Introduction

“The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him, he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.”[1]

General George C. Marshall spoke those words at Trinity College. He went on to earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his plan, “the Marshall Plan” to establish peace. “The Soldier’s . . . soul [is] everything.” General Marshall’s words apply to pastoral theology in this way: The ministry of presence, just being there, is one of the most powerful resources in the pastor’s toolkit. Alternatively, nothing portends defeat any more than the figure of a solitary Soldier, alone in the shadows of his own broken spirit. Soldiers need esprit-de-corps as a man needs water in the desert. It is not a mere physiological need. It is a profound metaphysical necessity. It is, of course, what we all need: To know that we are not alone in the battles of life.

That is what I hope to say to U.S. Army Reserve Chaplains.[2] They are gathering in Washington DC. Because the Commanding General did not want me traveling, I will give the address from my home study. This will be my final lesson to Army Chaplains as I will, now, turn to retirement from the thirty-two years of military service in the Armed Forces, Navy and Army together. Being there with a Soldier in the foxhole is a requirement of the Chaplain. For no ministry can happen outside of that foxhole, if the Lord allows you to get out unless there is a ministry in that place of battle. This is not a dynamic limited to military Chaplaincy. Life is beautiful. In the fallen world, the possibility of conflict is ever before us. We need someone in the foxhole with us during such times.

I have seen foxholes people dug in at Church, during fellowship, and even during worship. A wrong word, a misunderstanding, a wrong left to fester into bitterness causes people to “dig in.” There are no more painful fights than a church fight. A Reserve Chaplain friend of mine, a Methodist minister, embroiled in an internal church battle, once told me that he had volunteered to go to Iraq. He said, “At least there I can see the bullets coming and avoid them.” It did not come over as funny, but enormously painful.

Today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 18:15-20, continues with select teachings of the Lord in the Gospel of Matthew.[3] Today, we are presented with a remarkable teaching about Jesus being there in times of trial within the Church when confrontation breaks out into conflict. The “tenderloin” of the passage is undoubtedly that unforgettable and most comforting word, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (verse 20). The Scripture verse, so often memorized (and rightly so) as a cordial to the soul of the believer, is even stronger in its singular setting. Jesus taught that not only how to handle difficulties between brothers and sisters in the Church, but that He would be there with them to walk through such difficult times.[4]

I speak today not to Soldiers of a nation standing against the shadow of a far-away enemy, but to Soldiers of the Lord battling the trials of life together with other fellow-sinners-saved-by-grace. I speak to Soldiers of the Lord who need to know they are not alone. The Word of God in this passage is that, in times of trials, Jesus’ presence is the believer’s power.

How so? Three facets of Jesus’ presence become the believer’s power. The first aspect of Jesus presence and the believer’s power is this:

1. Jesus’ presence in our community is the believer’s privilege.

It is said that in real estate the three most important things are “location, location, location.” In the study of the Bible, the three most important tools may be “context, context, context.”[5] Applying that to the passage before us today, Matthew 18:15-20, we take note of the context: Jesus has given the privilege of Kingdom authority, seemingly, only to Peter. Now we see that the ability to “bind” and loose” is granted to every believer (an important but potentially misunderstood phrase in the passage; one that I must address a little later). “If your brother sins against you . . .” Again, we must not rush to commentary without paying tribute to context. Jesus has been addressing compassionate ministry to “the least of these” and how the Lord is willing to leave the ninety-nine-healthy sheep for the one lost lamb. In the passage that follows this one we see that Jesus must deal with a legalistic disciple—yes, that would be “the Rock,” Simon Peter—who wants to know the limits of forgiveness. Now, that question and Jesus’ answer follows the discussion about people in a local congregation divided by sinful offense, due process, binding and loosing, and the presence of Jesus. “I am with you” speaks to Jesus being present in all of it. As the Lord is in Daniel, Jesus is with us in the palace as well as the lion’s den. He is there. Jesus is in the community of those who meet and seek Him according to the Scriptures. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the most encouraging signs of life in the Church is simply that Jesus is there. I should say, “Jesus is here.”

