“Called to be Better: Accountability and Forgiveness” Matthew 18:15-22
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
March 10, 2019
In 1982, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, gathered in Ottawa, drew a line in the sand and declared apartheid a heresy. Apartheid was South Africa’s social, political, and yes, religious system of discrimination, segregation, and violent oppression of Black people. Delegates from churches around the world, including the United Church of Christ, declared that, “Apartheid is a sin, and that the moral and theological justification of it is a travesty of the Gospel…and, a theological heresy.” With that statement, the Alliance suspended the membership of two white Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa that defended and supported apartheid both inside and outside the church, declaring them fundamentally wrong to the point that fellowship could not be maintained.
This was a big, big deal, and it was controversial as all heck. To declare something heresy or somebody heretical is to say that their beliefs and actions are absolutely wrong, and cannot be accepted in the church. There is no stronger statement than a church can make. For decades before, the worldwide body had condemned racism and apartheid, hoping that the racist churches would realize they were wrong and change. But by this point it became clear that was not going to happen. And so we – and as part of that body we are part of that we – declared this to be a status confessionis issue, which is a matter that the church cannot allow disagreement about: If you insist on barring God’s Black children from the Lord’s Table in your churches, if you insist on teaching and preaching that God supports segregation, oppression, and violence against Black people and defending the indefensible actions of your government, you are wrong, and we must draw a line in the sand. If you want to be considered part of the worldwide Church again, you must change. The churches could be reinstated under three conditions: 1) If they no longer excluded Black people from the life of the church, 2) if they offered concrete support to those who were kept down by apartheid, and 3) if they publicly admitted their guilt and rejected apartheid. Until then, they were out. End of story.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
What Jesus was talking about in Matthew’s Gospel, and what the World Alliance of Reformed Churches did two thousands years later, was holding people accountable. To be accountable as Christians means that we cannot simply act as we wish or do what we want. There are standards for how we are to live, and if we fail to meet those standards we hurt others and we hurt ourselves. So, Jesus says, when we sin we are to be held accountable; first privately among a few, but if need be publicly. And if we refuse to be accountable over and over again, if we insist on persisting, a line must be drawn. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Of course, if you pay attention to Jesus much you know that he was particularly loving with Gentiles and tax collectors. But what did the tax collector Zacchaeus need to do in order to join Jesus? He had to pay back to others what he had stolen from them. He had to repent. He had to make it right.
If words like heresy and accountability make you squirm, you’re in good company. They make me squirm too. The Church doesn’t have a great history when it comes to declaring people heretics; we’ve often sought to purify with fire in the most literal way by burning so-called heretics at the stake. As the United Church of Christ we are part of a long tradition that has tried to move away from such horrible actions by valuing the individual right to interpret the scriptures and claim faith for ourselves, without being told what to think or believe. If we’re all allowed to believe and live differently, who has the right to tell anyone else that they’re wrong and need to change? That’s a real issue. But there’s another issue that’s a bit less noble: I might squirm about accountability because I know I fall short and I don’t necessarily want it to be pointed out thank you very much.
And yet, Jesus says, we are accountable to the church for our actions. And it is the church that has the ultimate authority to interpret Jesus’ teachings: that’s what that whole bit about binding and loosing means. The church as a whole is responsible for interpreting what faithfulness means – and has the right and responsibility to ensure that its members are accountable to live that faith. And sometimes lines have to be drawn.
If all this sounds like a big giant recipe for conflict to you, you’re probably right. It is. But the scriptures do not say conflict is a problem to be avoided. Sometimes passages about unity and peace in the church are distorted to say we can never disagree, we can never draw lines, we must always be nice and never upset the love boat, but those interpretations ignore that the Bible is filled with stories of conflict from beginning to end, and some of the most faithful people in the Bible are those going around igniting conflict: Moses insisting on freedom for the Hebrew slaves, prophets boldly calling on the powerful to end injustice and govern with righteousness, Jesus himself constantly challenging everyone around him to the point that he was killed by the authorities – yeah, I’d call that conflict. Paul and other early church leaders didn’t hesitate to say when they felt people were out of line. And modern day prophets are often accused of stirring up conflict, disturbing the peace, with their insistence that things are wrong and must change. There’s a reason so many end up killed.
