Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 30, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-18

1. The audience is different
2. The power of the message is the same

Text: Matthew 18:15-18


When you hear the term, “mission work,” what comes to mind?  Four years ago, WELS missionary to Africa, Pastor Steve Lawrenz, visited our congregation to preach and give a presentation about his mission work in Zambia.  More recently, Pastor Lynn Wiedmann visited our congregation a couple of years ago and talked about the work he was involved in assisting our mission efforts in India for four years.  When you hear the term, “mission work,” that’s what you usually think of-a missionary in a foreign land preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to a population that is, to some extent, unfamiliar with Christianity.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus talks about mission work, but it’s a very different kind of mission work.  It’s not mission work that takes place overseas; it’s mission work that could take place around the kitchen table.  It’s not mission work among people who have never heard about Jesus; it’s mission work among people who claim to be followers of Jesus.  It’s not mission work that involves a trained missionary; it’s mission work that may involve you personally.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus points us to a different kind of mission work, the mission work of calling wayward Christians to repentance.  And when you think of that kind of mission work, it’s fairly obvious that the audience is different.  But even though the audience is different, the power of the message is the same.

1. The Audience Is Different

Confrontation is difficult.  Few of us are good at it, and hardly anyone likes it.  Yet sometimes confrontation is a vitally important task.  Parents need to confront their high school teenager when they have good reason to suspect experimentation with drugs, because that confrontation now may prevent their son or daughter from wasting away the future opportunities in life.  Family members need to confront someone who has been drinking to excess, because that confrontation now may prevent a drunken driving accident, a bitter family-break up, or some other very unpleasant experience in the future.

The kind of mission work that Jesus has in mind in our Gospel involves confrontation.  Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Doesn’t every kind of mission work involve confrontation?”  True, but the confrontation Jesus has is mind looks quite a bit different, because this kind of mission work is aimed at a different audience than what we typically envision.  “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.  But 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.’  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.”

This is a different kind of mission work because the audience isn’t someone with little knowledge of Jesus.  The audience is “your brother,” a fellow Christian who has is involved with something sinful but doesn’t confess the error of his ways.  If you’re following along in your Bible, you may have noticed a footnote that says that some manuscripts don’t have the little phrase, “against you,” in the text: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault.” That is a minority reading (most ancient manuscripts do not omit the phrase), but even if that little phrase wasn’t a part of Jesus’ original words, you can tell that Jesus has a personal, private matter in mind.  He says that the first step is to handle the conflict “just between the two of you.”

We sang Psalm 51 earlier in this service.  Israel’s King David wrote that Psalm right after he had been confronted about an affair he had with one of his soldier’s wives, and right after a plot that followed to make sure that soldier in question was killed in battle.  David is regarded as a great Old Testament believer, and throughout his life he demonstrated that to be true, but at this point in his life he also proved just how sinful he really was.  And if a great man like David could fall so deeply into sin, what does that say about Christians like us today?

Someone eventually had to confront David with his sin.  And today, Christians like us will be called on to confront others about their sin.  But notice the reason for the confrontation.  “If he listens to you, you will have won your brother over.” This confrontation about someone’s unrepentant sin really is mission work!  People are not only “lost” when they haven’t heard about Jesus and they live in a foreign land.  People can be lost when they know plenty about Jesus and sit in the church pews.  Our sinful condition severs us from communion with God, and if someone remains in a particular sin and has no desire to fight against it, they really are lost.  That’s why we need to confront him.  That’s why we call this mission work, albeit to a different audience than we normally envision.

The WELS has conducted mission work in Japan for over 50 years.  Despite half a century of work among the Japanese, humanly speaking, we don’t have a ton of numbers to show for it.  That especially appears to the case when you compare the Japanese mission field to somewhere like Africa, where people are all but begging for us to serve them.  Yet we know the lack of outward numbers doesn’t cause missionaries to give up on their work after the first try.

It’s the same when it comes to this different kind of mission work.  Sometimes Christians confront someone and they are won over.  Other times they don’t listen to a personal plea.  But that’s not the time to give up.  That’s the time to take the next step with this different kind of mission work.  Jesus said, “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.’  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.” Old Testament laws stated that matters needed at least two witnesses to be proven.  That’s why Jesus quoted the Old Testament when he said that one or two others should be brought along to confront the unrepentant sinner.  Common sense also dictates that if a personal one-on-one approach doesn’t work, it would be best to bring one or two trusted individuals along for a second intervention.  If that doesn’t work, then the matter needs to come to the church’s attention.  Each successive step tries to get the person involved to see the increasing seriousness of the state of his soul.  That is even the case with the final step, in which Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That’s Jesus first-century way of talking about what we would call “tough love.”  In a last effort to wake someone up from spiritual apathy and slumber about his sin, sometimes we have to sever the person’s ties with our church.  The term we typically use is “excommunication.”  That doesn’t mean that we become obnoxiously rude, but it does mean that we need to make it clear the person’s actions and impenitence have cut him off from God’s forgiveness and severed his ties with the family of God.

