the moment that our nation realized that it could not remain a spectator in the conflagration that had begun with Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the rise of the Axis Powers in Italy and Japan.  Pearl Harbor changed America.  Tom Brokaw correctly titled his book about those who faced up to the challenges of that time, The Greatest Generation.

For my generation of baby boomers, the question was asked 22 years later, “Where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated?”  I do.  I was in eighth grade social studies class.  Mr. Shannon, our social studies teacher, had left the room.  In a moment he returned and told the class that the President had been shot.  Televisions were turned on in classrooms that had them, and for the rest of the day we watched live television as Walter Cronkite tried to piece together the fragmented reports coming from eyewitnesses, reporters on the scene, and law enforcement officials.

The Sunday following the President’s death, my family, along with the families of other church members, were gathered at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  As the service came to a close that day, someone handed our pastor a note.  He stood and informed the congregation that Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy, had himself been shot while being transferred at the police station in Dallas, Texas.  For my generation, President Kennedy’s death marked the first of many assassinations, and attempted assassinations of public figures.  In April, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  In June of that same year, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed after celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary in California.

President Kennedy’s death marked the beginning of the end for my generation of an innocence that had seemed to pervade the 1950s, and the post-World War II prosperity of the United States.  The war in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights struggle, and the emergence of an alternative culture of “flower children” opened a new chapter in American civic life.  President Kennedy’s assassination changed our country, but in different ways than Pearl Harbor had.

And then came September 11, 2001.  Debbie and I were at our daughter Laurie’s home in Greenville, South Carolina.  We were there because that September 11, 2001 was the first birthday of our granddaughter, Vivian.  We had arrived the night before and had just finished breakfast when the phone rang.  Laurie answered it, and our son-in-law, Steve, told her to turn on the TV.  New York was under attack, he said.

We turned on the television, and watched in stunned silence as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned.  And then the unthinkable happened.  The towers came down, one at a time, in an unbelievable cascade of steel, concrete, dust, and paper.  I think I remember the papers the most.  Hundreds of thousands of 8 ½ by 11 sheets of paper.  Papers that had been on desks, in copiers, in printers waiting to be sorted and filed, papers that floated to the ground representing for me those lost in the tragedy that day.

After the towers fell, Laurie, Debbie and I still had some birthday party shopping to do for Vivian’s party that night. We arrived at the mall near their home, and were only there a few minutes when we noticed that stores were lowering their security gates and closing.  We left mall and returned home.  By mid-afternoon we turned off the TV.  Despite the tragedy, and perhaps because of it, we decided to focus on Vivian’s first birthday.

Her party was that night, and her other grandparents were there, too.  Somewhere in the chaos and sorrow of that day, our daughter managed to write Vivian a letter.  She explained to her that something very sad had happened on her birthday, which had nothing to do with her.   But that from that day, and for all of her birthdays to come, the date of September 11 – 9/11 – would be remembered as a very sad day in the life of our country.  But, she told Vivian, there was still a future, a future that held promise and hope and love and possibility.  Laurie told Vivian that even though the events of 9/11 might have overshadowed her first birthday, that she was loved by her parents, her grandparents, and her family.  Vivian, Laurie said, could face the future knowing that there were those who loved her, and that her life could be a life of hope and promise.

That’s where we were on 9/11.  I’m sure you remember where you were, too.

Today’s Lectionary Gospel Reading

All of that brings me to the Gospel reading for today, Matthew 18:21-35.  One of the things I like about preaching from the revised common lectionary is that the passages that have been selected often seem divinely appointed for that particular Sunday.

But, of course, God uses even our unintended choices to communicate with us.

Today we read the words of Jesus about forgiveness.  Peter – isn’t it always Peter who asks about these things? – asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone.  But not just any someone, Peter asks how often he should forgive a “brother.”  Thinking that he knew the answer, and I’m sure also thinking that he would impress Jesus with his knowledge, Peter answers his own question by saying, “Seven times?”

