church discipline as gospel?

I have to confess that I struggle with preaching from the Gospels. On the one hand they’re so unmistakeably about Jesus — exactly what we want for gospel ministry. On the other hand they’re full of stuff — e.g., ethical teaching for — that seems a little (ahem) difficult to square with the announcement of the achievement of God in Christ.

Matthew 18 is a significant piece of such interpretive gristle.

On the face of it, it’s loaded with practical advice for the church — specifically, how to deal with sin in the community of believers. (Our pastor Andrew Katay preaches a blinder on this and is well worth listening to). Yet the difficulty lurking below the surface is, How does it point us towards the narrative’s climax — Jesus’ atoning death?

I want to suggest that read carefully, Matthew 18 is neither a matter of ethics displacing the gospel message of Christ’s substitution for us, nor does its place in the Gospel’s unfolding narrative demands that we hold the ethical teaching at arm’s length — as some weird set of interim provisions, the contemporary relevance of which we struggle to see.

Church discipline? (Rubens's classic image, Saint Ambrose forbids emperor Theodosius I to enter the church)

Church discipline? (Rubens's classic image, Saint Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius I to Enter the Church)

Rather, the irreducible ethical nature of this chapter — it is about church discipline, providing principles to govern our handling of sin in the life of the community — is the key to its gospel function.

  • You see this in the call in this passage for church members to reflect the heart of God in their dealings with each other, like the shepherd who drops everything to pursue his lost sheep.
  • But you also see it in the sweep of chapters 18-20 which prepare for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and installation as the Messiah — first in his public recognition then as he steps into the shoes of Isaiah’s suffering servant in his passion.

All told, the way church discipline heralds the gospel in Matthew 18 helps us see something that Oliver O’Donovan jumps up and down about: ethics is evangelical. This (I hope) is the key to preaching from the Gospels!

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