Accountability and Admonition

Scriptures: Ephesians 5:6-21; Matthew 18:15-20

We took a break from my sermon series for Palm Sunday and Easter, but now we’re back into the sermon series “On Being the Church. And this week is probably one of the toughest. It’s on accountability and admonition.

This topic is one of the most difficult to approach in the modern Western church. We hate being told we are wrong, we hate feeling like we failed at something, and we fear telling others what they have done wrong if we aren’t in a “superior” position.

After all, that opens us up to possible retaliation, and shows a depth of care in the relationship that we Americans in particular don’t like to show. Personal space issues, you know? Privacy issues, right? Don’t judge others and all that.

The thing is, if we are going to be a community, going to be in close relationship with each other, going to love one another and express love for one another, then accountability and admonition are a necessary part of the mix for growth and maturation. The Bible, God’s Word, makes no bones about this, addressing it in several places, and has given us an actual process for following through on this.

The one real caveat I would make to the process we are going to go through is that it assumes care and love for the individual addressed. Obviously, you can abuse this process like any other process – especially if you don’t care about the individual or the fallout. But given this small church and the long-time relationships with one another, we assume the most positive.

I am going to focus on the process shown in Matthew; but I want to touch on the passage in Ephesians. Taking out a portion, verses 8 to 14:

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

All of us were of the darkness. All of us still have a part of us that is – as Paul puts it – of the flesh. It is that part of us that still looks at ourselves as the center of the universe. Even after accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and being justified by Christ, our sanctification is a process.

“Walking,” as it said in the passage, is a dynamic verb. It is a life-long journey to become more like Jesus. It takes constant work and care. It takes discernment as to what is pleasing to the Lord. And sometimes, we fail.

Most times, it is unintentional. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware – we have a habit, or a trait that we do not know about or have deeply ingrained. I noted in one of my previous sermons that sarcasm and dry humor was part of the family I grew up in. Often times, the humor I attempt is targeted as much at, or solely at, myself, as anybody else.

At the Presbytery meeting, I was talking with our Stated Clerk, and I made a joke about being Presbyterian, as I’ve been wont to do. I looked at her, and I said, “You know, I have almost as much fun making fun of Presbyterians as I do being one.”

Growing up, it was a defense mechanism – to make fun of myself before others could make fun of me (being of an alternative size and shape, and always a stranger because of the number of moves that we made). Besides, it often broke the ice, allowing other kids to laugh. Yet as, again, noted in one of my previous sermons, it can occasionally backfire on me, hurting someone.

Before moving on with regards to that, I want to take a moment here to redefine something for you that many of you have heard before, particularly if you’ve been through Bible study with me. Though all sin is the same before God, in that we all fall short and need His salvation, within the hierarchy of the community some things are worse than others. And over the years I have developed a theory of the “acts of flesh.”

There is a mistake, a transgression, and a sin. I couldn’t list chapter and verse for each of these things, but, like the Trinity, it’s just come out of the pages and the concepts of Scripture.

We have our mistakes that we make, unintentional, small, the kind of thing that, maybe when we’re doing our checkbook, or we step on somebody’s toes or bump into them when we’re trying to move around. We say we’re sorry, and we move on.

Sometimes it’s not understandable to the person that we made the mistake to. I remember my calculus teacher putting on a test that he couldn’t understand how I could understand these complex theorems and then try to multiply 7 times 1 and get 1. It happens.

The second is a transgression. Again, it’s done out of ignorance or unintended. But there is a definite rule, a law, spoken or unspoken. There’s a sign, No trespassing. But what if you don’t see the sign and you trespass anyway?

You still trespassed. They say, in our court justice system, that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But the fact of motive isn’t there, so it can be dealt with in a different manner, as a misdemeanor, if you will.

Then there is the sin, where we deliberately, intentionally, knowing that something is wrong and do it anyway. Doing it out of anger. Doing it for gratification. Doing it for whatever reason it might be. And we’ll pay the price.

If we look at Matthew, we see how God intends us to process it when we are on the receiving end of something that hurts us, or something that is (as Ephesians says) an “act of darkness.” Note that our responsibility is to expose it. This is not a public exposure with the intent to humiliate; it is a bringing to light a problem so it can be solved. And I believe this process should be used by the Body of Christ with each other for most disputes – not just when there is “sin.”

Let’s look at the process very briefly, as it was already read to us. The process is to go first to the person one-on-one. You explain the problem, and why it is a sin or hurtful, or a transgression. Then you work out how it can be resolved, and how any amends can be made.

If they know the problem, and refuse to address it, then you go to them again – with a witness or two. These (historically within the church) are Elders or Deacons, leaders chosen to help grow and maintain the spiritual health of the congregation.

If that does not work, then it goes to the Session (for us Presbyterians). Now if the problem involves the Session or the Pastor, maybe the Presbytery COM, or the Pastor to the Pastors needs to get involved.