By offering an answer to this age-old question of how often should we forgive someone, Peter exceeded the common wisdom of the rabbis of his day.  They thought no one should ask forgiveness of another more than three times.  I suppose their thinking went something like this:  If someone needs to ask forgiveness for a mistake that caused another harm in some way, that is understandable.  After all, we are all human and anyone can make a mistake.

The second time someone asks for forgiveness, perhaps he or she is struggling to get under control some character defect, or habitual behavior.  One can certainly understand how that could happen.

But the third time someone has to ask for forgiveness of the person they have twice wronged, they better get it right this time.  Although this was long before baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, the rabbis had a kind of “three strikes and you’re out” approach.

But Peter ups the ante.  He latches onto the number 7, and who knows why.  Some have indicated that this was also rabbinical teaching, but I think Peter was going for an answer to impress Jesus.  By doubling the rabbis common answer, and throwing in one more for good measure.  Perhaps Peter had the days of creation in mind.  Or perhaps Peter knew that the number 7 represented perfection and could not be improved upon.

Whatever Peter’s thinking, he poses a question, provides the answer, and then waits smugly for the amazed Jesus to commend him in front of all the other disciples.

Only, that’s not what happens at all.  Jesus tells Peter, “not seven times, but seventy seven times.”  Some translations have “seventy times,” or “seventy times seven.”  Either way the numbers are not the point.  The point is that forgiveness is to be infinite, inexhaustible, and always available among Jesus’ followers.

To further illustrate exactly what he means, Jesus tells a story, a parable, about what life is like in the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.

And the story is meant to drive home the point of the infinite scope of forgiveness as it should be practiced by those who would come after Jesus.

A ruler is settling accounts, Jesus says, and calls in a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.  Okay, let’s stop right here, because this is the point of the story.  “10,000 talents” is a meaningless phrase to us in 21st century America.  We are used to much bigger numbers than 10,000, especially when it comes to our government.  As the late Senator Everett Dirksen is quoted as saying, “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”  (Incidentally, there is disagreement about whether Dirksen actually said that, but it’s still a good quote.)

To help us understand what Jesus was saying, one talent, probably a silver talent, was the equivalent of 20-years’ wages for the servant in question.  Okay, you do the math.  Multiply 20-years by 10,000, and you get 200,000 years of wages!  Which makes one want to ask the question, “Why did the ruler loan this guy so much money, and what in the world could he have done with it?”  But that’s not the point of the story.

The point of the story is that the servant owed a debt he could not pay.  He could not ever have paid it, not in his lifetime, the lifetimes of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Which actually sounds like our national debt, but that’s not the point either.

No, the point was that this servant owed a debt he could not pay.  Ever.  The ruler, realizing this, ordered that the man, his wife, and his family be thrown in prison until he could pay.  (Which seems counter-productive to me, unless the earning potential of first century prisoners was much greater than it is today.)

But, the servant fell to his knees and pleaded with his master.  “I’ll pay every cent,” he promised.  And, did the master believe him?  Of course not.  Matthew says the master canceled the debt.  He knew the servant could never pay it, and I’m sure he knew that the servant would never pay it from jail either.  So, he canceled it.  Wrote “Paid in Full” on it in big letters, and gave the canceled note to the servant.  Or something like that.

Ecstatic the servant rushes from the master’s presence, out into the street, and whom should he run into almost immediately?  Why another servant, of course.  Only this servant owed our friend some money – about a hundred denarii.  Again, this is meaningless to us, until we understand that a denarius was about one days’ wage.  Of course, that makes 100 denarii about 100 days’ wages.  That is not a small sum by any means in the first century, but it is a debt that could conceivably be paid by a fellow servant.

But rather than share his good fortune with his fellow servant, our friend the now-debt-free servant has his debtor thrown in jail until he can pay.  Very unfair, it seems, and those looking on thought so, too.

These other servants of the master run and tell their master what has just happened.  “Sir, do you remember Jacob, your servant, whose debt you just canceled?”  (I made up the name Jacob, but seems fitting because the original was a schemer, too.)  “Of course,” the master said.  “Well, he just sent poor old Simeon to prison because he couldn’t pay him 100 days’ wages.”

