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Matthew 18:15-20

Pastor Jenny Lee, Ph.D.

“I Am There Among You!”

                I want to start with something funny that I found on an internet site: a minister parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city because he was short of time and couldn’t find a space in an official parking lot. Then he put a note under the windshield wiper: “I have circled the block ten times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment. Forgive us our trespasses.” When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note: “I’ve circled this block for ten years. I’ll lose my job if I don’t give you a ticket. Lead us not into temptation.”

Which part made you laugh? It may be a part of the Lord’s Prayer. Other than during Sunday service, when do you pray with the Lord’s Prayer? It may be when you want to empower yourself through prayer, when you are confused about how to pray, or when you are struggling. I used to repeat the Lord’s Prayer whenever I saw anyone who couldn’t forgive. The Lord’s Prayer reminds me how God forgave me and how I should forgive the one who went against me.

I love the part, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Then, when I was able to forgive, I felt that I was released from the burden of hate. Forgiveness is a resource of the power of love. In other words, if you forgive others who have gone against you, you get the power to love others, which means to love yourself as well as them. God asked us to forgive others who trespass against us because God loves us so much; God knows if we can’t forgive others, we may live in a prison of hate, anger, and resentment, and then we destroy ourselves.

Today’s scripture is a little bit difficult to understand, so many misunderstand it. The scripture begins, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. But if the person doesn’t listen to you, share the fault before two or three witnesses; finally, if the person doesn’t listen to them, bring it to the church; if the person still doesn’t listen to the church, just let such a one be excommunicated like the tax collector or the Gentile.” Have you ever heard this passage? Do you think it sounds right? No, it is not true. It is not about the excommunication of the church member. I will repeat part of the last sentence, “if the person refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a tax collector or a Gentile.” We should remember how Jesus treated the tax collectors and the Gentile. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and reached out to the Gentile to heal and save them. We may treat them like non-Christians as if we were reaching out to someone new, with kindness and the good news. In other words, they need Jesus. We should pray for them in the name of Jesus. Then, Jesus will be there among us who pray. Jesus says, “when two or three gather together, I am there among you.”

Right before this passage, Jesus told the people about the parable of the lost sheep: If a shepherd lost one sheep among one hundred sheep, he would go out to search for the one who left the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains. Then, if he found it, he would be happier about that one than the ninety-nine sheep. Jesus then says, in the conclusion, “So, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Jesus, who said, “to lose the one is not the will of the Father,” is not likely to say anything about “excommunication.” Suppose you interpret this passage as the excommunication of the church member, as some may see the cross of Jesus as a symbol of a curse. Remember, the cross of Jesus means the love of healing and the blessing of resurrection.

Look at verse 18, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It is about relationship; “you bind/loose on earth” refers to a relationship with people, and you will be bound/loosed/ in heaven refers to a relationship with God. So, in other words, if you have a good relationship with people, you may have a good relationship with God. Jesus says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Remember when you have a broken relationship with someone, you might feel angry with God as well as the person.

Therefore, this passage is not about excommunication, but forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. If you still wonder why this passage is about forgiveness, please look at verse 18:21: Right after this lesson, the Disciple Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” and Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The disciple Peter also understood it as forgiveness. Jesus wants us to forgive others as He forgave us. We are sinners whom God forgives, but we should forgive one another; like a shepherd who found the lost sheep.

However, we know forgiveness is not easy. We need to pray together. In other words, the passage means that if you broke a relationship with a Christian, try to reconcile with them alone first; if it doesn’t work, you may ask to pray together with two or three people close to you. Then, if it still doesn’t work, you may ask the church to pray together. Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven because “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We often cite this passage when we pray, especially in a small group. Jesus knew that there might be an argument or conflict when two or three people gather together. Therefore, God is always there among us, no matter how many people gather together. Remember, God is there not only where praying together, but He is also where the argument or conflict is.

I have experienced how powerful praying together is: Two years ago, when I was ordained as a provisional elder in Sun Prairie, I invited my friend. She planned to come with her husband. However, the day before they left, her husband had a minor stroke and went to an emergency room for urgent surgery while I was driving to Sun Prairie. When I heard about it from my friend, I pulled my car over to pray for her husband. Meanwhile, my colleague who would be ordained with me called me to ask if I had any guests. So, I shared with her what my friend and her husband were going through. Then, she called as many as she could to pray together. When I arrived at a hotel room, I heard her husband’s surgery went well and was successful. Prayer is powerful, and praying together is more powerful.

Here is a biblical example as well: At the early church, the Disciple Peter was imprisoned by King Herod’s persecution. The church earnestly prayed together for Peter. On that night, before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison. The angel woke Peter up, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists, and he was released from the prison (Acts 12:1-10).

We live in a world with too much fighting, and many wars, conflicts, and arguments. Remember, “God sent his only Son Jesus Christ because he loved the world so much that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus came to the world to love the people, to serve the people, and to save the people. We should follow what Jesus did. Remember, wherever we are, God is there among us! Thanks be to God! Amen!