Where Would We Be If
If statements can be the stock and trade of pointless dreamers. If I were president... If I could travel around the world... If I had gone to law school... If questions, on the other hand, can help put things into perspective. Where would I be if I hadn't had this? Where would I be if I had taken that road? Where would I be if I hadn't met you? Our text brings several if questions to mind.
Where would we be if brothers and sisters in Christ didn't show us our sins? In a world where the only sin is intolerance, where would we be if our brothers and sisters in Christ tolerated our sins? Where would we be if we didn't have others in Christ who believed that unrepentant, unforgiven sin in time really did damn a person in eternity? Where would we be if Jesus had left us with a he said/she said dilemma? Instead He insisted that if a brother won't hear you take 1 or 2 others along so they can witness that a real sin has been shown and that the person remains impenitent. Where would we be if Jesus hadn't made fellow Christian's sins our business?
I'll tell you where we'd be. We'd be lost in our sins. Our world doesn't believe that God has revealed Himself clearly about right and wrong. Every one of the Commandments has someone advocating that it's not really a sin to break it. You can find support in our world for the most heinous of sins whether it be idolatry, adultery, despising the means of grace, or sharing the latest gossip. The world, your "friends" of the world, aren't going to tell you that your sin is taking you to hell, so if brothers and sisters in Christ don't or won't, that's where you'll end up.
Where would we be if brothers and sisters in Christ didn't show us our sins and where would we be if the Church didn't excommunicate manifest and impenitent sinners? Every Agenda Lutherans have published has a rite for proclaiming during the Divine Service someone's excommunication. Yet most of us have never heard it. I'm sure you older folks can remember it being done. It began to disappear after World War II and was virtually unknown after the 70's. You know why? Because when the Church tries to act like the Body of Christ, as Christ Himself directs in this text, all hell breaks lose. I mean that quite literally; all hell breaks lose when the Church tries to use Church discipline because hell knows that's the most powerful tool there is to rescue a person from hell.
We all need to repent of turning a blind eye to the sin of our brother or sister in Christ that we personally know about. But the Church needs to repent of the failure to love Her members enough to discipline them. You all have known parents who let their kids run wild. You've all seen the destructive effects of that. Yet for a generation or more the Church has been content to let manifest and public sinners go virtually undisciplined. Though we agree in our Lutheran Confessions that "excommunication is pronounced on the openly wicked and on those who despise the sacraments," hell says that's "throwing people out of Church," "that's unloving." And the problem is not that hell says these things, but that we believe them.
This sin of ours, like all sins, has implications far beyond what we see. In particular, when a pastor is not allowed to discipline the sheep the Lord has entrusted to him that calls into question the very core of his ministry. Our Synodical Catechism says this under the section Office of the Keys. "When the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners...and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain...as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself."
If pastors don't exclude those openly unrepentant of breaking the serious 5th, 6th, or 8th Commandments, or the very serious 1st & 3rd Commandments, than are they still acting in the stead of Christ when they absolve your sins? The answer is they are, but if they won't do the excluding or aren't allowed to, they are only doing half their job. Would you want a doctor, lawyer, or a teacher to do only half their jobs? You'd be horrified, you'd probably sue, if you found out a doctor only did half of his job for your loved one; yet this is what the church in general has been content with for decades. Dear Lord may we repent of this.
Where would we be if Christian brothers and sisters didn't show us our sins and the Church didn't excommunicate open sinners? And where would we be if a word spoken on earth wasn't valid in heaven?
Jesus perfect life was lived here on earth. It couldn't have been in our place if He had lived it in heaven. He had to live like we do in our flesh and blood under the same Commandments God gave us. He had to live under the same conditions God expected us to keep His Law under if it was really going to be in our place. Therefore, Jesus faced the same temptations you do. He had to endure the same difficulties sleeping, eating, and living you do. He had sickness, suffering, and sighing just like you.
