Proper 18a, September 7, 2014

September 8, 2014

Holy Diplomacy
Matthew 18:15-20

18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The first thing I want to say about this passage of scripture is what it’s not. It’s not advice on how to get your fellow church member or even your pastor to repent and do what you expect them to do. This is not to say that I or anyone else in the church is incapable of behaving badly, but the intention of this teaching was not to provide practical strategy on how to get other people to act right. I’ll try to say what I think this passage is about in a moment, but I first want to let you know what I don’t think it’s about. This may be disappointing to some of you, but you personal offenders out there can relax. This really isn’t advice on how to extract repentance.

In fact the oldest manuscripts don’t include the words: against you in verse 15. The oldest texts just say: If another member of the church sins, go and point out … The original teaching doesn’t seem to have been about addressing personal violations. At some point along the way some scribe decided it would be helpful to turn this in to advice on how to address interpersonal conflicts, but originally this teaching seems to have addressed those situations where someone was behaving in a way that violated everyone’s sensibilities.

In all honesty it’s not easy to see how that translates in to our day and age. It takes a lot to distinguish yourself from the average pack of sinners. And if you are compelled to take a step beyond the normal range of bad behavior – it’s probably not going to be a fellow church member who pulls you aside and points out to you that it’s not so good to get drunk and dance naked on Main St. – it would be on youtube – along with lots of comments from people you’ve never met. We live in a far different society than Jesus did, and it affects the way we relate to each other, but I’m sure there’s a principle here for us to observe.

On one level, this passage comes across as straight forward advice on how to maintain proper behavior within the church, but on another level it raises the question of what kind of community the church is to be. Is it just to be a group of well-behaved citizens who deal with each other in properly measured ways? I’m thinking this passage does have something to say about how we are to relate to one another, but I suspect the message has more to do with maintaining relationships than with controlling behavior. It’s not instruction on how to get people to quit behaving badly – it’s advice on how to promote reconciliation and to maintain a Christian community.

What we have here is some instruction on how to exercise holy diplomacy – which is a very satisfying phrase to say. Holy diplomacy – it just sounds like a good thing to do. Whether I am able to define what it is or not I feel good about sharing that phrase with you. Holy diplomacy is something I want to learn to practice, and I’m thinking you can spend a lifetime learning to practice this ancient endeavor.

It’s interesting to note that the lesson from the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament that is recommended for us to read this week is perhaps the most famous case of holy diplomacy — the story of the Passover. The original telling of this story is found in the 12th chapter of the Book of Exodus. That’s where you find the instructions God gave Moses and Aaron to give to the people of Israel for the final meal they were to have in Egypt before God led them out of slavery.

The people of Israel were instructed to select a lamb of a certain age, to gather in family groups at twilight on a particular night, and to prepare that lamb for dinner. After they slaughtered the lamb they were to smear some of it’s blood on the doorpost of their house, and then they were to cook that lamb in a very specific manner. God provided instructions for how to cook that lamb, what they were to eat along with that lamb, and what they were to wear to this dinner. It was to be a meal to remember.

They would remember this meal because of what happened after dinner – which is when God sent the angel of death over Egypt to strike down the first-born males of all the people and the animals in the households that didn’t have the blood of the lamb smeared on the doorpost of their houses. It’s a gruesome story, but it wasn’t an arbitrary act on the part of God.

The events of that evening followed months of diplomacy. Moses and Aaron had provided the Egyptian Pharoah with some seemingly persuasive reasons to let the people of Israel go, but he wouldn’t do it, so God arranged this final dinner in Egypt. And to this day the people of Israel – wherever they may be living – are to prepare a very similar meal on that particular evening of the year and to recall what God did for them.

Unfortunately this isn’t a meal that is able to pull all communities of the world together. It functions as a very particularly Jewish celebration, and that’s understandable, but the intent of this meal has never been to highlight the privilege of the people of Israel. God’s intention was for this meal to remind the people of Israel of their salvation. This meal was to remind them that their deliverance was not earned or deserved, but graciously provided. And they were never to forget that. God didn’t act on behalf of the people of Israel because they already knew how to act – God provided them with a way out of slavery in order for them to experience redemption and to become redeeming people.

This is the essence of holy diplomacy. It’s the story of the way God intends for us to relate to one another. We are to remember what God has done for us and to treat others with equal graciousness.

The story of the Passover is good background for what we have in today’s scripture. The community that Jesus established was to be a community that was not about excluding unredeemed people, but to be a community of people who make a great effort to redeem lost people.

I believe God established the people of Israel to be a source of redemption for the world, but I’m not saying God is always behind the actions of the nation of Israel. The nation of Israel has a well documented history of not doing what God expected, but God has a longer history of providing redemption in ugly situations, and certainly the current state of the world isn’t unredeemable. I really don’t know what to say about what’s happening in the Middle East right now – it’s hard to see what God is doing there now, but it’s clearly a place in need of some holy diplomacy.

The world is a hard place to fix. The difficulty of that undertaking becomes clear when you think about what it takes to retrieve a lost friend, but the starting point of every act of redemption is to remember who it is that calls us all to life.

What Jesus was instructing us to do in this passage is not to ramp up the pressure on people who are somehow living out of bounds, but to be relentless in our efforts to achieve reconciliation. The easy thing is to give up on people, and Jesus wants us all to stay in touch.

I’m not sure how you translate these particular instructions on how we should resolve conflict in to actual church policy. Perhaps one thing Jesus was saying is that whenever two or three have gathered in his name you have achieved the most optimal church size. It seems like things get complicated whenever you get more than four or five people involved in an undertaking.

But the more people you have the more important it becomes to engage in holy diplomacy. And the primary principle of holy diplomacy is to remember that none of us stand in the position of God, but when we gather in the name of Jesus – when we seek to be the body of Christ – Jesus is with us and Jesus is there to help us find our way.

Jesus instructs us to be honest with each other, to be clear with each other, to be relentless in our efforts to be redeeming to each other, and always to be kind to one another. Even when we can’t find satisfying resolutions to strained relations with others we are to treat them as gentiles or tax collectors – as Jesus treated people who were gentiles or tax collectors – which was as people who were worthy of attention.

To live as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to live a life of holy diplomacy. It’s not easy, but it sounds like such a good thing to do – and it is a good thing to do. It’s what holds us together. It’s what sends us out.
It’s what God has revealed, and it’s what we are called to practice. It will enable our church to thrive, and it will enable our world to survive.

Thanks be to God for this ancient and timely gift of holy diplomacy!


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