Try as we might to avoid it, the road to faithfulness is filled with conflict of all kinds, as we seek to sort out the competing voices and options and choose a right path. Conflict is a part of each of our lives, our families, our workplaces, and yes, our church and the big-C Church. The question is not whether we will have conflict but how we will handle it. Conflict is part of each of the lectionary texts we’ll hear in this Lenten season of self-examination and spiritual growth. It is a time to grow in faith as we remember Jesus’ own faithful journey. So this Lent we will explore how Jesus approached conflict and what that has to teach us today about what it means to be faithful people and a faithful church.
One thing today’s text teaches us, I think, is that Jesus valued the health of the whole community over individual comfort. All people are welcome, but all behavior is not. That means when somebody is acting in harmful ways, that behavior must be addressed even if that person resists. Otherwise, people get hurt and the church stops being what it claims to be: a house where all can find shelter under God’s wings. That was the principle behind the World Alliance of Reformed Church’s decision to remove the white South African churches from membership. Everything else had been tried. And the world could no longer believe the rest of us thought it was okay. God’s Black children deserved better. Jesus’ holy name certainly deserved better. But there was one more group that deserved better, too – the white South African churches.
That’s because they deserved to be confronted– kindly but firmly – and be given the chance to change. They deserved the opportunity to become more faithful and to once more be considered part of the worldwide Church. The deserved the chance to make it right. In the same way, when you or I mess up the most faithful and compassionate thing anyone can do is to tell us. It’s a hard thing to do, to tell someone their actions hurt you and that you believe they are in the wrong. But it is the only way anything can be made right. Even decades later.
That’s why when Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” and Jesus responded “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” This saying might seem to throw a wrench in all Jesus is saying about holding one another accountable. Didn’t he just say sometimes you need to draw a hard line? And now he’s saying to forgive over and over and over again? Which is it?
Well, this is one of those occasions when looking at the original greek language helps a lot. Because there is actually no word in Greek for forgiveness. The word used here is Aphiemi [Aah-FAY-uh-me], which means something like “to let go.” So in this text it can mean two different things. It can mean what we tend to think of as forgiveness which is choosing to let go of a hurt caused by another. But sometimes it can also mean to send someone away, or to leave somebody or something behind. It is the same word used to describe a husband divorcing his wife. Elsewhere Jesus called this “shaking the dust off your feet.” Sometimes you just need to move on, and sometimes you need to do this again and again, lest the world think you support that which cannot be supported, and lest your sibling think their actions are a-okay.
In 1998, one of the two churches suspended from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had changed, and met the conditions to be reinstated. Then in 2004, leaders in the other church decided they wanted back in. So they applied for reinstatement, and were told they had two hears to meet several conditions, including fully rejecting apartheid as sin and heresy, and admitting they were wrong in the past, reconciling with other South African churches, and contributing to efforts for racial equality. Three years later, and this was in 2007, a resolution at that church’s General Assembly rejecting apartheid failed by two votes. In 2007. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches’s Executive Committee wrote to the church saying they had no choice but to continue the suspension with much sadness. To leave the line in the sand. Again. And over the next few years negotiations would continue, and the line was drawn in the sand again and again. Maybe not seventy-seven times, but certainly seven times. And it was only in 2014 that the conditions were met and the leadership of what was by then the World Communion of Reformed Churches accepted that church into membership. At the next General Assembly in Germany, to which I was a delegate on behalf of the United Church of Christ, we welcomed that church for the first time since 1982. And I can tell you, it was a celebration, but the work isn’t over. The white Dutch Reformed Churches have made enormous strides since then, but it took thirty two years, and it took their fellow churches drawing a hard line in the sand over and over and over again. Sometimes that’s what it takes.
Because the worldwide Reformed Churches were willing to hold their sibling church accountable, that church eventually chose to change. And I believe that we’re all better for it – but especially the Church in South Africa, and both Black and white people there. What we call forgiveness is now possible.
This church thing and this faith thing isn’t a free-for-all; it’s no “anything goes” party where we can do or say or believe whatever we want, no matter who is hurt in the process. The journey of faith is about learning and growing, become more like Jesus, more willing to step into conflict in order to make our churches and families and workplaces and world a better place. On this journey we will make mistakes. We will hurt each other. The question is how we respond when we do. Will we follow Jesus’ words, and have the courage say something? Will we hold one another accountable? Will we let go when we must let go, and draw a line in the sand when we must? It’s certainly not easy, but it’s right, and with Jesus, we have good company on the journey. Thanks be to God, and amen.
 This and following information comes from “Apartheid, Heresy and the Church in South Africa,” by Neville Richardson in the Journal of Religious Ethics, January 1, 1986.