Saturday, September 6, 2014

Binding and Loosing

Matthew 18:15-20
September 7, 2014
William G. Carter

“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. 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Most of us have heard that final verse as a great promise. If two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is right there among them. It is a wonderful promise.

I heard the promise in a college Bible study group. We had gathered a list of students to invite. Everybody seemed interested. So on a Friday night, we opened the door and there were three of us. I suppose there are other things for college students to do on a Friday night. But someone remembered the verse: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there."

We can take this as a gracious promise of the Risen Christ. I recall visiting the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Hazleton, built in the days when coal was king. It’s an enormous sanctuary, much wider than it is long. It was built to seat five hundred people. Back in the days when the coal company took your “pledge” out of your paycheck, the sanctuary was full. Now they have forty-four members with an average Sunday attendance of ten. But they do not despair because of the promise of Jesus: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them."

You know, a lot of people fuss about numbers: attendance numbers, membership numbers, seating capacity, parking spaces. And this is a time in American life where church attendance is down across the board. It doesn’t matter what kind of church it is. The total number of American people who actually sit in a church on a Sunday morning has been steadily decreasing for the past thirty years. I know that because I’ve been a minister for 29 of those years; it’s hard not to take it personally. But the obsession with numbers is a distraction from the real question, which is, “Is Jesus Christ with us or not?” For my money, that’s the only question that matters. Either he is with us or he is not. So I take great comfort in his promise: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them."

Notice that it’s “two or three.” It’s not “one,” it’s two or three. You can’t have a church of one person. By definition, a church is a community. It’s a group of people, not a building, not a steeple. So Jesus gives this promise in the midst of a teaching section about what it means to be the church. A community has a life that it shares together. It runs counter to the individualism that pervades our culture, counter to that notion that I alone am the center of all things, that I alone am the one who decides all things. There is something more important than going it alone, and that is being together, because when we are together in the name of Christ, he is in the midst of us.

That’s why Jesus talks about working through our differences and learning to live together. “If one of you in the church is harmed by somebody else in the church, you - the victim – go to the offensive person and point it out.” You take the initiative. Don’t simper in the corner. Don’t withdraw from the rest of the people. Don’t gossip to others about how hurt you are. No, take the initiative as a peacemaker. Start the forgiveness process by saying privately, one on one, “You hurt me.”

Now, Jesus has addressed these matters before. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, he looks at it from a different perspective. He says to the offensive party, “If somebody has something against you, take the initiative. Go to them and make it right. Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” (5:23-26). Don’t insult them. Do not demean them. Don’t call them “stupid.” You go and work it out.

How remarkable! It doesn’t matter if you are the one who has hurt another; it doesn’t matter if you perceive yourself as the victim. In the community of Christ, relationships are more sacred than prayer. And when two or more gather in his name, Jesus is with them.

The sad truth is that this may not be good enough for some people. They are in such pain themselves that they would prefer to perpetuate the wound, to keep picking at it so it never heals. Others can be invited in as witnesses, but the offender might shrug all of them off. The whole church might be drawn in and it might not do any good, because the offender has decided to go it alone. They choose not to be part of the community. And the tragic truth is that Christ promises to be with those who come together in his name; there is no such promise for those who pull away by themselves and refuse to be reconciled to their brothers and sisters.

What Jesus is looking for is agreement. “If two of you agree on anything, your Father in heaven will do it.” Again, it’s another promise for a community. To get two people to agree on something in the church? What a miracle that would be! One person says, “I love the new hymnal,” another says it’s terrible. One says, “When are you going to paint over that ugly green paint up there,” another says, “I like it.” We live in a time when individual opinions are amplified to the exclusion of everybody else. “It’s my way or the highway.”

I remember the man who walked in the door on the corner. It was the middle of the week. He knocked on my study door and said, “I want to know if this church agrees with me. If it does, I will come.” We talked for a few minutes and he decided he didn’t agree with us, so off he went. After shaking my head, I said to my co-worker Nancy, “Only in America does your opinion matter more than your baptism.” She raised her eyebrows as she does, as if to say, “What do you mean?”

