Based on Matthew 18:15-20
I love the story of Saint Nicholas. You know him, a bit anyway. He’s one of the characters who makes up the legend of Santa Claus. Living some seventeen hundred years ago, Saint Nicholas was a pillar of the church as it grew and formed around the Roman Empire. His time was a time of great debate, figuring out what we now consider to be unquestioned doctrine of the church: what to believe about the Trinity, what to believe about the nature of Jesus’s divinity and humanity, and putting together what we now call the Bible.
Throughout their debates, the bishops and pastors who formed the councils kept asking the same question: what are we supposed to believe?
The process of arriving at these great doctrinal truths was messy and cumbersome. Great minds at these councils staked out positions and defended them fiercely. In the process, they developed enemies in each other and attacks could grow personal. That’s where Saint Nicholas comes in. At one of these councils, where they were debating whether or not Jesus was more human or more divine while on this earth, Saint Nicholas’s enemy, Arius, was pontificating about Christ being more human than divine. His words so enraged Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus as you’ll recall, that Nicholas walked across the room to Arius and, while he was still speaking, slapped him across the face. Even Santa Claus gets violent sometimes.
What are we supposed to believe?
That’s a question I’ve received often since becoming a pastor but especially frequently around here. Lots of you, it seems, have friends in different denominations and, after conversation with those friends, you come to me wondering if what they believe is what we believe and, if not, what we’re then supposed to believe. Or, even more commonly, I get questions about what Methodists believe about hot button topics. What do we believe about heaven and hell? Or the end times? Or the nature of salvation? Or divorce? Or remarriage after a divorce? Or many other topics.
I have loved, absolutely loved, the natural curiosity around here. It’s been fun to answer all your questions! I love the opportunity to share about what Methodists believe, how I interpret things, what I have found helpful and useful, and just to talk. That curiosity is, I think, a part of why we’re experiencing growth in worship attendance and growth financially as a congregation: curiosity leads to growing in Christ which deepens discipleship. I hope you’ll continue to ask me questions!
But as we all know from the Thanksgiving dinner tables of our lives, sometimes asking innocent-enough questions can quickly devolve into conflict. In previous appointments, I have received honest questions that created deep conflict, some of which turned personal, like with Arius and St. Nicholas. I’m sure we can all speak from experience that conversations about religious beliefs can quickly devolve into debates, which devolve further into verbal conflicts, which can lead to personal attacks and, in the worst cases, violence. When truth is at stake, and when our truth feels threatened, our blood pressure rises, our insecurities grow, our tempers flare, because we feel the need to defend the truth we know. The pursuit of answers to the question of what we are supposed to believe can be fraught with dangers.
And so it would be helpful to know what to believe, so that we can stand our ground and declare truth with a capital T. If our position is irrefutable, there’s no need for all this conflict because we simply have the truth and others must accommodate their understanding of truth to match ours.
So, the question before us this morning is simple, as Christians: what are we supposed to believe?
The only time Jesus speaks of the church is here in chapter 18 and in chapter 16 of Matthew. Nowhere else in Matthew, nor anywhere in Mark, Luke, and John does Jesus ever mention the church. And that makes sense when we consider that the Holy Spirit founded the church when it came down at Pentecost, after Jesus had died, resurrected, and ascended back to heaven. There is no church while Jesus is walking around, but Jesus talks about the church anyway to address one crucial topic: church conflict.
Conflict has always been the hobgoblin of churches, and so Jesus gives us directives in our scripture this morning on how we’re to handle that conflict. These directives are based on the law from Deuteronomy 19:15, which establishes the conditions for sustaining a charge against a person. Deuteronomic law requires that there are at least two witnesses to the incident or issue, whose testimony agrees with the accuser. If that is so, the charge is sustained and must be adjudicated. Then, the accused and accusers are to work out the issue together but, if they cannot, then the issue goes before the church. If the church cannot work it out, then the person who stands accused is to be put at a distance from the community, removed from church leadership, until such a time as reconciliation can occur.
That’s the plan Jesus lays out in this scripture. The call on the lives of church members is to talk it out until it’s worked out; remain in relationship with each other, even if you have to put some distance in the relationship for a time, until you can find resolution and reconcile. For reconciliation is always God’s plan, even if conflict resolution takes a very long time.
God’s plan, to talk it out until it’s worked out, is such because Jesus knows the destructive power of church conflict.
Church conflict is an infection in the church politic that grows and infests until it blows up an otherwise loving community. And it can come without warning, it can surface all of a sudden after brewing for some time, it can divide even biological families and force new churches to start. We all know the joke about a church that changes the color of the carpets in the sanctuary causing a new church to form across the street. The joke works because it’s based in reality. Church conflict infests and destroys.
But even more important than the color of carpets, many churches have divided because they came to different answers to the question “what are we supposed to believe?” Such is what has happened in the Presbyterian Church, leading to the formation of the PC USA, the PCA, and the EPC. Such is also what has happened in the Episcopal Church, leading several congregations to break away and form the Anglican Church in North America, or the ACNA for short.
Actions like these come from a five hundred year old history of splits. The question “What are we supposed to believe?” inspired the Reformation, which led to the first split in the western world: Martin Luther’s formation of the first protestant denomination, the Lutherans. From the Lutherans split off the Presbyterians over John Calvin’s teachings on predestination and election. From the Presbyterians split off the Baptists over differences in baptismal theology. And on and on with additional splits happening within the Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian worlds over doctrinal issues.