There are those who have been sinned against and have determined that it is just better to never go to church again. They feel that it’s better to be with pagans than Christians. One writer says, “It is better to go to war and be shot by ISIS than to be in church and be shot at by insecure, petty, self-righteous, and bossy believers.” Is that so? Corinth could be a pretty bad place. But Paul wrote to them as “the church of God,” “those sanctified in Christ,” “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).[6]

The thing is this: Jesus is amid those insecure, petty, self-righteous and bossy believers. He is there in the jail with Joseph. He is there in the Lion’s Den with Daniel. He is there with Jeremiah in captivity. He is here with us in our community, our fledgling little church plant, where we barely know each other. He is here. Jesus is present in the community of those who call upon His name. And His presence becomes our power: to forgive those who have hurt us, to tolerate those different than ourselves, to be forgiven of our own self-righteousness, pettiness, and bossiness. To put it another way, Jesus in the community of believers brings the power of transformation, from the inside out. The Word is here. The Sacraments are here. And, all that is purely to say: Jesus is here. Why would we go anywhere else?

Jesus is present in our community, our fellowship, and that brings privilege: to call upon Jesus, to be forgiven by Him, and follow Him in forgiving others. And that leads to the second important facet of this teaching about Jesus’ presence in the believer’s power:

2. Jesus’ presence in our conflict is the believer’s pattern.

Clearly, the text is leading us to the matter of division in the Church, how to handle it, and, how to forgive (the next passage about forgiving seventy-seven times, Matthew 18:21-22). The example given, and, perhaps, even the translation, has often led to people in the Church thinking, “Okay, this is a template for church discipline. And this is the place where Jesus basically says, ‘Whatever your court finding is, I’ll back it up.’” That response, by the way, is precisely the wrong one. Indeed, the passage about due process and “binding and loosing” is a critical matter that must be carefully considered or we will end up like Peter. “Okay, Lord, I got that procedure down. Now, let’s say this happens, again and again, even seven times, is that the end of it and we go ahead and give him the boot at that point?” Peter’s shallow legalism and careless listening are not alone. Many people, many churches, and even denominations have fallen into a litigious reading of this text that brings extraordinary visceral pain. A group of leaders makes a call and says, “We are right. And because we have been given power, what is done is done. And it is recorded in heaven.” Can you imagine bearing an unjust rendering of church law but read this passage to be saying that “God backs the Church even if they are wrong?” That is not what this is saying.

The “due process” pattern is that Jesus prefers that offenses not be hidden to fester into spiritual boils. What if the person who offended is unaware of his sin against you? The pattern offered is the right way to move forward to reach reconciliation. You don’t sit on the sin and let it fester. You take the hideous thing and seek forgiveness. But, maybe you have it wrong. Maybe the other person didn’t sin against you. If you cannot find a resolution, seek safety in numbers. Seek wisdom in numbers. Having two or three others will help to judge, to urge forgiveness, or to realize that there is an impasse. If that is so, Jesus says, let the larger community of believers help resolve it. This is not litigious practice but a peacemaking pattern. This is grace, circling like Noah’s dove, in search of a place to land.

The second issue at hand is the matter of “binding and loosing.” This phrase was well-known to the disciples. A rabbi would bind, that is “forbid,” upon reading the Scriptures and rendering a response for a real-life case study. For instance, the Pharisees “bound” people concerning the Sabbath in Jesus’ day. They “forbid” certain things being done as a matter of practical application of the Scriptures. Rabbis, also, “loosed.” That is, the religious leaders would study the Scriptures against an actual case in life and render a verdict, “permitted.” Now, they did this based on a study of the Scriptures. What they forbid or permitted they did so because it was already established in heaven. The test before us, in the New American Standard Version of the Bible, says,

“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.[7] [my emphasis in italics]

It is certainly not that Church leaders—pastors or elders in a session or presbytery or general synod or national assembly; or conference, or diocese, or any other church hierarchy within another form of ecclesiastical governance—make the case and God stamps it “Approved.” Jesus is teaching that forbidding and permitting is an act of enormous responsibility that is arrived at by careful, prayerful alignment to God’s will, revealed to us in the Bible. To understand this is to re-focus the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation and peace. Again, we see a pattern of reconciliation based upon heaven’s pattern of reconciling Man to God.

