For my first post in the White Hat Heresies series, I look at something that requires some discernment. This is EITHER an excellent example of how to avoid a White Hat Heresy, or it is a White Hat Heresy. And the difference is not in the wording but in the fruit.
Michael Erdman, whom I knew at Victory Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, is now an ordained pastor at Immanual Lutheran Church in Madison, WI. This past month he gave such an interested sermon on Matthew 18 that I just had to share it. In fact, I started taking notes. The notes turned into a transcription (included below).
I find this sermon positively FASCINATING. It makes me think of all the interesting sermons I’ve missed out on. It was really challenging to transcribe this because I wanted to sit forward and rest my head on my hands like an eager kid.
(What follows are either the notes or the quick and sloppy transcription of Pastor Michael Erdman’s preaching the Word of God in Matthew chapter 18. Due attribution given. For the video-minded, here is the video.)
(Also, he’s come a long way from kicking my tukus all over the map on Tiberium Sun…)
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s sermon text is taken from the Gospel lesson: Matthew chapter eighteen. Even as I say ‘Matthew chapter eighteen’ there’s still a little piece of me that gets a little rankled. The reason why is because Concordia Mequon, the synodical school that’s just north of Milwaukee, where I went to school, used Matthew 18 all the time. In time they used it so much that all of the students got annoyed by Matthew 18. Whenever any two students had a dispute about anything, well, Matthew 18, and we were supposed to know what that meant and we were all a bunch of theology students so we did know what that meant. Basically, what that meant was that if we were unhappy and we went to a professor or a residence director to complain about anyone else, they would say, “Matthew 18,” and we knew that meant, “You have to go talk to that person and try to resolve it first before you bring it to us.”
And we were so annoyed every time that word, Matthew 18, came up, because we wanted something resolved and we didn’t want to have to go talk to that other person and work with them on it. We wanted to have some judgment come down and get that other person stop offending us with whatever they were doing, and yet they would refuse. You had to go through all of the steps of Matthew 18 before they would be willing to work with you on this. And as such Matthew 18 sort of became the terms of battle, or war sometimes. We would look at this passage and say, “Ok, if we want to get them in trouble we’ve got to go through all these steps, and maybe they won’t make it through these steps and we can really get ’em in trouble.
And we were looking at it all wrong. The truth of it is that we’re not the first people to look at this passage and get it all wrong. In fact it’s happened throughout the history of the church. And all I have to do is say one word and you will know exactly what I mean.
You hear that word and all of these connotations come up. You don’t think of it as a good thing. You hear abuse in it. You can almost smell it. “Excommunication.” You hear, “Churches abusing their power, kicking people out of the church because they disagree with them, or for some petty thing.” Maybe you think about the reformation and how Martin Luther being excommunicated from the church, when he was actually trying to uphold the truth of Scripture. So we can see throughout the history of the church, really, that this passages is really a difficult one, that we have struggled with it.
It can become that battle cry, this “steps for how we can kick somebody out of the church,” and yet it’s supposed to be the exact opposite. This is supposed to be the steps to keep unity in the church. This is supposed to be a plan that God gives to us, where out of love and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ that we will go to extreme lengths to preserve them in the faith, that we will go to extreme lengths to reach them, to resolve our conflicts, to preserve our unity here in the church.
Let me walk you through that: The first step that’s mentioned here is that if your brother sins against you, go to him yourself and talk to him. Now this seems so simple. I mean it really does seem so simple. It seems almost obvious, and yet how often is that the last thing that we want to do? I mean, if somebody does something to us, hurts us in some way, offends us in some way, the last thing that we really want to do, at least most of the time is actually go talk to them about it, work it out with them, reconcile. Usually we want to be angry at them, or we’re afraid of talking to them, or we don’t want to talk to them. And it’s much easier to go and talk to somebody else.
I mean, go to somebody else and say, “Did you see what so-and-so did to me?” Bring them in and try to get them on your side and your warpath has already begun. Go and get this person from over here and that person from over there. And then maybe the person who offended you in the first place realizes that you’re going around and gossiping behind their back, and they start going to other people and gathering their forces, and before you know it you have a war on your hands.
And it’s amazing what a difference it makes if we follow what seems to be a very simple piece of advice. If your brother sins against you, go and talk to him. Try to reconcile. I mean, I can’t imagine just how many conflicts within the church might have been stopped right there with this first move. But of course the passage does go on. If that doesn’t work, then it instructs you to bring in one or two other close friends. Bring in other people, and talk to them about it. Go together and confront this person with their sin, with the problem they’ve been having, not because you’re trying to get them in trouble, not because you’re trying to drop a hammer on them or accuse them of anything, but because you care about them, and if you really do care about other people then we don’t want them to be living in sin. That’s the truth. And if we really do care about someone then we don’t want to live with the conflict that ;s been unresolved.