With that news the master was livid.  He sent runners to find and bring back this ungrateful and unmerciful servant, whatever his name was.  “Didn’t I just forgive you?” I am sure he asked.  “And, now you have refused to forgive someone who owes you such a little sum?”

With that that master had the unmerciful servant thrown into jail, not just to be held, but to be “tortured” by the jailers until he could pay.  That’s the last we hear of the unmerciful servant.

Jesus does add one interesting footnote to this story.  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

I think the point here is not that God will hand us over to be tortured, but that God takes a very dim view of those who are shown mercy and forgiveness, but who do not show mercy and forgiveness to others in return.

Forgiveness Cancels A Debt

What does this mean for us today?  The story is a story that Jesus himself says represents life in the kingdom of heaven.  We have to ask ourselves in what way this story tells us about the kingdom of God and how life is to be lived in that kingdom.

First, we are the servant who is deeply in debt.  That should be obvious.  We owe a debt to God we cannot pay in many ways.  It was the same in the first century as it is in the 21st century.  Israel as a nation had returned God’s love with rigid legalism.  The rulers of Israel have betrayed their purpose and their calling as the people of God by aligning themselves with the Roman Empire.  They have sold out their own people by guaranteeing that taxes will be collected, and that the region will remain under Roman rule without incident.

Our debt, and theirs, to God was immense, unfathomable, and uncollectable.  There is no way they, or we, could ever set the account right.  As one preacher put it, “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.”

Secondly, God is the master.  That should be obvious.  The master is infinitely rich, so much so that 10,000 talents, or 200,000 years’ wages, is insignificant to the master.  The master is so rich that even this mind-boggling amount of money is not going to bankrupt him, or even make a sizeable dent in his financial situation.  God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (which is a poetic way of saying “all of them”) is not threatened by our debt.

Thirdly, mercy and forgiveness is God’s response to our hopelessness.  While we might plead with God that we’ll do better, we’ll make him proud, we’ll pay him back, the fact is that we will for the most part continue to do exactly what we have always done.  That is, we will fail to be all that God has called us to be and created us for.  But rather than wipe us off the earth, God wipes our debt to him off his ledgers.  God’s mercy extends to us in our helplessness and hopelessness.  God forgives our debt, wipes the slate clean, and gives us a new start.

That’s the good news.  Jesus paid our debt.  Jesus died in our place.  Jesus did for us what we could not have ever done for ourselves.  And he did it willingly, lovingly, and intentionally.

Finally, now that we have been forgiven, and our debts have been canceled, we are expected to do the same for others.  We are expected to show undeserved mercy and grace to those who do not have the capacity or the will to repay our act of kindness and love.  That is what life in the kingdom of heaven is like.  That is one way in which we can “love God and love others” according to Jesus.

What Does That Have To Do With 9/11?

What does this have to do with 9/11?  There are a lot of things that you and I cannot control.  We are not the ones who decide if and when our nation will go to war.  We are not the ones who are privy to classified intelligence information.  You and I are not in a position to take on the safety and security of the nation as our responsibility.  We elect our leaders, and entrust to them the power and authority to make those decisions.  And we honor those who keep us safe and secure, even in this age of uncertainty and insecurity.

But there is something you and I as followers of Jesus can do.  We can extend grace and mercy to those who need it, because we ourselves are the recipients of God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus gave us examples of what that might look like. He told the story of the Good Samaritan at a time when all Jews thought the words “good” and “Samaritan” did not belong in the same sentence.

Jesus forgave a woman caught in the immoral act of adultery when the religious leaders who accused her were will within their rights to demand that she be stoned for violating the accepted Biblical standards of morality.  He simply said to her, “Go and sin no more.”

Jesus told Peter to put up his sword, and he healed the high priest’s servant whose ear Peter had lopped off.  And, later Jesus forgave Peter for betraying him and abandoning him to be flogged and crucified.

And, while he hung on the cross, Jesus last prayer was for those who were torturing and killing him.  He prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

In our own small ways we can extend to others the same mercy and grace that God has extended to us.  Rather than reacting in fear and anger to the growing number of Muslims in America, or the world for that matter, we might start to think of them as persons whom God loves.

Rather than rail against the working immigrants in our country, we might remember that most of us are from immigrant families, unless we are Native Americans, and that those who preceded us and made life in America possible for us endured the prejudice and unkindness of those who also called themselves Christians. I remember by grandmother telling me that her family name of Callaham, had been changed from O’Callaham because the Irish were discriminated against when her family first came to America.

We live a world that is flawed and dangerous, but we serve a God whose love, mercy, and forgiveness we have experienced.  And, we have the words of Jesus to remind us that God expects, as part of life in God’s kingdom, that we as God’s ambassadors will live our lives differently.  That we will extend to others the same forgiveness that we have experienced, that we will nurture the same mercy toward others that we have been shown, and that we will live our lives as grateful and merciful servants, rather than like the unmerciful servant of Jesus’ story.

Will that make a difference in our community and our world?  Will it prevent another 9/11, or another Pearl Harbor, or another presidential assassination.  Perhaps it will, but even if other horrific things happen, the presence of evil does not invalidate the purpose of God.  If anything, the presence of evil reminds us that love wins, that God is present with us, and that we are the ones who will demonstrate to the world that there is a way to live life as God has intended it, and that that life is possible through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The first words that came to Colleen Kelly’s mind when she realized that her brother was gone were, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Colleen’s brother Bill worked for Bloomberg as a financial services salesman.  He didn’t work at the World Trade Center.  But on that day, September 11, 2001, Bill was attending a conference held at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.

After the Towers fell, and when she could not contact Bill, Colleen rushed from one New York City hospital to another in a desperate search for her brother.  At each hospital she saw scores of doctors and nurses, but realized that few were actually being admitted because there were no survivors.

According to Ellis Cose, who tells Colleen’s story in his book, Bone To Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Revenge, Colleen knew that the prayer of Jesus made no sense.  The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing, she would later learn.

But those words – “Father, forgive them…” – seemed to help her hold onto her faith and the values she cherished.  The terrorists took her brother, but Colleen was determined that they would not take anything else.

So, Colleen and others founded September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.  Colleen was determined to do all she could to stop the cycle of international violence and death.

That meant that when the United States was preparing to attack Iraq several months later, Colleen and other September Eleventh Families made the trip to Iraq to assure the Iraqi people they met with that there were Americans who did not hate them, or wish them dead.  They also met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, in an attempt at dialogue and reconciliation.

Did Colleen’s acts stop a war or prevent other suicide missions?  Probably not, but the point is not that we are successful as followers of Jesus.  We will not be judged by our success, only by our faithfulness. Only by the ways in which we have forgiven others because we ourselves have been forgiven.

Sermon: The Reconciling Community

The Reconciling Community

Matthew 18:15-20 NIV’84

15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

The Practical Side of the Kingdom of Heaven

Has anyone in church ever offended you?  Or have you ever made a fellow church member mad?  Or hurt their feelings?  Or said something unkind?  Or have you ever done something that could have reflected poorly on the congregation of which you were a member if that deed were known?

Probably the answer to most of those questions is at least a qualified, “Yes.”  After all, the most effective program Baptists have for starting new churches is a church split.  We are not called “the battling Baptists” for nothing.  As a matter of fact, disagreement to the point of separation is in our DNA as a denomination.  Southern Baptists got their start by disagreeing with their Northern counterparts of the unlikely issue of slavery and missions.

Northern Baptists would not appoint Southern slaveholders as missionaries, and so in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, splitting the ranks of Baptists in the United States over the issue of slavery.

So, we know a little about church fights, and we know at least one way to settle them.  But in our look at the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly told us that life is different in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The conventional wisdom and common practice by which most people lead their lives — including both Jews in the first century, and Christians in the 21st century – gets stood on its head as Jesus reinterprets the Law, and illuminates what life in God’s Kingdom should be like.

So today we come to a very practical bit of instruction from Jesus about divisions within those who are seeking the Kingdom.

An Unfortunate Translation 

Let me first deal with an issue here that creates a problem for some people.  In the text we read today, Jesus uses the term “church.”  Of course, the “church” as we know it today did not exist at this point in Jesus’ ministry.  The “church” as we know her would not be born until the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.  As we know from our own observance of Pentecost (we all wear something red, which is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday), Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church.

