To Serve Man?
"To Serve Man" is the title of a 1961 Twilight Zone episode. A spaceship lands on earth carrying nine feet tall giants. They communicate with thoughts and tell the United Nations they're here to share technology and take those who would like to on a tour of their home planet. At the UN the visitors happen to leave a book in their language. Translators work round the clock to translate it thinking this will help them discern the visitor's true intentions. Finally they succeed in translating the title: To Serve Man. This convinces the narrator of the tale to visit their world. After all To Serve Man is a noble goal. Just as he's boarding the spacecraft, when it's too late to turn back, one of the translators rushes up shouting "You can't go; we translated more of the book. "To Serve ManIt's a cookbook."
What does this have to do with our text? To serve man Jesus gives His Church a way to deal with sin in her members. Yet most people think the so-called Matthew 18 process does anything but serve man. It's not loving or helpful or even nice. It serves man up for at best ridicule; at worst it "kicks him out of the church." So had we better get off the Matthew 18 ship before it's too late?
I don't think so. It is a service to man for the Church to assert the reality of sin. Sinners have disappeared from the world not because sin has but because no one is willing to say this is right and that is wrong; this is the truth; that is a lie. Anyone can believe and do anything they want as long as they don't hurt anyone else. If it's between consenting adults, whatever else it is, our world believes it can't be sinful.
It serves man for the Church to assert that sin exists and that it separates men from God. Isaiah 59 says, "Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear." Sins make a wall between us and God, and if not removed, breached, surmounted in time, it becomes permanent in eternity.
However, sin doesn't just separate us and God, but us and our siblings. The real title of our text should be "To Serve Siblings." Jesus' words are not about sin outside the Church. They are not about sin in those who don't claim to be Christian but those who do. It's about your brother sinning, someone who is not already as a pagan or a tax collector to you.
You are a service to your sibling in Christ if you recognize the reality of sin. Remember those anti-drug commercials showing a monkey on a person's back? The world certainly isn't going to tell your brother or sister in Christ they have a monkey on their back that's taking them straight to hell. The person caught up in sin doesn't see the danger either. Luther said, "While sin is active, it is not felt. It does not frighten, and it does not bite; but it flatters and delights" (LW, 1, 163). They don't feel guilty. They don't look guilty. In their opinion, in the world's, and now even in the antichurch's opinion they're not. Such things as not going to church, abortion, living together, homosexuality, are lifestyle choices; no more sinful than choosing a hobby.
To serve man, the reality of sin must be recognized. If you can't, won't, or don't believe that such a thing as sin can be recognized by God's Word, quit listening here because you won't go on to confronting the sinner. First you have to recognize there is a monkey on someone's back, then to serve them you have to be willing to confront them.
To serve man we bring God's law to bear on sin. Jesus says show, convict, reprove, lay bare, expose the sin of your brother or sister in Christ. If you won't do it, the world certainly won't. The world will affirm their alternate lifestyle. The antichurch tells them they can keep their sin and still be forgiven. Everyone outside of the real Church will agree that you have no business confronting your brother or sister in Christ. They will agree that you are unloving, unkind, and most certainly unchristian. To them you are not serving man in anyway.
But what does Jesus say? You're the only hope your sibling in Christ has. The world and the antichurch give sinners plenty of ammunition to defend their sin: There are genes; there are chemical imbalances; there's truth being unknowable, and then there's "that's your interpretation." No human court will agree that because a speeder interprets the 50 mile per hour sign to mean 60, that's what it means. Because a thief interprets the law against stealing to mean it doesn't apply to big companies doesn't mean Wal-Mart won't prevail in court.
Human laws aren't regarded as a matter of interpretation, but God's Word is. If you interpret it to mean people can live together without marriage, be homosexuals, pray with pagans, abort babies, or come to church when they feel like it, then you're home free. Because it's a matter of interpretation, you're only a sinner if you agree to be.
Even if brothers and sisters in Christ don't wish to interpret their sin away, they can still send it away in the name of genetics or chemical imbalances. But don't think this anything new. Australian Lutheran, Herman Sasse said in 1967. "We no longer need forgiveness of sins. For we have made the deeply reassuring discovery that there is no such thing as sin. Drugs have become our means of grace. For grace is not needed where there is no sin" (Christianity Today, 2 Mar 67, 324).
When our sibling in Jesus is caught up in sin, their sin looks small to them, excusable. "Everyone's doing it." "I'm not as bad as so and so." "I'm certainly no pagan or tax collector." Their sin doesn't look or feel like a monster monkey dominating their life leading them to hell. That's because people who accept their sins turn them into velvet yet unbreakable chains. Augustine described the process. The man who knows what is right yet fails to do it loses the power to even know right any more. And the man who has the power to do the right but is unwilling to do it looses the power to do what he wills any more. (Christianity and Classical Culture, 449).
What's to be done? According to the world and the antichurch nothing; they don't need help. According to Jesus, they do, and even when our confronting of sin fails we aren't to give up. Jesus directs us to take other Christians and eventually the Church Herself to testify to the brother or sister that their really is a monkey on their back; it really is leading them to hell. But in the end if the person wants to keep their monkey, defend their sin, excuse their sin, interpret it away, the Church lets them. The Holy Spirit doesn't stay in a heart that accepts, defends, or excuses sins, and without the Spirit there can be no faith; there can only be pagans and tax collectors.
But this is not the outcome Jesus wants. Jesus wants to gain the brother. He wants us to serve our sibling first by recognizing the reality of sin, second by confronting the sinner; and third by believing that there is no sin that can't be forgiven. And the person's sins you start with are your own. First recognize the reality of your sins; then remember that someone, somewhere, somehow, served you by confronting your sins. And once you saw the magnitude of your sin, once you were sure that you could not ever be forgiven, once you were convinced the monkey had won, your sin was forgiven.
This is the way of the Devil. When a person is caught up in their sin, it looks small, a very manageable monkey. Once the Law has done its work and exposed their sin for what it really is, then the Devil magnifies it. Peter saw his unbelief magnified and begged the Lord to depart from him. David saw his adultery and murder through the Devil's magnifying glass and knew he was a dead man. Judas saw his betrayal magnified by the Devil as too big to be forgiven and so killed himself.
Once a sibling has seen their sin as what God's Law says it is, it's time to stop looking or listening to the Law. The Law can only expose sin and show a person the punishment he deserves. The Law is a diagnostic tool; it's not the medicine. The Gospel is the medicine. You serve the sibling who has seen the true horror of their sin by pointing them away from their sin, away from themselves to the Christ hanging on the cross.
There is the Man who did what you could never do. That Law of God you so horribly sinned against was kept by that Man. He kept it so perfectly, so completely that there is no keeping left to be done. Away with such words as "I got to, I have to, I must, I ought." Hear Jesus saying, "It is finished.". How can a fulfilled Law, a finished Law accuse you any more?
But there's more. If you would serve the person condemned and convicted by the Law, don't just tell him the Man Jesus kept the Law. Tell him the God Jesus paid for his not keeping it. All the punishment he rightly deserves for his unbelief, misbelief, or other great shame and vice were borne by Jesus thousands of years ago. By His punishments God's wrath was satisfied. In Jesus, God looks at him or her just as if they had not sinned and deserve no punishment whatsoever.
Where does such complete and total forgiveness come to them and us? Our text says that to serve man Jesus puts it in the mouths of men. Where would we be if forgiveness was locked up in heaven? What if you had to ascend there to get your sins forgiven? How would you ever know for sure your sins were forgiven? Here Jesus says what has been loosed by God in heaven for the sake of what He did on the cross is loosed through the mouth of a man on earth. The forgiveness of heaven declared to the troubled conscience on earth lifts his or her sins off their conscience and puts them on the crucified Christ instead.
Now that's a service isn't it? Who on earth but the true Church be it ever so small could serve man in this way? Though the world, the antichurch, and our own sinful nature regard recognizing and confronting sin as serving man up, these two things are necessary if we are to really serve man by forgiving sins. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20111002); Matthew 18: 15-20