We want to be a united church. We care about one another. It is a travesty any time that we are at odds with one another. It’s something that out of love we always want to solve. And so it also continues on, if you bring two or three people and together you’re not able to convince this person, then you bring it to the entire church. Now this does seem like a rather drastic measure to take, and truthfully it is a drastic measure to take, and yet realize at this point that you’ve already gone and tried to resolve something one on one, and then you’ve also brought in a bunch of close friends and tried to resolve it that way, and at this point you still haven’t been able to resolve this conflict, and any sort of conflict that survives those kinds of attempts to mend the conflict is a serious conflict. It is the sort of conflict that can divide churches, and I’m pretty sure that we’ve all seen that before. We’ve seen conflicts that divide churches. And yet even at this stage, even when we bring the entire church together to try and confront this person, the goal is still reconciliation.
We don’t want to kick anyone out of the church. We’re not hoping to win. We’re hoping that there’s no battle. We’re hoping that we can avoid a war. We’re hoping to avoid or to end a conflict. The goal here once again is unity, and love.
Now, the next step is one that I think is often confused, because up to this point you might see: Ok, go talk to the person, bring some friends, go talk with the whole church. And at that point we give up. We just kick them out and say, ‘We don’t care about you anymore. Go and be outside the church.'”
Except that’s not what it means. That’s not what it means at all. It does say treat them as though they’re outside the church. But you have to ask the question, how should we be treating those outside the church? With love! I mean it’s the same way we’re supposed to treat everyone. It’s what we talked about last Sunday. This *amazing* love. This radical love that ignores all sins, including the sorts of sins that someone might do against you that caused the conflict.
“When it says, ‘treat them as someone outside of the church’ it is hoped that these people will realize that once they’re outside of the church, how serious this issue really is, and it is hoped that they will be happy to come back and resolve that conflict. The hope behind excommunication is that somebody would come back, and that’s the reason why it exists. Although, I will freely admit that by the time the church gets around to excommunicating someone, they may have lost sight of that.
“But when we look at this passage, we need to see here what Jesus wanted us to see. And what he wants us to see are the incredible lengths we should go to to resolve conflicts within the church, just how deep our love should be and just how great our desire for unity should be that we should not just sit and let conflicts sit and fester, but we should continue in more and more ways to try and restore this person who is lost back to us. And in every step of the way the goal of this is unity, the goal is restoration, the goal is love.
“And if the sin in question here is the sort of sin hat they’re living in denial of, if they’re living in their sin, if they’re going to go to hell because of their sin, that’s all the more reason why out of love and compassion we should continue to work with these sort of people and try to help them.
“It does bring up an interesting question, though. Why is God so concerned about unity in the church? Why should we be going to such great lengths for anyone who comes into a disagreement? He continues on to talk about the church, and how God is present here in the church, how wherever two or three are gathered, God is there with us, that whatever is bound here on Earth is bound in heaven, whatever we lose here on Earth is loosed in heaven.
“It paints an amazing picture. We are God’s people. We are his hands here on this world. We have been sent here and we have jobs to do. It’s our job to share the good news of the Gospel with anyone who will listen. It’s our job to take care of the poor and feed the hungry. It’s our job to provide for those in our lives and to provide for our neighbors and those around us. God calls us to do all of those things.
And if we are divided and in conflict with one another, we stop doing those things. I’m sure you’ve all seen it before. How many times, when a church is divided, when it starts fighting itself, all of those external things, those things that we’re supposed to be doing for the world, they go on the back burner. In some ways internal conflict is the single best tool that Satan has ever had to disable a church. Once we start fighting each other we can’t do our job any more. And that really is our job. Our job is to reach out to the world and show them Christ’s love.
And we have that job of course because of how much love Christ has shown to each and every one of us. We know that Christ is willing to forgive all of our sins. And what an amazing thought that is: All of the horrible things that we do, the sorts of things that we do to one another, the sorts of things we do to our loved ones whenever we lie, or cheat or steal, whenever we’re not faithful. God forgives all of those things. He died on that cross, he became one of us and he rose again three days later to save all of us and to restore the world for us. He showed us an incredible forgiveness, a forgiveness we could never match. And yet because of that wonderful forgiveness, because of that wonderful good news that he has given to each and every one of us, we try to live that way with one another. We try to show forgiveness and compassion even when somebody hurts us.
Now sometimes we struggle and sometimes we fail. And that’s why we come back here each and every Sunday. That’s why we come back to his Word over and over and over. Because we know that we struggle and we know where our strength lies. Our strength lies in Christ, and our strength lies in one another, as Christ works through each and every one of us. Rely on that strength.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now, this is a fascinating sermon. It is right on the money. It is one of the best sermons on the chapter in recent years.
What fascinates me even more is the bounty of God’s word in kindness. Pastor Erdman is either telling the truth, in which case I can rejoice in the fruit of the spirit that he yields through faithful pronunciation of the Gospel. Or, he is saying the right things and betraying his words with his life. In that case I can also rejoice because the vengeance of God is also his, and God’s promise to me not to revenge because he’ll take care of it is also true. First of all, we’re judged by our words. Secondly, those who presume to preach will be even more harshly judged.
So… either delivered from great and poisonous error, or a false teacher digging his own grave.
Either way this is a beautiful, beautiful sermon.
Tomorrow I think I will review one that is LESS ambiguous on the excellent/excellent scale of things from Rev. Brendan Prigge of Victory Lutheran, and see his take on the text (He has two sermons on it so far. A good fisking may be in order).