Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve been asking yourself: Is the “real presence” really present in the biblical material?

September 4, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20

Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve been asking yourself: Is the “real presence” really present in the biblical material?

The answer is “yes,” but we don’t find it where we might expect, either in the Gospel narratives of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26, Mark 14, or Luke 22, or in 1 Corinthians 11; rather it is here in the middle of Matthew 18. The declaration of the real presence of Jesus “where two or three are gathered” in his name, is the heart and soul of Matthew — both chapter 18 and the book as a whole.

Matthew 18:15-20 begins with an all too likely hypothetical situation: “If your brother sins against you….,” which is followed by a second hypothetical, “If your brother refuses to listen…” which bears the not-purely-hypothetical truth to all of us who have brothers. If you have a brother (or sister) he (or she) will sin against you sooner or later; this is the nature of brothers (and/or sisters).

The NRSV translates this opening phrase “If another member of the church sins against you….” On one level this translation is a little unsatisfying, as it favors inclusivity over intimacy; thinking of the sinner here as a brother, or sister, or close companion brings the need for resolution to an immediacy, a sense of importance that may be lost in thinking only generally of another “member of the church.” And, ironically, the perceived inclusivity of “member of the church” may actually serve to limit the application of Jesus’ teaching by focusing one on church-relationships, and not all relationships. 

But it should also be noted that the community is in play, the word “church” (or better “assembly”) does follow in verse 17, and the tensions and trials which arise from the sins we commit against one another do have an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole. At stake in this issue of sin, confrontation, repentance and forgiveness is the presence of God and what it means for us.

The flow of the passage is important to make note of, as there is movement from the individual to the communal. Where there is sin, Jesus says, confront it directly, one-to-one, face-to-face. If this does not solve the problem, include someone else in the conversation, and if all else fails take it to the community as a whole. From individual confrontation to communal attention, the movement of the passage is a progression that follows the development of the hypothetical conflict from its origins in individual matters to its conclusion at the community level. At each point along the way sin has implications for everyone involved.

The harmony of Jesus’ teaching about conflict and the role of witnesses with both Deuteronomistic and Levitical codes (see chapter 19:15ff in both books) is often noted. But there is something subtly different here. Jesus is not instructing us to bring witnesses to testify against our “brother” who has sinned against us, but to testify to the exchange between brother and sister.

This is not just about safety in numbers, but the safety of the numbers. The health and welfare of the community are part and parcel of the problem of sin between two of the community’s individual parts. At each point along the way, from the start as two individuals are together to the inclusion of witnesses and supporter to the involvement of the assembly as a whole, there is something else at stake. 

Back, now, to the real presence of Christ. Following his teaching on the progression of the confrontation of sin in an attempt to reconcile, Jesus teaches that any sinner so committed to his/her position that they will refuse to listen even to the church is to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.” It is ironic (and probably intentionally so) that this line follows the parable of the lost sheep and precedes the response to Peter’s question about how often one has to forgive a brother who sins (repeatedly) against you. 

Jesus says, essentially, that being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times (another hypothetical certainty), that’s how many times you forgive him. And of course, we know from the Gospel of Matthew how Jesus treated the Gentiles and tax collectors. 

Notice that Jesus follows this with talk about the power of agreement, saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. But notice as well that this is not where Jesus ends. Jesus says last, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” There is no question of agreement at this point. Jesus is present, really present, where two or three are gathered in the Divine Name, not just where two or three agree in Jesus’ name, but where two are three are gathered; presumably this includes the two who cannot listen to each other about a matter of sin, and how to handle it. Even there, perhaps especially there, Christ Jesus is present.

The subject matter of this passage could not be more fitting for Christian communities in every age, place, and situation. One of the things that plagues most Christian communities (and other communities no doubt) is the inability to handle confrontation, disagreement and our mutual accountability when it comes to sin. We simply don’t know how to live together, fight together, and stay together. And this is because we all of us — and not just our brother or sister — are sinners. 

Jesus offers a simple guide to help us handle our sin and its consequences here. But far more importantly Jesus promises us that he is present, that his presence is real for us, when we are gathered in his name — both in agreement, and in sin. Within the context of the overarching narrative of Matthew, which is governed by the promised real presence of God, in the promise of child named Emmanuel, God With Us (1:23) and in this God’s parting assurance to us that he is with us always (28:20), this is the Good News for us who are members with one another of Christ’s church.