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Fair but firm

By Charles Qualls

We are used to Jesus speaking in certain ways. If we let ourselves, it’s easy to think of Jesus speaking a stern rebuke to the Pharisees and Scribes. Pronouncing a word of healing or speaking softly as He welcomes a child or a sinner. Mostly teaching in mysterious and ethereal-sounding parables. Then whispering to his disciples as He interprets later.

So, imagine what it was like for me as I got ready for this week’s sermon from Matthew 18: 15-20. I caught myself referring to what “the Apostle Paul” was teaching here. Because here is Jesus talking about the church, and straightforward He says, “Just do it like this.” He sounds like Paul, and the subject matter is more like the apostle’s.

In my preaching plan, I saw this sermon coming about three months ago. The Scripture text actually kicks off a three-week mini-series on how life in God’s kingdom isn’t always “fair” by our conventional sense of the word. In each case, we’ll be surprised to find out that’s not necessarily bad news. However, this particular text is always awkward to talk about.

These days, people have gotten so casual about the church. To make themselves feel better, they’ll talk about how the church is not about meeting at a brick-and-mortar place. It’s a people, ultimately. We all get that. It’s true. But we are reminded today that the gathered church is referred to as “The Bride of Christ” for a reason. Because Jesus was talking about how people in the fledgling church would need to take care of the fellowship.

Churches generally have always attracted a variety of people, including the unhealthy. Some, despite all we might hope, just cannot behave themselves. They cannot bring the emotional or mental health required to live in right relationships within the body of believers.

I can recall only one instance where I had to be involved with such a drastic church action. We had a young man who had begun to criminally stalk a woman also within that church’s membership. We pledged to assist him. But we also pointed out that the restraining order she had taken out included the church. He would have to leave. It was painful, but we “churched” him. We had to.

Whenever you gather humans, even in Jesus’ name, life can get interesting. Right? That’s why churches have policies, rules and practices. On hopefully the rarest occasions, someone just can’t behave. If their issues are causing such a disruption to the fellowship, or a drain on the staff, then retaining them simply is not healthy. Moving past a hope for redemption, now the greater good for the greater number of people becomes the need.

Of course, no one wants it to come to that. How do we avoid it? Jesus lays out for us some guidelines here. Of course, this only takes into account the part we can control. How the individual responds to this process is the variable.

Here are the values that He displays in this. In a healthy fellowship we work out our differences at the smallest possible level rather than jumping right into dramatics and fireworks. We work also directly with each other, rather than going behind each others’ backs.

Jesus’ process is also fair. If carried out to its end, it’s firm. Granted. But it’s fair. Which embodies his love for the Church. Rather than hear Jesus’ words as a 1-2-3 process that ends up with a clear-cut set of winners and losers, there is a bigger picture here. Obvious in Jesus’ words is that the fellowship must be preserved. The hope is that the one who needs correction will be restored. That’s how we hear them best, I think.

We are so used to hearing Jesus’ words here about being with “two or more who are gathered in his name” when we are trying to make ourselves feel better about a small turnout to something. Instead, its genuine context is right here.

Jesus will be with us in our differences, when two or more are gathered in His name. He will be with us when we’re perplexed about what we can do that benefits both individuals and the gathered group. He will be with us when things are messy and awkward. He will be with us when we make a mess of things and when we have to remember that the church and the Kingdom come first. Even if push really does come to shove.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.