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“Come Home”

Matthew 18:12-22
Bob DeGray
August 14, 2005

Key Sentence

The church, like her shepherd, should seek the wandering for reconciliation and forgiveness.


I. Cultivate a shepherd’s heart
II. Know how to involve others
III. Be prepared to forgive and forgive


        In No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, Max Lucado has a brief chapter called “Come Home” which tells a story he first heard from a Brazilian preacher. Lucado doesn’t claim this story is true story, but it has the ring of truth. “The small house was simple but adequate, one large room on a dusty street. Its red-tiled roof was one of many in this poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the Brazilian village. Maria and her daughter, Christina, had done what they could to add color to the dark red walls: an old calendar, a faded photograph of a relative, a wooden crucifix. The furnishings were modest: Maria’s husband had died when Christina was an infant. The young mother, stubbornly refusing opportunities to remarry, got a job and set out to raise her daughter. And now, fifteen years later, the worst years were over. Though Maria’s salary afforded few luxuries, it was reliable and did provide food and clothes. And now Christina was old enough to help.

        Some said Christina got her independence from her mother. She recoiled at the traditional idea of marrying young and raising a family. Not that she couldn’t have had her pick of husbands. Her olive skin and brown eyes kept a steady stream of prospects at her door. She had an infectious way of throwing her head back and filling the room with laughter. But it was her spirited curiosity that made her keep all the men at arm’s length. She spoke often of exchanging the dull village for the excitement of the city. Just the thought horrified her mother, who was quick to remind Christina of the harsh streets. “People don’t know you there. Jobs are scarce and life is cruel. Besides, if you went there, what would you do for a living?”

        Maria knew exactly what Christina would have to do for a living. That’s why her heart broke when she awoke one morning to find her daughter’s bed empty. Maria knew immediately where her daughter had gone. She also knew immediately what she must do to find her. She quickly threw some clothes in a bag, gathered up all her money, and ran out of the house. On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.

        Maria knew her daughter was too stubborn to give up, and that when pride meets hunger, a human will do things before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with a reputation for available women. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture: taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened in a phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t long before both money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus made the journey back.

        A few weeks later Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. A thousand times she’d longed to trade these countless rooms for her secure home. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. There on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she removed the small photo. Written on the back was this invitation. “Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve become, please come home.”

        ‘Please come home!’ Isn’t that the invitation Jesus offered us? He offers reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. He seeks us like a shepherd seeking a lost sheep. The Gospels teach that he had compassion on us, because while we were like sheep without a shepherd, he had come to seek and save the lost. He sacrificed himself on the cross to pay the price of our sins and bear our punishment and he seeks us by his Holy Spirit, asking us only to trust his promise and purchase of forgiveness, rescue, relationship and peace. He cries to each of us today ‘no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve become, come home.’

        But it doesn’t stop there does it? Jesus expects us to become like him, to have the same heart and desires. He wants us to become peacemakers, to seek out those caught in sin, to offer reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s because we’re convinced of his desire that we’ve been studying Biblical conflict resolution all summer. And as we near the end of this series, we want to rise as a church to the challenge of being like him. Today’s passage, Matthew 18:12-22 compels us to recognize that the church, like her shepherd, should seek the wandering for reconciliation and forgiveness.

I. Cultivate a shepherd’s heart

        We studied Matthew 18:15 by itself a few months ago, but today we want to put that verse in context, looking at the flow of thought in the passage in order to see not only the importance of personal peacemaking, but how to appropriately involve others, and even the whole church, in the process of reconciliation. Notice that the section begins with the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew 18:12-14 "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
        In Matthew 18 Jesus begins with a focus on ‘little ones’, by which he means primarily believers who have become like children, with a child like humility and trust. He condemns anyone who puts stumbling blocks in the paths of these little ones. Verse 6 ‘But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’ Jesus loves and cares for these ‘little ones who believe’.

        It is this care that is shown by the man who owns a hundred sheep, and when one of them wanders away, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes looking for the wanderer. The point is that for us, as for the Father, the seeking of one wandering sheep should be a priority. The context seems to demand that this wandering sheep is the same person as ‘the brother who sins’ in verse 15 and ‘my brother who sins against me’ in verse 21. The wandering sheep is one you consider a brother or sister in Christ who has wandered into sin, into conflict, and away from the flock, the church. But the church, and we as individuals, are to have a shepherds heart, to go and seek this wandering individual, not to be content that ‘oh, ninety-nine is almost a hundred, look how nice our flock is even without that sheep. He was kind of a difficult anyway, let’s just let him go.’ Shame on us, that in light of this Scripture we sometimes take this attitude. We should be compelled to seek those who wander.

