There are many ways we can disobey Jesus’ words in Matthew 18. We can fail to deal with sin. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself?” We can carry out these steps with too much enthusiasm, looking to cleanse the Church of sinners, pulling up those weeds that the Evil One plants. After all, doesn’t Paul say, “Keep away from them!” Or, we could fail to talk to and admonish sinning brothers or sisters privately, and go right to publicly exposing sins. After all, it’s easier to go to the church council or the elders or the pastor or the voters’ assembly than it is to sit down and confront the sinner in person. And besides, “It’s not my job.” Or, we could, like unmerciful servants, receive absolution from God, and then turn around and choke the life out of the one who sins against us by holding their sin over them.
Yes, indeed, in these ways and more we can – and have – disobeyed, and by disobeying, rejected the words of our Good Shepherd. Which makes it somewhat hard to pray the Lord’s Prayer, doesn’t it? After all, if we refuse to carry out church discipline in the way that Jesus ordained it – caring about sin, confronting sin, casting away sin; dealing with sin in as private a manner as possible; obeying the 8th Commandment along the way – if we refuse to do that, how can we, with any sense of integrity stand before the altar of God, stand before God Himself and pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us?”
Before we can go and show our brothers and sisters their faults, we must see our own. And they are many. As David prayed for us today, “My sin is always before me.” Scan the commandments and you find them. Scan this passage of Matthew and you find them. Whether the sin is gossiping about the behaviors of others rather than confronting them, failing to confront sins out of a misguided “love” for the person, confronting the person’s sins vindictively, hoping to shame and destroy rather than win over, that sin is before us. And we’re guilty. David speaks true: “You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
And the judgment we’ve deserved? “Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Sin ostracizes us from God. Sin separates us from God. Sin condemns us to God’s ignorance. As Jesus said on the mount, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord…’…Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’”
And we can’t say that God hasn’t been fair. He comes to us privately, with His Word, showing us our faults, our sins. He comes with witnesses – His Son, His prophets, His apostles, His pastors and teachers, His parents and more. He brings it before the Church, through public preaching and teaching of His Word. He follows the steps. He has been patient, oh so patient. And we confess: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”
And there we find the difference between us and our God. For He truly works to win us over to Himself. As the LORD spoke through Ezekiel, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” The LORD’s proclamation of our faults is not gossip, nor is it His way of saying, “Get the heck out of here!” It is His way of saying, “Come back!”
Hence Christ. Christ confronted sin – cleansing the Temple, rebuking Peter, castigating Pharisees. Yet Christ was always, always, always saying, “Come back!” Look at His treatment of Judas. Throughout that bitter night of betrayal, Jesus calls Judas to repentance. He showed Judas his sin while at the same time saying, “Turn from your evil ways!” Christ worked to win His brothers and sisters back to Himself.
Yet, even when rejected, He didn’t stop. Though His Words fell, and fall, on so deaf ears, He confronts sin. He confronted sin pounding its way through the palms of His hands and the soles of His feet. He confronted sin pressing sharp thorns into His forehead. He confronted the sour vinegar of sin for hours on the cross. He confronted the immeasurable weight of sin bearing down upon His shoulders. He confronted sin so that He might win you over to Him. As Paul says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins.”
And then, after confronting sin, after coming to us with the truth, He cast them away! “He was raised to life for our justification!” Like anyone confronted with wrongdoing, with irrefutable proof, with the threat not just of expulsion from class, firing from a job, or the end of a marriage, but rather with the threat of death in the fire of hell, we fell down on our knees before Holy God and said, “Blot out our transgressions! Forgive us our sins! Don’t regard our sins as they deserve. Forgive our debts!” And He does. He did. In Christ.
“It is finished.” “Given and shed for you.” “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” There we see that Christ doesn’t just confront us with our sins. He doesn’t just show us our fault. He comes to us with absolution. He wins us over. According to His great compassion He cleanses us with hyssop; He washes us whiter than snow. In the blood and water that poured from Christ, poured upon us through Holy Baptism, God hides His face from my sins and sees only Christ. With that Spirit-filled Word, the Word that created the universe, He creates a new heart in you, a pure heart. And with that immortal medicine of given body and shed blood He renews your spirit. He wins you over. He looses the chains that bound you. Forever. Even when you sin again this afternoon. For with our catechism we confess, “We ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment.” “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” But Christ purchased and won us. He cared for sin so much that He came in the flesh. He confronted sin with His sinlessness. He stole the sting of death by conquering death. And then gives it to you every day in Word, Water, Meal so that he can say to you "You are whiter than snow!"
And thus you can offer the same to your brothers and sisters in sin. Luther explains the Fifth Petition thus, “We, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.” Here we carry out the hard work of Matthew 5, “Love your enemies,” Matthew 6, “as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and Matthew 18.
You do this not to get in good with God. You can’t. You do this not because God is wishy-washy on sin. He isn’t. You do this because of the radical forgiveness Christ gives you. Later, Peter asked, “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” And then Jesus reminded Peter, and you, that the debt God absolved is not tiny. It wasn’t a $20 sin. Your sin-debt amounted to the unpayable trillions – unpayable especially from hell. “O LORD, who could stand?” And yet it was this debt that Christ bore for you, that Christ absolved. It is this absolution offered to you, when He says, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Forgiven such a debt, it is no matter to look to your brother or sister’s $20 sin, and after confronting sin in love and hearing repentance, to cast it away in the same love Christ showed you. Thus forgiven and forgiving, you can walk toward the font in which God washed you whiter than snow and stand together at His table and hear Him say to you, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” Amen.