Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sept. 6, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” We’ve heard this twice from Jesus in the past few weeks. For a long time I struggled with what the first part of these words meant. I understand the loosing part – it has to do with the proclamation of forgiveness. It refers to announcing forgiveness in Jesus’ name in such a way that people are loosened from the grip of their sin, so that the doors of heaven, the gateway to a new relationship with God, would fling wide open to them. That’s the fun part of this job! But what about the binding? What does that even mean?
I came to understand what it means to bind many years ago when I was counseling a couple. I’m going to leave out most of the details to protect their identity, but the gist of it is that the husband had been caught being unfaithful to his wife. His work had him traveling with his twenty-something year old female assistant. They would get two hotel rooms, but only use one of them. His forty-something year old wife sat beside him in my office, absolutely shattered. She had given her life to this man. She had bore his children. She wanted nothing more than for them to be reconciled and remain a whole family. She was ready to forgive and do the work they would need to do to rebuild trust, to rebuild their relationship.
But there was a barrier. Whenever the husband was confronted with his actions, he was oddly dismissive. He’d say, “It was a slip up, I don’t see what the big deal is.” He’d say, “You’re overreacting. It was just sex.” He’d say, “It didn’t mean anything.” It is hard to forgive sin when the perpetrator refuses to see it as such.
I understood that I was in over my head as far as counseling goes, so I referred them to a professional marriage counselor. But I had a job as a pastor in that situation. My job was to name the sin and hold him to it. My job was to do the binding. My job was to handcuff him to the Law, to handcuff him to God’s Word, to bind him to the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery,” to bind him to Jesus’ words that even looking with lust is a condemnable sin, to bind him to St. Paul’s many, many admonitions against sexual immorality. My job was to say, “Oh, it meant something alright! It means you have violated God’s Law. It means are a sinner who needs to repent. It means you are a sinner in need of forgiveness.”
To bind is to hold someone accountable to God’s Word in order that they might be convicted by their sin and turned to repentance. These handcuffs are never slapped on to leave them there indefinitely, they aren’t slapped on as a retribution, they are put on so that the person might feel the pinch of the Law, repent of their sins, and be set free by the forgiveness that Christ freely gives. This is what it means to bind.
And this isn’t just the job of the pastor. We are all called as Christians to hold each other accountable to God’s Word. That’s what this whole reading for today is about. Whenever we sin against each other, we hold each other accountable – not in ways that are vengeful, but in ways that bring reconciliation.
And so, Jesus says, if another member of the church sins against you, go to that person and point out the fault – there’s the binding! Do it when you are alone, and with the intention of regaining that one, with the intention of reconciliation. Don’t go to a third party and complain about how awful they are, which is what people usually do. Don’t go in order to score points against the person. Don’t go to punch them in the throat, which, to be honest, is what I wanted to do with that husband sitting in my office, go to point out the fault – holding them accountable to God’s Word, binding them to the Law – with the intention of regaining them, the intention of restoring the relationship.
If that doesn’t work, bring others along to serve as mediators. If that doesn’t work, bring it to the church – which doesn’t mean standing up in the middle of a service to level accusations, it means bring in the church authorities to help facilitate this binding and loosing. If that STILL doesn’t work, Jesus says, treat the offender as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Scholars debate what Jesus means exactly when he tells us to treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors. Many suggest it means putting them outside of the fellowship, keeping your distance, which is how Gentiles and tax collectors were commonly treated by pious Jews in Jesus time. They say it means establishing healthy boundaries, as we might say today. Others point out that Jesus continued to offer forgiveness to Gentiles and tax collectors – in fact, Matthew, the author of this very gospel was himself a tax collector at one point! I tend to think it means a bit of both: Maintain healthy boundaries with toxic people, but continue to pray for forgiveness and reconciliation.
This whole discussion in Matthew 18 points to an unpleasant reality in the life of church, in the assembly of Christians. It can be messy. It can be hard. It can be painful. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for sinners, and when we preach it rightly, that’s who shows up! We gather together as sinners. And as sinners, there are going to be times when we hurt each other. There will be times when our sin threatens to break our relationships. It doesn’t need to be something as devastating as adultery – it happens whenever we are impatient or unkind. It happens when we are envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It happens when we insist on our own way or are irritable or resentful.
Do you see what I did there? This all comes from 1 Corinthians 13, where St. Paul describes how we are to live together in the church. This is a word that binds us all, holding us all accountable. It is a word that convicts us all. We are all handcuffed to this Word of God so that we would repent of all these things and be forgiven by Christ and restored to right relationship with one another.
Jesus ends this discussion with a promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” Life in a Christian congregation is messy indeed. When you gather together a group of sinners to live together as a family, you know there are going to be times when we step on each other’s toes. Jesus gives us some tools here for dealing with our sins against one another. But more than that, he gives us a promise. He is with us, today and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church