        It’s interesting that James may be paraphrasing Jesus when he says in James 5 “Brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” There is triumph in reconciliation. Jesus says “And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” The Father’s heart seeks his own who wander. We are to be his hands and voice in that seeking.

II. Know how to involve others

        And Jesus tells us very practically how to do it. Verses 15 to 20 "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

        When we studied verse 15 we concluded that peacemakers are committed to resolving conflict. We learned that conflict is inevitable, that we have to individually take responsibility for it, that we begin by going in person and in private to share clearly and sensitively our concerns, and that the goal is always reconciliation. Everything we’ll say today supports those conclusions. But I did want to mention a textual variant that might imply a wider application. The NIV says ‘if a brother sins against you’, but a number of early copies of this text don’t have the words ‘against you’. Commentators are pretty evenly divided as to whether ‘against you’ is original or an addition by scribes who saw it in verse 21 and Matthew 5:23.

        Without it the verse simply says ‘if a brother sins, go and show him his fault’. This would expand the scope of our responsibility, just as it is expanded in the James verses we just read. I can’t solve the textual problem but it seems clear that if a brother’s sin is against you, you are compelled to go, and even if you only observe a brother in sin you are not forbidden to go. You need to ask God’s wisdom case by case.

        Verse 15 then is the beginning of the church reconciliation or church discipline process, an individual attempt to restore this wandering brother, this sister caught in sin. We’ve talked a lot over these ten weeks about what goes into this: self-examination - getting the log out of your own eye; personal confession - this was my part in this conflict; listening and learning from the other person without extraneous words or anger. And when you prepare with humility and then go and plead with a person for forgiveness or for change, it’s a big deal. I don’t know anybody who does this lightly. So a positive result is something to rejoice in. Jesus says ‘If he listens to you, you have won your brother over’ - gained or regained your brother. Restoring someone to fellowship with God, or even with the church is a tremendous joy.

        But what if this brother or sister will not listen to your plea? Do you give up? No. Jesus teaches that the restoration of a single disciple may require the efforts of many disciples. We need to know how to involve others in restoration and reconciliation, to bring, at first, one or two other people into the situation. If what you’ve observed in this other person was important enough for you to examine yourself, to prepare, and to seek them out, it’s also important enough for you to involve others. But who do you involve? It depends on the situation. If you’re going to a family member who’s behaving in ways that hurt others in the family, it would be appropriate to involve others from the family. When brothers and sisters in a home can’t agree, it is appropriate for parents to get involved. When husbands and wives can’t agree, there may be a trusted parent or adult brother or sister who can speak to both sides. Or you may need to go to another couple you trust, a small group leader or godly friend. Basically you need to involve people you are close to who are godly.

        What about cases of conflict with somebody in the church? If you’ve done this personal work of seeking reconciliation and it hasn’t been fruitful, either because there is a sin issue that a person is unwilling to address or because the two of you can’t agree on a ministry issue, it’s time to bring in others. The right person might be an elder close to the situation, or a ministry leader with some natural involvement, or a brother or sister close to the person you’re struggling with. In an ideal case you bring someone the other person trusts and respects, though it’s not always possible.
        And that person is to be concerned with getting to the heart of the matter, getting to the truth by way of the facts. Jesus says you bring these people so that the matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. In some cases this can mean that the person you bring will confirm your observations to the other person.

        More often they are there to witness how you approach the situation and how the person responds. Maybe they’ll see that you haven’t really thought it through, and they’ll encourage you toward taking greater responsibility. Maybe they’ll offer the same kind of counsel to the other person, so that conflict can be resolved or compromise reached, or so the other person can take responsibility for their stuff, in repentance and change. Or maybe the third party will simply observe the hard-heartedness of one or both of you in refusing to take that responsibility. In any case having an objective and caring third party who sees him or herself not as a judge but as a shepherd is of great help. And if you find yourself as that third party I encourage you to bathe the matter in prayer and to have Jesus’ attitude - ‘no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve become, please come home.’

        In verse 17 the issue of seeking reconciliation is extended to the whole church. But before we talk about that I just want to mention a few things about the time between verses 16 and 17. First, verse 16 does emphasize accurate facts. Before proceeding, church leaders involved should make a thorough attempt to establish the facts to be sure the allegations of misbehavior are true and that the misbehavior is actually grounds for church discipline. Furthermore at this stage, if the straying believer refuses to take responsibility for clearly sinful behaviors, we at Trinity would begin to involve the whole elder board, both for purposes of prayer and to make at least one further attempt to personally implore a change of heart. So there is always a time of delay between first going to the person with others to seek reconciliation, and taking the matter to the church.

