Sermon Seeds: Accountability
Sunday, September 10, 2023
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 18 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Listen to the Podcast
Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 • Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20
The Keys (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Church hurt has a particularly sharp sting. Perhaps because the aspirations are so high, the distance that sometimes grows from how we ought to love one another and the way we actually treat one another becomes especially hard to take. Perhaps our vision of ourselves as a beloved community makes it surprising when one of our siblings causes us hurt, harm, or offense. Perhaps it’s because the church may often be the only place where we expect safety that we are taken aback when we are wronged within the confines of that community.
Community does not offer ease of relationship. Even when the participants commit to shared values, norms, and ways of being together, conflict will arise. Humans, like all living creatures, have competing interests and disagreements. Individual shortcomings, misunderstanding, and brokenness can lead to offense against another. Jesus, having extensively described a vision of the reign of God on earth, holds no illusions that human discord and acrimony will be obliterated by the establishment of the church.
This passage begins with the words “If another member of the church sins against you…,” which is quite a beginning. What preceded that statement? What prompted this conversation about sin? Within chapter 18, Jesus discusses sin extensively along with the parable of the lost sheep. Of note, his discourse on sin does not use an individualist perspective, rather, he emphasizes the relational nature of sin. Earlier in the chapter, he cautions against being a stumbling block to another. Here he encourages accountability and reconciliation. The parable of the lost sheep connects these two streams of thought. Sinful behavior indicates a lost relationship. The antidote, according to this passage, is accountability, which facilitates reconciliation (a reversal of loss).
Chapter 18 begins the fourth teaching block in Matthew. This discourse is about the new community that is being formed…. The disciples stand out, not because they are perfect but because—frail and fallible though they be—they follow and are “on the way” to understanding. This discourse is directed to them (v. 1) as Jesus begins to form them into the new community that Matthew calls “the church.” Of all the Gospels, Matthew alone speaks explicitly of the church (16:18; 17:18; 18:15, 17, 21). This teaching block is about how to be the church and makes it clear that discipleship is not worked out in splendid isolation but in life together. What kind of community is the church? How are they to conduct their life together? Chapter 18 unfolds a distinctive vision. This new community is to be a place where the least are the greatest and the “little ones” come first and the lost get found. It will never be a perfect community; even in this first reference to the church the reader discerns that it has “issues.” Nevertheless, the church is to be a community where both accountability and forgiveness are practiced. These are not mutually exclusive but in fact require one another, as the teaching in this passage will make clear.
Sin may be defined as separation from God; in other words, God is offended when we live apart from God. As Jesus begins this discourse, he affirms that sin also involves separation from one another. Living apart (or lost) from the community is cause and consequence of offending one another in actions or attitudes. In this case, the only repair articulated by Jesus is reconciliation. There is a presumption, in my view, that the person wronged is whole and not in need of repair beyond acknowledgement of the wrongdoing by the offender in order for reconciliation to take place.
For Jesus, restoration of the community after the separating impact of sin is the priority. A broken church limits and derails the reign of God:
This chapter’s insistence on the central place of “church as community” in following Jesus challenges some contemporary understandings of discipleship. Some frame discipleship in terms of individual salvation and emphasize “my personal walk with the Lord” to such an extent that, in actuality, there is no place for or accountability to any community. While such individual understandings protect against manipulative communal practices, they have no room for the sort of humility, accountability, and interdependence envisioned in Matthew 18. The chapter’s vision also challenges ecclesial understandings that see the “true” church constituted by particular rituals, or structures of ministry, order and authority, or doctrinal tests, or positions on social issues. That is not to say these things do not matter; each aspect is important for ecclesial life. But in Matthew’s vision, they do not matter as much as relational community that sustains and embodies disciples on the way of the cross. The chapter urges followers to nurture such communities.
Is the contemporary church’s emphasis on individualism facilitating or prohibiting reconciliation? Is the increasing isolationism found in faith communities as much as the wider culture an offense that demands confrontation? Are we accountable to one another or not?
Accountability is a necessary component of relationship; therefore, it must be incorporated into the life of the Body of Christ.
The chapter turns to matters of church discipline and calls, within the space of a few verses, for both accountability and forgiveness. On the face of it, these seem to be in opposition to one another, with accountability making demands and forgiveness issuing grace. It will become increasingly clear, however, that in the new community they require one another, and each has unexpected aspects of the other. Accountability (vv. 15–20) may entail gracious acts of truth-telling correction that aim to set things right, restoring both individuals and the community. Forgiveness places a claim on our lives, demanding that we extend to others the grace that we ourselves have received (vv. 16–35).
Accountability is another way to love our neighbor at the same time that we love ourselves. Note, that in this instance, there is no expectation of forgiveness without acknowledgement of the wrong committed. In the process that Jesus delineates, if the offender does not listen to the offended, there is no reconciliation, and the process escalates to include more community. The entire community has an interest in accountability being satisfied.
When I was actively involved in re-entry ministry, I studied restorative justice. In that model (as opposed to most criminal justice models), there are multiple interested parties involved throughout the process. They included the perpetrator, the victim/survivor (and/or their survivors), and the community/state. All have to be heard and made whole or satisfied in order to move forward. In criminal justice, the perpetrator is punished in order to satisfy the state. The survivors’ perspective and need for restoration are often disregarded.
In the accountability model that Jesus presents, the survivor is centered and given agency to hold their offender to account. The goal, however, is not punishment but reconciliation. I don’t think that is because Jesus does not care about restitution and repair. Rather, it reflects the emphasis of this passage, which seems to assume that safety and continuing harm is not at issue during this process. In other words, this passage does not suggest that anyone subject themselves to more hurt and harm under the guise of grace and mercy. Pursuing accountability demonstrates self-love as well as love of neighbor. Rushing past it to forgiveness only weakens the community. The church needs accountability. Those who refuse accountability reject the entire community and release themselves from belonging.
(A note of caution: this text has been weaponized to ostracize church members as leaders have exhibited power over individuals rather than facilitate the well-being and restoration of all. This has been particularly true in over-emphasizing and mis-interpreting human sexuality as sinful rather than God’s creative and marvelous gift.)
Accountability is of God and of the kindom. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (v. 18) The consequences of our relational status impact the kindom. They also affect our relationship with the Holy One. Jesus is there at the first stage of private confrontation. Jesus remains present when the circle expands to a small group. And, when the entire body assembles for faithful and loving accountability, Jesus is among us…at the center of the community.
God is present in accountability.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Do they desire to join me in thanksgiving when they hear how, by your gift, I have come close to you, and do they pray for me when they hear how I am held back by my own weight? …A brotherly mind will love in me what you teach to be lovable, and will regret in me what you teach to be regrettable. This is a mark of a Christian brother’s mind, not an outsider’s–not that of ‘the sons of aliens whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of iniquity’ (Ps. 143:7 f.). A brotherly person rejoices on my account when he approves me, but when he disapproves, he is loving me. To such people I will reveal myself. They will take heart from my good traits, and sigh with sadness at my bad ones. My good points are instilled by you and are your gifts. My bad points are my faults and your judgements on them. Let them take heart from the one and regret the other. Let both praise and tears ascend in your sight from brotherly hearts, your censers. …But you Lord…Make perfect my imperfections”
― St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
For Further Reflection
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.” ― Brené Brown
“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”― Thomas Paine
“It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite members of the faith community to consider how you might facilitate accountability for discipleship (i.e. accountability partners, small group faith formation, congregational covenant)
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 • Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=158