But what about Jesus’ words, “If they don’t listen let them be as a Gentile and a Tax Collector?” Yes, there is a place for the contentious to be recognized as incorrigible (at least for a time). Just how, then, did Jesus treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors? Ah. That, too, is part of the pattern embedded in this narrative. Remember: “context, context, context.”

When Jesus is in our conflicts, there is power for the believer: the power to forgive, to be forgiven, or even to know the pain of isolation. But there is never desertion. Jesus, in His love to us when we were still in our sins, gives us the power to love the unlovely.

I call your attention to the third facet of Jesus’ presence and the believer’s power:

3. Jesus presence in the Church is the believer’s peace.

We see the words. But can we believe Jesus?

“I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask: it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

“So, if we come together and ask for a million dollars He must do it!” No. “Oh, okay. Yeah, that is pretty crass. Oh, I know. This: “When we agree that Bob should not die but live, God must do it, right?” No. “Well, then! What does this mean? If you are right, then, the words are meaningless. It is some sort of spiritual gobbled-gook that is unintelligible and utterly useless.” No. “Well, what, then, pray tell?” Jesus’ words are meant to be as startling as you take them. He wants us to know the power of His presence in our midst. He wants us to have the same courage that He promised Joshua after Moses died and the younger man had to assume leadership over the rowdy and unruly Children of Israel. In the trials of life, in the challenges of living together in a single community called the Church, life with recovering sinners can be difficult. Add in a fallen world, with its consequent disease and wars and rumors of wars, and a touch of devilish prowling about “like a roaring lion” and you have yourself a very hostile environment.[8] It is into this that the presence of Jesus brings unity. With His presence, we even have the hope of aligning our lives with the Father’s will and finding that beautiful place of life with God. For we interpret the more difficult passage with the clearer. Thus, we read,

“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14); and

“and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22).

Jesus’ words are the natural, or “supernatural,” “next-step” in reconciliation. Seeking peace through grace leads to unity with God. We want what God wants. We walk where God walks. And there is a power promised here that would seem to move mountains, and unleash the very energy of heaven into our assemblies and our lives.

What if you knew that peace in your own life? In your own family? You can have that peace through repenting and receiving, by faith, the Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Jesus’ presence brings the believer a power: for privilege in community, for a pattern of reconciliation in conflict, and for peace in the Church. This is what Jesus is showing us in this passage. And all this passage is wrapped up in His promise: I am there.

In 1997, Dr. James Dobson addressed the graduating class of Huntington College. He told of the loss of basketball legend Pete Maravich on a basketball court in Colorado Springs in an early morning pick-up game. Two years later, on that same court, Dr. Dobson suffered a near-fatal heart attack. The title of his commencement address was the words he told his family as they gathered around his bed: “Be there.”[9]

I had the opportunity to be with a family whose patriarch was preparing to leave this world. I will call his name Bob. An aggressive cancer hit Bob like a meteor falling from the sky: no warning, no prior illness, and a rapid, downward trajectory that laid him low, at death’s door, within a week after being admitted to hospital. Bob had been a pillar of the community if that phrase means anything at all. He was an automobile dealership owner. He was an officer in the Presbyterian church. He was a benefactor to numerous Christian missions and non-profit organizations. If something needed to be done in the community, then you would go to this man. He was too meek and mild to be called any name like a “kingpin,” or a “deal-maker.” “City father” seems too official. He was just a very nice man who had done very well for himself and his family and who gave away much to help the Kingdom of God as well as all of God’s children through community work. I was privileged to have been there with him and his family each day of his hospitalization and his final days. He came to a point where he instructed me, after one morning of prayer, “Pastor, I want each child to come to me, then, after each of them privately, I want my wife to come be with me.” I assured him that I would. So, I talked to the family. I wondered if some thought he was giving instructions about his business or his financial affairs. But, as each of his three children, and several adult grandchildren, went in, heard, and, then left, they bore the face of one who seemed to have experienced something “out of this world.” Soon after his wife went in, she returned to the door, “Pastor, he would like you to come, with all of the family.” We went in. With the greatest of effort, Bob smiled, and said, “I have told each of you personally. I now tell you as a family what I wanted to say to you privately. Nothing matters more, now than on the Day when Jesus returns that you ‘be there.’” They had heard it personally. They heard it, now, as a family: children, husband, and wives of the children, grandchildren, and his wife. “Be there.”[10] He asked me to pray. I did and sought to give voice to the family’s deep longing for God by praying the Lord’s Prayer. Bob died the next day. I have heard of other families having a similar vigil. I have heard of two other families that I know hearing their father saying the exact same thing, “Be there.” The nearness of eternity impressed the message of the patriarch upon the hearts and minds of every child:

“Be there means trust in Christ, follow Him, receive His righteousness for the life God requires. Receive Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to pay for your sins. And make a life of following Christ so that when the sky is rent in twain, and He appears, you will be caught up to be with Christ and with each other.”

What I also witnessed was the presence of Jesus in that family. The conflict was not a church fight. It was a fight against disease, aging, and, ultimately, that last enemy, Death. What I saw was the promise of Jesus at work: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I have never seen such power. I have been experienced a greater presence.

I have always wondered, “How could anyone possibly face death without His presence? How could anyone possibly experience the trials of life, the inevitable conflicts between family members, church members, and friends, without the presence of Jesus? For His presence is our power: the power to ultimately find hope, healing, and resurrection from the dead.

If there is something, I could say to each of my congregations, my spiritual children, including you: I would say these simple words, “Be there.” I can urge you with confidence, “be there,” because the incontestable fact is: He is here. And there is power in His presence, the power that gives us the privilege to call upon Him, the power that gives us a pattern for healing in the Body of Christ, and power in the Church that brings peace, even during the dark days of adversity. This divine power is available to any who would call upon Him today.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Bibliography

Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew. Edited by John Nolland Daniel Gurtner. Cambridge

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Consultation on Common Texts (Association). The Revised Common Lectionary. Twentieth Anniversary annotated edition. ed. Minneapolis: Press Fortress, 2012.

Fairbairn, Donald. Context, Context, Context: Athanasius’ Biblical Interpretation in Contra Arianos. Vol. 12. Perichoresis, 2014.

Fee, G.D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

Weigley, Russell F. “The George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History: The Soldier, the Statesman, and the Military Historian.” The Journal of Military History 63, no. 4 (1999): 807-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/120552.

[1] See George C. Marshall, “Speech at Trinity College June 15, 1941 Hartford, Connecticut,” The George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1986, 534-538, accessed September 9, 2017, https://marshallfoundation.org/library/speech-at-trinity-college/; For a scholarly treatment, see Russell F. Weigley, “The George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History: The Soldier, the Statesman, and the Military Historian,” The Journal of Military History 63, no. 4 (1999), http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/120552.

[2] Having been the senior editor of the Chaplain Corps Journal for several years, I still retain the Chief of Chaplain’s editorial rules about the use of the word Chaplain when it is related to the Armed Forces of America. The word, along with Soldier and Family, is always capitalized. This grammatical rule I follow here, as well.

[3] Consultation on Common Texts (Association), The Revised Common Lectionary, Twentieth Anniversary annotated edition. ed. (Minneapolis: Press Fortress, 2012).

[4] Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, ed. John Nolland Daniel Gurtner (Cambridge

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[5] See Donald Fairbairn, Context, Context, Context: Athanasius’ Biblical Interpretation in Contra Arianos, vol. 12, Perichoresis (2014).

[6] G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987).

[7]  New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 18:18.

[8] “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 ESV).

[9] James Dobson, “Be There,” Huntington College, May 22, 1997, accessed September 10, 2017, https://www.huntington.edu/news/dobson-to-graduates-be-there.

[10] Ibid.