I replied, “When we are baptized, we are welcomed into a community where Christ is at the center. But these days, individuals want to decide if they are going to be part of that.” As if it’s all up to them, as if they are the sole arbiters of what they want. You know, it’s not about me and my opinion; it’s about us, all of us, and agreeing to walk together with Christ in the middle. That’s what a church does.

In a room like this, what do we have? A hundred and fifty people? That would suggest at least four or five hundred opinions. But do any of these opinions matter as much as Christ? He is the One at the center, not any one of us, and what he wants from us is to agree that he is the center. That’s all that matters.

In fact, he is so determined to score this point that he gives an unusual power to the church that lives in agreement. He says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That’s you – plural, or as they say in Tennessee, you-all. The church is given the power of binding and loosing.

Now what does that mean? Actually it’s a technical term from the ancient Jewish rabbis. It has to do with how they interpreted scripture. They wanted to live by the words of God, but life didn’t always fit. So the “practice of binding and loosing” developed as a way of interpreting Scripture. It was not a way of changing the Bible, but an agreed-upon way of deciding what was binding and what was not.

If your ox fell into a deep ditch on the Sabbath, was it lawful to save the ox’s life – or would that be considered breaking the law? The rabbis would stroke their beards, ponder and discuss this, and then determine if they agreed on what to say. If two or three agreed, they might loosen the restriction and make that binding. If you remember the Bible stories, Jesus lived in the middle of this practice. He healed people on the Sabbath, declaring “It is lawful on the Sabbath to do good.” Similarly, the Jewish law of Leviticus (13:46) said, “Don’t ever touch a leper,” but Jesus loosed that command, saying to the diseased man, “I choose to make you clean.”[1] Now he gives that same authority to the church, and says, “If two or three gather in my name, you have more than a Bible; you have me. And if together you agree to bind or loose, it will be bound or loosed in heaven.”

What a remarkable declaration of the power given to a Christian community! Back in mid 1800’s anesthesia was discovered. Medical procedures could be done without pain. Women could deliver babies without so much pain. Well, wait a second, said the Christians. The Bible says that God told Adam and Eve that, as a judgment on their sin, “In pain, you shall bring forth childbearing.” That’s what the verse says. But earlier it says God put Adam to sleep in creating Eve; therefore God is the first anesthesiologist! After much debate, many Christians agreed to loosen the restriction. They weren’t losing their faith; they were loosing the word.

The church has been doing this since Jesus gave them the authority in Matthew 18. One New Testament passage says, “Slave, obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6), but I don’t know any Christian who now says, “If you believe the Bible, you have to have slaves.” The church has agreed to loose that word. That is no longer binding. This is not a denial of the faith; this is the agreement of Christians that a flat view of scripture can do harm to others. And as they agree, Christ promises to be in the midst of them.[2]

Throughout the ages, the faithful church wrestles with Scripture in light of the presence of Jesus. From congregation to congregation, the discussions might not be unanimous. Some branches of the Christian church forbid divorce and remarriage, because the Bible says so; I am grateful to be in a part of the church that has loosened the restriction because it has discerned that Christ can be in the midst of second chances.

What does it mean to live the Christian life? I believe it is about healing, it’s about creating life and not destroying it, it’s about living in peace with God and one another. As the apostle Paul declared, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

So we are invited to the Lord’s Table, not because we are worthy, but because all of us are loved. All of us! We are called to receive God’s mercy and to extend it to one another. We can’t take this lightly.

This week, we expect a teacher’s strike in this town, with all the attendant division, animosity, and an unwillingness to find common ground. Our community has been through this many times before. We know good people on both sides may be scorned and humiliated. We will be tugged to take a side, to feed into the twisted values of a society where people are bent on disputing with one another. Meanness and hard-headed division is the devil’s work. Christ calls us to be better than that. He calls us to pursue together the higher righteousness of heaven, rather than merely insisting that we alone are right.

And so we are invited to the Table, invited to agree that nothing shall ever separate us from the love of Christ and our love for one another. There is nothing more important than having Jesus in the center of our life together. Surely let us agree on that.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Matt. 8:3
[2] Thanks to Barbara Lundblad, whose sermon “To Loose Is Not To Lose” has been helpful in developing this sermon and extends it even further. It is available at
[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19

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