Because English versions of the Bible have used the word “church,” some have questioned whether this is an authentic saying of Jesus, or whether it was inserted later after the birth of the church during the apostolic age.

Let’s have a quick and simple lesson in New Testament Greek.  The word translated “church” is the Greek word ekklesia.  This word is compiled from two words:  ek meaning out of, and klesis meaning called.  In other words, an ekklesia is an assembly of the “called out ones.”

The original ekklesia, about 500 years before Christ, was an assembly of all male citizens to conduct the affairs of the city.  And, attendance at the ekklesia was expected.  Slaves were dispatched throughout the city carrying a rope soaked with a red dye or stain.  When they say an eligible male who obviously had not taken time or interest in attending the ekklesia, the slave struck the male citizen, staining his garment with red dye.  Those so identified and marked were forbidden from conducting business while the ekklesia was in session.

Later in the first century, the word ekklesia is used specifically to refer to the church.  Here, however, I think a better translation would be “the assembly.”  Because in the first century a gathering of the nation of Israel, or a representative gathering was called an ekklesia.

So, what is my point in telling you all of this?  First, I think the translation of ekklesia into church is probably unfortunate here.  Clearly, there is no New Testament church yet.  The disciples would have had no idea what Jesus was talking about because Pentecost had not come, the Spirit had not come upon each believer, and the apostles had not been empowered yet.

But, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about “the assembly of Israel.”  They would have understood that Jesus was speaking of those who were following Jesus, listening to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, and who gathered with Jesus and the disciples on several occasions.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus appeared to over 500 after his resurrection.  After Jesus ascension into heaven, 120 were in the upper room with the apostles.  So the number of those who followed Jesus was larger than the 12 disciples, and on many occasions ran into the hundreds.

Jesus would have considered these followers an assembly of the new Israel.  After all, his ministry symbolically reconstituted the 12 tribes of Israel in the 12 disciples, reinterpreted the Law of Israel, satisfied the requirements of Temple sacrifice, and inaugurated the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the Messiah of God.

So, we can easily imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, “17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Okay, now that we have that behind us, let’s look at what Jesus said about this business of division and reconciliation.

Sin In The Camp

In the Old Testament book of Joshua, there is a strange story of  “sin in the camp.”  Joshua had been leading Israel from victory to victory as they conquered the Land of Promise, but when they attempted to take the city of Ai, they were defeated.  To make a long story short, it was discovered that one man, Achan, had disobeyed God and had kept some of the spoils of previous battles for himself.  This one man’s sin affected the entire nation, and until that sin was dealt with and made right, the nation was under God’s judgment.

Now bring that same story forward about 1200 years or so.  Jesus had come proclaiming a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  Many have begun to follow Jesus, with the 12 disciples forming the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

The disciples have increasing responsibility for the newer followers.  You may remember that we looked at the feeding of the 5,000, which demonstrated that in the Kingdom of God there was always an abundance.  Before Jesus fed the crowd that day with a little boy’s lunch, he told the disciples to feed the crowd.  That was Jesus’ way of saying that the disciples had an increasing responsibility for caring for Jesus’ followers.

So, 18 chapters into Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus gives the disciples instruction for what to do when there is a problem of sin within the assembly of those who are following Jesus.

Jesus has just finished telling the story of the shepherd who has 100 sheep.  When the shepherd discovers just one missing, he searches diligently until he finds the lost sheep and returns it to the flock within the fold.  The lesson there is that everyone one of God’s sheep, those whom God has created, are valuable to God and God’s Kingdom.  None should be written off as lost and without hope of redemption.

Then Jesus says the same thing in a slightly different way:  15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

This saying takes the search for a lost sheep, and makes it a quest for a restored relationship.  In both cases something fundamentally wrong has happened to disrupt the way things should be.  In the case of the lost sheep, he is separated from the flock and the shepherd.  In the case of a member of the assembly of Jesus’ followers who sins, they have separated themselves from the followers of Jesus by their actions.

It is interesting to note that although the NIV translation from 1984 has the phrase “If your brother sins against you…” – the 2010 NIV translation drops the two words “against you.”  The reason is that the words “against you” are not found in the oldest manuscripts, and also Luke’s account of this same teaching of Jesus does not use that phrase either.

But any sin of one within the assembly is a sin against all members of the assembly, and a sin against God as well.

The very word “sin” brings us to another tricky question – What sins qualify for someone in the assembly to go to someone else and point out the mistake they have made?

This is exactly where church discipline in the past has focused.  Obviously some sins were more public, and more serious, than other sins.  I think I have told you about Zion Hope Baptist Church in Tifton, Georgia where I was pastor long years ago.  For the church’s centennial celebration, we brought out the old church minutes from the late 1800s.  It was not unusual for the congregation to “church” someone for the sin of dancing.  Nor was it unusual for them to reinstate that same individual the next Sunday after they had made an appropriate act of repentance.

That’s how the church historically has treated this passage.  Christians have focused on the “sin” part of Jesus’ teaching.  The Roman Catholic Church has categorized sin into either “venial” or “mortal” sins.  Venial sins are slight sins that can be corrected or rectified by applying love and loving action, such as an apology, restitution, or other act of contrition and correction.  Mortal sins are serious, have a total disregard for love of self, others, or God, and lead to spiritual death if not dealt with, and repented of.

But, focusing on how big the sin has to be before someone seeks to correct another is to miss the point.  Jesus could very well have focused on various sins.  He could have said, “If someone sins by committing adultery…”  and so on.  But, he didn’t.  The reason Jesus didn’t focus on the sin is because he was focused on the relationship.

That’s the same reason the shepherd goes after the lost sheep.  The shepherd isn’t concerned how the sheep got lost. He doesn’t blame the sheep for being stupid, careless, or willful.  No, the shepherd goes after the sheep as soon as he realizes that the sheep is missing.  And he does so because the main point is that the sheep has strayed, it is no longer in the fold, it needs finding and it needs finding quickly.

That’s why most attempts at church discipline have failed.  Either the church has narrowly defined what it considers sin – such as wearing jewelry, cutting your hair if you are a woman, or wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress, again, if you are a woman.  (Note that a lot of church discipline applies to women, not so much to men.)  I actually had a revival preacher I invited to preach at our church in Lilburn, Georgia spend an entire sermon on women wearing pants to church.  He thought he was doing me a favor.  I think Debbie had on pants that night.  But, you get my point.

Church discipline has largely failed because we have singled out individuals to straighten them out, but usually based on our ideas, not theirs.

No, Jesus didn’t focus on the sin here.  He just focused on the fact that a member of the assembly, a person who at one time had embraced the Kingdom of God, had turned aside, had gone astray, had offended either God or a brother or sister in the faith, or both.

In other words, the relationship within the community had been damaged.  Jesus concern is not just that one person has gone astray.  His concern is that a member of the community, the assembly, has gone astray.  And if one is missing, either physically or spiritually, then their life affects the entire community.

The Process for Reconciliation

The process for reconciliation is pretty simple.  First, the person who is aware of this person’s mistake goes to him or her privately.  If the sin was against the individual, then there’s no reason to involve others at this point.  And, Jesus says, if they listen to you, you have won your brother.  Case closed.  Things are again as they should be.  One person reaches out in love, the other listens, and takes appropriate action.  Relationships are healed, wrongs are made right, things are as they should be again.

Unfortunately, many cases do not resolved themselves so easily.  If the person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs the disciples to take one or two others with you to again seek to win this wayward brother over.  Why?  Because in Deuteronomy 19:15, the Law says –

15 “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

 Jesus is following the Law, while at the same time involving others in seeking to reclaim this lost brother or sister.  Hopefully, that step works, and the party who has sinned, when confronted in love by 2 or 3 people about their conduct, will see the error of their ways.

But if not, Jesus has a step three.  “Tell it to the church.”  Or, to use our word, “tell it to the assembly.”  Get more folks involved.  Maybe someone else can help.  Things are now serious.  The assembly, the community of Jesus’ followers, is at risk for losing one of their own.  Everyone needs to know about this serious situation.  Everyone needs to pray, to express their love to the estranged member, and to reach out to them with grace and care.