Is there a message here for us?  Is there a call to do mission work here for us?  So often we think that our part of mission work involves throwing some money in the plate or mailing an offering check to the synod or attending a visiting missionary’s presentation.  But this different kind of mission work is directed at a different audience, an audience that is right among us.  I can’t imagine a Christian congregation that at some point in its history doesn’t have to confront one of its own members who is mired in unrepentant sin.  But what I can imagine, and what happens all too often, is that we dismiss this important work.  Oh, if we had the ability to rescue someone from drowning in the ocean or from a burning building, we’d do it in a second.  Well, we have been called to rescue people drowning in their own sins and on the verge of being burned in the flames of hell, but somehow the urgency doesn’t seem so strong.  Why upset the apple cart?  Why not leave well enough alone?  Why run the risk of being called intolerant?

Here’s why.  Jesus has called us to this mission work, albeit different mission work from what we typically imagine.  He has called us to this work because God’s intolerance for sin is real.  Hell is real.  Our need for rescue and redemption is real.  And Jesus knew full well that hell is real and our need for redemption was real.  That’s why he descended into this world at his birth and descended into hell at his death.  That’s why his blood was shed on the cross and his life was given on the cross.  Through Jesus, the entire world-you included-has an acquittal from sin in God’s courtroom.  So why let someone lock themselves back into sin’s prison and throw away the key?  Why not, with all care and concern, seriousness and soberness, carry out this different kind of mission work to a different kind of audience-mission work that takes place among people we already know and who bear Jesus’ name publicly, while privately they need to hear a serious admonition?

2. The Power of the Message Is the Same

Two Sundays ago, the Gospel reading included an unusual statement that Jesus said to Peter.  As it turns out, today’s Gospel includes the very same statement two chapters later, and now it is directed to all of Jesus’ disciples.  “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.” Jesus’ words sounds a little strange at first.  What is all this talk about binding and loosing and earth and heaven?  But if we attach these words to their context, we’ll see what Jesus is communicating.  Even though Jesus calls us to a different kind of mission work, he tells us that the power of the message is the same.

In Catechism class, we call this concept, “The Keys.”  Keys are used to lock and unlock.  To borrow Jesus’ words, keys are used to “bind” and “loose.”  If Christians confront a brother or sister who is stubbornly stuck in sin, and that person does not repent, Christians have the sober but important duty of proclaiming God’s judgment, and binding or locking the door of heaven to that person.  On the other hand, if Christians confront a brother or sister who is involved in sin, and that person repents and desires God’s forgiveness, now Christians have the joyful and equally important duty of proclaiming God’s grace, and loosing or unlocking the door of heaven to that person.

It may not feel like mission work to sit across the table from a fellow Christian and bring up an uncomfortable subject with them.  If your words don’t seem to get through, it probably doesn’t feel like anything major happened.  If your words do get through, it feels a little better, but it still probably doesn’t feel like a major event occurred.  But Jesus tells us otherwise.  He has given you the keys to heaven.  What you proclaim to lost sinners on earth is backed up by the Word of our Lord who reigns in heaven.  The power of your mission message is the same-and it is powerful.  When you announce that someone’s sinful stubbornness has excluded them from God’s family, God is announcing that through you.  And when you announce to a sorrowful and repentant souls that God welcomes them back with open and forgiving arms, God is announcing that through you.

Just think about that as it applies to you.  When your spouse turns to you and says, “I forgive you,” it is as if Christ himself forgives you.  When your pastor stands before this assembly and says, “As a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Christ is absolving you.

And not only does God give power to our words, but he also gives power to water, wheat, and wine that we use in his name and by his command.  He washes sins away at the font through the blood of Jesus.  He forgives sins and strengthens faith at this altar as you receive the body and blood of Jesus.  Everything Christ did for you at the cross and everything he won for you at his resurrection now comes to you personally in the words of your pastor and your fellow Christians.  And those same blessings from Christ become the possession of others when you carry out this different and unique mission work that Jesus calls us to do.


Mission work is hard work.  It doesn’t matter whether it takes place in the bush of Africa or the living rooms of America.  It’s hard work.  It can be hard to confront sin and call someone to repentance.  But this is important work.  It was important enough for Christ to live and die in our place.  It is important enough for us to proclaim that message in Christ’s place.  Even if the setting is different than what you envision mission work to be, the power of the message is the same.  Your message is backed up with the powerful Word of God, and your message is driven by the powerful love of God.  Now, dear Christian, carry out your mission!  Amen.



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