Finally, if none of that works, then it becomes public, and is taken before the whole church. After all, this is where the authority lies. That verse everyone likes to quote about “wherever two or three are gathered in my name” actually has little to do with prayer (other than commending that you use it), and everything to do with authority. Together, we have the discernment and authority of Christ, and the ability to do the things he promised we would be able to do regarding binding and unbinding, forgiving and reconciling.

But such actions require discernment as well. You need to note two things, and do two things. First, you need to make certain that your offense isn’t because of something with you, and not them. Are you overly sensitive about something, and they actually have no way of knowing it because you have never told them? Especially if it is from something in your past.

I believe that a lot of the offense that people take these days, the hypersensitivity, comes from those kind of things. The infamous term “microagression” – most of the time people wouldn’t know they were doing microagression if you held a sign in front of their face. It’s all on the part of the person who hears it.

Next, is it a matter of taste? That is, likes and dislikes. My mother hated sarcasm. She would literally hurt for each of us when we used such humor, even if it wasn’t directed at her, and the person involved wasn’t offended or hurt.

Maybe someone is a great story-teller, but you know they are exaggerating, and you can’t stand that stuff. Just the facts, with no adornment (read that “lies”) needed. Or maybe not so much detail, please, because it is making the story incredibly long. (I’m sure you all know the joke where someone says, “and now to make a long story short” and everybody choruses “too late!” Right?)

Second, you need to discern whether it was a mistake, a transgression, or a sin. Was it in ignorance, or inadvertent, even though known? Was it an obvious blind spot? We talked in the third sermon about bringing these things to light gently for the purpose of edification.

This is the time these things are done. And if it is a blind spot, you may well have trouble getting them to believe it – hence going back with others who can both mediate and/or back up your claim.

Or it may even be that the issue that is present requires more than just the two of you to even discern the right or the wrong. That was certainly the case in the early church, frequently, with Jesus having overturned so much.

Having done those two things, and determining both its source and impact, then you must speak up. Too often, we don’t. This is where the church in America fails so often and so largely these days. We just had the Presbytery meeting here on Tuesday, as I noted, and the “education” section was on community. Isn’t God good? One of the things it stressed was the “unsaid” and its impact. One part says as follows: “The unsaid may be, among others, assumptions, expectations, disappointments, resentments – issues that occur or are perceived as dangerous.”

It was noted later that often unspoken assumptions and expectations can lead to unspoken disappointments and resentments; and these are at the center of much of the friction within the church. When we say nothing, inevitably things turn to resentment or anger, and eat away at us.

There is a Chinese proverb saying “Bitterness is a poison you feed to yourself.” If we are to maintain our joy, we must be free of bitterness and fear – and our anger needs to be dealt with in such a way as to keep us from sinning in return.

The last thing we must do (and it is, without a doubt, the hardest!) is be patient. It notes in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is “patient,” and “long-suffering, keeping no account of wrongs done against it.” This doesn’t mean letting people walk all over you.

By the way, this passage, while it’s used in weddings and it’s fine for weddings because it’s talking about relationships, was in the context of a church that was having issues and conflicts.

Love does mean continuing to work at reconciling with someone in the Body of Christ whom you are having a disagreement with, or who has wronged you in some way. If someone has had a lifetime to build up a particular habit or trait, it will take more than one intervention to fix it.

It will take coaching them (remember that word from a previous sermon?), done in love and gentleness, so they don’t close you off in defensiveness. It will take showing appreciation when they do the right thing. It will take being a friend, and a brother or sister to this fellow child of God and member of your church family. And please remember that they are family, and God chose them, and whether we understand it or not, we need to accept them as such. We believe that God truly is our Father.

I could go on, but I am going to stop here. I am sure most of us are feeling profoundly uncomfortable as it is. It is a difficult prospect, this aspect of community. It means we must invest in the people around us, deeply, and make ourselves vulnerable to rejection and even more pain. It means showing love to people at moments you may not feel very loving, and when they may not be very loveable. It means being like Christ, who told us to take up our cross daily and follow Him.

Christ, who withstood every kind of hurt and pain – physical, mental, and spiritual, deliberate and inadvertent (think of the Pharisees, and of Peter, and yes, each one of us). Yet still he said “Father, forgive them.”

Still He stayed on the cross, and bled and died for each one of us. And then he was resurrected – not for His own glory and sake, but for ours. How great a love! How great an example! How great a Savior. There is a hymn, and I really don’t understand why it runs through my head so often, but it does.

And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused Him pain? For me who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free; For, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

May we love God, and each other, through the Holy Spirit, enough to show mercy, give grace, and help each other to finish the race God has set before us, and bring the kingdom of God into the world as we reflect the community that He intended us to be.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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