Historically speaking Presbyterians in Scotland had a bit if a reputation when it came to discipline. Has anyone heard of the Stool of Repentance? The stool was often a wooden elevated square stool- like the height of a bar stool- that was placed at the front of the church and would be used as a form of public penance for someone who had been caught committing a sin from adultery to public drunkenness to swearing in public . The offender would have to sit on this uncomfortable stool throughout the service and then at the end they would be told to stand upon the stool and receive a rebuke from the minister. As you can imagine this humiliation often caused some pretty serious outcomes. These stools were used in Presbyterian Churches, mostly in Scotland but also in Canada, until the mid 1800s. You know, the reason our Session minutes are still confidential is because the Session was the one who discussed and determined the kind of discipline someone should receive if they were caught doing something sinful. I can assure you, I have never been on a session where we discussed such things and if I am honest, I probably would spend more time sitting on the stool then preaching in the pulpit if it was still in use. Today we find ourselves in a rather challenging passage from Matthew- note that this is thanks to the lectionary as I likely would not have picked this to preach on, on my own. What is interesting to me is that it is a clear and concise theological procedure regarding discipline and it says nothing about sitting people on stools, although it does allude to the community being involved. As an aside, there is actually a fiddle jig entitled, “The Stool of Repentance” which was likely written as a way of mocking this kind of discipline.
Now this passage in Matthew is awkward for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, for me, is the challenge of facing conflict head on. I think most of us try to avoid conflict and yet the passage encourages us to approach in person someone who has sinned against you. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that one would point out the sin of someone else while not actually admitting to their own sin. This seems contrary to some of Jesus’ other words, like “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But it turns out this is not about being self-righteous, rather it is about humility. Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the key part to this reconciliation is doing the work. “When someone crosses us, we are called to be the first to reach out, even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong, even when everything in us wants to fight back- still we are called to community with one another, to act like the family we are….That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed.”
But what happens when someone doesn’t want to be confronted about the hurt they have caused? Well then there are the stages of confrontation. If the person does not listen to you, get a few other people involved so that they can witness, followed by involving the church. It should be pointed out that church isn’t really the right word to use because the word church did not exist when this Gospel was written- but the idea is getting the religious community involved. Following these three opportunities to acknowledge his or her error if the person does not heed the church then that person is to be treated as Gentile or tax collector, basically an outcast or outsider, again sounding rather contrary to some of Jesus’ more familiar words. And it does sound even more contrary to the kind of discipline the early Presbyterian Church provided.
However, what is at the heart of this passage is not so much the three opportunities for one to admit that they have done wrong but rather the three truths found within these steps. First, the authority of the church, second, the promise of answered prayer, and third, the presence of Jesus throughout it all. Jesus is essentially admitting that offences are inevitable, be they intentional or not. And this is Jesus’ way of trying to assure fair treatment of both parties. It is a rather ominous matter with tantamount consequences and yet the severity of this outcome- of turning someone into an outsider- is cushioned by Jesus acknowledging the link between what the disciples do on earth and what is done in heaven, We prayed the line, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” which sounds awfully similar to “whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
It is important to note that just before this passage was the parable of the lost sheep and this is important to the context of Jesus’ words. The disciplines are to see themselves as the shepherd seeking the stray sheep. Therefore the ultimate goal is not severance of a relationship but the reconciliation of one. It should also be pointed out that this is only part of a much longer conversation. Next week Peter will ask about forgiveness and Jesus will go on to stress the necessity of forgiveness, especially as we live in community.
It is Jesus’ closing words in this part of the conversation that also create some awkward tension. I know that I have definitely used the line, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” as a way to assure a small group that God is with us whether we are two or three or twenty. However, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, David Turner wrote something that caused me to re-consider how we use that verse, “The flippant way in which 18:19 is often cited to assure small meetings of Christians that God is with them is disturbing because it twists a solemn passage into a cliche. No doubt God is present with any legitimate meeting of his people and there is no need to mishandle Scripture to prove it. Taking this solemn passage out of context cheapens it and profanes the sacred duty of the church to maintain the harmony of its interpersonal relationships.” Yikes! That will make me think twice about using that line out of context ever again. What this verse really means is that during challenging and uncomfortable discussions within the religious community, the church can be assured that Jesus is present with them through those difficulties.
I am also struggling with this closing line because it clearly states that true wisdom within the church comes when it is gathered in community, for most of us, gathering in community means- in person. But we have been forced to figure out how to live in relationship in new ways and I can tell you from personal experience it is hard, and wrongdoings will occur because we’ve never encountered anything like this before. But just as God can reconcile creation, God can reconcile relationships. A big part of this passage is the ability to not only hear one another but listen to one another and as we listen to each other we can listen to Jesus’ words. We are gathered together- some of us in this building, some of us reading these devotionals, some of us listening over the radio, most of us online- often sitting in our pjs having a cup of coffee but believe it or not there is wisdom in our gathering. It’s not coming from me but it comes from Christ’s presence. No one, is going to be asked to sit on a stool but perhaps we can all join in a jig as we celebrate the the challenges and joys of living in community. Amen