What definitely is not happening is that the church gets told so that it can expel the member.  That is not the desired result.  The member is already estranged.  They are already out of the fold of fellowship.  No, the idea is that the entire community will now reach out to reclaim this one who has been lost temporarily.

Failing those three steps, Jesus says something very strange – “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Of course, this is where many church bodies have gotten their doctrine of expulsion, or shunning, or excommunication, or withdrawal of fellowship.  All of those practices have the same end result:  the offending member is cut off, either permanently or temporarily, from the community.

But, that’s not what Jesus means, I am convinced.  Because if we are to take Jesus’ words both seriously and literally, we have to ask ourselves “How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?”

The tax collector question is easy to answer.  All we have to do is remember a little man named Zacchaeus, himself a tax collector.  You know the story, and maybe the song.

“Zacchaeus was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he.  He climbed us in a sycamore tree, the Lord he wanted to see.  And when the Lord came passing by, He looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, come down, for I’m going to your house today!”

That’s pretty much the story.  Except Zacchaeus realizes the error of his ways, confesses, makes restitution, and rejoins the family of God and the nation of God.  Jesus says of Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus’ confession and offer of restitution – “Today salvation has come to this house.”

That’s how Jesus treats tax collectors.  With redemptive love.  And so, the point of this whole passage is to redeem, reclaim, and seek reconciliation with those who started for the Kingdom, but somehow lost their way.

The Importance of the Assembly

But, that’s not all.  Jesus has involved the assembly in reclaiming the life of one who has gone the wrong way.  But, the assembly, no matter how small, has other important functions.  Jesus continues —

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

   19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 

It is the assembly of God’s people, now called the church, that demonstrates that what is done in heaven, can be done on earth.  The binding and loosing was an old rabbinical phrase that indicated which obligations the local synagogue was to be bound by, and which they were free to be released from.

The one thing that bound the followers of Jesus most closely, and to which they themselves were bound, was reconciliation.  The unrelenting pursuit of those whose lives have gone off-track, who have abandoned their place in the assembly of the Kingdom, so that they can then be reconciled to God and to the other members of the community.

But it doesn’t end there.  The reconciling community is also a praying community.  Jesus says —  19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

In other words, the power of our praying is directly related to our participation in the community of faith.  When we join with others, agreeing in our hearts and minds that God has this plan for us, then Jesus says, “…it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

Of course, that is not to dimish the idea of individual prayer.  But Jesus is reiterating the importance, the centrality of the community as it relates to the Kingdom of God.

This community of followers of Jesus, this assembly, is the new Israel.  Not that the old Israel, the Jews, are excluded.  By no means.  Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 9-11.  But, this new community lives differently.  This new community follows the Messiah of God.  This new community recognizes that God has raised Jesus from the dead, making both Lord and Christ.  This new community is the expression of the Kingdom of God here in this place, until Christ comes again, and all things are made new.

And the reason for the importance of this new community?  Because Jesus says that wherever  2 or 3 of them are gathered, he’s there in their midst.  Jesus is not waiting for the crowd to grow, or the followers to increase.  Two or three folks is enough for him.  Two or three constitute a community gathered around Jesus for the express purpose of being a community of reconciliation.

Paul says in II Corinthians 5:18-20 –

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Jesus has called us to reconciliation.  Whether between ourselves and someone who has offended us; or someone who has left the community of faith; or whether in prayer; or simply in gathering in his name, we are ambassadors for Christ, and the credentials we present as representatives of the King and Kingdom are credentials that seek to unite rather than divide, that seek to save rather than condemn, that seek to win rather than to lose a brother or sister.

This is the community of reconciliation gathered here today.  We have that ministry according to Paul.  We have the instruction given by Jesus.  We have the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We are on a mission to invite all who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The only question is, “Will we rise to the challenge?”  Will we reach out to others?  Will we be a force for reconciliation in our church, our community, and our world?

We have, we can, and we must continue as God’s agents of reconciliation.  We are the assembly, the church, the called out ones.  May we live up to that for which God has called us out of this world, and into to the Kingdom.