Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Date: Pentecost XVII (Proper 16) + 9/7/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.
The lectionary has us skip a chapter of Matthew’s Gospel because we celebrate and hear Matthew chapter 17 with its account of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on the last Sunday after the Epiphany each year just before entering the time of Lent. So the last thing we heard was the mighty confession of Peter upon which Jesus said He would build His Church, and then Jesus’ prediction of His coming suffering, death and resurrection, and the call and invitation for anyone who would be a Christian, who would “come after me,” as He said, to deny self, take up your cross and be following Him.
That coming after and following Jesus implies that He is leading us somewhere and that we are not there yet. The Christian life is a journey marked and experienced and recognized not by signs of accomplishment, glory, triumph or success but by the way of the Cross, of suffering, of faith, endurance and hope. It is, as Luther put it, an existence of “already, not yet.” The way of faith is a dangerous way because, all along the way, it is possible for you to fall away, to lose your place in the kingdom.
Now there can be many distractions, many reasons or ways a person can fall away from the one, true and saving faith. One reason can be pride. I don’t think the disciples were just bored or that their argument about “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” just came out of the blue, ‘cause, look at the context. It was Peter that was blessed because of his mighty confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was Peter along with James and John who were the chosen eye-witnesses of Jesus’ Transfiguration. And it was Peter that was told to catch the fish that would miraculously have the shekel for the temple tax in it. So, on the basis of that and of everything else Peter has been the main focus of so far, we ask with the rest of the disciples at the beginning of chapter 18, “Why Peter?” What’s so special about him? Why not James or John? Who, after all, is the greatest in the kingdom?
And haven’t we been asking that question at least ever since the fourth century when the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter began to be referred to as “Papa” or “Pope,” and ever since the Reformation when the Papacy has been called the Antichrist? What’s the big deal about the Pope and Peter? Of course, take away the question of St. Peter and hasn’t the church suffered in many and various times from the overbearing of proud or narcissistic leaders whether that be on the national, regional or even local and congregational level? And that would apply to both pastors and laity.
Because it is possible to become distracted and to fall away from faith Jesus takes His disciples and us back to the basics, back to the beginnings. He does a “children’s sermon” complete with a “demonstratio ad oculos,” a demonstration for the eyes, an “object lesson.” But here the sermon is not for children and the object is a child. Calling to Himself a child, He put it in front of everyone and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest…whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, watch out!”
The Christian life is such a daily return to the basics, to our beginnings because there is a difference between what we call “justification” and “conversion.” Christ died once for all (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). His death alone is the all-sufficient payment for all sin. All sin has been atoned for. Likewise, you are baptized into His death only once because God’s Word, promise and work therein is sure and firm. But your appreciation for Christ and for your baptism into Him, your awareness, your FAITH is subject to growth and awakening or neglect and weakness. Listen to how we talk about this in our Lutheran Confessions:
“Because in this life we receive only the first fruits of the Spirit and our rebirth is not complete but rather only begun in us, the struggle and battle of the flesh against the Spirit continues even in the elect and truly reborn. For one can detect not only a great difference among Christians—one is weak, another strong in the Spirit—but within each Christian, who is at one moment resolute in the Spirit and at another fearful and afraid, at one moment ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak.
“However, if the baptized act against their conscience, permit sin to reign in them, and thus grieve the Holy Spirit in themselves and lose him, then, although they may not be rebaptized, they must be converted again….”
It goes on to say that a true conversion must, of course, involve a change, new impulses and movements in mind, will and heart so that “the heart acknowledges sin, fears God’s wrath, turns away from sin, acknowledges and accepts the promise of grace, has good, spiritual thoughts, Christian intention, and diligence, battles against the flesh, etc.” At the same time one must be clear as to who accomplishes these things in us, that is, because our natural powers cannot do anything or help in any way, God comes to us first, out of his immeasurable goodness and mercy. “He causes his holy gospel to be preached, through which the Holy Spirit desires to effect and accomplish this conversion and renewal in us. Through the proclamation of his Word and meditation upon it he ignites faith and other God-pleasing virtues in us so that they are the gifts and the activities of the Holy Spirit alone.” (Formula, Art. II, 68-72).
[Now if you listened to this carefully you recognize that this is the answer to the question, “why do I need to go to church?”]
And so it is because we all still struggle against sin that we are given, also, to help one another as the rest of this chapter describes with the parable of the Lost Sheep and the instructions for church discipline.
The problem, our problem, all along the way, is our struggle against sin—all those ever-present pressures and temptations that cause separation, conflict, hatred, pain, fear, loneliness and despair. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus spoke about what we are to do if “your brother has something against you,” that is, some unresolved situation where you have sinned against someone else (Mt. 5:23-24). In this chapter Jesus addresses the opposite situation, namely, “if your brother sins against you” (18:15-20). You see, either way, regardless of “whose fault it is,” you are called to be the minister of reconciliation and forgiveness. And we have here what so many church constitutions point to as the procedure for church discipline—beginning with caring confrontations in private between Christian brothers, but then adding the greater fellowship of the church depending on the degree of lack-of-success of reconciliation. Next Sunday the chapter ends with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This is the main struggle and the main task and subject of the Christian life—learning to live in the forgiveness of sins, our sins and others. And that takes going back to the basics every day, the basics of repentance and faith, of conversion, awakening and renewal in the promise and power of our baptism, that is, the means by which God the Holy Spirit continues to wash us in the blood of Christ, to enliven and empower us with His gifts, and to help us to endure to the end.
For there is coming an end—the end of suffering, tears and pain, the end of fear and weakness, the end of struggle and doubt, the end…of faith! when sacraments will cease and there will be only the blessed sight of our resurrected eyes on the Lamb of God sitting on His throne and the eternal joy of life in the new, sinless heaven and earth.
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ‘tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him. (LSB 757:6)