And while we Methodists do not come from the Lutherans in the family tree of Christian denominations, we do have splits in our history. In the early 1800s, we were licensing black men to be preachers, but we refused to ordain them. This eventually caused the African Methodist Episcopal Church to form, a split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, what we were then called. In 1845, the Methodist Episcopal Church itself split over slavery. Beginning in 1906, Pentecostals split off from us over belief issues about the role of the Holy Spirit.
Splitting because of church conflict has, indeed, become commonplace. Rather than work out our differences, rather than patiently continue to debate back and forth, we split and set up our own camps, declaring our righteousness because we have a corner on the truth. That’s why it would be helpful to know what we’re supposed to believe. Because then we’d know who’s right, and who’s wrong, and that could resolve all these conflicts, prevent future splits, and form unity. We would then know whose corner on the truth is actual truth with that elusive capital T.
So, what are we supposed to believe?
We want so desperately to be right because we think that the Christian life is about being right, about knowing truth with a capital T. We debate passionately about who’s right on baptism, who’s right on the Holy Spirit, who’s right on divorce, and on and on.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t delve into the issues; he doesn’t offer a “this is right, that is wrong,” guide. The gospels provide no doctrinal statements, no listing of proper beliefs. Rather, in our scripture this morning, Jesus goes in a different direction. He tells the disciples that if the gathered church community decides, together, to bind something, in other words to create a rule, God ratifies that in heaven. If the gathered community decides to loose something, decides that something is ok, God ratifies that in heaven, too.
Such ratification can occur because, according to Jesus in our scripture this morning, if two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, the Holy Spirit is there, giving discernment and wisdom to the congregation. The church need only be patient and keep debating, no matter how heated the conflict gets, to find the discernment and wisdom the Holy Spirit is providing. And when they’ve found it, when the debate has yielded proper understanding, God ratifies that in heaven.
The binding and loosing, the two or three are gathered, the ratification of decisions in heaven, all form a call to remain in community together while in the midst of conflict. Jesus delves not into the issues, but into directives for how to make decisions together and how to live a life in community while there are disagreements among the members.
This scripture, then, makes clear that beliefs matter less than relationships. Staying together as a church family matters far more to Jesus than having all of our beliefs properly lined up and understood.
And so, the answer to our question this morning “what are we supposed to believe” is a simple, yet profound statement from Jesus: we’re to believe not in being right, but in being together.
Jesus does not hand us our beliefs in the form of doctrine, or, in other words, in the form of a law. After all, Paul makes clear that our law is not a list of dos and don’ts, not a law of believe this and not that, but rather our law is Jesus Christ, who set us free from a law of do’s and don’t’s. Having Christ as our law sets us free from the oppression of having to be right.
If we’re free from having to be right, we’re free to remain in relationship with each other, no matter how differently we may believe. And that freedom to stay together means that we’ll always, always, find our way to Truth with a capital T.
That was the example of the early church councils. Even though they could grow heated, such that even Santa Claus would get violent, they eventually found their way to truth. It took 400 years, but their continued conversation over generations, and their refusal to split and form their own denominations, eventually yielded the greatest truths we have as Christians: the Trinity, the nature of Christ, and our Bibles.
This underscores Jesus’s point in our scripture this morning: the Christian life is not about being right, it’s about being together. Jesus, and the example of the early church, tells us that we should never let being right get in the way of being in relationship. We can have our disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements might mean that there’s space between us and others for a time, but we must always be striving for reconciliation, continuing in conversation, until we find our way, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to truth. It will come, but it requires great patience and a humility that allows for being wrong.
For we must never let being right get in the way of being in relationship.
Rather, we are called to talk it out until it’s worked out.
Our scripture makes clear: Christ has designed the journey of faith to be one that’s done together in community, with our church family. We are to remain in relationship for, as Proverbs tells us, as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another. Our journeys of faith with each other lead us farther down the road than we could get on our own. If we’re serious about discipleship, about becoming more like Christ, we must remain in relationship, seeking reconciliation, to find our way to the truth God has for our lives.
That’s a process that requires that we stay together, that we encourage one another, that we support each other, that we befriend each other. That’s what Christ did while on this earth: he proclaimed truth, to be sure, but that was always secondary to loving the people of Galilee, to investing in his disciples, and to allowing his friends, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, to invest in him.
Jesus lived out our scripture this morning and his life sets the example for ours: Jesus talked it out until it was worked out because he never let being right get in the way of being in relationship.
In your relationships, especially with those who believe differently, stop worrying about who’s right. Keep asking questions, for sure; keep exploring, but never let that get in thew way of being in relationships with others. We all have some things right, we all have some things wrong, but we’re all on that same journey of faith. And Christ is clear: so long as we keep walking together, we’ll find our way to the truth.
We might disagree about beliefs as we walk the journey of faith together, we might even debate passionately, but Christ is clear, so long as we remain together, we’ll find our way to the truth. For being a Christian isn’t about being right, it’s about being in relationship with others and with Christ himself.
Choose this day to never let being right get in the way of being in relationship.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.