Jesus perfect life was lived on earth in our place and His sacrificial death for our sins took place here too. In heaven, death could not touch God the Son. Neither could suffering, bleeding, and dying. Yet, you know this is what your sins deserve, don't you? If you think about the people you've hurt, the lies you've told, the shameful things you've done, you know you should suffer for them, and you also know that suffering for 10,000 years would not pay for them. Indeed, you know even your going to hell forever couldn't pay for them.
God is the one you've sinned against. God is the one you've wronged. God is the one you owe. And who but God can satisfy God? So God the Son suffered, went to hell, and died in our flesh and blood. All you know that you deserve, Jesus endured. And like I said, that had to take place on earth. For suffering and dying to get to God, it could only happen on earth through the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Jesus lived a holy life and died a holy death for us on earth, but atonement happened in heaven. Hebrews 9 tells us that Christ entered once for all into the holy place made without hands by means of His own blood. Jesus took His perfect life and innocent death on earth into heaven to pay for ours sins. But we need forgiveness down here, don't we? What Jesus did in heaven is applied on earth by means of earthly things: Water, Words, Bread, and Wine. Our text treats of the Words. In it Jesus promises the disciples: whatever you bind or loose on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven.
We are to take our Lord at His Word. When I bind or absolve a sin on earth, it happens in heaven. People always want to turn this around. Sins are forgiven first in heaven then on earth. In the sense that Jesus entered into the heavenly holy place bearing His blood as payment for all sins, this is true. But Jesus sends the Word of forgiveness back to earth in the mouths of men. And like all the Words of God they're powerful and effective. They actually do something here on earth that is so true, so valid, and so real, that all of heaven recognizes it has having been forever done.
Do you know why this is difficult for some people? Because they don't believe the rest of Jesus' Words in this text. "Where 2 or 3 come together in My name, there am I with them." They don't believe Jesus is really present in His Church on earth. They think Jesus is in heaven far away from earth. All we get of Jesus is His Spirit, and who knows where His Spirit is or isn't working? My dear friends, where would we be if this were true? We would we without the living voice of Jesus in our Church today.
But we're not. He's here and He speaks. The insert is wrong. The Gospel reading isn't something Jesus said in the past, but it's something Jesus says in the present, this very day. You've known this your whole worship life. You've always stood when the Gospel was read because it's the voice of the living Jesus present then and there in His Words. And when you've been told the Gospel was beginning or ending, you've always chanted glory or praise to Christ not as to One far away but near, in your ears by His Words, on your skin in Baptism, before your eyes and in your Body through Holy Communion.
The fact our Lord and Savior is physically present in Water, Words, Bread, and Wine, changes how we act toward each other. You've all seen the plague saying, "Jesus is the unseen guest at every meal." Some of you might even know the tradition of setting an actual place for Jesus, and all of you know the table prayer where we ask Jesus to come and be our guest. He does. He not only comes to this Table, but to our dinner table be it at home, here or at a restaurant.
Because Jesus is among us that impacts how we see and treat each other and how we see and treat sin. Sin is neither the barking dog that we tell ourselves is far away in someone else's backyard so we can go to sleep and ignore it; nor is sin a huge dog sleeping under our table that we had better let lie lest all hell break lose. No, sin is in our backyard, and we know that because Jesus gives us this wonderful way of dealing with the sins of brothers and sisters. Jesus wouldn't be giving this to us if He thought the Church could, should, or would somehow be free of sinners.
But neither is sin so big a beast that we should be afraid to wake it up or confront it. Sin the real stinky kind that the nothing less than God the Son could pay for, the staining kind that only God's blood could wash way, the kind of sin that the devil, others, and even our conscience claims can't be forgiven, are nothing more than vermin, rodents, roaches in our homes which no homeowner concedes his or her house to. Why? Because the One who bore our sins, paid for our sins and is infinitely more powerful than any sin we know or can imagine, has given us command, promise, and power to deal with sins. Where would we be if He hadn't? But He has. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVI (20050904); Matthew 18:15-20