Living as church means living life together—which is not always easy. Think about how hard it can be to live in your own family. I read a short article this week about the hard times the chief family cook (mothers, fathers, whoever) often has in preparing a meal. With our society’s emphasis on choice and with so many options and opportunities that each of us has every day, parents have started to become short-order cooks, making food to suit each family member. In order to change this exhausting trend, the author of the article suggested dropping one key word when doing meal planning. Rather than asking the others in the family: “what would you like to eat today,” just drop the “what” at the beginning and ask “would you like to eat today?” I’ll let you think through whether that would work in your home.
Living together as a church family is possibly even more difficult than living with our biological families. In today’s twenty verses of text Jesus gives important instructions for our life together as church. Two weeks ago, you may recall, we challenged the common critical assumption that Jesus anticipated the coming kingdom, but not the church. Today’s text is further evidence of this fallacy. Jesus does indeed teach that his followers should come together for work and support, as church. As we then gather for church, during this new fall season and on this “rally day,” let us listen carefully to the words of our Lord and consider what they mean to us as we seek to be the church he wishes us to be.
Five teachings from Jesus on life together as the church:
Matthew 18:1-4 (ESV) At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 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 in the kingdom of heaven.
- Instead of thinking about who’s the greatest – be humble
The text begins with yet another example of Jesus’ disciples showing that they still need his teaching. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples, though. Yes, their question sounds bad – desiring to be the greatest doesn’t jive with what Jesus has been telling them. And yet it simply gets to basic human concerns – concerns that we all have. Perhaps the disciples simply wanted Jesus to help them with their perceived leadership needs. Jesus had called Peter a “rock” only a short time ago – and the church to this day has failed to agree on exactly what that meant. Maybe the disciples wanted a little clarification. And certainly they had been chided plenty by this point about their “little faith.” Perhaps there was the hope that at least one of them was showing signs of growth in that area and could thus be called the greatest.
Jesus, as he so often did, answered the disciples in a way that looked past their concerns and pointed to a better way. He told the disciples that they should humble themselves, using the example of a child. The one who is humble is truly great in the kingdom. This is the kingdom where the last is first and the first last—the kingdom where the one who loses his life will save it.
Matthew 18:5-6 (ESV) “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
2. Do not cause others to sin
Jesus then expounds on the principle of humility some more, applying it specifically to the disciples’ life together. Using the presence of the child before them he repeats a label he had used some time earlier – that of “the little ones.” Christ’s followers are to receive little ones as Christ himself. They are not to take advantage of little ones, as so many people do.
Jesus strongly condemns the practice of leading little ones into sin. His word picture of a millstone being tied around the perpetrator’s neck to drown him in the sea certainly lets us know of Jesus’ passion on this issue.
At this point, however, we may find ourselves protesting, saying, “but no one can cause another to sin, people are responsible for their own actions.” It’s true that we are responsible for our own actions, but our protest ignores the weakness of human nature, especially the weakness of “little ones.” The world is filled with many little ones – whether they are little in age or little in confidence, ability or experience – and these little ones are especially susceptible to being led into sin.
Likewise, we all know that there are plenty of people who either profit from, or just get a kick out of leading little ones to sin. We immediately think of the mean kid on the playground who wanted company, or the immature adolescent showing off to his friends, or the used car salesman selling to the little old lady. Jesus has harsh words for them. And yet, Jesus’ words should also cause us to consider whether we belong on that list. Might there be times when we lead others to sin – times when we might exercise our freedom in ways which influence others, or times when we might overwhelm a little one with our knowledge.
The Greek word translated here as “sin” literally means “stumbling block.” Jesus says we are not to cause people to stumble. Sometimes, as we know, people stumble quite on their own. Still, when we are leading others, let us be conscious of the path on which we take them – not on a highway to destruction of course, but neither over a bridge too far.
Matthew 18:7-9 (ESV) “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
3. Avoid temptation – and remove that which causes it
Jesus goes on to say more about “stumbling blocks’ – and here we best translate these as “temptations.” Jesus repeats his woe against those who put up stumbling blocks. If you’ve ever been to a track meet there’s a point where the hurdle crew comes out and places all the hurdles. These can be stumbling blocks for the runners. It’s an image that’s not far off from what Jesus means. The hurdle crew does its thing for a friendly competition of course, but there are other “crews” out there – businesses, marketers, provocateurs – who do it for their own profit and make temptation an art.