        Only after these private attempts to implore repentance have failed do we arrive at verse 17: ‘If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’ In Jesus’ day the church was not yet a formal structure, but an informal community of disciples. So the step here is to inform the community of the need for repentance - not as a form of discipline, but in order to further implore the person to a change of heart.

        If you’ve been to any of the formal meetings we’ve held at Trinity to inform the church of this kind of situation, you’ll remember our instruction: not, at first, to shun this person, but to find opportunities, led by the Spirit, to plead with him to repent, to change his mind - to come home. And if repentance happens, forgiveness is extended and restoration takes place. Only when a person does not repent, does Jesus instruct us to treat him as a pagan or tax collector. R.T. France says these ‘were people from whom a good Jew kept his distance’ and that Jesus ‘used the expression metaphorically for someone to be avoided. After all persuasion has failed, a cold shoulder may still bring him to his senses. At any rate there can be no real fellowship with one who has so blatantly set himself against the united judgement of his fellow disciples.”

        Trinity’s constitution says it this way: “In Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, the prescribed discipline is cessation of fellowship with the offender. In this church, cessation of fellowship includes: exclusion from worship services, small groups, fellowship suppers, and other church social gatherings; exclusion from taking communion; and loss of voting privileges. Members are obligated to faithfully pray for the restoration of those who have undergone church discipline, and when contact with the offending party occurs, to encourage repentance.”

        Notice that even at the church level, the goal is restoration. Trinity’s constitution goes on to say “Restoration to unrestricted fellowship with the church . . . . can occur whenever the offender repents of his sin” and concludes that “the church should be eager to restore disciplined members, showing forgiveness, gentleness and loving acceptance when they come to repentance.” So whether it is as individuals or as a church, the model we’re following is that of Jesus ‘whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve become, please come home.” We don’t confront as individuals and we don’t carry out this process as a church to punish: our goal is always to restore.

        Jesus says that when we do this we have his presence and blessing, even at the level of two or three lovingly confronting a person to help him see his sin. Jesus says “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” These verses have been used as a promise of the presence of Christ, and they are, but in the context his promised presence is tied to this seeking of lost sheep. While you’re doing this hard work, Jesus says, I’ll be with you.

III. Be prepared to forgive and forgive

        So we’ve seen that in order to care for each other as God’s people we need to cultivate a shepherd’s heart that says ‘when someone wanders we’re going to go and seek him, to appeal for repentance, to encourage restoration.’ We’re to do this as individuals, but we’re not to stop there: when necessary we’re to involve others and even the whole church in restoration. That this caring heart is the attitude Jesus desires is confirmed in verses 21 and 22: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

        Do you see how this fits? Jesus has just said ‘seek my wandering sheep’, and taught how someone who sins should be sought and restored, by individuals and by the church. But he described the worst case scenario, where someone never recognized his sin or repented. Now, through this interaction with Peter, he says ‘don’t forget, the focus is on forgiveness and restoration.’ Peter asks ‘how many times do I believe the person who asks for forgiveness?’ Apparently the rabbis recommended not more than three times. Peter’s seven times was generous, but Jesus’ reply far exceeds it. The Greek is ambiguous as to whether it says seventy seven times or seventy times seven. Either way Jesus is saying we multiply forgiveness.
        Notice that no mention is made here of how good the person’s repentance is, or how soft their heart is, or how able he or she is to change behavior, or how much restitution is made. In fact repentance is not mentioned, though I think in this context it is implied. Jesus says in Luke 17 “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." So there is a pattern of willing forgiveness, even perhaps purposely naive forgiveness. Unless the Holy Spirit makes it clear to our hearts and through the circumstances that this repentance is not genuine, we must forgive and work toward reconciliation.

        So the details of the reconciliation process are book-ended by these appeals to have a seeking heart and a forgiving spirit. Biblical conflict resolution has to be done by people with soft hearts who remember that we ourselves were lost sheep whom Jesus came to seek and save, that he died for us while we were still sinners. He forgave us entirely out his love and grace. Isaiah 53: ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ In light of this, we are to be those whose hearts break for the sins of others, who long for our brothers and sisters to walk in faith, and if they are not doing so, to be restored and reconciled and forgiven. We have heard his voice saying: ‘no matter what you have done, no matter what you have become, please come home.’ We need to be his voice saying ‘no matter what you have done, no matter what you have become, please come home.’