The Beloved Family of God

Sunday, September 10, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ezekiel, 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33–40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:11-22

  1. We are the adopted children of God
    1. Siblings fight.
    2. Eventually, sometimes, they kiss and make up.
  2. God wants a whole family
    1. Don’t fight.
    2. Here is a procedure for reconciliation.

Peter has no questions about who is his brother. But he wants clarification. How often shall I forgive my brother? Jesus replies: constantly.

But I have questions! Who is my brother? I must make sense of this to make sense of the passage. Because Jesus also says to let your brother go and treat him as someone from another tribe or a tax collector. So many questions! Who is my brother? I should treat my brother as a Yankee or revenuer? But wasn’t Matthew a tax collector? What does he mean we hold the keys to heaven? How do we constantly forgive? We just cast our brother out!

The first question is relatively easy to answer: Jesus tells us.

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50)

Those who trust in him as the way, the truth, and the life. Those who repent of their sin and follow him. These are the children of God. Paul talks about this all the time, as in Romans 8:14–17:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Who is my neighbor? He tells us this too, in the parable of the Samaritan. But that is not the question today. Today we ask, who is my brother? Each member of the Church is.

So. We are children of the same family and as siblings do, we fight.

When my brother wrongs me, what should I do?

Have you held a grudge against your brother or sister for so long that you have not spoken to them in years? Why? Was that cause worth it? It seemed so at the time, yes?

Jesus tells me to repent and seek forgiveness if I have wronged my brother. 

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)

My broken relationship with him harms my relationship with God. I must imagine it saddens God. One of the great joys of my life is hearing my children laugh together. And the great sadness is like it: when they sneer and scowl and blame.

Today Jesus tells us go, seek to reconcile with your brother who has wronged you. Our brother might not ask for forgiveness; we should ask him. The burden is on each of us to restore our relationships. This is a tough charge from our God. He asks us to swallow our pride and seek forgiveness for our wrongs. He asks us to swallow our pride and forgive those who have wronged us.

Can we do that? It seems impossible. It is impossible. How could we even?

We can, with God’s help.

And so we have been given a procedure to help order our relationships. Our Presbyterian Church takes this particular injunction fairly seriously. It is in the historic Reformed confessions, in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession, and others. And it is reflected in the method of discipline in the Book of Order, however infrequently used.

Notice in our own families how divisions start. One person does something stupid. Another may become annoyed and stop talking to the others. We seek allies, we gossip or slander, and the offensive party is cut off. No more invitations to Thanksgiving dinner. No more Christmas gifts. No more wedding invitations. It’s a strong power, cutting someone off from the family.

We are given almost the same procedure. The difference being loving-kindness instead of spite. We go seeking reconciliation, not dominance. We should approach our brother, or our sister, with compassion and tenderness, in humility, not swollen by an overweening righteousness. Not because we were wrong, but because separation is sorrowful.

Jesus says, try once alone; try again with witnesses; try again with the community. And if that fails, you did your best: let them be on the outside. And this has consequences.

That is what is meant by the keys of heaven. God’s family, the adopted children of God, will join him in Heaven. And if one is separated from the family, how then could they join God in Heaven? As night follows day, actions have consequences, on earth as it is in heaven.

But the instruction does not end with a permanent separation. What ends are our attempts to reach out to our brother. For recall it is on both of us to repair the breach. We have done our part, and now his relationship with us and with God is no longer our concern. It is his.

As Ezekiel puts it, 

But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, … you will have delivered your soul.

What never ends is our responsibility to welcome him back.

Can we do that? It seems impossible.

We can, with God’s help.

God wants his whole family. That is why the Shepherd comes to find us. It is not through our efforts that any of us are saved. Only through God’s grace alone. We are lost, and cry out.

God continues to look for his lost sheep. He is patient, and steadfast in the search. Longing desperately, as the parent of a runaway child longs, to welcome us home again if only we return. You recall the parable of the prodigal son? The prodigal son, like us, has frivolously spent his trust fund. He has nowhere else to turn, and heads home, willing to do anything to regain the smallest favor. The lament of Israel in Ezekiel might be his:

“Our transgressions and sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”

“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says God. “Turn back. Turn back!”

Reach out to the hand of God and he will pull you in. He is there waiting.

Jesus called Peter to walk to him across the water but Peter lost faith and sank. But Jesus plucked him right out. God does this throughout the Bible, from Genesis on. He created man and woman in his image, gave them the will necessary to take care of the garden, but we, as children do, did not listen. For God so loved the world, he made a covenant with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David — all leading to Christ. God inserted himself in the world and time to sacrifice himself for us.

I admit: I do not understand this mystery.

There was a time I may have come close: the night home from the hospital after my first daughter was born. She didn’t quite want to sleep, so I walked this tiny bundle around and around in the circle of moonlight on the living room floor until she relaxed into a heavy weight on my shoulder. And of a sudden I was overcome. I had no words, no way to say what I felt, except “for god so loved the world.” How could it even be possible to love something so much more than this? That moment, holding my child, I thought I understood. I would give anything for her. 

This is why it’s such a puzzle that God gives his Son for the world. Until we recall the Trinity, and realize God gave Himself.

In response our duty is to accept God’s grace, repent of our sins, and spread the Good News. But if the one who hears does not listen, what more can we do? If the one who has heard will not repent, what more can we do? We are only human, after all, born to make mistakes.

And when shall we respond to God? When shall we respond to God’s sacrifice? Now. Now is the moment to wake from sleep. Now is the time to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

As the Psalmist says: Give me understanding. Lead me. Turn my heart. Turn my eyes. Confirm your promise.

How then shall we live? Honorably, as in the day. Gratify not the desires of your flesh. But go to your brother whom you have wronged, go to your brother who has wronged you. Reconcile yourselves. And live together as children in the beloved family of God.

(as delivered at Beulah Presbyterian Church, Mill Gap, Virginia)