It’s scary to think about others out there trying to lead us into sin. What’s more scary, however, is what Jesus implies with his next statement. By saying that a person’s own hands, feet and eyes can cause them to stumble, Jesus is telling us that temptation comes from within. We are tempted not just by others, but also all on our own. It’s a part of our nature.
Because of this great danger, Jesus proposes radical surgical solutions. These cuts may not be meant literally, but the call to clear and decisive action certainly is. Stumbling blocks are to be removed.
Some have wondered whether this appeal to action on the body is also a call to exercise discipline in the church. Paul uses the metaphor of the church as a body, and perhaps he got the idea from Jesus. While it seems to me that the call here is primarily to the individual, applying the text corporately leads to solutions which Jesus would no doubt support, as evidenced by the final section of today’s text.
Matthew 18:10-14 (ESV)“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
4. Care enough to search for your lost brother
Thinking of Jesus’ proposed cuts as a corporate solution does seem to lead into the subject which Jesus addresses next. Here Jesus addresses what to do when our brother does sin. While the sting of our brother’s sin may make us feel like reaching for those surgical solutions (“cut them off!”), Jesus makes it clear that our primary call is to care. We are to care for and not despise little ones. Those who stumble are simply showing that they are little. We must not despise them. God the Father doesn’t – He has given them angels, and He is well attentive to those angels as they care for His children.
Jesus even tells a parable to show how much we should care for our stumbling brother. We should love him so much that we should see him as lost and take radical steps – even leaving others who are in our care – to go and find him.
It would be much easier to just let the sinner experience the consequences of their sin and perhaps come back in their own time, but some sinners – maybe most – need the church to come after them. The Church’s efforts may be rebuffed, and sometimes even angrily, but the call of love compels us to continue our search. We want our erring brother to return.
Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV) “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
5. Care enough to confront your sinful brother
Lastly, Jesus instructs us about what to do when we’ve sought our brother and found him. Jesus tells us to care enough for our brother that we might confront him also – and do so in a thoughtful and winsome way. Much has been written about this formula for confrontation – in fact Pastor Lehrer led our Bible Class on a study of it just this past spring. We don’t have time for a step-by-step analysis here, but let me just say quickly how important it is to take these steps in their proper order. In particular, going to the person directly, instead of informing others first, is critical.
Today we should also hear this text in light of the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel. The prophet gives a stern warning to the church about confronting sin according to God’s call. If we ignore this call, the sinner’s blood will be required at our hand.
Jesus’ instructions in the light of the Gospel
Today’s words from Jesus give great instruction. However, they may also lead us to despair of our inability to truly live them. Which church truly operates as a loving and supportive community all of the time? Which of us always avoids temptation, cares for the little ones and searches out the lost one? Seen in light of Ezekiel’s call, Jesus’ words hang heavy over our heads.
Yet as Christian people who have been given the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ, we also know that Jesus came to overcome our sin. With this in mind, let’s review the teachings of chapter 18 again by looking at them in light of the Gospel.
Yes, Jesus calls us to humble ourselves. We may not always do this so well, but Jesus did. He was the one who did it perfectly and completely, for us, by taking on the form of a servant and going to the cross where he died for our sins.
Yes, Jesus calls us to receive the little ones in his name. We may not always do this so well, but Jesus does – and thankfully so, because we, in our sin, are little ones. Still, Jesus receives us into his presence and cares for us. He does not cause us to sin, but instead, as 2 Corinthians 5 says, “for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Yes, Jesus calls us to avoid and remove temptation. We may not always do this so well, but Jesus did. Actually, Jesus did not avoid temptation – he faced it, and overcame it. We are encouraged to cut off that which is a stumbling block to us, while Jesus allowed himself to be “cut off” – as Isaiah 53 says: “he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”
Yes, Jesus calls us to seek out the lost sinner. We may not always do this so well, but Jesus did. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who sought us in our sin and brought us back into the fold.
And yes, Jesus calls us to confront our sinful brother for the sake of reconciliation. We may not always do this so well, but Jesus does. He calls us to honest repentance and then always forgives when we confess our sins. Jesus has much more to say about this beautiful forgiveness in the remaining verses of chapter 18. We will examine them as our Gospel reading next week.
Conclusion: Living as Church – under the cross
Jesus calls us all to the difficult but wonderful task of living together as church. He works with us, his church, to purify and protect us. He teaches us so that we might be the light of the world. In the midst of this working and teaching we know he is with us. As he said to Matthew and the first disciples, so he says to us: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. “ Knowing of this promise let us continue to gather, in his name, under the cross, that our life together would be blessed. In the name of Jesus. Amen.