This past Sunday I began the sermon with these words: “It’s tough to remember that you were supposed to drain the swamp when you are up to your armpits in alligators.” Several people observed afterward, “What about the alligators? How do we deal with them?” Good questions!
Based on the sermon Sunday, our focus is clear: “drain the swamp,” or in the text of Matthew 28:16–20, “make disciples.” But what do we do in the meantime with all the alligators of life? It would be nice to live in a perfect swamp with no problems, no disturbances. But life is not like that, nor is life in the church like that.
Our starting point is to recognize that we, because of sin, are part of the problem. That’s not always easy to accept. We want to deflect, defuse, downplay any attention on our own failures. Sometimes we (or more pertinent application, I) make mistakes, make assumptions, and we are quick to make judgments, sin, and speak inappropriately. Sometimes we harbor anger and let it seep into our demeanor.
Our lives are messy; church life is messy, and hence discipleship is messy. Thankfully God knows our failures, sins, inabilities, inadequacies, etc. but doesn’t stop there. God provides avenues for us to work through these sticky issues. Jesus anticipated the disruptions of sin in the disciples’ lives and how to handle that in Matthew 18:15–20:
[Jesus said:] “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (NAS95)
That is, when a brother or sister sins, we are to approach that person— not to “get my way” but for the purpose of restoring the relationship. Notice that the process applies even when there is only a perception of sin, the one-to-one dialog provides the means by which even misunderstandings and assumptions can be clarified and resolved.
Forgiveness of sins is at the heart of discipleship and relationships. Thus, many of the alligators are dealt with by living out this forgiving and restoring process. And forgiveness is God’s business. Note that Jesus continues in Matthew 18:18 with these words:
[Jesus said:] “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (NAS95)
The verb form in the Greek helps us understand this crucial truth: it is a future perfect passive participle “shall have been bound.” Thus, when we speak words of forgiveness, God will have already forgiven that person, and we are only the speakers of that forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something that we can hold over a person’s head to get them to do it our way. It is God’s work of forgiving and restoring; our words openly declare what God had already declared.
And that gives us freedom to live as disciples, even in the midst of alligators. As we make disciples, it is really God who is making us, remodeling us, crafting us, sanding off the rough edges. The purpose is clear, “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher” (Matthew 10:25).
As we encounter the alligators of our own lives and in the church, the encouragement is to live out the discipleship life by living lives of humility and love. This means even being willing to approach another who disagrees with us and love her or him enough to restore the relationship— in God’s way.