“Discipline is Done!” Sermon for Resurrection Lutheran Church, September 4, 2011, Oakland, CA
Resurrection Lutheran Church, September 4, 2011, Oakland, CA
Ezekiel 33:7-11 Psalm 119:33-40 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20
Discipline is Done!
The lessons this Sunday revolve around discipline, a difficult subject indeed. I found reading Brian Stoffregen’s commentary in CrossMarks very helpful. Church discipline takes place for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation, not for destroying and executing people in the misguided way of the state. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” as we heard in Prophet Ezekiel (33:11)
The Church discipline, conceived in Matthew 18, provides the chance for the repentance of those who have missed the mark and their restoration back into the beloved community; because sinners need forgiveness and reintegration into the relationships of the beloved community. But what about evil?
Brian Stoffregen quotes Scott Peck from his book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil:
It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. [p. 69]
As David says, “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and done evil in thy sight” (Psalm 51:4). Returning to Scott Peck:
“Evil then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters …. In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection. [p. 74]
“According to Peck, [Stoffregen notes] committing sins is not the same thing as being evil. We all commit sins. However, the sinners who won’t listen to the one, or the two or three, or to the church, need to be removed not because they are sinners, but because they are evil — unwilling to listen to the truth about their sins — attacking others instead of facing their own failures.
“Unfortunately, forgiveness and reconciliation are not always our primary motives in dealing with others. Sometimes anger and revenge take over.” (From CrossMarks on the Internet)
In this way Stoffregen reminds us that we practice discipline as a form of love and if we don’t love children or teenagers, for example, we have no right to discipline them. So often what people call discipline is prejudice and rejection.
Stoffregen’s statements are very wise. We always have to be mindful of Jesus’ words: “How can you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, when you have a log in your own?” (Mat 7:3) And sometimes the procedure of church discipline in Matthew 18 is hijacked for the purpose of scapegoating someone.
Luther was of course excommunicated. One of the statements for which he was condemned goes: “that to burn heretics [at the stake] was against the Spirit.” (The Bull Exsurge domine, number 33) I’m so proud that Luther took a stand against that monstrous and outrageous practice of the church’s burning a person at the stake. Luther considered the lightning bolts of the pope to be just so many blessings. But not many people have Luther’s strong character and clear understanding of the Gospel and their freedom in it, so they become victims of church discipline, when the church has a log in its eye.
Galileo trained his telescope at the sky and noticed that the planet Jupiter had four moons going around it. He realized that Copernicus was right. The earth was a planet going around the sun and the sun was not going around the earth. The church disciplined him, placed him in house arrest, and made him recant what he saw with his own eyes. Even Luther when he heard about Copernicus exclaimed, “The sun goes around the earth. Joshua said, “Sun stand still! He would have had to say, “Earth stand still, if Copernicus was right.”
Now we realize that the church and even Luther had a log in their eye, but at the time Copernicus did not dare to publish his book until after he died, so frightened was he of the authorities of the church.
I use these old examples to make us wary of church discipline even today to consider if it could be involved in ignorance, prejudice, or scapegoating. Our Lord Jesus Christ was executed because of a miscarriage of justice. He was brought by religious leaders to the Roman authorities, who executed him by crucifixion. That should also make us wary of capital punishment, because our own Lord died because of it.
Thus in the seminary we were taught that we had to make the Gospel large and the law small. One professor used the metaphor of an old fashioned bicycle. The Gospel had to be the big wheel in front and the law or discipline had to be the little wheel in back. In teacher training, we learned that the best discipline is a good lesson plan. Without one, teachers are bankrupt. Some scream at the children. My son had one who was called the “Queen of Scream.” She stood on her desk screaming at the children. You do need discipline. Without it the best of lessons fail. But without a good lesson plan, the discipline gets more and more severe. Meanwhile some teachers have stopped learning themselves and think they can teach children something.
It is the same in our churches. Often we have stopped growing and maturing in Christ. A church sometimes loses its vision and its sense of mission. Stuck in the doldrums, members act out, treasurers embezzle money, and pastors violate boundary issues, sexually for example, violating the trust of their congregations. Genuine authority then has to carry out discipline, but what about the vision and the mission missing from that church, much like a teacher without a lesson plan. The world with its love of money and sensuality gets into the church and many a church has lost its mission and sense of direction.
We have come this far by faith, but we have to be aware of how far we still have to go. Otherwise those we cast out and consider gentiles and tax-collectors, Jesus tells us, will enter into heaven before we do. How do we get to our growing edge and mature in Christ? I ask myself, how do I respond when someone sins against me or offends me? How do you respond? Do I, do you have the courage to bring it up to that person and not start to gossip with others about it? Do I tell five others without daring to go to that person? Do I bad-mouth the person behind his or her back? Or do I have the courage to talk it through and mend our broken relationship? That’s the idea of Matthew 18.
Of course, it could mean seeing something we do not like seeing about ourselves. But that gives us a chance to grow. Self-righteousness, according to Luther, you know, is a monster that provokes all manner of sins. So let’s confess our sins to one another. We all fall short of the mark and it’s helpful to know in what way. That only becomes possible with a humble and forgiving nature. In the words of the Prophet Micah, “[The Lord] has told you, O mortal, what is good and – what does the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
In the Romans lesson St. Paul shoots Cupid’s arrow at us – just not the arrow of eros, but the arrow of agape. “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does not wrong a neighbor; love fulfills the law.” You know what time it is, he continues. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. (St. Paul didn’t put in the part about the coffee.) Salvation is nearer to you now than when you first became believers. You tried to put away the works of darkness, but you had so little self-knowledge, you were not yet very mature in Christ. You did not realize what you were up against. You were up against yourself and you didn’t have a clue about your growing edge, and Christ had to keep on saying, “I forgive you. You don’t really know what you are doing.”
My father used to say, “The battle that you fight with yourself is the toughest battle you will ever fight and the sweetest victory you will ever win!” Christ is our victory. St. Paul says that we have to put on Christ. What does he mean? He means that we were baptized into Christ, as he says in Galatians: the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. That means by faith, the righteousness, integrity, the love, wisdom, and glory of God transform us. For in Christ Jesus, St. Paul continues, we are all children of God through faith. And when we have been baptized in Christ then we have clothed ourselves in Christ. That’s Galatians.
Thus discipline by our own effort and strength gets swallowed up in faith, the power from on high that makes us come alive in righteousness, integrity, love, wisdom, and the glory of God. At that point discipline falls away. We are law-free. As God’s children we take our places around the table of the Lord. Jesus our heavenly host will listen to us and understand us, give us the self-knowledge and maturity we need to follow him. True it will still mean the cross, because it is painful growing up into the full stature of Christ, denying ourselves and following after. Taking the cross on our shoulders means carrying the cross they are going to nail you on. Cornell West recently said, “We have to have our cemetery clothes on and be coffin ready.” It costs us our lives. But then we no longer live but Christ lives in us. Standing in the reality of God we then live in the wonderful beloved community now so near at hand; yes, now much nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is gone; the Day of the Gospel is here! Discipline can only point to it, leaving us with Christ. Discipline is done. Christ will be all in all and we will be free at last. Amen.