In Ezekiel 33:7-11, God made Ezekiel a watchman for the House of Israel, warning him that there are wicked people who will die for their sins. If we do not try to dissuade them of their ways, we will also die. If we try to dissuade them and they do not take any notice, we will still be saved. So the question is, how do we tell people when they are in the wrong?
In Romans 13:8-14, Paul tells the people of Rome that they have a debt to love one another. They must not only keep the commandments but love their neighbour as themselves, as it says in Leviticus 19:18. Paul is talking to a community and focusing on brothers and sisters being together, wrapped in love. If somebody does stray, it is out of love, care and respect that they should be challenged. We must clothe ourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ, and not gratify the desires of a sinful nature.
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus tells his disciples that if a brother (or sister) sins against you, there is a process to go through. Firstly, talk to them alone. If they do not listen, two or three others may be brought along to help testimony. The Book of Deuteronomy 19:15 says, "One witness is not enough to convict a person; it must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." If that fails, it must go to the Church, and if that fails, he is to be treated as a pagan or a tax collector.
The Church today needs to take heed of the process that Jesus put into operation, but first, we need to check ourselves. Who is it that says that sin is a sin? When one person feels that they have been the victim, who is to say it is true? The person doing the accusing seems to have a lot of power. When you point your index finger in an accusatory manner, look at the shape of your hand. You have one finger pointing accusingly, but you have three other fingers pointing towards you. This is a reminder for us to consider whether we have been complicit in the sin. Have we, in some small part, enabled the sin to continue by tacitly saying nothing in the past? So, before you have your one-to-one, consider what right you have, whether you are part of the problem and who says it is a sin, anyway.
If your brother fails to respond, you move on to the next stage by bringing two or three other people. They must go with a purpose of trying to ascertain the truth, just as you would have gone in an attitude of love and restoration with ears to listen and to try to understand where your brother is coming from, so must the other two or three witnesses. They are not there as a mob but to ask questions and to establish the truth. If they have been open-minded, non-judgmental and impartial and still believe that the brother has sinned, then it must go to the Church. Even then, there has to be a spirit of restoration, but if the sin continues, the brother must be treated as an outsider. However, it must still be in the spirit of love, and that is why the Romans' reading is vital in conjunction with the Matthew Gospel.
Today, we have Cancel Culture, which means that people are stopped from speaking if their views do not adhere to certain principles. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a voice of reason in the time of the Nazis when Adolf Hitler assumed power. Certainly, Hitler's antisemitism was a view that we would not wish to promote. So Cancel Culture, while creating a sense of accountability by those holding various views and perhaps providing a platform for more marginalised voices to be heard, does not fit within Matthew's Gospel of Jesus as there is a lack of due process. There seems to be no investigation, discussion or fair judgment. There is an overemphasis on punishment instead of promoting dialogue and education. It seems to cater to a mob mentality and certainly stifles free speech, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship. There is a lack of love. Ironically, if Cancel Culture had existed in Jesus' time, He would have most definitely been "cancelled".
Jesus tells his disciples that if someone is wayward, then there must be every opportunity for that person to repent, and the spirit of seeking truth must be done with an overarching environment of love, care and support. The restoration of the brother's return to the community is paramount. The Christian Church can become stronger in the way it deals with those with whom there are disagreements. Both parties can learn, and whilst generally speaking, nobody likes confrontation, we must not let injustices go. It is also important that all of our dealings are as if Jesus were with us. How would we react if we knew that Jesus was in our very midst? Would that change our behaviour? As Matthew says in verse 20, "For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with you."
We recall that Jesus says there are two great commandments: to love God and to love your neighbour (Matthew 22:387-40, Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18), but then he added that we have to love our neighbour as He has loved us (John 13:34-35). That means self-sacrifice, agape. It means no sense of vengeance, no sense of hatred, no sense of revenge, but purely wanting restoration and for Jesus' love and Jesus' grace to permeate through all of our dealings.
This sermon was first preached by Reverend Martin Wheadon at Gants Hill United Reformed Church on 10th September 2023
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon