Proper 18, Year A, Church of St. Joseph of Arimathaea, Hendersonville

“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” (Matt. 18:18).

Stuck at the end of the liturgy for Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer is an example of what I consider the “fine print” of the Christian life. Under the heading “Disciplinary Rubrics” we read “If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life” (BCP, 409). The same direction applies in respect to those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the congregation, or when there is hatred between members of the church. It’s amazing what you find when you look at the fine print.

The purpose of these directions, originating in the earliest days of the church and testified to in the St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:29), is to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among the members of the church. This is part of the pastoral charge of the clergy, to recall the members of the community to their vocation as Christians, and to promote the well-being of the community as a whole. “Being pastoral” is a complicated business, and not always easily received. This “fine print” is also a reminder to us of what our responsibilities are, and our own call to be reconciled to God and to one another.

Our Gospel today gives the outline of a similar ethic for the church, spelled out by Jesus himself. This reading is one of the few occasions where Jesus actually talks about “the church”, but it’s an important witness, a testimony to his desire for the ongoing community life of his followers. As he says in our reading, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). Those who believe that Jesus never intended to found a church, founder themselves on this portion of Matthew.

An ongoing community like the church will need to sort through the relationship of its members. If Jesus can be found in the midst of two or three gathered in his name, so too can controversy and dispute. In the practice of the Christian life there will be disagreements of all sorts. Jesus’ purpose, as he says in the Gospel, is to bring about agreement. “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 19:19). To bring about this consensus, Christians will need vigorous practices that encourage reconciliation.

This work is not for the faint of heart. As our Gospel reading outlines, the members of the church are to hold each other accountable. “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. 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” (Matt. 18:15-16). I’d say that’s pretty vigorous, maybe even rigorous.

In my experience, when Christians disagree, they do one of two things: they either go away without saying anything to anybody, leaving everyone mystified; or there is a big explosion marked by character assassination, bad feeling, and the eventual exit of one side or the other. Someone once told me that this how the Baptist Church does church growth: people argue and then start a new church!

All kidding aside: this is no way to run a church. It works against the “agreement” that Jesus holds up for us in our Gospel today. “Agreement”, however, requires a process of “binding” and “loosing”, as Jesus says in our reading. “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” (Matt. 18:18) There are times when each of us will need to be challenged in all charity by our fellow Christians, called to accountability. That’s the “binding” moment. This is not our chance to run and hide, or have a big fight; it’s our chance to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters, to accept correction, and to extend forgiveness to others. Accepting correction is the movement of “binding”, while “loosing” is the moment when we forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

Those being confirmed today will want to bear this in mind, and so will the rest of us, gathered for worship today. This is vigorous and rigorous work that we are being inducted into as baptized members of the church; work that we have confirmed by our willingness to step forward in faith today. The rest of us are witnesses, because we have stepped forward ourselves to support you. We will hold you accountable if you will hold us accountable, to the life of the baptized People of God.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee