Genuine Community (Matthew 18:1-22)
The other day I pulled out the ice cream and chocolate syrup. At least I thought it was chocolate syrup until I read the label carefully. In big letters it sad, “Genuine.” In smaller letters it said “Chocolate Taste.” Do you get that? Not “Genuine Chocolate.” That would be nice. “Genuine Chocolate Taste.” I went online and dug around a bit and found this question:
What is a genuine chocolate FLAVORED syrup? How does it differ from a genuine chocolate syrup? Can something be genuine if it it does taste like something but not the real thing?
Webster definition on Genuine: “actually produced by or proceeding from the alleged source”
What I poured on my ice cream that night was not real chocolate. It was syrup that genuinely tastes like chocolate, but it’s not the real thing. The real thing would be far too costly. We live in a world of fakes: artificial vanilla extract; genuine leather material; “pure” orange juice that has additives; genuine chocolate taste, not chocolate. Might I also add “genuine relationship taste” which is very different from “genuine relationship.”
That’s exactly what this passage before us is about: genuine community. We have a choice before us as a church. We can settle for genuine Christian community taste. The thing is, it almost tastes like the real thing. If you’ve never tasted the real thing, you may not even know the difference. But it’s not the genuine thing at all.
So in this morning’s passage, Jesus is going to show us the difference between genuine community taste, which falls far short of what we’re supposed to enjoy, and the real thing.
So let’s look first at what often passes for Christian community.
You could call this “genuine Christian community taste.” But it’s far from the real thing.
Let me give you a bit of context. The disciples were becoming increasingly aware that Jesus is the Messiah, which meant that the Messianic kingdom was right around the corner. They expected that Jesus was going to show himself in power and set up his kingdom – which also meant that the top jobs were up for grabs. If Jesus is King, and he’s about to set up his Kingdom, then it’s pretty nice to be a close friend of Jesus. You’ve got connections. You begin to wonder what job you’re going to hold in the new administration.
So we read in verse 1, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'”
This is one of those moments when we want to wag our fingers at the disciples. How dare they ask such a brazen and shameless question? The disciples understood that they were part of the community that Jesus was creating. It’s easy to see how this happened. We have a new mayor in Toronto. He starts in just a couple of weeks. If you’re a good friend of the new mayor, you may ask, “I’m just wondering. Who’s going to be your chief of staff? Do you have an office manager yet?” It’s a mindset that comes naturally to most of us. We want to leverage our connections and push ourselves forward based on our expertise, maturity, and qualifications so that we’re recognized for who we think we really are.
I know a lot of relationships that function this very way. I remember sitting around a table the first time I met with a new group of people. We went around the table and began introducing ourselves. I have to confess that I didn’t hear a word that anyone said who went before me. Why? I was thinking about what I was going to say. I also didn’t hear the two or three people who went after me, because I was too busy thinking about how well I did. I was kicking myself for not saying the right thing. I was trying to see where I ranked in that group of people. I sure didn’t want to end up at the bottom of the list. We were trying to build community in the group, but I was too busy trying to gain leverage and to get people to think well of me.
False community asks the questions, “What’s in it for me?” and “How can I gain standing in this community?” I’m going to suggest that this is our default way of approaching relationships, including in the church. If you don’t know any better, if you’ve never tasted the real thing, then you think that this is what relationships are supposed to be like.
One of the frustrations I’ve had as a pastor is that so many of us are disconnected. We come out Sundays. We maybe have some friends we talk to. We may even be part of some ministries, attend small groups. But nobody really knows us. We aren’t really deep into each other’s lives. I’ve wondered this week if the question the disciples ask is behind this. We’re approaching the idea of relationships in the church by trying to figure out how the relationships can benefit us. As a result we’re never able to enjoy genuine Christian community.
You see, when the disciples asked the question – and when we do too – it indicates that there’s a big problem. William Barclay says, “The very fact that they asked this question shows that they had no idea what the Kingdom of Heaven was.” Not only that, but Jesus said that we won’t even enter his kingdom if we approach things this way:
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:2-5)
Picture the scene. One one hand: important friends and associates of Jesus who are wondering where they’re going to fit in. On the other hand, a small and insignificant child with an empty resume, no connections, no accomplishments, nothing by which to impress.
If you’re entering Christian community with a focus on yourself, wondering what’s in it for you, and how you can advance and get others to think well of you, then you haven’t experienced genuine Christian community. In fact, Jesus says, you may not have entered the kingdom of heaven at all.
Let’s ask the question, then: what is genuine Christian community?
Let’s look at what genuine Christian community looks like.
Do you remember why my syrup was artificial? Because the real thing would cost too much. Do you want to know why artificial Christian community is so attractive? Not because it tastes good. The taste is awful. If you’ve tasted the real thing, there’s no question which is better. No, it’s because what we just talked about doesn’t cost very much. In contrast, genuine Christian community is costly. It consists of three things.
First, it means a radical commitment to value others in our community, even at great cost to ourselves. This is pretty heavy duty. I want you to think of someone who is part of the church, somebody you don’t particularly appreciate. It shouldn’t take long. Now, don’t look at them. Did you know that there’s even a name for them? You can call them EGRs. I got this term from Gordon MacDonald. EGR stands for “extra grace required.” It could be people who drain us, people who aren’t very impressive to us, people we’d prefer weren’t part of our lives.
Jesus says in verse 5 that we need to receive people like this. This is so important that he repeats it again in verse 10. Not only do we need to become like little children – no resume, nothing to impress – but we need to welcome people like this. It means we value people who aren’t valuable to us, because they’re immensely valuable to God. Not only that, but we need to ensure that our actions do not harm them negatively. In verses 7-9 Jesus calls us to take radical action so that we don’t lead others into sin by our own actions. If we lead others into sin by our own actions, Jesus says, we’re storing up a world of trouble for ourselves.
You can see how this is costly. It means valuing others we wouldn’t otherwise value, because they’re valuable to Jesus. It’s a radical commitment to value others at great cost to ourselves.
Secondly, it means that we pursue others when they stray. In my library I have a book that was given to me for my birthday by a group of friends 25 years ago. It’s signed by my friends. Many of those friends are still walking with God. Two of them are pastors. But there’s one that bothers me. Let me read what she wrote and then I’ll tell you why it bothers me.
Continue in your walk with our precious Savior, Darryl. May he lead you all the days of your life. God bless. Thanks for your fellowship in Christ. All my love, a daughter in Christ…
You know why that bothers me? Because she is no longer walking with Christ. Our normal way of handling something like this is to say, “Well, I guess it’s their business. The last thing I want to do is to meddle in someone else’s life.” But that’s not genuine Christian community. Jesus says, in verses 10 to 14 that this is not what we’ll do when we’re in genuine community with each other. If 1 goes off, we won’t say, “Well, look at the bright side. We’ve still got 99.” We’ll go after that one with the goal of restoring them to God and to the community again.
How does this work? Jesus describes a process in verses 15 to 17, a process that imitates the love of a shepherd who is doing everything possible to rescue a beloved lamb who has strayed from the fold.
Step 1: Correct privately
Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15).
Please note that this passage is for all of us. It’s not reserved for church leaders or special people. We’re all supposed to look out for each other. It’s also not an excuse for busybodies. There’s a time to cover over offenses (Proverbs 19:11). But if an offense is too serious to overlook, love will compel us to go and seek to show a brother or sister where he or she may be straying from the safety of God’s path.
Be prepared for the fact that the world will constantly try to convince you that offering correction is inevitably unloving and judgmental. It will help to remember that in God’s eyes it is often the most loving thing we can do for each other. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.” Discipline is God’s gift and blessing to the church!
Step 2: Take one or two others along
But what if the other person doesn’t listen to you? What if he or she keeps on doing something you believe is wrong?
The world says, “Tell anyone and everyone about it!” Jesus says, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16). They don’t have to be witnesses to the sin; they’re there to witness the response.
It’s not easy to go to someone who is caught in sin, even if you take others along. Nor will you always see immediate repentance. But if you are obedient, you are certainly more likely to see a brother or sister return to the Lord than if you do nothing but sit in silence or spread gossip about them.
Step 3: Tell it to the church
But what if one or two people get involved, and the person still won’t change his ways? The world, and even many people in the church, will say, “We’ve done all we can and this is taking much too much time, so let’s just drop it.” But what should we do? “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
In most situations, the matter should first be brought only to the church leaders, who might still be able to resolve the problem by bringing their God-given ecclesiastical authority to bear on the situation. If that does not settle the matter, then the leaders may selectively inform others in the church who might be able to influence the person who is caught in sin. If even that does not work, then the leaders may need to inform anyone in the church who might be harmed by the person’s ongoing sin.
Step 4: Treat him as a pagan or a tax collector
But what if the person still won’t repent, even after others in the church do all they can to persuade him to repent?
The world would say, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” misquoting Scripture to mean that the church has no right to judge and respond to a person’s wrong conduct.
What does God say we should do when a brother or sister hardens his or her heart against the loving discipline of his church? “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew18:17).
You can see why people like “genuine Christian community taste” rather than “genuine Christian community.” This is costly. I think Mark Dever gets it right when he states:
Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone. Our purpose in church discipline is positive for the individual disciplined, for other Christians as they see the real danger of sin, for the health of the church as a whole, and for the corporate witness of the church to those outside. Most of all, our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride’s sake but for God’s name’s sake. Biblical church discipline is a mark of a healthy church.
Genuine community means we value others, even those who aren’t valuable to us. It also means we go after those who stray. We don’t just wash our hands and shrug. We pursue them out of love and do our best to restore them.
Finally, it also means that we pursue reconciliation and forgiveness. Peter, probably reacting to what Jesus had just taught, asked Jesus how many times we need to forgive others. The Jewish tradition said that three times was plenty. Peter more than doubled that number and asked Jesus if that was enough. Jesus replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Jesus is not saying to stop forgiving the 78th time. He’s telling us that, for Jesus’ followers, forgiveness should be unlimited and extravagant. Why? If you read the rest of the passage, it’s because Jesus’ forgiveness of us has been extravagant.
In fact, if you look at this whole passage, you see that the love we have for each other is a reflection of the love that Jesus has shown to us. He has valued us in our lowliness, when we were unlovable, at infinite cost to himself. He pursues us when we stray, and restores us. And he forgives us not just 78 times, thank God. He extends extravagant grace and forgiveness to us as sinners.
We dare not settle for fake stuff. Let’s pursue the costly and genuine type of community that Jesus describes in this passage.
I grew up on day-old donuts. It was all we could afford, and I didn’t know the difference. I’ll never forget the day that someone bought me a fresh donut. There was no going back. I pray it’s going to be the same in our community. Genuine community involves selfless care for and reconciliation with other Christians. It costs – but you’ll never go back once you’ve tasted the real thing.